How the rise of anti-Asian racism made an adoptee feel more Asian

A Korean American adoptee traces her journey with her identity and how it’s been affected by anti-Asian racism.

A few years ago I was walking through the Atlanta airport for an international flight headed back to Paris, my home base at the time. A customs agent at the airport scanned my ID, bluntly told me that my name didn’t look very Asian, and asked how he could be sure it was me.

At first I thought it was a joke. My hands clammed up and my body contorted uncomfortably since there was a tiny audience of bystanders. I nervously assured him that it was me and that the Anglo-Saxon name he saw was because I was adopted.

I was used to comments like this, but it didn’t lessen how embarrassed I felt. Having experienced them so many times, I became comfortably numb with the idea that my face did not match my name. 

Just a New York girl

I vividly remember the first time I was asked, “Where are you really from?” It happened in my early teens, and a classmate asked the question.

What did they mean? I thought. I’m from here, upstate New York, just like them. But that’s not the answer they wanted. It was weird for me if one of my peers made me feel different because in my mind, I had grown up just like them. 

I was adopted at five months old and raised by two white parents. My concepts of cultural socialization have been shaped by the upper-middle class white perspectives of my parents.

An Asian girl with her mother, a white woman.
Author with her mother. Photo submitted.

I’m not white, but I’m not culturally Asian. I was not raised with traditional Asian values and my thoughts are not inherently shaped by an Asian experience. 

My parents did try to help me connect with my Koreanness. They signed me up for a Korean cultural camp in my city which offered the opportunity for a taste of Korean enculturation. I learned about Korean food, Korean language, and met other children like me but still felt out of place. 

I was never really interested as a kid, since I so desperately wanted to be like my peers and not seem different. But I couldn’t ignore what was obvious in pictures. Growing up, I was always one of the only Asian kids in school photos. In family pictures, I don’t look like any of my cousins.

Being Korean made me different in my predominantly white suburb and being adopted made me even more different. 

Internal versus external 

Since my parents are white, I have struggled with racial identity for most of my life. I was never quite sure how to confide in them about any racial commentary that I had received and they did not have the experience of being a minority to teach coping mechanisms to combat racial-microagressions.

At one of my jobs I was asked, “How do you say thank you in your language?” I curtly replied, “Thank you,” only to have to explain that English was my native language and I didn’t speak an Asian language. 

I’ve been complimented by strangers on how well I speak English. Last year, a woman casually asked me if I was a citizen. Teenagers have chanted “ni hao” to me in the mall and an old man once asked if all Korean girls were like me. 

Before, I never really processed these comments as being racist. I’d brush them off and tell myself that people were curious or just ignorant. This was in part because I didn’t want to be seen as someone who complains, but also because I didn’t feel Asian. 

But not anymore.

A turning point

After the recent rise in anti-asian hate crimes due to COVID I reflected more on my identity as an Asian person. I have reached a point in my life where I can now embrace the many layers of my identity and no longer view being an Asian American adoptee as something that ostracizes me. 

Being a transracial adoptee has uniquely shaped me as an individual. Through meeting other members of the adoptee community I have been able to communicate with people who have experiences similar to mine. This has helped me immensely in forging my identity. 

A young Asian girl smiling and holding a mini American flag.
The day the author got naturalized. Photo submitted.

Although I may not have been raised culturally Asian, I feel connected to the experiences we Asians are sharing as a community, like the feeling of being seen as foreign in our own country and being reminded that we are different for something out of our control. 

As I watch the flood of videos on social media, I have never felt more in touch with my roots than now. In the midst of a rise in anti Asian racism, I have decided to speak up and confront racism and injustice.

I am a proud Asian American adoptee and this is my community, too. I will no longer be silent. 

Featured image by Yoel Peterson on Unsplash

Read also:

After COVID-19, Asian Americans cannot afford to be invisible again

We need to drop the model minority myth and respectability politics

Making Asian American media

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