Coming Out of the Fog & Feeling Asian Enough
Musings on AAPI month, insecurities on feeling "authentic" and reflections on adoption
Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month everyone! Sorry for being a little late on this post. I was trying to formulate all the feelings I’ve been having this month and particularly this year regarding my own racial identity and adoptee identity. One of the catalysts for these thoughts was an AAPI logo re-design I got to illustrate for Utile, an architectural firm in Boston. Here is the logo:
Along with creating this logo under the art direction of Tayler Morris, I was asked to give an artist statement and an artist talk to Utile employees to delve into my artistic thought process. Overall, it was something completely new to someone so used to the straight forward prompts of editorial illustration. Here are some sketches and my artist statement:
When I was approached to do this piece for Asian Pacific American Heritage month I was initially worried that my own experience as a Chinese Transracial Adoptee would in some way hinder the piece from portraying an “authentic” Asian American experience. I think this anxiety manifested as a fear that my story would be intrinsically linked to Whiteness and removed from the cultural divides that so many other Asian Americans and their biological families will face. After a long talk with the design team at Utile as well as talking to many of my Asian American and Asian Adoptee friends, I realized this fear was not just my anxiety of overstepping my place running amuck but also a disservice to the international transracial adoptees who do not often get to see their voice portrayed through art.
Coincidentally this year I was experiencing what many adoptees (transracial or not) call “coming out of the fog.” This term can mean many things to different people but the common understanding is that one starts to realize the gravity of how much adoption has affected their lives and how much they have suppressed in order to fit into society. This “coming out” per say was fueled in part by my own experience dealing with the death of my father and the slow decline of my mother to dementia. In grieving my adoptive parents I found myself unearthing the grief of my biological family and the culture I was born into and realizing the divide that race has played in my life more than ever. It’s like double the grief and double the confusion.
While diving deep into my own thoughts on my identity as an Asian American adoptee, I couldn't help but think of the ginkgo tree. It's one of the oldest tree species in the world and the last of its kind, while also originating in China; the tree has amassed love from all over the world as a great city/ park resident. I've always found solace in their beauty and their rich history, as we're both beings that have been adopted into a place we did not come from but nonetheless have found a home in. Being the last of their own branch of tree species I also find that they possess a certain grief about them, similar to how many adoptees live with the grief of abandonment and loss from our birth families and the culture we were born into.
I wanted to interweave the leaves of the ginkgo with some moments from my life/ common moments in many adoptees' lives. I also wanted to show how these moments are all connected like branches on a tree and feed into each other. This intersection of memories and moments impart the feelings of both belonging and isolation, the feeling of being a stranger in your own skin while also showing the solidarity that happens when you meet others with similar backgrounds. The anxiety that everyone judges you for looking different from your parents, the duality of friendship and alienation from other Asian Americans and the shame and anger of when you’re mistaken for your mother’s aide and not her daughter.
While I cannot encompass all there is to the adoptee experience let alone the Asian American experience, I hope this piece can convey the way in which International Transracial Asian Adoption has affected my life, and give solace to others trying to navigate their own identities in a country that oftentimes emphasizes separation over connection.
Speaking to the Utile team was an emotional but rewarding endeavor where I got to share parts of my adoption story and how that has shaped my art career. After my presentation, I found myself wanting to expand on the themes I shared with Utile and share them with you, my lovely newsletter readers. SO, please enjoy some little ramblings I have been reflecting on regarding AAPI month, “authenticity” and my own transracial adoptee identity.
I always knew I was adopted. I mean it’s really hard to hide. My parents would say I was the child of their heart, which was both true and very cute. They adopted my from Kunming, China when I was 7 months old. Kunming is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” and is the place Julia Child stayed during World War 2 as an OSS agent for the USA. Bet you didn’t expect this Julia Child cameo. Neither did I.
My parents made an effort to have me embrace my Asian Adoptee heritage by sending me to Chinese school (I gave up after 2 classes), taking me to adoptee camps (shout out to Holt camp), and moving the family to Cherry Hill, NJ when I was two. South Jersey has a big, diverse Asian American population as well as a lot of Asian adoptees from China and Korea.
As an unintentional side bonus I grew up with Chinese American relatives on my dad’s side (Shoutout to Uncle Fred’s family) and other Chinese adoptees on my mom’s side. Because of my parents foresight and luck, I didn’t have to worry about being the only person of color in my parents lives nor the only person of color in my town like so many other transracial adoptees have to worry about.
As I grew up I started to realize the importance of representation, from being glued to cartoons inspired by or focusing on Asian/ Asian American culture like Avatar the Last Airbender and The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, to being drawn to Asian media like Japanese anime and J-pop. Since a lot of this media I consumed was animated I ended up drawing a lot to emulate the characters I loved so much. And thus the artist in me was born.
