I was adopted by my parents on December 22, 1984. (I know it’s the 23rd in Korea right now, but it’s the 22nd in the States, and that’s what I’m basing this post on. So there.) While the adoption paperwork was not legally finalized, December 22 was the date when a Korean lady handed me off to the people I now call Mom and Dad. We call this day my “anniversary.” It’s the day that I gained a family, and it has a significant meaning to me.
When I was little, my parents usually gave me a small gift, and we went out to eat. This usually meant going to Pizza Hut – the only restaurant where my mom would tolerate my sister, Dad, and I shooting small spit balls at each other with our straws. I remember announcing to random strangers that it was my anniversary and getting strange looks back. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the word “anniversary” was usually thought of as a wedding anniversary. It was also a shock to learn that this custom wasn’t one limited to my family. When I went to college, I became friends with another adopted girl who also celebrated her adoption anniversary. Living in a small town with little exposure to other families with adopted children made me to believe that everything that my family did was restricted to my family alone.
So it makes me curious. What traditions regarding adoption did other families have? Is it similar to my experiences?
There are a few absolutes that will happen when you are Asian in a small town. You will be stared at and you will be forced to play the game 20 Questions with people. The staring thing is easy: stare back or ignore it. The questioning is what really brings out the Jekyll and Hyde in me. I don’t mind so much when the person asking is someone that I will have a personal or professional relationship with. It’s when absolute strangers feel it’s their right to ask invasive, personal questions about my life that I want to scream. I get it. People are curious (read: nosy) or want to relate to me because their cousin’s best friend’s brother just adopted a child from Cambodia. No matter their good intentions, I constantly feel like I have to justify my existence in America. Nothing says, “You don’t look like you belong here,” more than a barrage of questions about why I look different. My mother raised me to be polite so I force a smile and answer their questions while I silently fume.
Here are a few of the questions I suffer through:
- Konichiwa! / Ni hao!
- Where are you from?
- No, I mean where are you really from?
- What nationality are you?
- What ethnicity are you?
- How long have you lived here?
- You’re English is really good! You barely have an accent. When did you start studying English?
- Do you speak Korean?
- How many languages do you know?
- Were you born in North Korea or South Korea?
- Are your parents Asian?
- Do you have siblings? Are they adopted, too?
- Wow. You could have half-siblings. Have you ever thought about that?
- Did you hear about the Korean twins that were separated at birth and adopted to different countries? How cool would that be? [It’s Not as Cool as You Think]
- Have you ever visited Korea?
- Do you remember anything about Korea?
- Do you want to go back to Korea?
- Have you ever met your real mom?
- Have you ever heard about the Baby Dropbox?
- Isn’t the Baby Dropbox a wonderful thing?
[Why the Baby Dropbox is the Worst Idea Ever]
The town I grew up in has a population of about 2,000. It’s filled with people who’s parents grew up here who’s parents grew up here. My great-grandparents have a road named after them since that is where they built their home. If I were to walk in to the local mom and pop restaurant and mention my grandpa’s name, half the patrons would know who he was and everything about him. It’s safe to say that everybody knows everybody in this town.
When it comes to diversity, well, there’s really no such thing. We have a few African Americans and a couple Asians in the area, but we are really few and far between. That’s where “The Small Town Asian Game” comes in. Whenever two Asians see each other in a small town, we instantly know something about each other without exchanging a word: Are you from a small town, too?
Here’s how the game is played.
1) Be Asian.
2) Spot another Asian in your small town that you’ve never seen before.
3) Stare down said Asian until you make eye contact. You may permit yourself to do a once-over if you are crossing paths.
4a) If other Asian does not make eye contact, then he is not from a small town.
4b) If other Asian stares you down equally and sizes you up as if to say, “I don’t know you. Where did you come from?” then he is a member of the small-town-and-Asian ranks.
While this may seem a bit silly to someone who is not in the >1% minority, it is a very real thing. Even when we have close friends and family, it is sometimes difficult connect to that level of belonging. No, they don’t treat us differently or leave us out. It’s just that the people who are closest to us forget that we look Asian, but the rest of the community doesn’t. Seeing another person who “looks like me” is a rare treat and reminds me that I’m not alone. It’s in that brief moment when our eyes meet that I feel a deeper sense of belonging.