One afternoon in the summer of 2003, two people I had just met sat across from me in their sunny apartment and asked if I thought they should adopt. They wanted to adopt a child from another country. None of the programs they were interested in would lead to them bringing home a white child.
They asked if I ever felt like my adoptive parents weren’t my “real” parents.
Never, I said firmly.
They asked if I had been in touch with my birth family.
No, I said, I hadn’t.
They asked if there had ever been any issues when I was growing up.
I felt something like panic, the sudden shame of being found out.
Perhaps confusion was all they could read on my face, because one of them attempted to clarify: Had I ever minded it? Not being white, like my parents?
I wanted to answer. I liked this couple, and I knew it was my job to offer them the comfort, the encouragement they so plainly deserved. Did I mind not being white? It amounted to asking if I minded being Korean; yes, I minded, or no, I didn’t mind, both seemed too mild for how I’d felt.
The truth was that being Korean and being adopted were things I had loved and hated in equal measure. Growing up, I was the only Korean most of my friends and family knew, the only Korean I knew. Sometimes the adoption upset me more; sometimes my differences did; but mostly, it was both at once, race and adoption, linked parts of my identity that set me apart from everyone else in my orbit. I could neither change nor deny these facts, so I worked to reconcile myself to them. To tamp down the stirring of anger or confusion when that proved impossible, time and time again.
All members of a family have their own ways of defining the others. All parents have ways of saying things about their children as if they are indisputable facts, even when the children don’t believe them to be true at all. It’s why so many of us sometimes feel alone or unseen, despite the real love we have for our families and they for us. In childhood, I was uncertain who I was supposed to be, even as I resisted some of my adoptive relatives’ interpretations — both you’re our Asian Princess! and of course we don’t think of you as Asian. I believe my adoptive family, for the most part, wanted to ignore the fact that I was the product of people from the other side of the world, unknown foreigners turned Americans. To them, I was not the daughter of these immigrants at all: By adopting me, my parents had made me one of them.
And perhaps I never would have felt differently — perhaps I, too, would have thought of myself as almost white — but for all the people who never indulged this fantasy beyond my home, my family, the reach of my parents’ eyes. Caught between my family’s “colorblind” ideal and the obvious notice of others, perhaps it isn’t surprising which made me feel safer — which I preferred, and tried to adopt as my own.
Somewhere along the way, though, after leaving home, I had learned to feel strangely proud of my heritage. I’d made friends in middle school and high school who liked and accepted me even though I was one of the few Asian kids they knew. Then I had gone off to college and found myself living among huge numbers of fellow Asians; on campus, which soon felt more like home than the town where I had lived all my life, I finally learned how it felt to exist in a space, walk into a classroom, and not be stared at. I loved being just one Asian girl among thousands. Every day, I felt relieved to have found a life where I was no longer surrounded by white people who had no idea what to make of me.
Still, I did not know what it meant to be a Korean completely sundered from her culture, or if I could truly call myself a Korean at all — when a dormmate in college referred to me as a “banana,” I knew enough to understand it was not a compliment, but had no real defense. To me Korea was little more than a faraway country, less real to me than a fantasy, and my own Korean family existed in an alternate timeline I could hardly begin to imagine. I had yet to grapple with or resolve my adoption’s place in my life, what it meant and how I ought to think of it — at 22, sitting in my new friends’ dining room, a genuine, perhaps more generous understanding of who I was still flickered beyond my reach.
I looked from one pair of earnest eyes to the other, wondering how I could explain all this to them. How had I gotten here? How had I become the voice of reassurance for two people about to embark on parenthood? I still had trouble thinking of myself as an adult. I had no idea what it took to raise a child, let alone one whose face would announce to everyone that they weren’t born into their family.
My hometown is a five-hour drive from Portland, nestled in a valley in sight of three mountain ranges. For years now, when I go home, it has been my ritual to step off the plane and begin counting the people of color in the town’s one-room airport; often, there’s only me. I spent eighteen years there without getting to know another Korean.
Once my parents and I left our little house, we were bound to turn heads. Where did they get you? people at the grocery store asked. Or, on the playground, How much did you cost? Kids at school wanted to know why I didn’t look like them. Teachers stumbled over my surname, looking perplexed even after my corrections.
