In the middle of a blistering June, I sat sandwiched on a bench with forty other mostly white American middle and high schoolers in the belly of the largest enclosed tropical botanical garden in southern China. Although the greenery surrounding us was very much real, the giant “tree” that made up the walls of our dining space was fake, carefully molded to look like the bark of a real hundred foot tree. Chinese caterers bustled around us, talking to each other in rapid Cantonese while they pulled white box after white box of prepackaged lunch out from large plastic trash bags.
There were almost sixty people, including my mom and myself, packed into the stifling plastic dining room. The majority were teenaged musicians, travelling for the first time out of the United States to take part of a privately organized youth orchestra tour that charade itself as a cultural exchange program. The conductor of the orchestra, who was also the conductor of my community youth orchestra in Colorado, was ethnically Chinese and had enough connections to pull a few strings with the Chinese government. Between the musicians and their chaperons (primarily parents), the overall makeup of the group was overwhelmingly white. Only a handful of the youth musicians were of actual Chinese descent, and I was one of them.
That trip marked my second time being in China since I had been born, but as I tossed my half-eaten soup, which hadn’t agreed with my American stomach, and heard the Chinese workers mutter disapprovingly in my direction, there was no sense of belonging. I was in a room half filled with people who looked like me, and half filled with people who lived like me—two halves that could make a whole. But I couldn’t find a place to stand.
* * *
“Je m’appelle Analie.”
“Et d’où est-ce que tu viens?”
“Je suis chinoise.”
My ninth grade French teacher pulls back with an exasperated look on her face before clapping her hands twice to get the room’s attention.
“Class,” she says, standing up. “This is a mistake I need to stop hearing. Your nationality is where you live, where you grew up; where you’re a citizen. I don’t think most of you have another citizenship other than American. Do you?”
She turns back to where I am still sitting at her desk. “Do you have Chinese citizenship, Analie?” I am conscious of the fact that months earlier, she had met my white parents at parent-teacher conferences, and that she knows I am adopted.
I press my legs a little tighter against the edge of the chair, self-conscious of the class’ attention. “No,” I say.
“Right,” she nods. “Chinoise is your race. Américaine is your nationality. Understand?”
* * *
I was born in a rural mining city that sits on top of a mountain in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. The city, Gejiu, is the largest city in the autonomous Honghe prefecture and located over a hundred miles from Yunnan’s economically backwater capital, Kunming. Although Gejiu takes a spot on the map primarily for its tin deposits, it is also home to a well-known orphanage, which serves as one of the main adoption organizations in the entire province. When I was less than a year old, I was left on the steps of the Gejiu Children’s Welfare Institute, swaddled in a thin blanket. The orphanage officials told my parents that on the night I was abandoned, it was raining.
* * *
It’s hard to not make adoption a fairytale when it comes up in the media. The ingredients for it are all there: tragic beginnings; selfless heroes; far off lands and happy endings. Narratives about adoption in the news and in creatives are filled with the idea of the “lucky child” like there’s an element of fate to the story.
By no way of my parents’ doing, I’ve known since I was young that I was one of the “lucky children” in the world. That my adoption—which came less than a year after I was placed in the care of the orphanage—was a good draw in a sea of statistics about adoption. What’s more, I was fortunate to have been matched with parents who cared; parents who, because they had each experienced their own hardship in having to grow up, were finally and genuinely ready to bring a child into their lives.
Mom had known for years that she would adopt. She’d grown up surrounded by a large family and by the time she met her second husband—my dad—she knew that it was time.
Papa, on the other hand, had been against the idea before he’d even met Mom. His previous marriage had come with a teenage daughter that he’d cared for deeply, but the idea of having his own child--his own child—had felt as palatable as the thistles his older sisters would dare him to eat when he was younger.
But on the day the adoption agency first sent them my picture, a grainy, wallet-sized photo of a dark-haired, unblinking infant, he cried.
And on the day my parents finally held me in their arms, they promised that they would try to give me the best life they could.
* * *
“You know, I always thought I would adopt, when I was ready to have kids.”
The head chef of the German restaurant I work at stands next to me behind the bar, polishing the inside of a wheat beer glass. Because of its shape, you need to carefully jam the white polishing cloth down the inside with the long handle of the bar spoon. She then grabs the cloth and twists it a few times before pulling it back out to finish polishing the outside.
