Lots of my Hollywood showbiz friends have adopted children and the majority of them are beautiful little girls from China who look so much like me I could have fathered them all if such were possible. It makes me glad that these kids have found loving homes and really pretty swank ones to boot. I wish my friends would adopt me! I would fit right in! I could babysit while you all go to the Oscars and we would eat every bit of chocolate in the house and stay up way past bedtime and paint our toenails and jump on the bed until we collapse from our sugar highs and fall asleep without brushing our teeth.
Of course I love my parents, but when I was a kid I would fantasize about being adopted by white people. I would picture them looking almost exactly like my parents, but with blonde wigs and bright blue contact lenses. Also they would act pretty much the same but they wouldn’t eat fish eyes and they’d let me watch tv for longer and not be tense whenever there was kissing or yelling on sitcoms.
My father seemed to protest the most about yelling on sitcoms. He thought it was uncivilized and disgusting and it would actually upset him so much he would get up from the couch and turn off the tv. The yelling was not ok with him. The yelling was too much. He’d say, “People don’t act like that in real life. They don’t. And they shouldn’t!” and he’d just turn off the tv. When we finally got a remote control, he would have his finger on the POWER button in case of yelling. My imaginary adopted white father would have enjoyed the yelling and laughed and looked at me to see if I was laughing too so we could share the laughter together in a sweet kind of comedy communion.
My imaginary parents were not replacements for my actual parents. I just pretended that my real parents never existed. I couldn’t have ever thought of something happening to my folks that would lead to my eventual adoption. I didn’t want them out of my life. I just wanted them to be white. I think it was that I was scared to want to be white myself, even though I desperately wanted to be then, and still do now to some extent. imagine the privileges! It would be so relaxing to be white! I could work more frequently for better pay and everyone would listen closely to what I had to say and take it to heart instead of rolling their eyes and enduring my minority rants for fear of being called a racist and my hair would curl easily or maybe even be NATURALLY CURLY. Ah yes – the grass is always curlier. But back then, I was deeply ashamed of the thought of wanting to be white, strangely disturbed by my burgeoning perception of racial inequity and being at the business end of it, so I cloaked it in this weird wish for my family to be, possibly to explain my own Americanized existence.
The fact that no one like me had happened before, that I had been the first of my family born in America and therefore the first generation that was asian AND American was too lonely of an identity to occupy. Now it seems better, and I feel more of a sense of community, as I have lots of people around me who have lived this life, this experience of being first, but as a kid, it was a burden. It was a vague embarrassment and an existential crisis. When you don’t have an example of what to be or who to be or how to be from those who came before you, you feel lost. With no historical context, you feel like you have no history and no context. When you have to invent yourself, it feels fucked up, like you are doing it wrong. Like you and your life are all wrong and a grand mistake.
Because I had no accent and no real explanation for my ever and all American personality yet mysteriously foreign face, the only solution to my ethnic dilemma was to have been adopted. Well that explains it! Of course I would take on the speech and cadence and confidence of an American because that was what was taught to me at home. I had the right to be an American because my parents were. This all sounds bizarre I am sure – but think about it – I was born in the 1960s! Race had clearly defined meanings and connotations. If you looked like this, you sounded like this. If you sounded like that, you looked like that. People rarely deviated from their positions, and when you did, it caused a lot of problems. You were not to be trusted, if you could not be explained.
My father had gone to a huge amount of trouble to rid himself of his Korean accent, so much that on the phone to other parents, they would assume that he was white. He was really convincing. Sometimes when I talk to him on the phone now, even I think he is white! He even pronounces the “H” in “White”. “H-white”. That is really white!
I once slept over at a white girl’s house and her mom called to make sure it was ok, and after a brief but overly enthusiastic conversation with my father she hung up the phone and looked at me with an impressive and oddly relieved smile and said “I didn’t know you were adopted!” and I didn’t say anything. She seemed much friendlier and warmer after this, and I felt suddenly decoded. I had gone from a question mark to an exclamation mark and I didn’t want to go back so I just let her think I was adopted for the entire length of my friendship with that girl, which didn’t last that long anyway.
I wonder if these young Chinese girls look at their white parents, these fantastically generous loving couples I know who went all the way to China on these expensive and difficult and terribly unglamorous journeys to get them and bring them home to raise them as their own, and wish they were Asian. Do they see me and wish somehow I was their mother? Do they feel the same weirdness I did about my own racial identity when I was growing up? My hope is that they don’t think anything about it, and don’t look at their parents as being a different race. I hope they see them as I see them – just terrific examples of pure love and kindness – the way I look at my parents these days, as we watch tv on my couch. My dad doesn’t mind yelling as much on tv now. He’s grown to like it. Especially when it is coming from me.