Recent violence against the Asian American/Pacific Islander communities has given me pause. I’ve grieved the loss, pain, and hurt of the communities directly impacted and felt the fear and pain myself for my birth family and my own family. Anti-Asian sentiment is certainly not a new phenomenon for me and I have been confronted by it in some of the most unexpected moments. The recent violence, coupled with my own journey of rediscovery and reclamation, has had me really contemplating racism and white supremacy through the lens of not only a Korean American but a transracial adoptee.
I saw a recent post from Sarah who called out the term “coming out of the fog” as being rooted in white supremacy. I had to let that sit and steep for a bit. Not because I didn’t know this to be true but because when put that way, I thought of all the many moments I played right into that system. My interpretation of this post is that the “fog” many of us are working to move through was put in place due to white supremacy. I proceed with caution because I fear being misunderstood. First, this is about how I hear what is trying to be communicated not what the poster themselves wrote. Second, this is not a jab to call any one person within the adoption triad (or constellation as Lauren Sharkey calls it) a white supremacist. Rather, it’s that the system of adoption is built upon a foundation that can prop up white supremacy. I’m going nerd out a bit here. According to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Survey of Family Growth datasets (2002, 2009), the percent of non-Hispanic white women and non-Hispanic Black women who adopt are about the same; however, when translating that to actual numbers, it is obvious that the number non-Hispanic white women who adopt are far higher.
When seeing these numbers, it’s evident who in our society (by numbers) are adopting. We also know that our current system and nation have been built predominantly by white men throughout history. When we overlay all of those contexts, we cannot exempt adoption from being viewed through a Critical Race lens. But I want to go a bit further here in this post to highlight that it’s not only the system that perpetuates white supremacy and its impact on adoptees’ identities. I, as a transracial adoptee, have also perpetuated it.
These are the true confessions of my own contributions to staying in the fog by upholding white supremacy (specific to my own adoption, not in other avenues for the purpose of this post). While I recognize that it was without full intention and was my attempt to survive in my environment, that does not absolve me from the real contributions I made and damage that likely did.
So much of it all began when I went to live with my parents. It doesn’t mean I didn’t experience racist acts or words or microagressions before then, but I had the insulation of my Korean birth family prior to that who helped combat those ideas taking root in me. I remember being in fourth or fifth grade, still the relative new kid, and having peers pull their eyes back in the “my mother’s Chinese, my father’s Japanese…” joke, calling me “flat-face,” comments about my being adopted, etc. At first, it wounded me so deep. I couldn’t make sense of it all and I had no one I felt would understand how deeply those words and actions cut. At some point, I learned to laugh them off or, worse, make the jokes first so then it would be on my terms instead.
School and peers brought the challenges of cliques, mean girls and mean boys, more bullying, more not belonging. The less I belonged the more I pushed down my Koreanness, certain that was my biggest barrier. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted desperately to be beautiful like all the Ashleys and Rachels with pretty blue eyes, lovely pale skin, and blond or light brown hair, everything I had been taught was beautiful in the eyes of society. I hated standing next to my mother. She is the epitome of beauty with the perfect nose, perfect hazel eyes, gorgeous bone structure; and I looked nothing like her. The more comparing I did, the less I saw of myself.
Thus began a real fracturing of my Korean identity from myself. It was maybe fifth grade when I really understood how much I didn’t fit with the definition of beauty. I would express these fears and doubts to my parents. In their attempt to support me and reduce what they saw as unnecessary suffering, they offered what they believed to be a good option, surgery to look more like my peers. They told me about a surgery where part of my wrist bone could be used to build up the bridge of my nose and special surgery on my eyes to “open [them] up.” I don’t speak this aloud out of anger but more to highlight, and further add to the conversation, the unintentional yet real harm unchecked biases can have, especially in the context of transracial adoption.
They did not intend that to mean that I was less beautiful than my peers or that I needed to change, I know that now but I didn’t fully understand that then. All it did was to further reinforce that, indeed, I was different and would never belong. And that it was a flaw in me, not society or the community in which I lived. I can’t exactly recall my feelings about it then but when I think back on it now, I feel a bit sick to my stomach. How much of that idea was the root that grew into the self-hatred of all things Korean in me?
Much of my middle and high school years were spent being genuinely surprised when looking in the mirror to see my “Asian eyes” staring back at me. I had created some distorted internal image of myself as someone not Asian, based in my own self-hatred. When I was young, I had a tremendous love of art, painting, drawing, coloring, pastels, photography…you name it, I loved it. In middle school, I had a self-portrait project. It was one of the most difficult pieces I ever created. I hated it. I hate it still. The forced act of staring at myself in the mirror to recreate my most detested features on paper made for a miserable experience. It felt like a further exercise in exposing how I didn’t fit, how I lacked beauty. Moving my pencil to depict all this was like laying my self-hatred bare for all to see.