“Oh really?” I say. There are hardly any customers in the table-crowded dining room, the restaurant at its lull before dinner.
“But then I met Alex, and I thought to myself, well, maybe it would be interesting to see what the two of us would make.” She glances at the door to the kitchen when she says this, to where her husband, the manager of the restaurant, is still unloading Restaurant Depot supplies from the van. She chuckles at her own joke and we continue our rhythm of washing and polishing glasses from lunch. The stillness of the bar is offset by the cheesy, D-list covers of German pop music playing overhead and the heavy Bavarian motifs of the dining room feel nothing like the Germany I had experienced in Berlin the year prior.
“Do you think,” she ventures, after a few moments have passed, “that your mental problems are because of your adoption?”
Cindy is the only person at the restaurant who knows about my issues with suicidal ideation. For all of her stark, German, logic-based mindset, she’s the only one I can let myself open up to after I have a breakdown in the restaurant right before my birthday the month before.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve thought about it, but I just…I don’t know.”
She nods, and leaves it at that.
* * *
Because I’ve always been one of the “lucky children,” there is a part of me that, even today, hesitates on turning to adoption as the source of my mental health and identity issues. Despite adoption’s fairytale glitz, a wide body of research shows that adopted children are consistently more at risk for mental health and behavioral problems. The media likes to talk about trauma as the source of an adopted child’s issues, but far less attention is given to the issue of identity. For children adopted out of “non-white” countries in particular, their lives are placed into a question of belonging as soon as they step foot on American soil.
My parents have never given me reason to question whether or not I “belonged” in their family. I grew up in a house brimming with love and patience for figuring out how three pieces of a puzzle would fit together. But no matter how certain my parents were that I was their child, all of their love could not stop the questions of, “Where are you originally from?” and “Those are your parents?” from entering my life. How could I belong when my body didn’t?
At the beginning, my parents struggled with confronting the issue themselves. As a child born in the southwest region of China—a region known for its high level of ethnic diversity—my darker, southern skin clearly distinguished me from my mostly white peers in Boulder County, Colorado. I had dark almond eyes and when I was younger, fine, Chinese ink hair that fell long down my back.
My mom tried to find a balance. For years, she signed me up for calligraphy lessons and cultural camps where adopted children from China could learn more about the far off place they had come from. I spent most of it miserable, and introverted. I struggled with making friends with the kids who looked like me the most, and struggled further with the realization that maybe I didn’t even want friends who looked like me. At the age of five, I couldn’t understand why I was learning about a country I had, for all intents and purposes, never been to. How I understood it, I had left China behind when I’d been adopted.
And yet, China had never left me, as far as other people were concerned. Because I was born into a yellow body, people saw me as yellow. Try as I might—and I tried the hardest when I was at the impressionable stage of early childhood—I could not divorce myself from my Chinese heritage. I could ask my mom to stop bringing mooncakes to class, to stop enrolling me in Chinese heritage camp, to stop hoping that the other girls adopted from China would become my best friends—but the problem existed before all of it. And I didn’t have a way out.
When you’re adopted, the common narrative states that you’re either the type of adopted child that resents your biological parents, or you’re the type that will scour the world to find them.
But for some adopted children, it’s neither.
Perhaps because I grew up loving my parents, I never felt any need to find out the origins of my story. I knew that it was likely they’d given me up because they were poor, and that I’d likely been the second child at a time when China’s One Child Policy enabled the abandonment of thousands of baby girls across the country. But why would I look for my biological parents when my own parents were already with me? Having been raised by my white American parents since I was a year old, there was no separation for me between biological and adopted. My parents never tried to hide my adoption from me, but as a family we never discussed the repercussions or not looking like your mom and dad.
Another part of it came from my own anxieties about my adoption. The creeping feeling that I was only borrowing my yellow body. I was Chinese without being Chinese, and as much as I tried to live in ignorance I simply couldn’t escape the face that stared at me in the mirror every day.
* * *
I was desperate to be someone other than the little Chinese girl living down the block or sitting in the classroom. For a long time, there was genuine confusion as to why the color of my skin was the biggest mode of identification people had for me. Couldn’t they see that I was white, just like everybody else? Mom came from an upper class family in Ohio. Papa was raised by unwavering Catholics in Louisiana. I loved my country and celebrated every Fourth of July with red white and blue tarts and fireworks set off illegally in our driveway, just like everybody else. I wanted to believe that who I was began when my parents had first brought me home, ill from living in an under-funded orphanage for too long and exhausted on that July day in 1996. I wanted to believe that I was American because the Chinese part had never happened.
