COLUMN: Confessions of an Asian American in Rexburg, Idaho

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Photo taken in the airport after being adopted from China. Photo courtesy of Gwen Andrus

Some 20-odd years ago, a baby girl was left in a box in a marketplace. The only reason she was found was because she cried. Because she was found, she was taken to an orphanage, and because she was taken to an orphanage, she was adopted.

As an infant born during China’s famous one-child policy, this story, and many similar versions, are the start for many Chinese-born Americans— and the beginning of my story.

Beginning in the late ’80s, the Chinese government enforced a policy limiting couples to one child in an attempt to control the rapid population growth.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Traditionally, male children (especially firstborn) have been preferred because sons inherit the family name and property and are responsible for the care of elderly parents. When most families were restricted to one child, having a girl became highly undesirable.”

With this traditional mindset and strict policy, many families chose to abandon their babies with the hope they would be adopted in order to avoid harsh fines and, in some cases, forced sterilizations or abortions. The massive influx of baby girls in China’s orphanages led to an international adoption program to help these babies find homes.

According to “The Politics of Adoption: International Perspectives on Law, Policy and Practice” by Kerry O’Halloran, an estimated 110,000 children were adopted globally from China’s adoption program, with about 81,600 of those in the United States.

Luckily for me, the same 20-odd years ago, a single woman living in Utah wanted to grow her family. After graduating college and completing a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she started her first job as a sixth-grade teacher. As an educator, she was concerned about children, but her empathy moved beyond the United States borders. She knew the struggles families were facing in China, and their adoption program inspired her to help. She worked hard toward and succeeded in adopting a baby — my older sister Maya.

Shortly after, she went through the process again, and I was adopted.

Photo taken in the airport after being adopted from China. Photo courtesy of Gwen Andrus
Photo taken in the airport after being adopted from China.
Photo courtesy of Gwen Andrus

A few years after that, she completed the adoption process a third time with special permission from the government. She adopted my little sister Linnae — completing all three adoptions on her own. Although we’re not related by blood, they are my sisters through and through.

My family moved to Northern California shortly after my younger sister’s adoption, and I grew up in a racially diverse community. I knew I was Asian, but it didn’t seem to affect how people saw or treated me — I was just another person. People often asked about my ethnicity, and I never hesitated to tell them my origins and my unique family background. People seemed curious, but it wasn’t a defining trait of who I was.

I spoke English exclusively (I only know how to say a few simple phrases in Mandarin), I wore American clothes, I had some bad grades, I lived an “American” life because that’s all I knew.

My mom always taught us about China and kept traditions like Chinese New Year, pearls on our eighth birthdays and kept chopsticks stored away for our wedding days, but most days, I placed my Chinese heritage on the back burner.

In the movie Crazy Rich Asians, one of the comedic characters refers to an Asian American character as a banana. “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” and that’s how I perceived myself. My appearance was Asian, but I was American.

As I grew older, I came to college in Idaho, and my family moved back to Northern Utah. Although Idaho and Utah are beautiful places, they are not always known for their diversity. Suddenly I felt like a minority. It seemed like I stood out being Asian in a white community.

As I started to enter the college dating world, I became very aware and insecure that I looked different from many of the girls that surrounded me and who the boys seemed to go for. I tried the online dating scene but felt like people dismissed me based on my looks alone. They didn’t give me a chance because of my Chinese eyes and dark hair, something that I couldn’t even control.

I began to feel self-conscious and disappointed because I felt like I had so much more to offer than just what I looked like. There were some guys who were only interested in me because I’m Asian, which didn’t feel very good either. I wanted people to like me for who I was inside.

When COVID-19 happened, my insecurities took another hit when I saw stories about Asian Americans because of the way the virus was presented in the news. I would get anxiety going online or on social media because of the stories of Asian Americans being discriminated against, Asian-run businesses being boycotted or vandalized, and physical attacks in places like New York and San Francisco. Some of these victims had never even been to China in their life and yet, they were targeted because of how they looked on the outside. They didn’t take into account who those people were or what their background looked like.

That summer, I was planning on working as a tour guide in Alaska over the summer, something I had done the previous summer without any problem, but worried that people would make some of those same judgments against me and be afraid to join my tour or tip me. I tried to think of ways to bend the truth to tell people I was Alaskan because I was living there for the summer to give them some kind of assurance that even though I was Asian, I didn’t have the virus. When the job dissolved because of the strict travel restrictions, I was secretly relieved I wouldn’t have to worry about how to combat the racism I was afraid of.

Throughout the following months, I really struggled with my identity as an Asian American. Stop Asian Hate helped bring awareness and some justice to the mistreatment of Asians in the United States, but my personal view of myself was one of insecurity. I had gotten overlooked by another Idaho boy, and discouragement overcame me again. I knew that my ethnicity was something I couldn’t control, but I couldn’t help but feel bad about the way I looked.

One particular day while struggling with my Asian identity, a new song came on — the K-pop group BTS’ “Butter.” I’ve never been a fan of K-pop or anime, but this group hit me differently. I started to research BTS, which led to music videos, which led to video compilations, which led to a rabbit hole of information about the band members, their culture and their huge international fan base. I shared the band with my roommates, who quickly became interested and seemed to share, if not surpass, my newfound interest in the band.

After about a week of listening to their songs and learning more about the band and how people all over the world fawned over them, I started to wonder why this band had such an impression on me. Yes, their insane dance moves, singing and striking looks could be a factor, but there was something else. Walking home from class with one of their songs playing, I realized the reason I loved them so much was because they helped me feel cool about being Asian.

I spent most of my life making a conscious effort to be outside of any Asian stereotype — avoiding K-pop and anime, making sure people knew that Asians didn’t all look the same (a common misconception), and even trying different makeup looks to make my eyes look more round or less hooded.

But I realized that doing those things would never change what I looked like on the outside, and they didn’t make me feel any better about myself on the inside. I decided to embrace my dark, thick hair by vowing never to dye it; I accentuate my almond-shaped eyes with winged liner every day; I look myself in the mirror every morning and make a promise to myself that I will never be ashamed of my race and that I will embrace who I am — Asian and American.

There isn’t one answer or solution that can solve racism or racial insecurities; it’s an ongoing effort. But something I’ve found to combat my own racist feelings toward myself is to stop comparing myself to something I can never be (white) and embrace current Asian culture like K-pop bands.

I didn’t like BTS because they were Asian. I liked them because I learned about them, their stories and who they are. Not only have they helped me combat the racism I’ve experienced, but now I make efforts to support other Asians and Asian Americans around me. This is the same courtesy and love I hope people give me in learning about who I am, my story, and my journey.