The Deep Ocean

By Amanda Bomster-Jabs

For me, being Asian used to be as abstract of an identity as one based on having dark brown hair. It wasn’t an identity, it was nothing. When I did think about my identity as a child, it was based on how I liked to draw kitties with belly buttons and enjoyed eating grilled cheese with tomato soup on rainy days.

I believe that as every child grows, so does their awareness that other people will not initially see their uniqueness and value. For myself, I learned that staying within the labels that were given to me would keep me safe; that I should care what society believes I should be and that straying outside of those labels is something I should feel bad about. That awareness for me was gradual. It was a slow-moving wave that gradually submerged me.

When I was in Kindergarten, we had family friends that had a few daughters around my age that were pretty in all the white ways I wasn’t. They were the “quintessential American girls.” I once went with two of them and a boy that was in my class, to a water park. I had never been flirted with by any boy before and all the boys I had a crush on were never interested in me. I really wanted to be liked, but this boy wasn’t interested in me, he was interested in those two white girls. I tried getting his attention at the park and in the car on the way home, but I wasn’t on his radar. I cried nonstop the entire ride home until I was dropped off.

Around this same age, my mom bought me an Asian Barbie. I was disappointed that she got me a knockoff Barbie instead of the classic blond and brown haired ones. I remember showing my family friend’s daughters the Barbie dream home I got for Christmas, and feeling super embarrassed about bringing my Asian Barbie doll to play with in the “mansion”. The mansion I felt was for Barbie and Ken, not Chinese Barbie, which was actually what she was called on the box. She didn’t even have a name. Nobody told me that I was less pretty than white girls growing up, but I felt it. I felt lesser.

When I was also around this age, my first memory of being around an Asian person outside of my family (I have two brothers who are also Korean adoptees) was a Japanese college exchange student. I have a picture of her and I together at an Orioles game in Camden Yards in Baltimore. In the photo she’s holding my hand and smiling. A few years ago I was told that she and her friend, who was also a Japanese exchange student with another family, would talk about me and my siblings with disdain for being adopted and for being Korean.

In Elementary school, my mom and I used to go to this Korean-owned Asian market once in a while. When we would walk in, I felt the eyes follow us as we walked by. The checkout person commented to my mom once, asking her about whether I was her daughter. “It’s so great that you adopted her when her parents didn’t want her. Thank you for helping our country.” I kept my eyes glued to the floor, counting down the seconds until we could leave.

Moments such as these gradually taught me that people saw me for my physical appearance first, and my values and things I enjoy second, if at all. I learned that to form an identity meant I had to choose: Am I part of the Asian community or the White community? It felt like this Asianness that I was disconnected from was like this shadow that I could only feel, but not see. And I felt that this Whiteness that I was connected to was also like a shadow, but one that I could see, but not feel. That slow moving wave from my childhood, submerged me in the deep ocean.