My adoption was never kept secret from me — not that it could have been. I avoided the fate of adopted children of earlier generations, who were often told about their adoptions late in adolescence, as adults, or not at all. My parents explained my adoption when I was too young to remember, adding details over the years until I knew almost everything they did. Just as I don’t remember the day I learned I was adopted, I don’t remember precisely when I realized I was practically the only Asian I ever saw — but I imagine it must have been sometime in kindergarten, my first year of school. There were around 25 kids in my afternoon kindergarten class, every one of them white. At morning circle, on the playground, packed into the pews during school-wide Masses, at assemblies and concerts and sporting events, it was the same: white child after white parent, face after face that looked nothing like mine. By the age of five, I must have had words like Korean and Asian to describe myself, because I remember deploying such terms at school. I might have also possessed a vague, sight-based understanding of whiteness. But having never talked about race with anyone before, I couldn’t have strung together the words to describe what I was seeing — or not seeing — just as I couldn’t have told anyone why it suddenly mattered.
In first grade, when I took my turn as the designated “Very Important Person,” I brought in my family photos glued to white poster board as all the kids before me had. My classmates, arranged in a semicircle on the woven rug, naturally wanted to know why all of my pictures showed me flanked by my redheaded, freckled white mom and early-graying white dad, though that wasn’t what they said—what they said was, “Are those your parents? How come you don’t look like them?” I spent most of my presentation explaining matters, but I didn’t mind much; it was thrilling, in a way, to hold so many of my classmates in thrall. A strange feeling spiked, the earliest suspicion that I might eventually spend a great deal of time answering people’s questions about adoption, but I told myself it was fine. How lucky that I already knew so much about it.
Then one of my classmates thrust his hand in the air. His face was expectant — and a little reproachful, as though I’d stopped reading just before the end of a rollicking good story and was deliberately keeping everyone in suspense. “Don’t you want to meet your real parents?”
No one in my family ever referred to my birth parents as my real parents. But once I got over my initial shock, I understood why he had asked. Of course the other kids would be curious about my birth family. Of course they would want to solve the mystery I, too, obsessed over. I was in second or third grade when I heard my first slur.
I argued with a boy on the playground — I don’t remember the reason. He called me ugly, which stung a bit, but it was also the sort of generic insult kids flung at one another all the time. If he’d stopped there, it might have remained a remote, laughable memory, a childhood squabble buried alongside dozens of other such moments.
Instead, he pulled his eyes into slits. His voice turned shrill as he sneered, “You’re so ugly, your own parents didn’t even want you!”
It was the first time anyone had ever used my adoption as an insult, and it would have been shocking and painful enough without the eyes, the broken singsong chant. He screwed up his face into a squint, asking how I could see. “Me Chinee, me can’t see!”
Was “Chinee” supposed to be a nickname? I did not know what it meant, but I instinctively understood that he wasn’t making fun of something about me, or something I had done. He wasn’t mocking a name I could change into a nickname, or clothes my parents could replace, or glasses I could take off at recess. His target was who I was. How I’d come to be here, in this place where he believed I did not belong.
I waited, almost in suspense, for my own voice to emerge, for my sharp tongue to go on the attack. But any return insults withered and died in my throat. I couldn’t have been more passive had I been invisible, a ghost floating high above the blacktop, watching the other kids laughing and feeling surprised, just as any witness or casual observer might, by my own shame and silence.
He made more faces, his eyes still pulled back tight; I wondered if he could see. To anyone watching, I probably looked eerily calm — the same girl I’d always been. This boy was in my carpool, and lived in my neighborhood, and until this day I’d thought of him as a kind of friend. When we rode home together that afternoon, side by side in the backseat of his mother’s blue sedan, I was silent and so was he, pretending nothing had happened between us that day. But inside of me, something still and deep, something precious, had broken.
After that day, when I heard more words like that from him and other classmates — when adults I met questioned my nationality or my lack of an accent, or measured me against stereotypes that were true in their minds — I would, to some degree, expect it. Each and every time I found myself on the defensive, defining an identity that seemed to require endless explanations, it would remind me of that day at recess when I learned what a slur meant, even if I did not yet know the name for it.
And maybe I should have known to be angry as a child. Maybe I should have realized that others were the problem, not me. But hadn’t I already been suspicious before that day when my neighbor’s words hit the bull’s-eye? Hadn’t I already wondered if I might be wrong, taking up space where I did not have a right to? The self-consciousness I’d felt but hardly known how to track since starting at that small white school bloomed to sudden, painful awareness. If I wasn’t safe with a boy who’d known me for years, who knew where I lived, whose mother knew mine, then I couldn’t trust anyone.