I reached my high school years with a fully skewed schooling of navigating the largely white world in which I was an unwelcome intruder. I actively avoided any peers who remotely looked like me and though some of my middle school years were spent with a more diverse group of friends, that died away by high school. High school meant new frontiers and more exposure to different microaggressions, and inevitability more times of me succumbing to the system rather than fighting against it.
My boss at my first part-time job was Vietnamese. At first I think I thought I’d found someone who might understand but I learned quickly that wasn’t the case. He only reinforced all the survival tactics I had been employing. I wasn’t at a point of challenging myself or others so I only internalized it further and sank deeper into the fog.
My driver education class teacher used to talk about my “Asian” features and dubbed me “his Geisha.” It’s disgusting, I know. At the time, I had no real concept of the term, it’s relation or lack thereof to me, the possible gross insinuation (that’s not rooted in truth), and so forth. I spent the entire semester allowing this to go on, despite my vague discomfort at the term. At some point that year, I was telling my mother something about this teacher and the nickname was revealed. She was mortified. In my recollection, she found the term inappropriate not because of the mislabeling, migroaggressive undertone but because of the same inaccurate insinuation and meaning she believed about the term geisha and who they were. For me, the grossness is about his assumption that my being Korean (which he knew) could be reduced to any peripheral culture in and about the continent of Asia.
It’s also about the misrepresentation of who geisha are. First, geisha are artists in Japan who specialize in hosting, entertaining, dance, and other forms of art. They are NOT, in any way, prostitutes as many westerners mistakenly assume. I am not an expert on geisha but that much I do know. Part of the grossness of his calling me this was in my mother’s assumption that he was insinuating the wildly inappropriate context to me, an underage student, as anything remotely in the vicinity of prostitute. I will never know whether he actually intended this or not.
My mother dutifully contacted the school to notify them of this misstep and little was done other than maybe a private conversation with the teacher. He did stop calling me this nickname though his irritation at my telling on him was evident. While he desisted in this practice, the approach taken by myself, my mother, and the school missed the mark on challenging the system of white supremacy and its impact on students like myself and others.
Then I started a new job my junior year of high school. Not that it was any new thing, but I was yet again surrounded by more white peers. It was a bit different this time, however. I developed a crush on one of these such adorable boys. I was the sad little puppy who followed him around, waiting for any morsel of attention he might be willing to dole out. It was during just such an episode when he asked if I had ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket, I had not. He then described a scene with a Vietnamese prostitute who says to one of the white soldiers in the film, “me love you long time.” He and my other co-workers had a good laugh and I, certain of my role in this exchange, joined in. From that moment on, I was “Me Love You.” It was a seemingly innocent enough thing, just a nickname, just all in good fun. But the reality is that my being complacent was further contributing to and reinforcing the systems stacked against the BIPOC communities. I did that. I laughed and let it go on until well into college when I lost touch with most of those people.
I wish I could say I learned to do better after this but I didn’t. Even despite my own antiracist work I did through high school, college, grad school, and beyond, somehow these anti-Asian sentiments weren’t something I was nearly as willing to challenge or dissect.
It was as recent as my adult life just before I had children. I was training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) nearly daily at the time and the gym members were like our little family. One particular outing was to see the film Gran Torino in theaters. For those of you who haven’t seen the film (I don’t recommend it), many racist nicknames are thrown around by Clint Eastwood who portrays a racist protagonist in an alleged story of redemption. In fact, the other main actor in the film, Bee Vang wrote an opinion piece on the experience of working on the film.
One such name was “Dragon Lady.” Let’s just say that the name stuck with my gym family and from that moment on, I became “Dragon Lady” or DL for short. This is a tough one for me to tear apart. I cannot lie that there are some serious emotions tied to this name separate from that of the racial undertones. It was a name I felt I’d earned in BJJ that spoke to my fierceness on the mat. I was raised in a more stereotypical manner as a girl, playing with dolls, pretend, and so forth. Fierceness and toughness was not in my lexicon and certainly not something anyone would ever have used to describe me but I learned through my time in BJJ that indeed I am those things. I gained a kind of self-confidence that I don’t think I could have elsewhere. All of that was rolled up in this name. I don’t know if I can say I’ve come to the same conclusion about this as I have in the above examples but I do recognize the ways in which my not challenging and succumbing to it, yet again, further entrenched me in this fog.
This is not my own redemption story either. I have no great monumental wisdom to spin for anyone. I will say that I have learned and grown and believe I do better today. My current journey is a testament to that in fighting against the many years in the fog.
I don’t intend to excuse my past behavior or lack of action. I do recognize that my responses are rooted in the white supremacist system in which I was raised. I cannot say with any certainty that I would have responded differently had I been raised by my Korean family, I doubt it. I do think I might have questioned things more and might have felt more solidarity and support. Surrounded as I was by family, peers, and environment that provided little to no reflection of me made it nearly impossible to combat the intentional and unintentional messages I heard. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I was no longer as blinded by the fog. It was having to face the coming experiences my children would have to reckon with in their own lives that jolted me awake. But I am awake now and I’m beginning to see more clearly. I refuse to stand idly by any longer in passive complacency.