In January of 2003, I was left at one day old on a bridge in China, bundled into a box with blankets to protect me from the cold. At a year old, my parents adopted me from Guiping Social Welfare Institute and brought me to America. I grew up knowing my adoption story and accepting that I looked different from my family, but I did not think much of how being the only Asian person in a white family would challenge my notion of identity.
At the beginning of seventh grade, we moved from New Jersey to California, which had a different racial makeup. It was the first time all of my classes had Asian students in them. I was excited to have so many people who looked like me in my classes. But when I made new friends, I found out I hardly knew what it meant to be Asian.
I struggled to fully understand the references of my Asian friends. Eating rice with every meal? What was boba? Do all Asians really get straight A’s? I was embarrassed by my unfamiliarity of the nuances of Asian American culture, feeling like a “banana”- white on the inside, and yellow on the outside. I asked questions, and they were delighted to share basic Asian norms with me. I discovered that we also had many similarities as American teenagers. Then, just as I was becoming confident about my Asian identity, I moved to Seattle for high school, returning to a predominantly white neighborhood.
I felt a deep loss, now separated from my Asian squad, and feeling disconnected from the white kids around me in a way I hadn’t before. In California, I had planned to study Chinese in high school, but my new school only offered Japanese. I quickly found others like me in my Japanese classroom, and the cultural atmosphere there, which is similar in most Asian countries, brought back that feeling of belonging. I was able to emotionally connect in a way that I’d lost when I moved to Seattle.
The summer before my junior year, I decided to participate in a three-month homestay exchange at a high school in Osaka, Japan. Upon our arrival, it was clear that the other four students, all white, were far more popular with the Japanese students than I was. Our travel coordinator explained that the Japanese students loved American culture, and that white people were rarely seen in Osaka. I was very jealous. I finally looked like everyone around me, but now I didn’t want to. Teachers, shop owners, and strangers assumed I was Japanese, and stared at me if I made a mistake culturally or with the language. I wanted the attention and compliments that my white peers enjoyed, not the expectations and responsibilities of a Japanese student. As my American friends began to struggle with whether they were liked for themselves or just because they were white Americans, my mindset changed. I began to embrace that I could blend in, realizing that the extra responsibilities placed on me strengthened my language skills, cultural understanding, and self discovery.
Living in places with different racial makeups challenged my original assumptions of racial identity. I believed that racial labels were necessary and I had certain expectations for them. That is why I had always identified myself as a “banana” to lessen the burden of racially not fitting in. However, I also discovered that race is not the only thing that makes me who I am. Identity is more complex than a specific ethnic or racial group. What creates my identity is the way I connect with myself and others.
Author: Claire Junkins
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor