White Girl in Yellow Face

by JS LEE

Not long after I was born, it was decided that I would become someone new. Too young to understand or protest, I was ripe for the taking. At six months old, I boarded a plane in South Korea. My escort reported that I wouldn’t sleep. When I landed in North America, a sea of white faces surrounded me. Hands patted my clothes and skin. New sounds and smells flooded my senses. It was a big day for two strangers and their two daughters, because from this day forward, I was to wear their mask of adoption.

This mask wasn’t visible to all, but it was magic, nonetheless. It erased my past and the woman who bore me. It traded my Asian culture for Irish, Scottish, but mostly Italian, pride—and made me American. Overwriting the Korean I’d been learning, I’d soon speak with a New England accent. Asian faces would look strange to me as white faces ruled the norm. With this mask, I was promised a family. In this mask, I was to feel lucky. I was so implored to wear it that, for a long while, I would forget what was underneath.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw the wrong girl. The mask didn’t seem to reflect. In the mirror was a white girl in yellow face. Staring at her crease-less eyes, gold-tinged skin, and shiny dark hair that hung like silk, I resented every inch of her being. She didn’t have to say a word. Staring back at me, she threatened the illusion. She told me, No matter what you do, you will never be one of them. I glared at her with disgust, feeling the burn of her truth. 

My adoptive family, biologically related to one another, was so well-trained to see my mask that some of them claimed to forget that I was adopted. I chose to believe it as proof that my place in the family was secure, being number three of seven kids. I’d force myself not to feel hurt as each new birth brought on a marveling over shared genes that would continue throughout their lives. Whose eyes looked like whose? This one had our mother’s nose. That one had our father’s hair. Genes weren’t supposed to matter but evidently did, and all I had was this invisible mask that only they could see.

It’s not surprising to me now that I wanted to die at age seven. The mask was becoming a challenge. It was beginning to feel like a lie. Desperate for it to be seen by all, I’d lose hours in front of the mirror, scraping fingernails down my cheeks–as if my real face was the mask that I could peel off. My fingers would fold the skin above my eyes, hoping it would stay. No matter what I did, my reflection mocked me. I was starting to believe she was right. I would never belong.

People out in the world couldn’t help from pointing out that they saw no mask. They’d ask, Where is she from? They needed to know why I was there. My siblings’ faces never demanded such answers. It was clear that they belonged. Trained to smile politely as they gawked and spoke about me, inside felt like something was rotting. It was the fruit of deception. I couldn’t exist in their world without explanation.

When my mother sent me in to pick up the Chinese takeout hoping for extra fortune cookies, I felt shame for not speaking their language. Adopted from Korea, there’s no reason I’d speak Chinese. But, still. The heat in my cheeks and the fluttering in my stomach was real whenever someone else saw that I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.

And, who was I supposed to be? With no Asian role models in real life, in books, or on TV, I paved my own way. The only representation I saw was in unflattering caricatures and I ran in the other direction. Sometimes I dressed like a punk or a goth, hyper-aware that I stood out anyway. I wore thick eyeliner that accentuated my most Asian features—as if it disguised them somehow. I permed, bleached, and colored my hair. I did anything to scream, Yes, I know I’m not who I’m supposed to be. I’m not who you think I should be, either. It was rebellion. For a while, it felt great.

The Internet and social media get a bad rap, but through them, my identity was found. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were adopted to white families in the west, yet most of us were raised in isolation. Even moving to Boston proper as an adult didn’t bring me the healing I sought, because although touted as diverse, it’s extremely segregated and racist. The bulk of the Asians I would discover were online. The more I encountered, the less I could deny that Asian faces were beautiful, too. Although I would never be as beautiful as them, they helped me accept who I was. Realizing my pain was not my own unique failing helped me let go of the guilt that I had for not living up to the mask thrust upon me.

I won’t lie. Finding and becoming my authentic self has been a rough transition. Sometimes I feel like an imposter—still a white girl in yellow face—especially when around other Asians who were raised in their natural families. Many days, I’m overwhelmed by all that I’ll never know and will never have. I’m constantly considering whether I should commit to learning more about my language, history, and culture, or searching harder for my birth family. There’s such pressure to choose between chasing after what was lost, or working with and making peace with what I have.

While I know the only way forward is with balance and compassion, I can’t deny that I’ve already lost so much time, and with time, options disappear. I live with the knowledge that the woman who bore me might die waiting for me to find her; she might already be gone; or maybe she never wants to be found. I’ve seen through my fellow adoptees that, much like with adoption placement, finding birth families is a mixed bag of luck, complexity, and obligation. I’ve only just begun to live life for me. I’m not sure I can handle more family drama.

Since I’ve expanded my network and connected to adoptees of all kinds (domestic/international; same race/transracial, etc.) I’ve uncovered that many of us share the same longing, identity erasure, and pain that was  overridden by the narratives forced upon us. Too many had difficult childhoods followed by the grief of estrangement—re-abandonment by our second families—once we took off our masks. Even those placed in safe, loving homes, share many of our struggles. But adoptees are often made to repress every inch of our truth and natural beings for the sake of gratitude.

From my novel, KEURIUM:

We always hear about how much adoption costs the adopters—financially, emotionally, and otherwise—but very rarely what it costs adoptees. In which other circumstances will someone rob you of everything and expect for you to be grateful?

Both positive and negative adoption experiences begin with loss. It’s time we’re acknowledged for surviving the loss of blood ties, culture, birth rights, and many other entitlements that non-adopted people take for granted. It’s the start of National Adoption Awareness Month (#NAAM). Please listen and amp up our voices. We’re a minority group—often comprised of other minority identities—unrecognized for our suffering and marginalization.