Design by Reid Graham

I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when I sent my DNA collection kit to 23andMe, but I was still met with a confusing ambivalence when I got my results back a few weeks later. Before I found myself staring at a pie chart filled with just one color and its accompanying “100% Chinese & Southeast Asian” label, I had only ever thought of my ethnicity in abstract terms.

The circumstances of my birth are entirely unknown to me. As far as I know, my life started when I was about two months old, but even that is just a supposition. I’ve been told by my mother, who was told by the orphanage from which I was adopted, that I was found as an about-two-month-old baby in front of a high school in central China. The people at the orphanage (a faceless, disembodied monolith that only exists in my vague and infrequent references to it) gave me a birthday — Jan. 1, a ballpark guess — and a name that’s still legally mine even in my adoptive country, but that I never use and haven’t spoken aloud in years.

Growing up, my family theorized that I might be half white, an idea I went along with wholeheartedly. In retrospect, I’ve realized that this idea is intensely problematic, especially coming from my white adoptive family, especially as it was almost entirely based on superficial and reaching observations about my physical features. I have a natural double eyelid, something that a lot of Asian women go through cosmetic surgery to obtain, and I have relatively fair skin, which somehow managed to be a point in this theory’s favor, even though a lot of Chinese people have fairer skin than mine. For years, I touted this idea as if it somehow made me more interesting, but all it ever really did was reveal my desperation to be able to personally claim whiteness.

It was probably the vestiges of this desperation and the deeper, internalized racial biases it revealed that, admittedly, led to disappointment in finding out I was indisputably, unequivocally, 100% Chinese, but upon further introspection, I realized that there was something else contributing to my ambivalence.

I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a fraud in my own skin. There has always been a dissociation between me and my ethnicity, created by my physical and intellectual distance from the culture I was born into and exacerbated by interactions with people who felt they could make final judgments about my Asianness (or, in most cases, lack thereof), even and sometimes, especially, in spaces meant to educate me about and encourage my Asianness.

Even though it was just confirming something about me that was always more likely to be true than a half-baked theory about having a white parent, I thought that having categorical proof that I was indisputably, unequivocally, 100% Chinese might resolve something about my identity for me, make me feel more comfortable claiming this part of me even if others doubted it — but it didn’t resolve anything. This indetermination, this tangle of identity and internalized racism and “culturelessness” is something that I’ve come to a kind of restless, uncertain peace with. Usually, I love finding answers, I love resolutions, but this is something that — not for lack of trying — I’ve come to realize I may never be able to fully reconcile.

I’ve turned to other aspects of my identity — namely, my queerness — to find validation and belonging and, critically, representation. As a voracious consumer of art, someone who sees art as an inherently connective and empathetic medium, I typically look for queer stories in order to feel understood or seen. Because of the fundamental disconnection between myself and my ethnicity, my connections to other queer people — fictional or otherwise — have always been easier for me to hold onto and feel comfortable claiming.

The most prominent exception to this rule, though, is Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie, “Community”) of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” a Vietnamese American writer hired to ghostwrite Bojack’s memoir in the show’s first season. Diane and I have a lot in common; I haven’t been able to draw as many straight lines between myself and any other fictional character as I have with her. I can see the way I love reflected in the way she loves; I can see my desperation for my work to mean something reflected in hers. The tenacity that often makes her unlikeable, her reluctance to settle, even the ways she copes with her anxiety — all of these things I feel or do in the same way. All of that comes on top of the fact that we look incredibly similar.

It’s telling that my connection to Diane throughout the first four seasons of “Bojack” had little to do with our shared Asianness. A few scenes with her fully assimilated Masshole family revealed that Diane wasn’t connected to her Vietnamese heritage, but it was sort of a non-issue throughout those seasons. My relationship to her was based solely on our shared personality traits until the second episode of the fifth season, “The Dog Days Are Over,” in which Diane goes to Vietnam after her divorce, hoping to connect with her roots (and run away from her problems). For a little while, she’s able to take comfort in the fact that she’s seeing her name everywhere and is surrounded by people who look like her. That wears off quickly, though, and she ends up in front of a mirror wearing an áo dài and failing to feel any different from the way she always does. “It feels like a costume,” she says.

Throughout the episode, she oscillates between running into the language barrier with locals in Hanoi and being mistaken for a local by other visiting Americans, some of whom refuse to accept that she knows English. It’s an incredibly frustrating sort of limbo that I know intimately — the failure to fully belong or be accepted in either culture we look or feel as though we should be able to claim. When I was younger, I would wear a qipao to school on themed cultural days and it would feel like a costume. I would fumble through short Mandarin phrases and eventually give up on trying to learn the language altogether. I haven’t been back to mainland China since I was two, but even family trips to Chinese-speaking places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan were just something we did for fun.

I would be remiss not to recognize that the show’s portrayal of Diane and her cultural experience is imperfect on two fronts: The character is voiced by Alison Brie, a white actress who has since expressed regret for taking the role, and the episode was written by Joanna Calo (“Hacks”), who is Latina. However, it still managed to touch on a certain part of my experience that I never thought I would see reflected back at me in art, and it made me realize that I might have been looking for the validation of my identity in the wrong places.

What this episode of “Bojack” does for me is validate my uncertainty. It shows me that someone else, even if she’s fictional, understands this limbo that I’m in, because she lives there, too. When Diane returns to California, she’s mostly unchanged. She hasn’t uncovered a deep-rooted, inherent connection to her culture. She doesn’t feel any more or less Vietnamese; she still feels like a fraud in her own skin. She’s still confused — she might always be — but she has to live with that, just like I do.

Senior Arts Editor Katrina Stebbins can be reached at