Knowing who you are comes from knowing your past. That’s what most people think, though not everyone leaves their homeland as a baby. In the spring of 1999, when I was six months old, I traveled from China to the United States with my adoptive parents. Raised in New Jersey, I tried to absorb life lessons from my Caucasian parents: “Always clean up after yourself” and “remember to think before you speak.” I challenged them when appropriate (and sometimes when not) and above all, I assimilated into a predominantly white, upper-middle-class environment. Intertwined with my efforts to thrive, were questions: Why did my birth parents give me away? Could someone explain Chinese culture to me? My curiosity led my adoptive parents to teach me what they knew about my heritage.
An early lesson happened in the Closet Room, when my mother showed me items that she and my father had brought from China. Next to my birth certificate sat a jade necklace and a calligraphy kit. Then, at the bottom of a bin in one of the five closets of the Closet Room, I saw a stack of official-looking papers. Every sheet was covered with Chinese characters, each a complex rendering of an image that created a story. The characters were beautiful, swirling pieces of art, but that’s where the familiarity ended. My gaze landed once again on the jade necklace and calligraphy kit and I felt hollow. Was I supposed to feel kinship with these objects that represented Chinese culture, but didn’t represent me? Why didn’t my parents throw spring rolls in the bin too? Yet, finding these items did help me understand my identity. I realized that I relate more to strawberry shortcake than to shrimp shumai.
Four years later, in a new home in a new town, I was again introduced to my adoptive past by means of a hand-drawn family tree and numerous black and white photographs. My grandmother’s soothing lilt listed ancestors who were mostly English (and looked nothing like me). I was, she said, of “honorary English” descent. As with the Chinese characters, I waited for that spark of consanguinity; it never came. I sifted through the pile of photographs studying each aquiline nose, each arched brow, attempting to connect with someone from my honorary past. I couldn’t.
Growing up Asian in a primarily Caucasian community hasn’t always been easy. No one’s ever hurled a racist slur at me or made fun of my physical appearance. But at times, I glance at my parents and see the stark differences between us. Their blue eyes and light skin: Who are these people whom I call my parents? Like it or not, I’m different. I tell my close friends that I’m a white girl in an Asian girl’s body. I speak in jest, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a complicated identity. But it holds some truth. As the mirror reminds me every morning, I’m Chinese. Yet, I was raised in the United States in an American family and my mannerisms, thoughts, and ideas reflect western culture. I’m an immigrant in a non-immigrant community. Still being both Chinese and American isn’t always confusing. Despite not having my parent’s physical traits, I see their influence in the way I speak and the way I act. Although we don’t share blood, my mother and father loved and cared for me enough to give me a home.
While my adoptive and biological heritages are sometimes at odds; I’m constantly working towards an inner harmony that allows me to be a Chinese American in the truest sense of the description.