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.
When I met my birth family, it opened another path for identity. It felt like I was walking on one path when a bunch of tree branches moved that opened another path beyond. On this path there is a valley that stretches far out into the distance. This new place is beautiful, mountainous; full of new things to see, but when it stormed, it became cold and scary. I came to realize that both shadows, that deep ocean I was in, was loss. I had lost and I was lost. I became lost when I had to “grow up” and I lost when I said goodbye.
When I think about Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI), I believe Asian transracial adoptees are too often overlooked as part of the AAPI community. That because our experiences are not that of the normalized immigrant or first, second, or more generation, our existence and experiences are an anomaly and therefore, irrelevant. But anomalies are relevant too. Adoptees have much to offer in our knowledge and experience of riding the “in between”. I have too often been told that I’m whitewashed, a “banana” and not a real Asian. For too long, I have felt like a fraud and have felt ashamed. This loss of being in between, of still feeling like I have to choose, is a loss that was not created by me, but I feel it, for society has taught me.
I have come to realize for myself that there’s importance in community, of being able to find people that “just get it”. Camaraderie however is too often gate kept from transracially adopted Asians.When AAPI month came around, I used to cringe inside, feeling like it’s wrong for me to even acknowledge myself as being a part of the Asian community. This time, I still cringe, but not because I don’t feel like I’m a part of that community, but because it’s sad that it even exists. That Asian people have to have a month to remind people that they are Americans too, that they are both Asian and American. I want to get to a place in my heart where I can feel that I’m accepted. Not by others, but by myself. I want to not be afraid to stand in my own body, with all my varying opinions and interests, and feel like I’m not half me or less, but fully me and swimming.
Amanda Bomster-Jabs is a transracial Korean American adoptee who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and resides in Los Angeles, California. She has a BFA in Illustration and currently creates art based on her experiences being an adoptee, specifically around reuniting with birth family and in finding a place in the in-between. She enjoys drawing, reading, listening to a good podcast, and surrounding herself with lots of kitties. You can find her art here: https://www.amandabomsterjabs.com/