My hair is oilier than I would like, and I am beginning to resign myself to it. Still, several nights a week, I stand in the harsh light of the bathroom and run my fingers through my hair, followed by a natural bristle brush. It’s become a soothing ritual, a way to spend an hour at a time on something visceral and methodical. I pull the strands away from my body, redistributing and removing excess oil from scalp to tip, then let my hair fall slowly as I reach uneven ends. It is self-care at its most definitional, but it is also an indulgence: an excuse to study my face in the mirror. I search for signs of change, signs I am growing into the faces of my birth parents. I have yet to find anything more than my own desire.
My adoptive mother tells me I was precocious enough as a toddler to ask if I came from her belly. She says this was a sign I comprehended my adoption so early she never had to explain it to me. I have heard enough adoptees tell similar stories about their adoptive mothers to question the veracity of her narrative, or at least question why she believed this was a sign of anything more than racial alienation sinking in. My hair was short in those days, a bowl cut just below my chin with bangs cut straight and low across my eyebrows. It was black until it caught the sunlight, framing a face tanner than either my adoptive mother’s or father’s, and spattered with freckles across the tops of my cheeks. I didn’t understand heritable traits, but I understood my non-adopted friends looked like their parents, and I did not.
I left China when I was seventeen months old without any information about my birth family. Soon after, due to my adoptive parents’ inability to speak Chinese and unwillingness to learn, I lost the Chinese name the welfare center staff gave me. My body felt like the last echo of an identity, the undeniable proof I came from another set of parents, another country, another culture. I desperately wanted to know whose bodies were the sources of my reflection. I used to lie in the dark after bedtime, close my eyes tight enough to see splashes of color, and will those splashes into discernable shapes that might reveal my birth parents’ faces. As I grew older and my friends grew into their parents’ faces and bodies, I clung to every comment people made about my appearance. I hoped they saw something about who I was growing into that I didn’t, that an adult’s knowledge of how bodies change with age might bequeath specific insight about how mine would change too. The unknowns of my development terrified me. My non-adopted Asian friends and I had grown out of our faces rounded by the same bangs and bowl cuts, and my hyperawareness of the new differences in our noses, the heights and curves of our cheeks, the textures and colors of our hair, the hoods and shapes of our eyes unleashed new anxieties.
My body felt like the most Chinese thing about me. This body was my proof—the one thing I could point to when people cited my lack of language, my lack of culture, my lack of familial relation as evidence of my non-Chineseness, or worse, my whiteness. Until I opened my mouth, I was Chinese. It was only after people learned I was adopted and raised in a white family that they began to cast doubt. If you don’t even know the language or culture, how are you Chinese? a high school friend asked shortly before graduation. We were sitting on a bed at our friend’s shore house with plans to stay for several days, but I wanted to leave. I no longer remember what I said. I just remember feeling insufficient, that I had somehow lost a little more right to call myself what I was.
My early understanding of being Asian developed in the negative space of my friendships with non-adopted Asians: the movies they watched that I had never heard of, the cute pencils and erasers they used that I didn’t know where to shop for, the cross-Pacific visits from grandparents and routines with their parents for which I had no parallel. I was too ashamed of my lack of knowledge to ask for their guidance, but I understood that these experiences and interests broadly marked their differences from our non-Asian classmates, and I hoped I could observe and imitate my way into alignment with the identity I knew was mine. Years later, I would wonder whether my non-adopted Asian friends felt secure in their identities, whether I was merely copying their own attempts to understand themselves among the whiteness that surrounded us.
Still, when my adoptive parents signed me up for a Chinese children’s choir when I was in elementary school, it only heightened my awareness of my distance from other Chinese people. I dreaded when the choir director or volunteer parents gave instructions in Chinese, and I perfected the timing of mimicking the people around me, the nonchalance of pretending to be a bad listener. I couldn’t bear admitting out loud that I didn’t know Chinese and voluntarily distanced myself from something that seemed so core to my peers’ Chinese identities.
The little knowledge of my identity that didn’t come through observation was routed through what my adoptive parents deemed important and appropriate. They celebrated Lunar New Year with me when I was young, gifting me red envelopes and going out to eat at a dim sum restaurant. I learned red was lucky and my favorite dim sum was har gow, that I would never have had such a fortunate life if I’d stayed in China, that my birth parents gave me up because they knew this too. I doubt my adoptive parents knew any more than I did. I used to think my adoptive mother was proud of my Chinese identity, but as I get older, I worry I confused fetishization with love. She gushed about how different I looked and told me I should be glad I didn’t look like her, that I was so lucky to have long legs and a thin frame and, eventually, a few more inches of height. She told me I was destined to be her daughter, but I wonder if she ever thinks about how the traits she loved were only possible because I was someone else’s daughter first.
Her aesthetic othering further limited my understanding of my identity to something only skin deep. Despite its potential for acculturation, my adoptive parents never insisted I attend Chinese school; the only memory I have is attending one week and never wanting to go back. When I was a teenager, I pressed my adoptive parents on why they never forced me to go, why they never forced me to do or stick with any extracurriculars that would have brought me closer to the experiences of my non-adopted friends. They insisted it was to respect my autonomy. I wonder if they had the capacity to consider the reasons I did not want to go back: the shame at realizing how far behind I was, how I became illiterate and mute because they had not started me earlier, how it hurt not to be able to speak. Perhaps it was easier to think that I, despite being a child, had enough foresight and self-possession to think beyond any embarrassment I felt in the moment.
