I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that’s 49.3 percent white and 44.8 percent Black. It’s not easy to discern your racial identity if you exist outside of the paradigm. Strangers stop me on the street and ask my race or ethnicity—like others, Cincinnatians struggle to understand the lines between race, ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship. “Are you Chinese?” No. “You look Chinese.” No, I don’t. “What’s your race?” I’m Asian. “No, what’s your race?” I’m Asian. “You don’t understand…” We give up on each other and part ways.
A common thread in the Asian American narrative is an eye-opening moment in which you realize, “I’m not white,” or, “I’m different.” We’re forced to realize we’re “other” and it usually happens when we leave our community—be that our family or our hometown. I cannot remember a time I did not know I was Asian or somehow different.
Just this month, I revealed my awareness to a person who considers himself a “master diversity trainer.” He gave me a skeptical look. This plus the fact it was not a negative realization was too much for his preconceived notions about the Asian American experience. His reaction unfolded before me: he took a step back, as if I literally and figuratively blew him away; he closed his eyes, trying to figure out how to possibly communicate with me now. After a few hollow and blunt yeses on my end, he understood (kind of). I was born in Seoul and adopted into a family of two white parents and an older brother, who is also adopted.
What came next was predictable. Differentiating between my real parents and my white parents. Asking if I’ve ever been back to Korea, not to visit, but to find my real parents. Concluding in, and this was something new, demanding I ask my white parents why they call me Chloe, not 수지 (Soo-ji). Later, he tried to connect with me by sharing he has family members who are Korean adoptees and one “ran away to Korea to find her real mother.” This was the equivalent of someone saying they “have lots of Asian friends” and they “really enjoy the food.” You missed the point, fell short of making a connection with me, and trivialized my experience.
Adoption is such an unacknowledged taboo that people don’t even realize how uninformed and uncomfortable they are discussing the topic, myself included. Rarely do I volunteer this information about myself unless it’s necessary, unavoidable, or I’m trying to make a point (see above). In the times I have revealed this part of my identity, I’ve gotten every reaction from, “That’s incredible!” to “I’m sorry.” Why is it so shocking? What exactly are you apologizing to me for? No matter how people react, their face says the same thing, “Oh, you’re not really Asian/Asian American, you’re not really one of us.”
Until college, I did not know what it meant to be an Asian American. I did not come to college expecting to explore the dimensions of my identity. I especially did not come to college expecting I’d be excluded from that community if I reveal the parts of my identity that are not written on my face. And I did not expect to have to sit through workshops, classes, and casual conversations, forced to justify or defend my Asian American-ness to “professionals” and peers.
It’s upsetting and exhausting to feel judged at face value. It’s also discouraging to reveal what lies beneath the surface, only to feel more judged and have more assumptions placed upon you. The thing is, you would not know I have white parents unless I told you. If I withhold a part of my identity, I’m just another Asian face. The same stereotypes apply to me as an Asian American child of first-generation immigrant parents. I hear the same ignorant comments and receive the same dirty looks from intolerant students at Syracuse University. But to Asian Americans, I’m not one of them. I’m a different kind of “other.”
I spent this month reflecting on my past, understanding my present, and considering my future. Going forward, I want our conversations to build a sense of community, not create walls of exclusivity. I want us to listen to other narratives, not attempt to shape them into what we know. Don’t perpetuate colonialism; don’t look down at Korean adoptees as heritage-less children who need to be “cultured.” Include stories that don’t fit into what I consider the mainstream Asian American narrative—despite the paradoxical nature of the phrase and anticipated contention. It’s the restriction and generalization of the Asian American experience that make Asian Pacific American Heritage Month necessary. Let’s continue to learn and celebrate together.