i never looked at my skin,
i knew it was yellow…
i played in the sun
all the time…
maybe i was indian.
i wore pigtails—
indians did too.
they didn’t have
no one did but me
all the other kids
funny spots on their faces
tiny hairs growing out of their eyes…
i didn’t complain
i thought i was special
that’s what my mother said
not in those exact words…
she didn’t know those words…
neither did my father—
but he tried to say them….
—”the trouble with losing face is, you become invisible,” Marie Chung (1970)
In the Introduction to Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G. Lee (1999) writes: “Yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in racial opposition to whiteness” (2). Yellowface, a racist “term [referencing] when a white actor dons ‘Asian-esque’ stage makeup and costuming to play an Asian character” (Fang 2018) has long been a way for white American culture to mark “the Oriental as indelibly alien” (Lee 1999, 2). Aliens, and by extent, Asians, are then denied an American identity by virtue of appearing foreign (Hyunh, Devos, and Smalarz 2011, 135). This construction places Asians—or anyone appearing as such—on the edges of whatever societal protection, no matter how lacking, is offered to marginalized classes. More dangerously, this lack of greater social acceptance and the ascription of identity (particularly American) based on racial appearance reflects what some studies revealed as “American = White” (Devos and Banaji 2005, Devos and Ma 2008).
However, the above studies and articles speak more broadly to the Asian American adult racialized experience. None specifically include Asian American youth experiences. Work on Asian American youth identities has “been neglected or at best homogenized into a social group widely celebrated as the ‘model minority’ while derogatively stereotyped as ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks.’ As such, they are considered a uniform group and deviant from ‘normal’ teenage Americans” (Lee and Zhou 2004, 11). After their review of the origins of “youth culture” and youth history, Lee and Zhou found that “Asian American youth have been virtually omitted from broader studies of youth, illustrating the vacant niche in the study of American youth culture” (Lee and Zhou 2004, 13). Although one would assume that children, perceptive as they are, would not escape “awareness of being stereotyped” as a “perpetual foreigner” (Hyunh, et al. 2011, 156), nor would they be immune to feelings of “depression…and lower hope or life-satisfaction” (156) that adult Asians report as a result of such racist constructions, their largely absent perspectives speak loudly.
Benson Tong (2004)—whose volume of Asian youth identity studies omit, like Lee and Zhou’s, Asian adoptees—describes the Asian American child’s identity as “a social construction, one shaped by historicized social structures such as race, gender, imperialism, social inequality, and cultural change” (18). Tong’s omission of Asian adoptees from his essay collection overlooks how it is the Asian child’s body, not their parentage, that constructs them as “foreigners [who] do not belong in America to the same degree as other Americans” (Cheryan and Monin 2005, 717). Such omissions place Asian adoptees outside of the Asian community at large, forcing them into what Kim Park Nelson (2016) describes as an “imposed” (191) identity where “[you] think you are Asian or White, but clearly, you are not!” (149). Korean adoptees, for example, “avoid referring to themselves as Korean Americans in light of the fact that their experiences are markedly different from nonadopted Koreans” (Brian 2012, 20). Tong’s omission, given Bond-Stockton’s description of children queered by color and Ahmed’s argument that non-White bodies become exotic objects, becomes more glaring when Asian children’s bodies are the subject of focus.
The identity of the Asian adoptee, on the other hand, complicates the ascribed identity of “the Asian American child.” For adopted Asian children, “the Asian adoptee’s” childhood is implied by nature of their adopted status, regardless of their actual age. Like “the Asian American child,” Asian adoptees are “queered by color,” as we learned in our previous assessments of Bond-Stockton’s work. “The Asian adoptee,” however, is doubly queered by their non-normative entries into White families. Tuan and Shiao (2011) note that some Asian adoptees, as children, had to retard their own explorations of their identities for the sake of their adoptive parents’ feelings (46), with one parent being so fragile that the child was unable to express her own difficulties with being adopted and racialized. In Bond-Stockton’s (2009) analysis of a film featuring transracial adoption, she describes such children as “intruders” and explains how this description weaves their identities within that of their parents:
The children in this case are family intruders because they are children who are queered by their color… And they are the children who, like ‘gay’ children, were clearly unforeseen by the families they appear in. As such, these children are themselves a kind of ghost…who would like to be acknowledged by the families they ‘invade.’ That is, the child-intruder, the child queered by color, makes parents reflect upon their ethics of inclusion…and reflect upon their image as liberal intellectuals” (191-192).
Despite the White adoptive parent consciously selecting an Asian child for adoption, the “invasion” and “intrusion” —instigated by the child’s body—of racialized discourse forces parents into non-normative positions. The parents’ Whiteness previously served as a protective measure against societal difference, but when confronted with “difference” via their Asian child, they are thrust out of the safety of their privilege. Sara Ahmed (2006) describes this Whiteness as a “bad habit,” or a “series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others” (129). This “bad habit” does not shelter their Asian queered by color-child from its subaltern status in American socioracial hierarchies. Instead, White parents, through their adoption of an Asian child, encounter a space that cannot be improved or deraced through their own habit of unraced privilege.
Nicole Chung, in her memoir All You Can Ever Know (2018), shares: “We are struggling souls our adoptive families fought for, objects of hope, symbols of tantalizing potential and parental magnanimity and wishes fulfilled” (41). In this case, Chung describes the forced identity written onto her body by her nature of being adopted. Kimberly D. McKee, also a transracial adoptee, writes: “Adoptees gain legibility within the white heteronormative family due to their access to a cultural white identity” (73). In these instances, the Asian adopted child’s identity is tightly enmeshed within their White parents’. If that child attempts to maneuver outside of that sphere, they are trapped or challenged. On the other hand, children of Asian immigrants are “intimately influenced and often intensely constrained by the immigrant family, the ethnic community, and their parents’ ancestral homeland” (Lee and Zhou 2004, 23). Their identity, not much unlike the Asian adoptee, is tightly wound within their parents’ history of being immigrants. Is this enough to draw the line between Asian-parented children and those who immigrated here via adoption? Couldn’t their “in between” racial positioning in White America, which is reported for those both adopted and not, be the unifying thread? If we instead focus on the Asian child’s body as the object onto which these identities are ascribed, it becomes clear that all Asian children “embody distance” not from each other, but from the Whiteness that consumes them (Ahmed 2006, 121).