In middle school I started to consume books by Amy Tan and Julie Otsuka, whose works examined Asian Americans as main characters rather than side characters. I took this newfound pride in my identity and applied it to school, such as making a speech for English class in 7th grade lauding the accomplishments of Asians in America and making a mural for my high school senior year for AAPI month.
When I began to hit my late teens/early 20s I started to realize the space I occupied as a transracial adoptee was different from my fellow Asian American peers. While I was ethnically Chinese, I felt like I could never truly embrace the traditions and iconography associated with Chinese tradition without feeling like a fraud. I was watching many of my friends and acquaintances trying to balance their Asian families with American culture and here I was with my white parents and ethnically ambiguous last name, thriving in the only culture I knew. Yes, I received the Nǐ hǎos, konichiwas and annyeongs from racist hecklers like any Asian living in the West will receive but internally, I knew I was not battling the same cultural divides that my peers were. Even the trope of going to China “to find your birth parents and rediscover your Chinese self” felt like a strange movie plot line more than a pilgrimage I was meant to go on. Yes, I know the movie Joy Ride (2023) is coming out this year and yes, of course I will see it, just to support Stephanie Hsu. I hope it can overcome that trope of finding yourself in China but I have my own doubts.
I began to see how people would treat me different. A professor told me after class “You’re different from the others, you talk more and contribute to class discussion more.” A Chinese publisher I worked with was shocked to learn I was Chinese American as my last name and style did not “point that out.” And when many of my Asian American illustrator colleagues were getting commission after commission about Asian identity and trauma, I was allowed to venture into themes ranging from environmental justice, historical portraits, to fantastical stories.
My adoptee identity gave me certain, unexpected privileges that let me develop as an artist and a person in a uniquely different way from many of my Asian American peers. In these reflections I started to wonder if I was authentic enough? My life story was so intrinsically linked to whiteness and my struggles were not the struggles of the majority. I felt like this forever relevant college humor skit.
As my artist statement mentioned, I’ve begun to unravel these doubts and realize my story is one of the many Asian American stories that make up our diverse diaspora. This change in perceptive came after my father’s death and my mother’s descent into dementia. One day at a doctors appointment, I was mistaken as my mother’s aide. I think that small interaction is when I “came out of the fog” and realized how transracial adoption had and was going to affect my life as an adult.
My parents, a huge link to my identity, were fading away and what was left for me to wrestle with was grief: grief for the culture I never felt I could wholly claim, grief for the love that my parents and I shared could not recognized by an individual at first glance, and grief for the unknown trials of navigating adulthood as an adoptee. We always hear about adoption stories from the adoptive parents point of view and sometimes the child’s point of view. Not too often do we think about how adult adoptees, let along transracial adoptees navigate the world.
I am still trying to find a way to balance all these new thoughts and feelings “out of the fog.” One of the beautiful things I have found in my late 20s is how much solace I have found with people with older parents, dead parents, sick parents, other adoptees, and people from mixed race households. We might not share the exact story or life experiences, but our shared pain regarding our family situations have really brought out so much lovely discussion and empathy. One of humanity’s strengths is finding connection with others no matter how different your stories may be, and I think that is the most important lesson I have come to realize as we end this May.
Thank you all for listening to my rambles and look forward to me diving more into my adoption journey in an upcoming podcast episode for ABC Adoptees Born in China Tara Nolan. More info will be shared soon!
Want some stories and media about adoption, international transracial adoption? Check out these resources!
ABC Adoptees Born in China Podcast, produced Tara Nolan
A Podcast for Chinese adoptees to share their perspectives and stories while also connecting to the greater Chinese adoptee community around the East Coast to the world.
Somewhere Between Podcast, a podcast made by Asian Adoptees for Asian Adoptees
Found (2021), a film following 3 teenage Chinese adoptees who find out they’re cousins on 23andMe, and decide to travel to China to find answers to their family history. This movie is different from other adoption movies because it also follows the perspective of the Chinese woman who helps these girls track their history and shares her perspective on how China has been affected by the One Child Policy and how this law affected her own family.
Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother, written by Xinran
A novel following 10 different women sharing their heartbreaking stories of why they had to give up their children. It offers these Chinese women a voice to share their stories instead of being made into a statistic. This novel really opened my eyes to my own internalized racism and made me realize how much the One Child Policy affected the women of China more than I ever considered.
The Kung Fu Panda Trilogy, Dreamworks Animation
I am literally not kidding. I loved these movies as a child but these movies hit so different as an adopted adult. Very few kids media tackle the subject of adoption well, and even fewer tackle the idea of co-parenting with birth parents well. I think this VIDEO ANALYSIS summarized a lot of my feelings on why these movies are special to so many adoptees, transracial or not.