Reconciling Asian-American Identity Within Transracial Adoptions

After Mengwen Cao moved to New York from China, she started to feel like she was straddling two different worlds. To her friends and family back home, she had become “too American.” In New York, she said, she was “always a foreigner.”

Wanting to grasp what it felt like to grow up around family members who “don’t look like you,” she set out to photograph adoptees who were born in Asia and raised by white American parents for a series called “I Stand Between.” An analysis by the Institute for Family Studiesfound that the proportion of adoptees in the United States with Asian backgrounds nearly tripled between 1999 and 2011, while the majority of adoptive parents were “white, older, well-educated and relatively affluent.”

Cydney Blitzer, now 19, in Central Park. Ms. Blitzer was adopted from Hunan, China, when she was 8 months old. She lives with her mother on Staten Island and studies photography at New York University. February 2017.
CreditMengwen Cao
Cydney Blitzer, now 19, in Central Park. Ms. Blitzer was adopted from Hunan, China, when she was 8 months old. She lives with her mother on Staten Island and studies photography at New York University. February 2017.
Credit Mengwen Cao

Cydney Blitzer

Una, now 11, in her room in her father’s house in Brooklyn. She was adopted from Korea when she was 9 months old. May 2017. 
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Una, now 11, in her room in her father’s house in Brooklyn. She was adopted from Korea when she was 9 months old. May 2017.Credit: Mengwen Cao
A photo album that Una’s parents made about her adoption story. 
Credit: Mengwen Cao
A photo album that Una’s parents made about her adoption story.
Credit: Mengwen Cao

Ms. Cao, 28, found that particular family structure interesting. To her, it seemed Asian adoptees and their parents constantly had to consider their racial and cultural identities. In 2016, she reached out to friends and nonprofit organizations for help in finding subjects willing to open up about adoption — a subject Ms. Cao says is largely stigmatized in China.

She said she felt grateful that people were willing to share their stories, especially because she wasn’t adopted. And some of the contacts she made had already been contemplating the issue through their own creative endeavors.

Ms. Blitzer was raised by a single mother who openly discussed her adoption. Still, there has always been a lingering uncertainty. “I’ve never really felt like I had an identity because there’s this big question mark in my past,” she told Ms. Cao. “It’s been kind of hard to move on into the future in confidence, because I don’t feel like I know that much about myself anyway.”

Mia Rubin, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, grew up in a white Jewish family in Chicago after being adopted from China. For her thesis project, she designed textiles using childhood photos and artwork to tell her own adoption story and those of others.

She told Ms. Cao that she identifies as Jewish but has struggled to embrace Chinese culture. “Every time I was doing something that was Asian,” she admitted, “I felt like a fraud.”

Mia Rubin, now 23, was adopted from Maoming, China, when she was 4 months old. She grew up in a Jewish family in Chicago and moved to New York to study fashion. February 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Mia Rubin, now 23, was adopted from Maoming, China, when she was 4 months old. She grew up in a Jewish family in Chicago and moved to New York to study fashion. February 2017.CreditMengwen Cao

Mia Rubin

Mathew Luce, now 25, in front of masks bought from Indonesia at his apartment on Roosevelt Island. Adopted from Indonesia by two dads, he grew up in New York. May 2017.CreditMengwen Cao
Mathew Luce, now 25, in front of masks bought from Indonesia at his apartment on Roosevelt Island. Adopted from Indonesia by two dads, he grew up in New York. May 2017.CreditMengwen Cao

Mathew Luce

Ms. Cao found that most of the people she met shared that concern over authenticity, that question of what makes a “real” Asian.

“It kind of indicates there’s only one real truth, but talking to them made me realize that there’s no one way to be Asian or American — or just a person,” Ms. Cao said. “It’s so important for us to embrace our differences.”

Other interviewees agreed: Mathew Luce, who was adopted from Indonesia and lives on Roosevelt Island, doesn’t take insults or ignorant comments to heart. “I’m proud that I’m Asian, and I’m proud that sometimes I act white,” he told Ms. Cao. “It’s just me. That’s how I grew up.”

Una, whose parents asked that her last name not be published, was only 9 when Ms. Cao photographed her at home in Brooklyn. But she had been wondering about her identity for a while. With her family’s support, she already had contacted a Korean adoption agency to search for her biological parents, but she was told she was too young to open her case.

If she can’t find them, she told Ms. Cao, she would be content knowing she tried.

Ms. Cao hopes to expand the photo essay to include people of other ethnic backgrounds. She said adoptees might not feel the need to address race at home, but “when they grow up and step into society, race is just a thing that nobody can escape.”

Her project has also helped Ms. Cao come to terms with her own identity. “I’m not trying to force myself to fit any categories,” she said. “Now I think I’m really comfortable, just knowing that nothing can take away from my Chinese roots.”

Pauline Park, now 58, posing for a portrait in a New York University building. She was adopted from Korea when she was 7½ months old, grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., and now lives in Queens. April 2017.CreditMengwen Cao
Pauline Park, now 58, posing for a portrait in a New York University building. She was adopted from Korea when she was 7½ months old, grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., and now lives in Queens. April 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Emily Roe, now 26, in her apartment in Brooklyn. She was adopted from China when she was 4 months old, grew up in Connecticut and moved to New York to study fashion and textile design at Pratt Institute. April 2017. 
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Emily Roe, now 26, in her apartment in Brooklyn. She was adopted from China when she was 4 months old, grew up in Connecticut and moved to New York to study fashion and textile design at Pratt Institute. April 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao

Emily Roe

Ms. Roe’s drawing of her timeline as a 9-year-old girl.
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Ms. Roe’s drawing of her timeline as a 9-year-old girl.CreditMengwen Cao
Nicole Maloof, now 35, in her apartment in Washington Heights. Ms. Maloof, an artist and teacher, was adopted from Korea when she was 3 months old and grew up in Massachusetts. April 2017.CreditMengwen Cao
Nicole Maloof, now 35, in her apartment in Washington Heights. Ms. Maloof, an artist and teacher, was adopted from Korea when she was 3 months old and grew up in Massachusetts. April 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Ms. Holtz in her apartment in Queens. The rainbow light is the result of a prism near the window. April 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao
Ms. Holtz in her apartment in Queens. The rainbow light is the result of a prism near the window. April 2017.
Credit: Mengwen Cao

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