Posted by: 지인 | 21 December 2007

Sore thumbs

I can’t help but feel a pang of grief when I see a kid in his or her class picture, Christmas pageant, Sunday school class or whatever, and s/he is the only one.

Alone in a sea of whiteness, the only Asian one. The only black one. The only brown one.

It shouldn’t have to be — and, I dare say, shouldn’t be — that way. Not when parents have a choice to place their kids’ ethnic identity development and self-esteem over their own comfort and convenience.

I guess it recalls the wounded little oddball Asian kid in me, who muddled through 13 years of school from kindergarten through high school more or less dreading each school day. It wasn’t a matter of if I’d be ridiculed or scorned based on my race; it was a matter of how, and how often.

I can’t say definitively whether through these experiences I actually achieved numbness, or if I only feigned the effects of anesthesia to deaden the sting of each hateful stare, eye pull, racial slur, shove and cold shoulder. I suppose to some extent, my only-ness toughened me and taught me self-reliance, but I believe that over the years, it hardened me as well, to the point where I eventually had to take a hatchet to that shell and hack my way out.

Often in the faces of these young children who stand alone, I see the beginnings of the same numb gaze, as if they’re insulating their souls for a long, hard winter. And it’s often the adoptive parents of those same children who smugly cross their arms against their chests and chant, like a mantra, “Things are different today. Times have changed.”

But then why do those kids look hauntingly, strikingly similar to the way we adult transracial adoptees looked in our own felt & poplin costumes in the Christmas play three decades ago?

Times have changed, maybe, in that instead of not talking about race, a lot of people these days are shouting that race doesn’t matter and love trumps color. (Thus, history repeats itself starting from point B: Paper covers rock. Blindfold covers eyes. Susie comes to learn that Mom and Dad won’t believe her if she suspects she might be brown, not white. Because race doesn’t matter.)

For many of us TRAs, although our isolated upbringings are not memories that we fixate upon to the point of emotional or social paralysis as adults (although for many others among us, the isolation is that far-reaching), it’s always there in our TRA DNA: the alien, alienated.

It’s true that perhaps the isolation has in part engendered the critical, deconstructionist perspectives that today allow us to de-mythify the “colorblind” defense of transracial adoption.

Yet perspective or not, my heart aches for those kids in those class pictures, and I’m ticked off on their behalf. It shouldn’t have to be that way for them.

It’s not OK.



  1. I totally know that look – I have seen it in pictures… it’s devastating.
    Did I ever tell you about these young Korean adoptees (sisters entering college) who were so offended to be considerend ‘minorities’ by the university – and their a-parents even showed up to declare that their adoptees were brought up in ALL white neighborhood and that, in essence, they are white and should not be ‘downgraded’ to a minority status? I believe the issue came up so that they could have a better advisor-advisee ratio offered to students who join a minority students’ group… pathetic show on the a-parents’ part. They actually insisted (proudly) that they brought their girls up as white, to think of themselves as white.

  2. That reminds me of when I entered college, and I was automatically enrolled in this minority “transitional” peer-counseling program. I was pissed because they directed me over to the “Special Support Services” table at my freshman orientation, where I was told about their “cultural adjustment” services and matched with an older student who was waaaay fobbier than I had ever realized was possible. I also seem to recall that the black faculty adviser at the table expressed surprise at my lack of difficulty with the English language.

    I ended up writing an angry letter, demanding that I be removed from the program as I did not need cultural adjustment services, and that it was offensive to automatically enroll students based on which “race” box they had checked. It wasn’t that I was in denial about being a minority; by that point, the jig was up. I think I was still stinging from the 13 previous years of being the token non-white kid, though.

    In retrospect, I still think there’s something fundamentally flawed about the program’s enrollment system, but I do see why the program and others like it exist, especially at colleges where there is such thing as a majority/minority gap.

  3. Great post and I completely agree. As I look back at photos of my own childhood and being that only Asian child, the only brown child amongst a sea of whiteness I see a bewildered smile that didnt leave me until I began to surround myself more and more with other Asians, particularly Asian TRAs. Then the smile went from an expression that read “why am i the only one?” to “whew, so glad you are here! where were you my whole life????”

  4. But Ji In, it’s about the “educational opportunities,” remember?

    Seriously, that’s what I’m told when I mention the importance of living in a racially and ethnically diverse community to white adoptive parents. They tell me that the schools are better where they currently live and that education is “very important to them” and blah blah blah.

    I haven’t been able to come back with an articulate response yet, but when I do it will have something to do with education not being the sole province of schools.

  5. Oh right. I forgot. “Educational opportunities,” oh, and the “safe neighborhoods,” and “better quality housing,” and …

    Déjà blah.

  6. well i had a long comment, but it got too long winded and i thought, i’m sorta getting off topic.

    but, yeah. there were two other asians that i knew going through school. but i felt too much like a fraud to try to be friends with them. i’d wonder what it was like to have an asian family….i’d get jealous too. then depressed. there just weren’t enough minorities around to really allow me to get to know them and get comfortable. and the one minority friend i had was taken out of my life without any consultation from me. but that’s another short story. i’m sure my a-family thought the school system was diverse enough. heck, it had at least two asians in my home room! blah, blah, blah.

  7. […] I can’t help but feel a pang of grief when I see a kid in his or her class picture, Christmas pageant, Sunday school class or whatever, […]

  8. Ji In, I don’t have your kind of experience growing, so I don’t know what you’re going through. But, I like being the only Asian kid in my classes. Although I’m not the only Asian kid in my school, but I am often the only Asian kid in my classes. Hell, I for the first three year of college, I was the only Asian kid in my major.

    I relish being the only because I get to be the one breaking barriers. Then, again I grew up in Southern California, so … it’s possible that even though I was the only Asian in class, my classmates at least have exposed to Asian culture.

    Also, I’m the only Asian in the my group of friends (no surprises there, since I was the only Asian in my college major and the majority of my high school classes).

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