Consciously or not, I worked to live my life as any other white, middle class American, and by high school, I had gotten pretty good at living within my own fictive dream. It helped that by ninth grade, kids were beginning to get over their school yard taunts of ching chong! ching chong! and pulling the corners of their eyes into narrow slits. Or maybe I was just getting used to it.
Growing up, only a rare fraction of my everyday friend group was of color. The school district had a significant number of Latinx students, but as I entered the IB program and got shuttled away into separate classes, that population began to dwindle. The IB program did, however, attract the majority of the Indian and Asian populations at the school, but my relationship with them was stunted with the fact that although I may have a yellow body, I was not truly like any of them. And even then, we were all caught in the cogs of racial politics; we were all desperate to be white. We were all desperate to fit in.
By the time I got to college I’d lived almost eighteen years of avoiding my past. I’d always been an independent person, and I was confident (as confident as any eighteen year old is by the end of high school) about who I was.
But in college, the person I had been building from elementary school didn’t matter anymore. Thousands of miles away from the eastern slopes of the Rockies, I found myself back at square one and this time the solutions didn’t seem so simple.
It didn’t help that at the time I was entering college, stronger movements for racial consciousness in the country were brewing. College was the first place I ever heard the term “person of color” being used—and by the time I was starting university, I no longer could fool myself about being one.
But did I really fulfill what being a POC meant? The weight of the word, when abbreviated and when nominalized into its lowercase poc, felt foreign on my tongue. What right did I have in calling myself a poc when the only thing poc about me was my skin? What did it mean when, at the end of the day, I’d been raised white all along?
* * *
My mom likes to tell the story of when I was first delivered to them in the dingy, two star lobby of the hotel their adoption group was staying in. For the first 72 hours, I refused to smile. While other families were being united with gurgling infants and wails of hunger, I continued to stare at them with a careful gaze that was clearly trying to gauge whether or not to trust the man and woman in front of me.
When I think back on that story now, I wonder if I was trying to find myself in my white parents’ eyes. Where did I fit in with my mother’s murky blue-green eyes? My father’s greens?
When I think back on that story now, I wonder if it was the beginning of an identity crisis.
* * *
Despite all of its fairytale-like components, adoption places children in a limbo. You’re caught between growing up American and growing up Yellow, existing as both one without the other and as a queered assemblage. Although it can provide a space to forge one’s own identity, a space to move beyond the circumstances of one’s birth and choose the path of one’s own life, it also dogs you with the question of Who You Are. It asks you to keep rolling the boulder up the hill—and then forces you to watch as each time, without fail, it comes rolling back when you think you’ve reached the top.
* * *
The German restaurant I work at hits its busy period during the fall, when it puts on a two month celebration of Oktoberfest despite the actual festival in Munich having a commercial runtime of two weeks. But regardless of any slip in authenticity, the festival brings a rush of popularity to the restaurant alongside its regular crowd.
Although nearly the entire kitchen staff come from Latin America, there are enough white servers on the front end of the house that tables are usually taken by surprise when I come up to take their order. By the end of the second week of Oktoberfest, I stop keeping count of the comments.
“So, what part of Germany are you from?” the bearded man sitting at table thirteen asks, clearly already hearing the punchline in his head. He later tells me (in quite a few words) that he is a professor of international economics down at Georgetown. With his wide belly and tweed jacket, he looks exactly like Professor Unrat from Der Blaue Engel, but there is nothing in customer service that promotes making comparisons between paying customers and unpleasant German cinema characters who meet their ultimate demise after falling for beautiful cabaret singers.
“I’m not from Germany myself, but I studied there all of last year in Berlin. Actually, Berlin has a rather significant Southeast Asian population in the city,” I say, but I can tell that he’s already uninterested.
For him, it doesn’t matter that I studied in Germany for a year, living with a Mexican woman who was more German than she was Latina. It doesn’t matter that I’m working at a German restaurant to continue improving my German, that I’ve been studying German history since I was a child. All that matters is that I am in front of him, and I am yellow. And if I can’t be German, I can’t be American, either.
So, what part of Germany are you from?
The author, on the Fourth of July. Year unknown
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