Somewhere In Between: A Transnational Adoptee’s Struggle With Identity

Shortly after my arrival to my new home in the U.S.
Shortly after my arrival to my new home in the US

by Lianna Johnstone

Staff Reporter

I’ve always known I was adopted.  My mom shared my adoption story with me ever since I came to the US from China at 16 months old.  When I was younger, I knew I was different when other children asked me why I looked different from my mom.  I also attended special Chinese heritage camps with other Chinese American adoptees and joined a youth group for Chinese American adoptees.  In these groups, we celebrated our identity as adoptees, while also celebrating our shared Chinese culture.  I remember learning the Chinese ribbon dance and doing Chinese-themed arts and crafts with my mom.

It wasn’t until middle school and the first few years of high school that I started to pull away from my identity as an Chinese American adoptee.  In that time, two things changed.  In middle school I was in an Asian affinity group at my middle school.  It was an alienating experience because although I shared in the base interests of eating Chinese food and receiving lucky red envelopes, I did not deal with many of the struggles my peers in the group faced as children of first or second generation Chinese Americans.  Teachers placed me in these affinity groups hoping that I would find a sense of belonging.  I quickly became confused because I knew I was supposed to feel welcome and an affinity with the other students that shared my ethnicity.

In my middle school Asian affinity group, I felt shut down because I could not relate to many of the experiences that the majority of my Chinese peers faced, especially the instances of conflict with their tiger moms or the other times of being unable to use chopsticks at American restaurants.

Then, my sophomore year of high school, I attended a People of Color Student Diversity Leadership Conference through the National Association of Independent Schools in New Orleans and was sorted into the Asian American discussion group, because I checked the Asian American ethnicity box on my application.  We did an activity in this group where we divided a drawing of ourselves in half and put all the things we did at home that were culturally Chinese on one side, and then all the American things we did at school or with friends on the other side.  While my peers got to work right away, I struggled with this assignment because my two halves looked the same.  While my peers ate different food at home and spoke different languages at home, I ate the same foods and spoke English both places.  This conference was the first place where I was publicly put on the spot and forced to reconcile my Chinese ethnicity with being raised in a white household.  Instead of feeling refreshed by the conference, I left confused and alienated because I realized I did not belong with my fellow Asian American peers because I had no cultural affinity with them. But I also did not fit in with my white peers, because I appeared Asian.  This experience proved to be isolating and contributed to a growing disgust with my Asian Identity.  

For the rest of high school and college I pushed aside my identity as being Chinese.  I avoided conversations about my Chinese identity.  I told people I was a banana, Chinese on the outside and white on the inside.  When other Asian and White people would come up to me and try to figure out what ethnicity I was, I would cut them off and end the conversation with, “I’m adopted from China.”  I felt hurt by my Chinese identity and wished I could discard it like I felt that China had discarded me.   

Until this year, I never had to fully confront my identity as an Asian American adoptee.  My mom and I started to plan a trip to China, back to Hangzhou where I was adopted from.  In this process, I began to more thoroughly examine my feelings about adoption and my identity as a Chinese American adoptee.  I realized it was okay to feel both anger with China for giving me up, but also gratitude for my life here in the US.  I also came to understand that identity is fluid and that my Chinese identity will always be a part of me, but I can choose how much or how little I want to explore that identity.  As much as I want to highlight or hide different aspects of myself, I know my struggle to reconcile these multiple identities is part of the journey of self discovery.

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