Like many other international adoptees, my adoption story is long and complex. But on top of that, being a transracial adoptee, heavily impacted my feelings surrounding my Asian American identity. Although I have no complaints about the neighborhood I grew up in, being raised in a predominantly white environment made me want to become a replica of my surroundings instead of entirely accepting myself.
When I was around nine years old, I remember begging my mom to dye my hair to look like hers because my friends at school also had the same color. While she tried reassuring me that my black hair was just as beautiful, I didn’t believe her. During this time, I didn’t identify as Asian American. As a kid, my race wasn’t at the forefront in my mind. All I knew was that I always stuck out in my community. And I wanted nothing more than to belong.
For the most part while growing up, I rarely interacted with people who looked like me. And my parents realized they needed to change that. They took it upon themselves to celebrate Chinese holidays, like Lunar New Year. But they also pushed me to take initiative and explore my Chinese heritage.
In high school, my parents encouraged me to join the Chinese club. Being part of the student organization was the first time I began interacting with other Asian people who were around my age. We watched Chinese TV shows during club meetings and listened to Chinese music. We even did activities like making dumplings from scratch.
My Chinese club teacher was a beautiful woman who confidently facilitated the student organization. I used to confide in her about my insecurities with her about the shape of my eyes and how I wanted to be white.
One day, I remember her telling me to hold up my phone camera to my face and tell her what I saw. After I criticized my Chinese facial features, she asked me, while pointing to her own face, if that’s also what I thought about her. Immediately, I denied that idea — I thought she was beautiful. And she flipped the question back to me again, “So why do you dislike the same Chinese facial features in yourself?” This moment stuck with me for a long time.
Even after that, my Chinese teacher continued to challenge my views. She not only made me realize that I lacked basic knowledge of my culture, but showed me what it meant to be a part of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. She helped me make new friends with other Asian girls, and being able to share my story and experience with others who could relate felt so validating.
It’s been years since then. I’m in college now. As an adult, I know now that no matter how much I attempt to dye my hair blonde or throw on some blue eye contacts, I will always be Asian. For a long time, that was a hard pill for me to swallow because I wanted to fit in with the crowd rather than be myself and embrace my differences.
Realistically, it is much simpler to say that I embrace my identity than it is to actually do it. Sometimes when I read current headlines in news stories, I still feel at odds with my Asian American identity. But I’m grateful to the adults in my life, like my parents and Chinese teacher, for helping me get to where I stand now with my identity. They didn’t encourage my behavior of trying to become white. And instead, they taught me that bringing a different perspective strengthens the community. Most importantly, with their help, I learned to accept who I am by viewing my unique background as a strength rather than a burden.