I am currently a first year student at the University of Washington, Seattle and finished with the course “Contemporary Issues of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans“. It was an eye-opening class, especially at the end where my lecturer talked about adopted Asian American issues.
For the final project of the class, the class was given an option to create a creative, reflective project, and being one of the only adopted AAPIA in class, I chose mine about my personal journey as an adoptee.
I thought I would share in case others may relate to the stories that I discussed. If anyone else is in college right now, I would totally recommend taking an Asian American Studies or American Ethnic Studies course. This course has made me feel even more connected to my Asian American identity and background. Thank you for giving me a community to share this in!
I am still processing the murder of 6 Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings. I have been posting and sharing throughout my social media accounts about my anger, my distrust, the audacity of law enforcement and society for protecting white terrorist fragility and blatant denial of racism. I can feel tension like a chink in my armour of forced composure. But I am not only processing this all as an Asian woman. I am also forced to process this threat as an Asian woman adoptee, who has been raised in a world and by people who look like that terrorist. Worse yet, I have been raised by people who have ideologies in similar veins of that terrorist. Where do I begin to grieve, where do I begin to process, how do I begin to let you know how I feel when I have spent the majority of my life living under the same roof of whiteness that claims to love me but harms people who look like me?
If I were to ask my white evangelical adoptive parents their feelings of the mass shooting in Atlanta, they will question if it was race based. After all, not all the victims were Asian. If I were to ask them if certain political leaders in powerful positions where responsible for fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, I would be met with “fake news”. But if I were to ask them if they love their Asian daughter, I would be met with “yes, however, I don’t see you as Asian, you are just our daughter”. How do I process a grief and fear so real and palatable, when it is ignored and denied by those who are supposed to be my forever protectors? How do I put it into words and wrap it, so it is presentable and comprehensible for others to see the contradictions? In this lies the problem, the problem with racism, its systemic and institutional power that is subtle but feels like bullets, and shrapnel, and death.
This is all to say that as much as my white adoptive evangelical parents claim to love me, they cannot love me. Because they cannot recognise the terrorism they have inflicted onto me my whole life. They cannot love me fully because their “colour blindness” has prevented them from seeing the whole spectrum of my identity and how I go through life. They cannot truly love all of me because they refuse to acknowledge their own racial bias towards me, and how they raised me in that environment. They cannot love me entirely because they cannot confront their whiteness, their own racism, and how they contribute to a culture of white supremacy.
I have had some extended adoptive family members reach out to me, reassuring that they care, letting me know they are worried for my safety. On the other hand, I have not heard one whisper from my immediate adoptive family. None of them. Their silence speaks volumes. I am still processing what it means to be Asian in America. I still think about the time I was told me to go back to where I came from, as if it was not whiteness that forcibly re-homed me to a country that despises me. To a country that sees me as a virus, a fetish, a communist spy, a threat and fantasy to be colonised from the East. I am still absorbing and trying to understand what the violence towards people that look like me means to me. I struggle with this all, but I struggle with this in addition to being an Asian female adoptee. I struggle to process what this means when the people I was raised by refuse to see me as an Asian woman. And that refusal could cost me my life.
I’ve decided to share my own experiences with racism, because current events have got me reminiscing about the past. Let’s not get it twisted: much worse has happened to much better people than me. But I do think it’s important that people know that racism has been around for decades; it’s actually America’s favourite past-time. I just think that a certain person exacerbated the situation in how he chose to refer to Covid-19. And for some reason, it empowered cowardly racists to attack elderly Asian men and women (mostly from behind, because they lack the testicular fortitude to actually show their faces), and commit acts of mass murder.
MOST of the people I’m friends with on social media are people I’ve actually met. There’s a handful that I haven’t. So for those of you whom I haven’t met face to face, a little background: I was born in Viet Nam in 1974, adopted by a white family in 1975 (I’ve got three siblings, one being their biological daughter, and they adopted two more kids–both half-Black/half-white), raised in south-central PA, and didn’t leave the area until I went to university. In a round-about way, I ended up in the NYC-metro area and have been here since 2001.