My uncertainty about my Chinese identity remained, but as I grew older, strangers became more confident. I entered adolescence unprepared for the ways people would fetishize my body, and I didn’t know how to process the dissonance between what people saw and the shaky scaffolding of a racial identity underneath. Men’s catcalling frightened and angered me, and that anger turned inward when I felt secret relief that at least someone recognized me as Asian. I accused myself of internalized misogyny and berated myself for having little else to base my racial identity on. I knew I wasn’t white but felt so far from being Asian, and my appearance was the only way I knew how to close the distance. I began molding myself into the beauty standards I had learned from my Asian friends, convincing myself it wasn’t internalized misogyny if I wasn’t doing it for men. I grew my hair and starved myself, avoiding the sun to stay pale enough that my friends’ parents commented on it. Their approval felt so validating that I began to fear how much it meant to me, but I didn’t have sufficient stability or confidence in my identity to stray.
It wasn’t until my second year of college that I felt capable of desiring more than appearances and imitation for my Chinese identity. I started with my first site of shame: language. As though I needed to prove my determination, I revived my language-learning efforts in a study abroad program in Shanghai, where I felt I would not have the option to give up. When I returned to the United States, I enrolled in Chinese classes, participated in departmental celebrations for the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year, and researched racial identity formation in Chinese American adoptees. After graduation, I began cooking Chinese recipes and shopping at local Asian grocery stores. I reclaimed my Chinese name and had it tattooed down my sternum so I would never lose it again. I began to know in the ways I assumed my non-adopted friends knew: the next Lunar New Year I celebrated, I knew to eat fish but not finish it, to hang the 福 I’d painted in college upside down to turn it into a pun welcoming fortune into my life, to scrub down windowpanes and exchange cleaning tactics with Asian friends to excise bad luck before the new year began.
I had never felt more certain in my Chinese identity, and I had never felt more devastated. I feared I was only engaging with my identity as a commodity, that my birth parents had condemned me to this distance and my adoptive parents had sealed it. The snide remarks of white people boasting about their own expertise with my birth country’s history and culture clung to me, and I feared constructing my racial identity on knowledge that was open to anyone only legitimized white people’s entitlement to my culture. I feared I had imposed the same fetishizing, essentializing gaze upon my non-adopted Asian friends growing up.
Most of all, I grieved how attempts to understand my identity had become intertwined with new truths: that I was raped in China, in my hometown, by a white student in my study abroad program. That he gloated at his relative expertise about my culture and language, that he weaponized his expertise to make me dependent on him when we traveled together. That he violated my body, the one thing I knew above all else connected me back to my birth parents, to my birth culture and identity. That, when my Chinese roommate found out, she told me she’d heard from another Chinese roommate that my rapist had downloaded a Chinese hook-up app earlier in the summer. That, if it hadn’t been me, it would have likely been another Chinese person, Chinese face, Chinese body.
In the aftermath, studying my face gained new urgency. I sat on my apartment floor in front of the full-length mirror whose corners were peeling from its frame, turning my face at different angles to better see the shadows under my eyes and the lines forming between my eyebrows. I was desperate to no longer see the face my rapist would remember, but every change carried the weight that I was growing closer to my birth parents’ faces when they abandoned me. Every bit of distance I clawed away from one trauma hurtled me closer to the ghosts of another.
When I look in the mirrors these days, the face staring back is finally different from the one my rapist saw. My cheeks bunch up more with the weight I’ve gained since starving myself in high school and college, and light lines appear around the corners of my eyes when I smile. At certain angles, a thin shadow appears above my left eyebrow leading up into my forehead, a reminder of how often crying is a part of healing. It is a face that is as Chinese as I and others make it in our collaborative creation of identity, and as I internalize the difference between self-conscious participation in one’s culture and the fetishized commodification of it, it is a face that no longer bears the pressure of being the only Chinese thing about me.
Yet these new understandings and acceptances only isolate the remaining unknown: the sources of my echoing reflection. Shared knowledge can connect me to my culture and identity, but in the absence of information, only my body can connect me to my birth parents. As I study my reflection while brushing my hair, I wonder if this is the face my birth mother wore when she pushed me out of her body, the one my birth father wore when he realized he and my birth mother would not keep me. I wonder if they would agree with my adoptive parents’ narrative, if they felt the pressure of the one-child policy and the burdens of an inequitable society marbled with the same white supremacy my rapist wielded, if they could have found fortune for me in their lives too. I wonder if it would frighten them to see me, the specter of their decision returning to them as they were when they made it. I only know that trying to see their faces in mine is like chasing the horizon, and I am left with the ghosts of what they once looked like and who they once were lingering in my face.
I fear the day my face catches up to theirs, and I fear it has already passed. I am certain enough in my identity that I no longer cry when I tan in the summer or gain weight in the winter, but I still feel the urge to grow out my hair. I tell myself that when I care for it, I am caring not just for myself but for a small part of my birth parents too. I am trying to understand that caring for myself requires forgiveness for when I was younger, that I am not responsible for the ways my adoptive parents chose to teach me about my Chinese identity.
I often think about the Chinese children’s choir trip to a ski lodge. I was in late elementary school or early middle school, and my adoptive mother attended along with many other parents. I ran around with the other kids, desperate to keep up and show them that I wasn’t so different, until my adoptive mother grabbed me and pulled me aside. Are you ashamed of me? Are you embarrassed that I’m white? she demanded. I shrank back, unable to respond except for a weak denial. I didn’t yet have the words to tell her I wasn’t ashamed of her whiteness, but I also wasn’t responsible for making her feel like she belonged in a Chinese space. I didn’t know how to tell her I was carrying the consequences of her putting her whiteness before my Chineseness, of her wanting a daughter who looked Chinese but not wanting a Chinese daughter. It’s been more than a decade, and I’m still learning to allow myself to mourn the loss of my birth parents, to find joy in my identity without carrying the guilt of my adoptive parents’ discomfort, to look in the mirror and need nothing more from the ghosts I see than their presence.
Rumpus original art by Cyrus Finegan