I grew up with a name that doesn’t fit my face — I don’t look like a Christina.
“What are you?” is a question I’ve answered a thousand times, because we transracial adoptees learn pretty quick to accept that it is common practice for strangers to abruptly ask what we are, or even go ahead and map out our entire backgrounds before we even say a single word ourselves.
And then when we do speak, our answers can come across a bit flaky, because although we know what we are, we don’t always feel like it’s actually what we are.
The right answer to the question of “What are you” is probably not, “I was raised by bears, and I will eat your face off because, BEAR.” (That scares people who aren’t familiar with people of other races, by the way.)
We learn that the best answer is always followed by a disclaimer: “But, I was raised by white people,” or, “My parents are white.”
Somewhere around 2006, I was connected with my birthmother in Korea, which also involved meeting with adoption counselors to address the cultural differences we might stumble upon. What I remember most from that meeting with the counselors was them telling me that when I was adopted they had advised my adoptive parents to ignore any racial or cultural differences, and, in fact, to act as though I was no different from any other child.
Basically, back in the day, adoptees were issued an honorary White Card and the rest of the world was expected to fall in line and play their part in the charade. I understand this to a point, and I also understand that some things have changed in the last 40 years.
But what hasn’t changed with transracial adoption is that once a child of a different race or culture is adopted by a white family, he or she is suddenly granted inclusion among the collective white “Us.”
A photo of me from my naturalization process, 1977.
And because of this inclusion, about which we have no agency or input, adoptees then carry the burden of owing our entire lives to our adoptive families, as well as our successes (failures are often attributed to bad genes or something), not to mention a giant debt of gratitude to the entire white adoptive race for the privilege of racial delusion. Because God forbid we call out racism, even if it’s racism.
Me: So you’re making that assumption based on a person’s race? That’s racist, yo.
White Person: How dare you? You were raised by white people. You have a White Card.
That said, I am also well aware that the White Card co-sign has real value, and can mean the difference between an understanding yes and a suspicious no. The White Card is an automatic seal of approval, and perhaps more importantly, Adoptee of Color, if you didn’t have it, you may have been left out on the street to starve and die alone.
But the White Card also has its restrictions, namely, that it expires once you leave your parents’ house and/or create an independent identity.
For me, that was when the cold hard truth started slow-talking me and asking how I got here, how I speak English so well, if I know that one Chinese chick who lives in Iowa even though I live in Minnesota, if I’m interested in a karate battle. A 60-year-old farmer once told me, for no logical reason, that he knew Jujitsu and could leap into the air and kick the ceiling if he wanted to.
When my White Card expired, I became just another non-white person with my own set of racially stereotypical baggage left to fend for myself. I realized that things weren’t at all what I thought they were, and especially, that if you call out adoption practices, or mention that maybe your experience wasn’t the greatest, or that holy cow, a whole hell of a lot of people out there are racist –- you become an ungrateful traitor to the white people who raised you. Because, again, you could be dead, you know. Why can’t you just be thankful? Would you rather be dead? (God knows the only alternative to this path adoption was death.)
Your White Card is ultimately snatched from you like you touched something you weren’t supposed to touch, because as a non-white adoptee, you have rules that white people carrying the White Card don’t. Do you know any white person raised by white people accused of being ungrateful for acknowledging racism? I don’t.
I could probably answer the question “What are you?” a thousand ways and continuously follow it up with, “But I was raised by white people.” It doesn’t change what I am, which among other things, is a woman, mother, writer, Korean American.
Non-white adoptees are as grateful as any other human being who grows up in a loving, caring family are. We are not, however, obligated to be so grateful that we don’t call you out on your shit. Part of figuring out how to answer the question means being OK with losing the White Card. And realizing it wasn’t mine to begin with.