Identity Is A Moving Target

A conversation between authors, Lauren J. Sharkey and ND Chan on Asian American identity, adoption, being queer and being seen.

Model minority? White on the inside? No way. Asian-American women, nonbinary people, and femmes are often portrayed as one-dimensional. Authors Lauren J. Sharkey and ND Chan discuss the complexities of their own identities as Asian-American writers with rich personal histories. Photo by Seth Casteel, via The Guardian.

Lauren: So, I don’t know about you, but when I envision an “American,” I always see a white person. Not necessarily male or female, no other defining qualities, just a white person. That’s not to say I don’t consider people of color Americans, but when it comes to defining what an American looks like, I have a difficult time reconciling what I look like compared to who I think an American is.

ND: But what’s interesting is that when I go to China to visit family, I am always perceived as American, which is the opposite here.

Lauren: It’s been challenging, especially with the recent conversations regarding immigration, to feel like an American when it seems like America views me as an outsider.

ND: Yes, because our leaders are literally telling them/us, “go back,” “you don’t belong here”

Lauren: I totally get that. My Asian friends call me “Panda Express” or “Twinkie” — they constantly tell me I’m not “really Asian.” Yet, my American friends — who are predominantly white — would never immediately classify me as American, they view me as Asian. And that’s the other interesting thing: I consider myself an Asian American, yet both communities view themselves as almost separate from one another.

ND: Yes! I was in Flushing the other day to get a hair treatment and the person working there asked me if I was Chinese and I said that I was. Then they told me to fill out their intake form and it was in Mandarin. So I was immediately embarrassed since I can’t read Mandarin!

Lauren: I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you!

ND: It made me question whether I could go to Flushing at all (they told me they had to sit down with me and translate everything because they didn’t have an English version of the form).

Lauren: I find that whenever I encounter another Asian person, they always ask me where I’m from. I know what they really want to know, though, is if I’m one of them. And if I’m being honest, there are times, especially in the presence of other Asian people, where I feel like a fraud saying I’m Korean. Because even though I am from Korea, I feel no connection to my Korean heritage because of being adopted.

ND: One of the reasons I can’t read Chinese is because of my upbringing with a Polish-American stepfather. A lot of people assumed I was adopted, as well, if they saw me with my stepfather at school or out to dinner.

Lauren: When I encounter other Asian people, I know what they’re asking and I go out of my way to make them say it. I’ll say I’m from Mineola, to which they’ll say, “No, are you Chinese? Japanese?” I tell them I’m Korean, and they’ll say something to me in Korean. When I tell them I don’t speak the language, I feel such judgment. They ask me why, I explain I’m adopted, and then the inevitable, “Why don’t you learn?” I don’t have an answer for that. Because I COULD learn Korean if I really wanted to. I could make an effort, but I haven’t and I feel guilty about that.

ND: Ahh yes, the good ol’ “why don’t you learn?”

Lauren: And I’m not surprised people make the assumption you’re adopted, but I can imagine how hurtful that must be.

ND: I definitely feel guilty as well when I see white YouTubers speaking perfect Mandarin and knowing A LOT more of it than I do. That’s the crazy thing about identity. Yes, we sometimes get to choose which of the boxes to check off but most other times, it’s the outside world choosing them for us.

Lauren: I don’t know why I haven’t made the effort to learn more about Korean culture. Especially now when the internet gives us access to so much information. I think part of it is fear, fear of what I’ll find or remember by immersing myself in the culture.

ND: That totally makes sense! I stopped learning Mandarin at around 10, when my grandparents went back to China. Then we became an English-only household!

Lauren: And do you feel a sense of loss?

ND: As an adult, I absolutely do. But as a kid, I just thought I wanted to blend in and be more “American.”

Lauren: I totally get that. As a child, I desperately wanted to be normal. I tell this story a lot about Culture Day. Each kid in my class brought in a food from their culture. My parents are Irish, so I brought in Irish soda bread. The kids in class were disappointed I didn’t bring fortune cookies or egg rolls.

ND: Haha. Yes. I remember thinking my dumplings are so stinky (because they are the authentic Chinese ones with leeks) and I wished that my grandparents could have made egg rolls instead!

Lauren: As I’ve become more immersed in the adoptee community, I definitely feel guilt at not exploring my roots. There are so many transracial adoptees who have journeyed back to Korea and made efforts to forge a connection to Korea and I just haven’t. How did your stepfather’s background influence your identity?

ND: My stepfather is the only father I have known and he has had such a tremendous influence on my identity. As a Jewish-Polish man, he would make sure we (my younger brother and I) were a part of the Jewish community. We would attend Seder and always celebrate Chanukah.

Lauren: That’s so amazing that he wanted you to be part of his community in that way. Did you feel accepted?

ND: I always felt accepted with his extended family but not always at the synagogue. I would feel others looking at us, our multi-cultural family.

Lauren: I know those stares.

ND: It’s like people were always trying to solve a puzzle of sorts. Like how we got there, which parent did we belong to, etc.

Lauren: YES. I feel as though people need a justification as to why my brother and I looked different from our parents. When my mother and I go places together, especially at restaurants, it’s hurtful that people assume we don’t belong to each other. My mother will tell a hostess table for two only to have the hostess nod, look to me, and ask what I need, not realizing I’m the two.

ND: Yes, that has happened to me so many times before when I’m out with my stepfather!

Lauren: Right?! Isn’t it the worst?

ND: Or I don’t know if I was just making this up in my own mind… But I got the sense that there were even a couple of times when they thought I might have been on a date with him!

Lauren: OMG YES. The same with with me and my dad!

ND: After my parents moved to California, he used to visit me in NY when I was attending college. He was still working part-time at his dental practice so my mother didn’t come every time. And we would get looks and I’d wonder if people thought I was a mail order bride.

Lauren: I totally, absolutely get that.

ND: It’s so bizarre to even think about.

Lauren: But you DO get those looks. And especially now that my father and I are both older, I feel that assumption is there.

ND: Ugh.

Lauren: So, something that has been really difficult for me to talk about with my family, is my experience with racism. My family has always made it clear that they don’t view me as different. I know this comes from a place of love, a place of acceptance. But that colorblindness is to deny my experience as an Asian American, to deny me. I recently spoke to my mom about the “Where are you from?” incidents and she said to me, “Lauren, people are just curious, they’re just making conversation.” But it is about race. It is about checking a box. It is about immediate judgment.

ND: So your parents have never asked if you want to learn more about the Korean culture? Or to help you find your birth parents?

Lauren: I think my parents were waiting for me to ask. I think if I had asked for Korean language lessons, they would have made every effort to facilitate that learning. I once asked my mom about Korean food and she made kimchi for me. I can’t remember if I liked it or not, but they’ve always been supportive. I never felt like I couldn’t ask, I just chose not to. In terms of finding my biological parents, I never felt a need to. I guess that’s a testament to the connection I have with my parents, or deep-seeded fear. Probably a little of both. But again, I think if I told them I was searching, they would be behind me.

ND: Aww, so cute with the Kimchi! At least she was trying. It shows that they were definitely open to learning more.

Lauren: I think for sure they were. Did your mother try to get you more involved with your Chinese culture after your grandparents moved?

ND: Not really. She asked me once if I wanted to go to summer camp in China and at 14, I was so opposed to being away from friends and too afraid to travel to another country alone!

I really like my American camp in Long Island!

Lauren: My summer vacations always coincided with a critical point between me and whoever my crush was at the time. We’d go away, I’d come back, and he would be with someone else without fail. I never wanted to leave!

ND: Where did you guys go?

Lauren: We went everywhere — DC, Lake George, the Carolinas. My mom and dad both worked full-time so summer vacations were really cherished. A lot of fond memories now, even though it didn’t feel that way back then. What summer camp did you go to?

ND: Pearce! That’s near where you grew up, right? Haha, if you look at their website it’s still a bunch of white kids running around

Lauren: YES! And that was a challenge too. I always felt like a novelty. Being the only Asian person in a predominantly white neighborhood is like working in customer service all the time.

Do you know karate? Why are you bad at math? Are you a good driver?

ND: Haha, customer service! That’s a great way of putting it. Yes, for me, I remember seeking out minorities of ANY kind because finding Asians was nearly impossible.

Lauren: That’s how it feels to be an adoptee too. I can’t tell you how many complete strangers will ask ridiculously invasive questions once they find out you’re adopted: have you found your real parents? Is your brother your REAL brother? Etc. Yes, I always felt like the only Asian ANYWHERE. And I would hear that there were billions of us and asking myself, “WHERE?”

ND: Being queer just added another layer of complexity when it came to figuring out my identity. I always knew that I was “into” girls but I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening until I was about 15.

Lauren: And did you feel like you could explore those feelings safely?

ND: Not only were the schools I attended in Long Island super American but it was also very heteronormative. The environment I grew up in was so homogenous, I wasn’t ever really “out” with people from school. Only a selected few who I met outside of school, including my best friend. I remember there being a couple of gay guys who were out.

Lauren: Did you feel you weren’t able to fully explore your feelings until you were outside of school and in more diverse company?

ND: Yes, I definitely didn’t feel like it was a safe space to talk about sexuality.

For some reason, the gay guys had a lot of friends and I envied them. I somehow knew that as a girl of color, other girls would never understand. I could dress like them, talk like them but never fully look like them or be like them.

Lauren: Where did you find your community?

ND: I don’t know that I have found a good community as of yet. I do have some friends who are queer. But it’s more nuanced for my wife and I because we are both more feminine.

So I guess you could say we can pass as straight. And I tried to pass for a long time by dating boys in my school.

Lauren: And do you feel like that is another added pressure when it comes to finding community and a sense of identity — that the queer community has their own expectations for what it means to be queer?

ND: Yes, definitely. It’s very similar to the whole discussion around not being Asian enough. I sometimes feel like I’m not queer enough. But that’s the thing about identity that I am learning, that WE have to own it

Lauren: I hope you know that all of you is enough

ND: Thank you. I am so glad that we were even able to connect. It shows that we are both on the right path.

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