I am pretty sure I had repressed a lot of what happened throughout my childhood, but the increased media coverage of racism-based violence and hate crimes towards Asians got me reminiscing about “the good old days”. I was thinking about the first time I can remember something racist being said or done toward me, which opened the floodgates. This is gonna be long, so grab a coffee and enjoy the ride down my memory lane!
I can’t remember this because I was too young but my mom told me about it: a friend of my mom’s saw me in the stroller and said that I almost looked like my mom, and asked my mom if she was going to have surgery done on my eyes so I could look even more like her. My mom, shocked, came back with, “How about I get surgery on MY eyes so I look more like HIM?”. Her friend was even more shocked and said, “Why would you do something like THAT?!” I am pretty sure they were no longer friends after that. My mom was also thanked numerous times by any number of people when she was out with me for “saving him from the dirty Commies”.
Age 5 or 6, in kindergarten, I recall other kids mocking me with, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at THESE”, and when saying “THESE”, they’d pull the outer corners of their eyes up and out to mimic (supposedly) my eyes.
In my neighbourhood, one of my friend’s older brothers nicknamed me “Hadji”. I think he said it was because I reminded him of Hadji in the Jonny Quest cartoons. It stuck. In my neighbourhood, I was always referred to as “Hadji” until I left, at around the age of 19.
When I was 8, I was walking home from a friend’s house and an older kid (he was probably 16) tried shooting me in the head from his bedroom window across the street with a pellet gun. He was a bad shot and instead hit me in the right hip. When questioned by the police, he said he just wanted to, “Shoot the slant”.
The same friend’s house I was walking home from, I had just left because his father told me, “I used to shoot lil gooks like you from my Huey in ‘Nam.”
I was called “slant” or “chink” a few times a week in elementary school.
That changed to “gook” and “zipperhead” or “zip” in middle school. The More You Know: did you know that “gook” derives from the Korean word for America/Americans, which is “miguk”? It sounds like, “me gook”, so during the Korean War, Americans probably thought Koreans were saying, “Me, gook”, turned it into an epithet and called Koreans “gooks”. That of course, transferred to all Asians, since you know we all look the same to white people. Also, “zipperhead” comes from when American soldiers would hit a Korean or Vietnamese soldier in the head with the stock of their assault rifles, it’d open up their heads like a zipper. “Zip” is just a shortened form of it.
By the time I hit high school, it had morphed into, “Charlie”, “VC”, and “riceboy”. “VC” of course derives from “Viet Cong” aka “Victor Charlie” aka “Charlie”. “Riceboy” is the one that was used the most though.
I was also told to go back to my own country a multitude of times for as long as I can remember through 11th grade.
I kept a brush and a can of paint in my locker in high school that matched my locker, because I could paint over the swastikas that were left on my locker faster than it took me for have maintenance come and do it.
At the beginning of 9th grade, a kid Mike told me to go back to my own country and I decided to tell him to go back to his. I wasn’t a very big kid. He basically picked me up and threw me down a flight of stairs which broke both of my wrists. He got suspended for three days.
Throughout middle and high school, I was asked numerous times by white classmates, “Do your Asian women have slanted pussies, because your eyes are slanted?”
I’d be rich if I had a nickel for the number of times I was asked if I knew kung fu or karate, followed up with a weak-ass karate chop and “hi-yaaaaaaaaaa”. At this point in my life, I didn’t know one bit of martial arts. Same goes for being asked if I ate cats and dogs.
The KKK and WAR (White Aryan Resistance) were both essentially clubs in my high school (not sanctioned by the school but the school did nothing about their presence).