I remember I could tell my parents only part of the truth. I said that someone had made fun of me for being adopted. I didn’t mention the other words the boy had used. This felt like a different kind of humiliation, one I could not expect them to understand. They had always insisted the fact that I was Korean didn’t matter; what mattered was “the kind of person” I was. How could I tell them they were wrong?
If my parents were surprised or upset, they didn’t show it. They have both always possessed a rather low opinion of human nature, and spitefulness, even outright cruelty, from an ignorant boy could not have shocked them. My mother said that he shouldn’t have teased me for being adopted. “He’s only doing it to get a reaction,” she told me.
“If you ignore him, he’ll stop,” my father agreed.
I tried, but the schoolyard taunts multiplied, spreading beyond the first boy to other classmates. When they tried out new words, or told me to go back to China, or babbled in their made-up languages, no one stood up for me. Kids I’d known since kindergarten now seemed like strangers — either hostile, or else somehow remote and inaccessible. I had not changed, and maybe they hadn’t, either, but when they looked at me it was as if we’d never known each other at all.
At our school, you were with the same kids grade after grade, the same boys with saints’ names and the same pretty, fair-haired girls. Who you were in second grade was who you were in fourth grade and who you were in sixth. So the taunts would continue, all the way until I completed sixth grade and moved on to another school. Remembering my parents’ advice, I tried not to react to the pulled-back eyes, the stinging chants, the cold shoulder from kids I’d once thought of as friends. The closest anyone ever got to noticing what was going on was when my second-grade teacher alluded to my general unhappiness on my third-quarter report card. But my grades were always good, and I was targeted only when there were no teachers around. If I was isolating myself more and more at school, retreating to the library as often as possible, well, I’d always been a bookish child.
I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence; even that was relegated in books and lessons to “it happened in the past.” What I experienced on the elementary school playground, and then later on my middle school bus, and for the rest of my years in southern Oregon when people demanded to know where I was from and why I had a white family, always seemed too insignificant to be even remotely connected to real racism. My parents and I had certainly never discussed the possibility that I might encounter bigots within my school, our neighborhood, our family, in places they believed were safe for me.
The strange thing was that, inside, I always felt I was the same as everyone around me. I am just like you, I thought when kids squinted at me in mockery of my own eyes; why can’t you see that? When I was young I certainly felt more like a white girl than an Asian one, and sometimes it was shocking to catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and be forced to catalog the hated differences; to encounter tormentors and former friends and know that what they saw was so at odds with the person I believed I was. Why did I have to look the way I did—like a foreigner; like my birth parents, two people I would never even meet? Why hadn’t my adoption transformed me into the person I felt I was?
If I were a heroine in a fairy tale, I often thought, and a fairy godmother offered to grant me wishes, I would ask for peaches-and-cream skin, eyes like deep blue pools, hair like spun gold instead of blackest ink. I knew I would be worthy of it all. There was nothing I wouldn’t trade for that kind of magic, that kind of beauty. If you were pretty, if you were normal, if you were white, then the good things everyone saw on the outside would match the goodness you knew existed on the inside. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to sleep one night and wake up an entirely different person, one who would be loved and welcomed everywhere? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look at your face in the mirror and know you would always belong?
When the couple hoping to adopt asked me what it had been like to grow up the Korean child of white parents — Was it all right? Had I ever minded it? — I didn’t want to tell them that I had minded not being white every day for years on end. That sometimes it still bothered me, because while I had finally found another life for myself, my story was still not quite what others expected when they saw me.
And I didn’t want to tell them about the day my parents and teachers finally caught me twirling my hair, the black hair that was so unlike the beautiful blond hair I wanted, twisting it around and around the first joint of my forefinger so tightly I couldn’t free it without yanking a few strands out. After my alarmed parents spotted the tiny bald spot on the left side of my head, I spent a year and a half in play therapy with a counselor. Once a week, I followed her into her expansive office/playroom, tucked up in the gable of a stately old house, where we played dress-up and painted pictures of our fears. I talked to her about how I felt, though now I cannot remember what I said; I know she in turn talked to my parents.
