Image by Falon Opsahl
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in a special section on race in the Graphic.
For a long time when I was young, I thought I was White. That’s common among my kind (that is, transracial, transnational adoptees). Different skin color than my White parents. Race didn’t really come up in conversation. My mom even says today, “I don’t see you as Asian or Vietnamese, I just see you as my son.” A mother’s love covers up a lot, but even it can have blind spots.
Middle school. I was the smallest, skinniest guy. For my size, I was a decent athlete. That’s like saying I was a fast turtle. I was too short, too skinny, near last to be chosen in PE class. I always looked up to my male peers — literally. Why did they have more hair? Why did they seem more “manly”? Why was I always at the bottom of those growth charts?
High school. “Hey, Mom! Some kids were calling me chink and gook today.” “Hey, Mom! I don’t like the color of my skin!” My mom’s response: “You’re normal. They’re weird.” I can’t say that made a lot of sense when I was trying to physically scrub the “dirt” out of my skin. I didn’t feel very normal. I felt very different.
My high school guidance counselor was a stand-up guy. “I’d like to major in Business,” I say. “Well, you can’t major in that,” he responded. “You’re Asian. Asians study math or engineering.”
College — undergraduate, freshman year. Vietnamese mixer. Looking forward to finally hanging with people my own race. After feeling smaller, skinnier and darker, maybe I can find some of my own “kind.” The Vietnamese girl, who is also skinny and short (nice start!), says, “Do you speak Vietnamese? No? Well, then you’re not really Vietnamese!” Ouch.
Real World. I’m managing a bookstore. I have to make nightly deposits. The bank teller counts my money thrice because she thinks I am lying or incompetent. I have to stand there and endure the humiliation, the embarrassment, the questioning glances. I deal, do my business, and move on. I had to keep my (White) wife from going back and pummeling her. I explain, “That’s normal.”
In 2010, I spent a month in Vietnam when we adopted our son. I was taller and fatter than the other Vietnamese. But you know what? They knew I was Vietnamese. I didn’t have to worry about race, even if for just a little while. Now I know what that privilege is like. I know it is possible. I know I don’t have it.
Today. My life is a good one. Great job, great wife, great family and great kids. But I still carry the insecurity, the anxiety, the wondering. I notice when I’m the only non-White person in the room. I feel like I have to work twice as hard as my White peers to prove my worth. I still sometimes feel like that skinnier, smaller, slower, last-one-to-get-picked kid in P.E. class. I wonder if my wife would rather have a White husband. I feel like I have to prove that Asians can do more than math. I teach in communications now.
A thousand little differences. A thousand little cuts. All because I was born with a little darker skin, a little darker hair, a little more slant in my eyes, a little less girth.
I worry about my kids more than myself now. My biracial, Asian girls. My adopted Vietnamese son. They are growing up with more diversity and difference. True. They will not experience racism. False. They are more aware of the issue than I was growing up. True. They don’t have to worry about it. False.
And my parents, they still don’t always get me, even today. But I know some of you do. Yes, race matters. In the smallest, slightest ways, that when they add up, that is who you are.
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