In high school (~1,200 students, and less than a half dozen of us weren’t white), some kid got caught with something like four rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition in the cab of his pickup truck. When asked why, he said it was “to clean the school of all the mud people”. I assumed he was just a terrible shot. He wouldn’t have gotten caught if someone else didn’t see it and tell the principal about it, since it was odd to see outside of hunting season. I met a nice Catholic girl in high school at the local ice rink. It got to the point where I asked her out on a date and she accepted. I went to her house to pick her up on our date night, and her father answered the door. The conversation went as follows: HER DAD: Who the fuck are you? ME: Josh, I’m here to pick up Colleen for our date. HER DAD: That’s not going to happen, and here’s why: you’re not Irish. You’re probably not Catholic. And you sure as fuck aren’t white, so you better get the fuck off my property before I fetch my shotgun. Needless to say, I’ve never attempted to date a Catholic woman since then.
In 11th grade, I threw a football player Jamie through a window in the middle of my English class. For much of the class, he kept whispering, “Hey riceboy” from the other side of the room. I guess it was just a decade+ of pent-up anger that finally came to a head. I was raised Quaker…pacifist. WWJD and all that bullshit. I got up out of my chair, ran across the room, snatched him from his seat and threw him through a wire-mesh safety window (we were on the first floor, he didn’t fall very far). I got suspended for three days. After that, though, no one during the remainder of my junior year or senior year in high school said anything racist to me, ever again, at school.
I had gone to a Denny’s with two friends, Leah (a Korean adoptee) and her boyfriend Jeffrey (a white Italian kid). Jeffrey liked to dress in a punk style, and was wearing black Doc Martens with red laces. We were sitting there and a group of skinheads came over to our table and asked Jeffrey why he was sitting with “two of the mud people”. Jeffrey was confused. They said only earned skinheads can wear black Docs with red laces (as I found out later, black Doc Martens with red or white laces, laced-up in a certain manner, means you’re a skinhead, or have attended a boot party where you stomp on and kick someone). They ended up chasing us out of Denny’s to our car. As I was getting into the driver’s seat, one grabbed me around my neck through the door. I slammed the door on his arm a few times until he let go and backed into one of them that was behind the car (he rolled over the roof/hood). I don’t know what happened to the third one. We just bolted and never went to Denny’s again.
I finally got out of Bumblefuck, PA and went to university. They at least had more black and brown folks around, so it was a nice change. Funnily enough, I tried joining the Asian American Student Coalition/Association and was basically denied for not being “Asian enough”. I couldn’t win anywhere.
I got into what I thought was a nice relationship with this Italian woman when I was a freshman. We dated for a few months, then she ghosted me. I was finally able to get in touch with her and she said, “I was just using your slanty ass to get back at my boyfriend”.
That being said, I didn’t deal with much racism at all while I was there.
I was going to Philly and my car got a flat tire. It was in the evening (it was dark) and I was on the side of the Schuylkill highway. If you know the area, there’s like, zero shoulder. Anyway, I was in the process of rummaging around my trunk getting the jack out when a car pulled up behind me. That was nice because their headlights gave me more light. I heard one person ask, “Do you need any help?” I turned around and said, “No” and the two guys who were approaching me, their expressions immediately changed. They were wearing typical neo-nazi gear: combat boots, military pants and jackets. Out came the racist remarks, telling me to go back to my own country, etc. One pulled a chain and started whipping it around, the other pulled a knife. They started approaching me and I went into attack mode. I had started actually attending a karate school my freshman year of college and I was a brown belt by this time. I had three years of 5-day-a-week training and numerous tournaments under my belt. Chain boy: I bent his leg backwards at the knee. Knife boy: I was able to grapple his knife arm, leg swept him, and heel-stomped his solar plexus. I finished changing my tire and left them on the side of the road.
Fast forward a few years to the company I’ve now been with for 20 years. There were three incidents there during my first five or six years. First one, a delivery driver was walking by me in the warehouse and asked me where the karate school was, followed it with a fake karate chop and “hi-yaaaaaa”. It was actually so long since I’d heard anything racist directed toward me, my first thought was, “Wait, we have a karate school here now?”