An Asian baby doll appeared under the tree one Christmas, specially ordered, though I was probably a little too old for dolls. At nine, I turned on the television one night to discover Kristi Yamaguchi, my first Asian American childhood hero, being cheered by crowds and adored in a way I did not think people who looked like me could be. I wrote stories, dozens of them, about other people, other lives I craved. I stopped twirling my hair. Eventually, I stopped seeing the therapist. But I would never forget the hair-pulling, would never be able to think of it without deep and terrible shame. If I still felt I did not belong, I decided I could not allow others to see it. The only way out of my school, out of this town, was to grow up and leave.
By the time I met the young wife and husband who were nothing and everything like my own parents, I had run as far as I could to college and spent years fighting to define myself in ways that had nothing to do with being Korean or adopted. The old “race-blind” view of my adoption was one I was just beginning to question in my early twenties. Now I was able to call out bigotry only when it was staring me in the face, and never without a deeply self-conscious blush, a pounding heart, and sharp, squirming discomfort.
Unbidden, a memory surfaced: a day in fourth or fifth grade when a group of white girls had climbed up close to my perch on the monkey bars. I’d felt such hope when I saw their smiles. Had they changed their minds about me? One of them, whose particular shade of blond hair was ashier, leaned toward me, her voice low: “We have a question, Nicole, and you’re the only one we can ask.” And though I had been conditioned, through years of experience, to expect a trap, still I was momentarily taken in, expecting a friendly word or an invitation to play — until she said in a louder voice, “Do you have a sideways vagina? My brother told me Asian girls have those.”
And I knew this and other such moments from my childhood were almost laughably tame compared to what other people of color endured. Was it my place to explain as much to this hopeful couple? To warn them that even if their adopted child’s race didn’t matter to them, it would matter to others — that it would be brought up, in countless situations they could not hope to control, in ways and in words that might not even reach their ears? Before I could decide, one of them asked the question I had known was coming.
“Do you think we should adopt?”
They had already investigated and ranked international adoption programs. They had discussed their favorite baby names. The room still smelled like the delicious meal the wife had cooked for us, and their comfortable apartment felt so much more like a home than my own tiny place, still filled with secondhand furniture and posters I’d bought in college. These people were only four or five years older than me, but they were adults — responsible, settled, employed, and not just eager but ready to be parents. They both came from loving, supportive families excited to welcome their children through birth, or adoption, or both. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything that would make them reconsider the goodness of their plans, or the rightness of families that looked like mine. My brain, or maybe my fiercely loyal adoptee heart, scrambled and rewrote the question I’d been set. Did I think they would love their child? Of course. And they would do their best. What more could they do? What more could anyone do?
“Absolutely,” I heard myself say. “Adoption is no big deal. It’s just another way to join a family. I know I was very lucky, and your child will be, too.”
It’s not that I think I gave the wrong answer, or that there was a right or wrong answer to begin with. Today, when I’m asked, I often say that I no longer consider adoption — individual adoptions, or adoption as a practice — in terms of right or wrong. I urge people to go into it with their eyes open, recognizing how complex it truly is; I encourage adopted people to tell their stories, our stories, and let no one else define these experiences for us.
But back then, I still had to think of adoption as an unqualified good, a benefit to every adoptee, sure proof of unselfish love, because to do otherwise felt like a betrayal of my family and their love for me. I still remember how good it felt, how right, to reassure that couple in the moment. I did not have to tell them any of the things I was so ashamed to remember. I did not have to burden them with knowledge of all the ways I had never quite fit in. Their future child wasn’t me; their family was not mine. They just wanted to be happy, and why shouldn’t they be?
The wife gave me a long hug at the door. “I hope our kid grows up to be just like you,” she said. As I left, I was aware of no internal second guesses, no prickings of conscience. What I said to them wasn’t a lie, I thought, nor was it cowardice or denial. I was lucky. I was grateful. What would have happened to me if I had never been adopted? These people were trying to write their own story, build a beautiful family against the odds. I was glad I wouldn’t walk away from them wondering if I’d broken it up before it had even begun. I was glad they wouldn’t remember me as the person who’d made them question their happy ending. ●
Excerpted from All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, copyright © 2018 by Nicole Chung. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.
Nicole Chung has written for The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. All You Can Ever Know is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_soojung.
All You Can Ever Know is out Oct. 2.