At first glance, I look like an Asian-American woman. But just because someone looks like they’re from a certain part of the world, doesn’t mean they identify with that region.
Ever since I was a little kid, people always stared at me. My mother told me it was because I was cute, but I didn’t believe that was the only reason. I was adopted from China when I was 1 year old by my adoptive mother, who is of Irish descent. Obviously, we don’t look alike. When I got to a certain age, I knew the way the two of us looked together was the real reason I couldn’t escape the strangers’ stares.
I grew up in an area with very little racial diversity. And those stares used to bother me because I felt as though I belonged where I was, while others didn’t agree. I was just me, so I wondered why I was prone to this unwanted attention.
As someone who was adopted at a very young age, I felt lost when someone asked me where I’m from. People felt inclined or even entitled to ask, since most of the town’s population — including my own family — didn’t look like me. And I always knew the answer they were looking for — the obvious one I should technically provide. But that didn’t feel true to me.
I always struggled with my ethnicity. Enveloped in two completely different cultures, I belonged more to the culture I don’t look like. Although I still have these tendencies, as I have grown I have developed a better understanding of who I am and how I feel about my ethnicity.
I don’t know what it’s like to live in China or how other Asian-Americans who aren’t adopted feel about their identities. But personally, I feel conflicted when it comes to how I identify as a person.
Over the years, I have learned to be proud of my Chinese background, but I am also proud of the way I was raised. It’s not that I am more “Westernized” or more Chinese, but that I have found a balance between these two very important cultures in my life over the years, by answering questions about my ethnicity and telling the story of my adoption.
Ethnicity can be a touchy topic if you don’t approach it correctly. Obviously, I can’t speak for all people of the many cultures and parts of the world, but when someone I don’t know asks me what my ethnicity is, I usually don’t have an issue telling them.
But I know that’s not the case for everyone. Not everyone will be as open about answering identity-related questions. Sometimes when you ask people about their ethnicity, you might get a reaction you didn’t expect. And that’s understandable because backgrounds are personal.
People have mistaken me for being from a different Asian country or for a Pacific Islander, and I kindly correct them, letting them know that I am, in fact, from China. I usually add that I was adopted, and then there’s a look of either curiosity or empathy on their face. Despite my frustration with having two different cultures, I like telling people where I’m from. I think the questions always come from curiosity, and I appreciate that.
But if curiosity strikes, try not to assume. Always ask first whether you can guess someone’s ethnicity. I’m OK with people asking me where I am from, but I’d also like you to get to know me first. I am so much more than my ethnicity, and so is everyone else.