A co-worker whom I had dealt with on the phone for months, who I finally met in person at a conference told me, “Your English is so good, I wasn’t expecting someone like you to be able to speak it so well”. I was eating Chinese food with three other co-workers in our little fourbicle and an older co-worker was walking by, popped his head in, looked at one of them and said, “Hey Billy! Y’all eatin’ that gook food now, huh?!” and left. I lost my shit. He came back later to apologise, and the conversation went like this: JOE: Hey Josh, I didn’t mean to offend you with what I said earlier. It’s just that, you know, I fought in the Korean War and they messed up my one hips really bad. But I can understand your English, so you’re OK in my book.(Keep in mind that WE WORK FOR AN ASIAN-OWNED COMPANY!!!) ME: Hey Joe, if you ever open your mouth to me one more time, I’m going to break your other fucking hip and dance on your grave. After I reported him to HR, his employment was terminated.
I’ve noticed that, “You speak good English” is something that gets said more to me as an adult (it wasn’t something I had heard a lot in elementary/middle/high school).
A few years ago, I was at the regular watering hole with a few friends — most not white . Some random white woman from out of town (I think from Texas) told us she was making a movie about the Tuskegee airmen and told us she was calling it, “The Flying N*ggers”. Needless to say, we attempted to not talk to her for the remainder of the evening. Later, we were outside having a smoke and she was trying to get our attention. She called my good friend “Maleek” (that’s not his name) and was calling me “Pol Pot”. “Maleek” finally turned around and was like, “WHAT?!” and she made little flapping motions with her hands and goes, “FLYING N*GGERS!” My friend angrily went back inside because he probably didn’t want to provoke the situation, but I turned to her and said, “Come here”. When she got close enough to me, I whispered in her ear, “If you open your mouth one more time, I’m going to place your teeth on these steps and slowly step on the back of your head until you end up swallowing your tongue”, stepped back and smiled. She gathered her things and left.
When I was living in Ohio, I went to a Subway to get a sandwich and the woman working there started chatting me up like she knew me. She even asked me how my brother Vinh was. I then said I had no idea who she was talking about and she asked me if I was so-and-so. I said no, I do not work at that nail salon. She said, “Oh my mistake. All of you Japs look alike to me.”
Also living in Ohio, I was looking after my girlfriend’s kid (they’re both black). She was hungry, I was lazy, so we walked across the street to Denny’s, of all places. We were seated in the back section. Two other tables were seated, brought menus, water and served before anyone came by to give us menus. I ended up taking her elsewhere for a sandwich and on the way out, asked the manager if it was normal for Denny’s to be openly racist toward its non-white customers. I explained what happened, she apologised and offered a free meal. FOH.
Getting asked, “Where are you from?” answering with “Pennsylvania” because that’s where I identified from being from, and then asked, “No, where are you REALLY from? Like, what are you?”
I fantasised about all the ways I could kill myself for pretty much elementary school through my junior year of high school. There was one failed attempt that took me a bit to recover from. All of this happened pre-Trump. And the shittiest thing about this is, I usually assume people are racist until they prove otherwise.
COVID continues to spread within our communities because people continue to lack seriousness when facing it. Chinese people continue to be blamed. While Asian ethnicities include countless unique, beautiful, and distinguishable cultures, many who are outside of the Asian diaspora can’t tell the difference. This results in anyone appearing Asian (specifically East Asian) to be berated with racial slurs, jokes about eating bats, and “go back to your country” type comments. These occurrences have become more prevalent as a result of COVID-19.
I can’t change the shape of my beautiful eyes. I can’t change my heritage, nor can I change how people speak. But I can share how hurtful words can be. How do you think it feels for my language to be boxed into “Ching Chong Ching Chong”? How painful do you think it is be told I’m not worthy of life because of my physical appearance? How much do you think I’ve learned to hate or be ashamed of my culture that has a history dating back centuries? How scared do you think I am to go in public because I might be the next victim of assault, just because of how I look?
It is not okay to put yourself above someone and their culture because of your ignorance and lack of understanding. And just because you listen to k-pop and watch anime doesn’t make you an expert in Japanese. And no, I’m not going to do your math homework for you. Don’t ask, “What Asian are you”. Instead maybe ask, “What’s your ethnicity?”
Watch your words. I am Chinese and I am beautiful. I am Asian American and I am beautiful.
by Ming Foxweldon 白宜民/明, adopted from China to America written for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, #AAPIHeritageMonth
Our stories matter Just like the generations before The future generations will look back to us We must pave the way History can be written by those in power However we’ve to strive to be agents of our time Activism is what you make of it Find your medium Use it Believe in it If not, change gears Accept that sometimes this journey Will be lonely People may stand by your side for a second To gain the lime light Only to try and extinguish yours Stand up for those who are unaware of the dangers that lay before them Not for recognition Just out of compassion Be an active protector of the community Bystander attitude only perpetuates bad behaviour For those who don’t believe you Haters gonna hate Your convictions Decisions will impact others Of the current moment History in the making Don’t let others’ experiences overshadow your own You’re valid Stay strong Know when it’s ok to take breaks Heroes and heroines alike Setting the cape aside Transform into someone who can smell the flowers from time to time …
Resource The documentary, Asian American’s has been aired this month at PBS and Amazon Prime.
There are a lot of opinions and pieces surrounding Crazy Rich Asians right now. I am simply adding to the chorus, but from a slightly different perspective as a Chinese American intercountry adopted person. As an adoptee who watched Crazy Rich Asians, it is hard to describe all of the feelings I felt while sitting in the movie theatre, well twice. It was beautiful, funny, smart, and fun. Of course, the movie is receiving extra praise because of a cast that is all-Asian and not just the cast, but the music and the cultural representation as well. Representation matters and it was with a smile that I approached the end credits of the movie.
As an adoptee, I felt proud to see people who looked like me on the big screen. People who had similar features, presented in different shades where not every Asian was the kung fu master or nerdy IT tech support. The movie was refreshing and quite frankly a new experience, at least in major Hollywood films.
But…and this is a big but. I felt represented by the way I look, but not necessarily by how I grew up. As an adoptee I straddle in between the Asian and white cultures where I look Asian but was raised in a white household. To be honest, I am not sure I understood every joke in Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely didn’t understand every song. My parents didn’t necessarily practice the honor/shame ritual of guilting their children. I recognized it and laughed, but on an experiential level I couldn’t relate.
My immigrant story is a solo journey of going from a poor orphanage in China to a middle class white family in America. My immigrant story came without a choice and the expectation of gratefulness attached, because to some, I didn’t suffer as much as other Asian immigrant families did. That’s a topic for a different discussion. To the point however, Asian adoptees and others have struggled with identifying as Asian American or Asian because we aren’t seen as Asian enough. We are called “whitewashed” by other Asian Americans and we are clearly not white, but we are familiar with white culture because we had no choice but to be raised in it. We are left out because we don’t fit any conventional norms. We are the true bananas.
There was an article the other day of the mixed Asian actresses and whether they were “Asian enough” for the film. This type of debate only leaves my head scratching. To be clear, this is not a knock on the film. The film was great step in the right direction. I’m not asking for an all adopted Chinese American film. But if Asians complain about white people leaving them out of Hollywood and that there needs to be more representation, then surely Asians should also be open to a more diverse Asian representation and what it means to be Asian. Just like there are all different shades of what it means to be American, to some degree there can be different shades to what it means to be Asian or Asian American. I understand Asians are mostly homogenous within their own cultures and countries, but the world we are increasingly living in is multiracial and multi-ethnic. If Asians want more representation in a space they occupy like society, then maybe they should be open to others who occupy a similar space to them.
Change is slow. I get it. Crazy Rich Asians was a monumental step in opening the door for an all-Asian cast and potentially for more representation of minorities of all shapes and sizes. Personally though, I can’t wait until we can stop categorizing people and putting them in boxes just because it’s convenient or because it’s the way it’s always been. Rather, I’d like to let people blaze and add new categories and labels so they can be themselves. There is more to be done for sure but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate when it’s appropriate to do so. I left Crazy Rich Asians with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.