Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Meet me in the Middle: On Identity and Belonging

By Grace Newton

Copyright: djoronimo / 123RF Stock Photo
Prompt: Many adoptees struggle with feeling they don’t belong in one way or another, for a multitude of reasons. Talk about a time when you’ve felt you didn’t belong, or felt less-than, due to being an adoptee. If you grew up in a family of a different race, talk about the moment you realized this difference and how this realization has impacted your view of yourself in the world. If you were adopted from another country or culture, talk about how you navigate between these communities. What is it about being adopted that makes you feel “other?” How has your sense of belonging evolved over the course of your life so far?

Beijing International Airport – 2/27/2015
People whiz by me. There are bright signs everywhere. Nothing is familiar. I finally make it to the immigration clearance area where people are gathered in large masses. Two signs hang, separating the foreigners from the Chinese Nationals.

The word foreigner clings to me. No matter how much I try to avoid it, I can't. As an Asian American, I have to deal with the forever foreigner complex at home in the U.S. And I can't even shake the word in my home country. I don't want to be a foreigner here.

In late February of this year, I embarked on a personal journey to reclaim my hometown and Chinese identity. My goal was to make memories there and to know its secret allies, nooks, and crannies, so that I could confidently call it my home. I had four months to be a Chinese person in China, to finally be somewhere where everyone looked like me, where I would belong. This was a dream I intended on fulfilling from the moment I knew that study abroad programs existed.

I was adopted to a mid-sized city in Wisconsin when I was three years old and raised as the only daughter of parents with Welsh and Polish ancestry. While they tried to provide me with some understanding of my roots through Chinese language and dance classes, subscriptions to Chinese magazines, and annual trips to Culture Camp, I felt overwhelmingly more American than Chinese. Surrounded by people whose image didn't reflect mine, I was forced to play this teeter-tottering game between rejecting and accepting my Chineseness in order to survive in a 90% White high school.

High school seems like a lifetime ago, though. With a new city, new school, and new sense of self, I fully embrace my Chinese identity and am actively pursuing connection between the past and present, China and myself. So there I stood in the Beijing airport, completely lost, tired, waiting for my connecting flight. This was my first time traveling completely by myself, and I couldn't wait to finally reach Nanjing, my first home.

For the first few days in Nanjing, I was in constant awe. I didn't have to worry about people staring at me when I walked down the street. I scanned everyone's faces, looking for the ones that were the most similar to mine. I indulged in all of the delicious street food, and no one made fun of the way I held my chopsticks. Everything was new, but strangely comforting at the same time.

After my initial enamored state settled, perhaps the first unsettling thing I noticed were the advertisements in magazines and billboards on my walks around the city. While at first I found them affirming, the more images bombarded me, the more I noticed how pale and familiar the women on these Chinese advertisements appeared. Through preferential selection or image enhancement, it was not my image reflected back at me, but that of a Westernized version of Eastern beauty.

I was surprised by how often the topic of my identity came up during mundane, ubiquitous activities such as waiting in line for breakfast, buying school supplies at the convenience store, or asking locals for directions. One of my Chinese friends told me, “I think you could pass as a Chinese girl as long as you don't open your mouth.” Once I spoke, it became abundantly clear that I didn't grow up in a Chinese speaking household, and people immediately asked me where I came from, eroding my sense of belonging there in Nanjing.

It became a struggle for me to decide with whom and when to tell people more intimate parts of my identity. Not everyone passing by needed to know that I was an adoptee, but I often told people that I was American. When I would identify myself as American, the response from others was often “But you look Chinese.” or simply, “How can that be?” Many of the bars and restaurants my friends and I frequented had foreigner discounts that were not given to me because of my Asian appearance, even though I too, in many ways, was a foreigner.

It was extremely draining, having my identity doubted on a near daily basis and having to constantly defend my status as an American. Conversely, it was also tiring having people's presumptions on American ideals projected onto my body once my American status was accepted. Towards the latter part of my program, I met a local pharmacist and the two of us began talking. While conversation was pleasant at first, he did not treat me like a Chinese woman. Based on assumptions of Americans having loose sexual scruples, he solicited me for sex multiple times.

I felt that much of the time, I was Chinese when the locals wanted me to be, and I was American when they wanted me to be, but I was rarely understood as a Chinese-American. Though I did create memories and get to know my hometown, I didn't find the sense of belonging I initially sought when I arrived. I left China in an obscure state – leaving one hometown to go to the other, while not feeling total belonging in either place.

Since coming back to the United States again, the importance of finding spaces of belonging has become even more critical as I continue to unpack my experiences in China. I've realized as an adoptee, person of color, immigrant, and woman that often times the places most familiar to me are not where I feel that sense of belonging that I crave. I've had to actively work to carve out spaces and find people who understand me in intimate ways. And it is with them, who see me as not just Chinese or American, but everything else in between, where I belong.