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For Chinese Adoptees In The U.S., Identity Comes In Layers

Over the past 30 years, more than 170,000 Chinese-born children have been raised by U.S. families. Most of the parents are white and many live in areas where Asians are almost nonexistent.

For Chinese Adoptees In The U.S., Identity Comes In Layers

Childhood photos of LiMin Edwards prior to his adoption

Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times/ ZUMA Wire
Simin Ma

WASHINGTON D.C. — Yang Chunju was born 20 years ago in Guangdong, China, and was abandoned at birth. A year later she was adopted by a couple from Pennsylvania, in the United States, and along with a new family, she got a new name, Mary Ruth Tomko, though most people call her Mei.

The young woman grew up in the small town of York — "the American countryside," as she describes it. And in the schools she attended, there were no other Asians. In other words, no one else looked like her, and Mei recalls being very lonely throughout her childhood.

Nor did anyone show any real interest in Asian culture, and although her parents encouraged her to study her roots, they themselves didn't really participate. Growing up in a white community bearing a white name, no one told her what it meant to be Asian American.

The United States has more adopted Chinese children than any other country in the world — more than 170,000 since 1992, when the Chinese Adoption Law went into effect, according to the organization International Adoption. Most of these children grow up in white communities and are raised by white families. As such, they see themselves subconsciously as white and often experience identity crises because they do not look like the people around them.

C.N. Le, a researcher on Asian Americans at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that when they are exposed to racism or experience racial discrimination, they often have two responses: flight or fight. "To run away is to give up their Asian identity and disassociate," says Le. "The other reaction is to fight, to unite with others who have similar experiences."

No one told her what it meant to be Asian American.

For a long time, Mei would purposely conceal the fact that she was adopted. She would avoid walking alongside her parents so that people would not think that they are related. She recalls too how her mom one remarked that all the boys in school were interested in her because she's "very exotic." For years, the phrase made her uncomfortable.

Later she told her mom that she had to "make herself white" to integrate with her family and community: She turned her brown eyes blue in Instagram photos and pretended to be interested in parties, games and relationships to have more things in common with white friends.

Mei wrote in her diary that she "never had an Asian-American role model," even when it comes to learning how to dress. Only in adolescence, when she discovered the world of K-pop — modern Korean pop music — did she begin to realize that "Asians could also be beautiful."

"I didn't know why I was so addicted to K-pop, but now looking back, it answered my doubts and gave me confidence," she says.

At university, Mei joined an Asian student community and got to know a group of peers who grew up in Asian immigrant families and were "of similar appearance." In doing so, she fulfilled her dream of finally being part of a group that she could really identify with. From her new friends she began to learn different Asian traditions and religious cultures. Among other things, she discovered that for Asians, the concept of "family" is entirely built on blood kinship, while for her, as someone who was adopted, "family" was constructed around love and emotions.

More generally, she began to realize that her experiences were unique and valuable and to construct her triple-layered identity as an "interracial adoptee, Chinese American and Asian American."

Another Chinese-born adoptee who wishes to remain anonymous describes the experience as a continuous journey with no end point. "When it comes to adoption, many people only see the positive aspects, such as the fact that the adoptee has a great life," the person explains. "But in fact, there are gains and losses. In gaining, we lose our family of origin, culture, language and country, things we may never get back. I feel very lucky and grateful for what I have, but I also want to acknowledge the complexities of adoption."

The murder in 2020 of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer, led to a nationwide anti-racism campaign. For Mei, who studies international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., the movement had a personal impact, causing her to look back at the moments of being "whitened" or "labeled" as a child and to re-examine her relationship with her parents.

Philanthropist Wang Jiayu holds an orphaned baby in China's Yingshang provinceXinhua/ ZUMA Wire

Her parents had always told her in the past "we don't see you as Asian, we just see you as our daughter." But for Mei, there's something unsatisfying about that line of thinking. She remembers her mother — a Democrat and the mother of two Asian children — feeling defensive, for example, when Mei read a book about white privilege.

"I realized that for many white parents, it's hard to be really aware of their own behavior, or to face their own inherent biases and their own deeply rooted racism," Mei explains. "It's also hard for them to face their own inherent prejudice and embedded racism."

Yi Wendong (Emma Coath), who was born in 1999 in Jiangxi, China, also grew up in a mostly white Pennsylvania neighborhood. The difference in her case, however, is that Wendong has three sisters who were also adopted from China, plus a neighbor who adopted three Chinese girls. As a result, she grew up with six similarly aged adopted children from China. And although she was troubled by "not knowing whether to eat salad like an American or Chinese food like a Chinese," she felt "very fortunate to have people in my family who look like me, who have dark hair and dark skin."

The young woman was studying graphic and interactive design at Temple University in Pennsylvania when she accidentally discovered that two of her female classmates were also Chinese adoptees, and they were both eager to meet more adoptees from similar backgrounds. And so, as part of a design assignment, Wendong excitedly showed her professor the social software she had created to serve Chinese adoptees and adoptive parents.

"Many people don't see adoption as part of history, but it needs to be mentioned."

She named the software Péngyou, or "friends" in Chinese, to not only allow adoptees to connect with each other, but also give adoptive parents a way to form an online community to share their parenting experiences. Unfortunately, the professor failed to grasp why the idea held such significance for Wendong. "Many people don't see adoption as part of history, but it needs to be mentioned," she says.

On the heels of the Floyd killing, another anti-racism campaign — the Stop Asian Hate movement — took shape and gained considerable momentum in places like New York and San Francisco. But in Wendong's small Pennsylvania town, it hardly made a ripple. At any rate, the young woman will soon be moving on. She recently landed a designer job in another city. She's excited about the change, but also worried. Not being with her white parents presents another kind of identity crisis.

As researcher C.N. Le explains, the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements have shown everyone, especially Asians and Asian Americans, that they can't take for granted that they'll automatically be accepted into mainstream U.S. society.

"Their social status is still very fragile and precarious," he says. "I hope that Asian adoptees will not run away from their identities and will confront their hostility and unite with others who suffer from racism, whether they be other Asian Americans, African Americans, or other people of color."

Mei is doing just that. At her university in Washington, D.C. she is researching ways to raise white racial sensitivity. She has also returned to her high school and community to speak and urge people to donate and care about people of different identities. She says she's "learned her identity as an interracial adoptee to engage in more meaningful discussions."

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