As I put my bag of pretzels down on the counter with the rest of my mom’s groceries, I see the cashier do a double-take. Catching me staring, she attempts to quickly hide her knee-jerk reaction to the realization that the woman she is ringing up is my mom, but not before I can see the surprise and confusion in her face. It was as though she needed a moment to process that I, the Asian girl with the dark-brown hair, am somehow related to the tall, curly-haired blonde woman. The blue-eyed, light-skinned woman was responsible for funding my unhealthy obsession with pretzels.
At first, I was annoyed — another cashier mistook me for the daughter of the Asian lady behind us in the checkout line. But unlike a younger version of myself — who would have let out a loud sigh, rolled my eyes or furrowed my brow — I quietly let the cashier ring us up, pack our groceries and place them into our car. I didn’t let show how much it got to me. I even smiled and said, “You too” when she told us to have a good day. After all, how could she have known?
Growing up, when this used to happen, I would become immediately and visibly upset because I would feel as though a part of my identity was taken from me. I would feel othered, as though I was being singled out as the strange adopted girl in the family. But how could they have known?
This is what I’ve begun to say to myself every time something like this happens. Every time I’m mistaken for the daughter of the Asian woman behind me in the supermarket, or in my own home when guests who’ve never met me think I’m hired catering staff — because who would’ve thought that I was the daughter of a white Italian dude from Pennsylvania? Every time I venture to the suburbs of Reading, Penn., no one knew I was my cousin’s cousin, or my aunt’s niece, I would smile and force that awkward introduction. Every time someone doesn’t believe that I’m Jewish, I patiently explain that I was adopted and my mom is Jewish. How could they have known?
But as a child, I wasn’t capable of thinking this through in this way, which undermined any attempt at reconciling my Chinese heritage with my identity as a little girl adopted into a white Jewish and Catholic family. According to the parent support groups my mom attended and the literature she read, parents of adopted children should do their best to connect their children to their native culture. She was encouraged to celebrate the Chinese holidays and enroll me in classes in the language of my home country. And she did just that.
Chinese New Year’s became a big to-do and I was swiftly enrolled in Mandarin classes. For several years, I attended these classes every Saturday. At the end of each year, we had a big show where we performed all the songs we’d learned. Truthfully, I hated every minute of it. So one year, I gave my mom the death-stare of all death-stares right in the middle of one of the performances, and that was that for the classes. After years of wondering why I was so quick to reject the Mandarin lessons, I realized it was because they highlighted the differences between my family and me. Because I was enrolled in Mandarin classes, I felt separated from my family. The only native culture I had ever known was that of my adoptive family, so why was I learning a language that no one else in my family was?
I would look around our Shabbat dinner table or the annual Passover Seder at my aunt and uncle’s house, and I would see my family, celebrating our Jewish lineage. So why was I any different? There was no one in my family who spoke Chinese or even celebrated Chinese New Year until I entered their lives. I’d grown up around Hannukah parties and Bar Mitzvahs,’ so why was I expected to take on an identity that felt entirely foreign to me? As a young adult reflecting on my childhood, I know my parents only had my best interests at heart, but I couldn’t see it then.
For much of my childhood, I would sit on my bed night after night, crying to my mom, asking her why my biological family didn’t want me, why they didn’t care about me. My mom would sit there, patiently trying to explain that it was for the best. My family, whoever they are, wanted to give me the chance at a better life. Even though I didn’t believe my mom, and I couldn’t understand her at the time, it was true.
In a crisis of overpopulation, China implemented a one-child policy, and if you were found to have had more than one child, you would be forced to pay fees that were often many times greater than Chinese families’ average household incomes, or face harsh consequences. My birth mother, my mom explained to me, left me in front of a police station — one of the safest locations for me to lay snuggled in a blanket to be taken to an orphanage. (My birth mother, my mom always told me, took a big risk by going to a police station and leaving me there in broad daylight.)
Even so, up until about high school, I carried a feeling with me that my birth family didn’t want me. When I was old enough to use Google, I started looking up China’s one-child policy. Many of the articles I found talked about how many families in China who had a boy and a girl kept the boy and gave the girl up for adoption. Often, families believed that the boy was better equipped to help in the fields and around the home. This only made me more upset, more anxious and more frustrated that my family had probably chosen an older brother over me. I was the unwanted daughter.
Starting at a young age, I began to channel this frustration and anxiety into storytelling. I wrote stories about princesses and girls obsessed with horses, and my favorite topic: mysteries. But when I crafted my own story, that took a different tone. I wrote my story as one of an outsider. I had the power to write my own story, and for nearly two decades of my life, I used it to cast doubts about my self-worth. I chose to paint adoption as a stigmatizing identity, as something that made me different, odd and weird.
And for so many years, I had let artificial markers — confused cashiers, inquisitive looks, family photos — undermine my confidence. As a young kid, insecure about my looks and trying desperately to fitting in, my physical differences from my parents made me feel even worse about myself. Growing up, I shared my classroom tables, spotlights on stage and snacks at school with kids who all looked like their parents, siblings and grandparents. They all knew the hospital they were born in and the time of their birth down to the second. And as kid, I thought that because I lacked all these things, and because my genes made me appear different from my parents, others perceived me as the weird adopted girl, dropped into a community she wouldn’t otherwise be a part of. A community she doesn’t belong in.
And now, I have decided to give myself a chance to rewrite my story. My adoption is part of my identity, and it doesn’t mean I’m an awkward outsider, it doesn’t mean I’m any less lovable, any less capable of being everything I want to be. As I have grown older and more introspective, I have realized that what makes a family isn’t its physical attributes. Biological relations don’t mean much without an emotional connection. People who know me and know I was adopted never treated me differently. My family loves me just the same as they would a biological child. It was I who stigmatized my identity for all those years. The feeling that my adoption made me the odd one out came solely from within myself. I have the power to define what my adoption means.
A week ago, I was shopping with my mom in a shoe store when a sales clerk came up to me and asked me if I needed any help, unaware I was browsing with my mom, who was already being helped. And while incidents such as these will always frustrate me, they will no longer make me think I am any less a part of my family.