By: Libby Hobbs
Libby Hobbs is a first year student at the University of Georgia and proud Chinese American. There, she is an intended Journalism major and Music minor. In addition to writing for the Georgia Asian Times, Libby is a full time student and also contributes to the Culture beat of the Red and Black. She hopes to combine her passion for music and writing by sharing stories of artistry with the world. As an adopted Chinese American, Libby hopes to continue lifting AAPI voices, whether it be in the music world or elsewhere.
I can say that I relate to a “yellow banana” on a personal level. The beginning of my life’s story is similar to thousands of other Chinese adoptee girls. I was found in a box on the side of a street with only a few milk packets. Soon after, I was put into an orphanage for a year with other little abandoned girls like me. That must have been the only time I belonged to a community. A year later, I was adopted into a white, American family. Despite my Chinese appearance, I was raised white. I’m yellow on the outside and white on the inside, just like a banana.
I’ve known I was adopted from China for as long as I can remember. My parents did not try to conceal or hide that aspect of my identity nor did they shame me for an appearance I couldn’t change. However, my experience with transracial adoption came with deep rooted struggles in identity and trust. I had to practice a large amount of self exploration to turn my experiences into words for this article. One of the first things I noticed was the people I encountered outside my bubble were often the ones that challenged me most.
Too Asian and not Asian enough
During my eighth grade year, I became consciously aware that my appearance would always be “too Asian” for the predominantly white southern culture I grew up in. However, I also realized a sense of belonging would not be found in Asian culture either. Before I dive into my awakenings to nonconformity, I need to establish how this feeling of being “too Asian” and “not Asian enough” was ingrained in me far before I was aware of it.
I must have been no older than five when I recall memories of adults, not my own mother or father, petting my hair. As I would stand next to my mom’s leg, other white mothers would comment on how “shiny, thick, and good” my hair was. They would walk over and begin running their hands through it, stroking my head without warning. Sometimes, my mom would attempt to steer me away from them because I was not someone’s “good girl” who needed pets.
I certainly didn’t find the situation to be enjoyable. While a part of me liked attention and to feel special, I remember a feeling rooted deeper in my gut telling me that the whole scenario was weird. As it started happening more often, I would begin walking away on my own. Because of my discomforting encounters with my Asian hair, I stopped finding it special. I wanted to have hair that “everyone else” (my white peers) had instead.
Even in elementary school, I was Asian enough to be noticed by white mothers but not to the point of being unapproachable. I wonder now whether those other moms would have still interacted with me like that if I had Asian parents. I suspect the answer is no as white people often find it difficult to approach people of color. Because I had white parents, I was not Asian enough to have my boundaries respected.
Now, back to my eighth grade year. It was 2016, the year of the presidential election where Donald Trump became our Commander in Chief. I had just moved to a new middle school. So, simply by circumstance, I knew I wouldn’t belong anywhere. Every clique already had their group solidified and I was too shy to do anything about it.
Leading up to this election, many of my peers made racist remarks towards me. A boy looked me in the eye and joked that I would be deported. Another boy pulled at his eyes to mimic mine and mocked the Chinese language when a segment about the country came on CNN Student news. Outside of the deportation comment, I’d heard and seen many similar things before.
However, I was not expecting to be told “I oughta slap the Asian out of you” when I accidentally called one of my teachers by the wrong name. It was yet another moment where my gut said the words being spoken to me were deeply wrong but I chuckled at it anyway. That evening, my mom was making dinner when I remembered what happened. I told her and she became infuriated. This was when I truly realized the experiences I was having were not okay.
At that moment, I became consciously aware of being too Asian for my environment. The weight I had carried since white mothers first started petting my hair crashed on me all at once. As much as I would like to say I was filled with a new sense of empowerment and encouraged to speak up for myself, this simply wasn’t the case. I continued my everyday life with a gut hyper aware of when something would next go wrong.
If another racist occurrence happened, I wouldn’t be able to defend myself because my thoughts were so disorganized. I believe my lack of ability to connect words into sentences did stem from the fact that my brain was constantly questioning my identity. Often, I felt like I was too white of an Asian or not enough of a minority to speak up for myself. It felt like my problems weren’t as big of a deal as my mom or dad were making them out to be. I soon realized that this was me rejecting the Asian part of my identity.
Learning not to trust
Some say their Chinese identity has nothing to do with them because they don't practice any aspects of Chinese culture. My eighth grade self was certainly debating whether I wanted to go down that path or not. I’m glad I chose not to. Now, instead of struggling to organize my thoughts, I often have too many thoughts. I become angry and let them spill out of me into my notes app.
The year 2020 was particularly rough for me. The usage of “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu”, among other things, brought harm to the AAPI community and myself. Seeing Asian and Pacific Islander people be physically assaulted in the streets, called slurs, and spit on made my stomach sink in disgust and my head heat in rage. Since 2016, I watched the world fill with more hatred and become a scarier place to live in day by day. Four years of complicated feelings and upset got the best of me. I had to let it out.
In December of 2020, I made a post on Instagram. I told my followers what it had been like being an Asian American the past four years. I hoped my peers would view me as “their friend Libby” and not just another person speaking up on social media. To my surprise, I received a lot of support. Voices lifting the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements joined together to speak out against racism and hatred. I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time in a while because I deserved to be a part of the Stop Asian Hate movement.
To my disappointment, the peace I felt from finally letting my thoughts go beyond my notes app did face backlash. First, I must establish how hard it is for me to let people be fully involved in my life. While my family provided a space to discuss openly about my struggles and questions, I often didn’t feel this comfortable around my peers at school. My mind frequently dwelled back to the classroom environments where I felt un-welcomed or like I didn’t belong. While I know that there is so much to gain from trusting friendships, I remember that there is also so much to lose.
After I made my Instagram post, a friend whom I trusted and loved became upset with some of the things I said. While I know their confusion and frustration came from a place of wanting to help me in their own way, the harsh words they said made me feel invalidated and unheard. The phrases like “Kung flu” and “Chinese virus” were boiled down to weightless words that should be brushed off like a bug on your shoulder. I was told to grow a backbone to those phrases thrown at me, as if living through the past four years alone didn’t take strength.
It really hurt. I tried so hard to respectfully express my very human emotions in my post. So, facing backlash from a person I let see my weak and vulnerable moments felt like the house I had built was falling.
Now, a year later, I am still rebuilding. When someone you let into your bubble hurts you by making you feel like you're not fully human, it has long lasting damage. This topic is still hard for me to speak about today. I’ve found it difficult to trust in friendship again and I feel nervous to share stories such as these with you. By questioning what I can say and whether my feelings are valid, I’ve reconnected with aspects of my eighth grade self.
Despite my many changing and evolving identities, my relationship with my family has remained consistent. Whether it be defending me from other white moms or racist teachers, my mother is my support. For always making me feel heard by listening and helping me process my thoughts, my dad is my voice. By giving me reasons to smile and never leaving my side, my brother is my joy. Throughout our moments of feeling belittled and betrayed, we all deserve one thing that brings us balance and consistency.
What I want to communicate through sharing my experiences with racism and identity as a transracial Chinese adoptee is this: being an Asian in America, we are strong—I am strong. Our experiences are valid. Our anger, sadness, and variety of emotions are to be heard and understood. Questioning identity and belonging does not make me or you any less of an Asian. It’s always a process and I hope I never stop rebuilding my house. I want to continue learning more about my identity and allowing myself to be a better person. I want to keep being reminded of why I’m proud to be a Chinese American.