Why, as an Asian American, I need to dismantle my “whiteness.”

There has been so much going on in the world, our nation and likely our own hearts and minds lately, to say the least. I understand that the overwhelming feeling that many of us are experiencing is nothing compared to the institutional violence and structural racism that our nation’s systems have imposed on Black lives – and I am glad that these issues are coming once again to the forefront of our attention – the weariness and “overwhelmed-ness” is essential in understanding the true weight, breadth and depth of the issue.

That being said, it’s necessary to continue to take care of ourselves and step away when needed from media. Spend time outside, have conversations, cook something from scratch, get some exercise – a rejuvenated and rested mind and spirit is also important in being able to best think through and address these issues.

Let me clarify “whiteness” too, because sometimes it’s hard to understand that we can be POC and still be very complicit in whiteness. Willie James Jennings, a Black theologian and scholar out of Yale who I really admire defines whiteness here as, “Whiteness is not a given, it is a choice. Whiteness is not the equal and opposite of blackness. It is a way of imagining oneself as the organizing reality of the world. It is an interpretative principle that narrates, sustains, and makes sense of the world. The fear that dogs whiteness circles around loss – a looming loss of possession, loss of control, and loss of the power to narrate the future of others. The focus of that fear has most often been nonwhite bodies.” Any one of us who has benefitted from a higher educational, economic, political, or social status from our placement within a society that discriminates against Black lives has been embedded in a structure of whiteness (which is probably everyone reading this).

I have constantly been thinking, over the past week or so, about my social location within the structural racism that persists in our nation. As an Asian American as well as an adoptee, I fully accept and admit that I have benefitted immensely from white privilege and “whiteness,” in the sense that my entire adoptive family (excluding my sister, who was also adopted from China) is Caucasian, highly educated, upper-middle class and with lots of access to resources, travel opportunities, good healthcare, etc. I went to really good public schools growing up and never had to worry about not getting enough food, not having insurance, not having my parents around because they both had to work full-time, violence in my neighborhood, or being killed or targeted because of my skin color. In addition, my status as an Asian American (unbeknownst to me as a child growing up) contributed to a sense of privilege and security – I was likely placed with many other Asian Americans in a “model minority” lens – seen by my peers or passersby as intelligent, docile, quiet and respectful, among other things. The intersectionality of my Caucasian family and my Asian features in the United States places me right in the middle of white privilege and the benefits of whiteness, whether I have liked to admit that or not as I’ve grown up.

This all being said, certainly I’ve experienced discrimination and both overt and covert microaggression for being Asian American. And it hurts. It hurt when a young girl once pulled at her eyes and made unintelligible noises when she saw me sitting behind her at a church in rural Maine. Or when people ask, “where are you REALLY from,” because “New Jersey” just doesn’t make sense to them. During my travels in Asia, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I experienced all sorts of different kinds of miscommunication and disconnect because of my features – I could not be accepted fully as Chinese OR American. In Thailand, I felt myself caught between a historical Thai-Chinese power struggle that I didn’t even realize was a thing, while also not being accepted as American. It made me question myself; “well maybe I’m not fully Chinese or American; what am I? If others don’t think I fit in anywhere, how am I to understand myself?”

However, these are slight microaggressions in the larger scheme of our nation’s and our entire globe’s deep, dark, savage history of anti-black racism and white supremacy. During this time, I have been thinking back on a cultural anthropology course, Caribbean Cultures, that I took in college. One of my favorite courses. We were challenged through reading Afro-Caribbean, Latin-Caribbean and Caribbean voices, to consider the wide-reaching effects of the slave trade, exploitation of black bodies and native bodies, rise of capitalism and supply and demand for cheap labor, in light of rising Western power and influence. We learned from authors like Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat about the dark side of tourism and trade on Caribbean lifestyle and culture and the ways in which the “white man” has taken advantage – and continues to take advantage – in our capitalist world – of black bodies. My eyes were forever opened and I was really disillusioned by the violence and embedded racism and white supremacy inherent in our capitalist economic systems, systems that we accept as “normal” and necessary to a world order that’s familiar to us. After that class, I wondered if I could ever buy bananas or sugarcane innocently again, after learning how those multinational corporations take advantage of cheap labor and have been destructive to Caribbean life and economy for generations.

But I continued about my life.

As the #blacklivesmatter movement and protests have ignited across the nation in response to recent events of police brutality, I am reminded of this global hierarchy of power and race – as well as a dark national history of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, that rears its ugly head in present times in forms like mass incarceration, segregation of cities and communities, structural denial or restriction of economic or political opportunities based on race, desensitization to Black pain, defensiveness or lack of willingness to engage, the list goes ON and ON.

After having confronted, and continuing to confront my own complicit whiteness and reflecting on what I’ve both learned and am learning about the magnitude and historical size of whiteness, I have to try and divest myself from this. It’s difficult, and maybe not fully possible. I recognize that every opportunity I’ve been granted, and will be granted in America will be tainted by structures of whiteness, and I have to learn how to resist that as much as I can – resist and recognize it. This post is going to end without answers, because I still am trying to educate myself about the size of the issue; the answers have always seemed elusive. However, I would encourage you: before you start searching for answers, understand the problem and your place within it.

If you are Caucasian, learn about your family history and your nation’s history through Black eyes and Black experience, because that is as much a part of your history as what you did learn about; it has just often been silenced or disregarded. Now is past time that you come to understand it. If you’re Latino/a, I’d encourage you to learn more about the intersectionality of your heritage and the Black experience in Latin America and the US. There are probably many more things you share than you may realize – and if you discover these things, please enlighten me because I’d love to hear more from Latino/a voices, scholars and thinkers on whiteness and Black history. If you’re of mixed race, think about the ways in which you’ve benefitted from whiteness and what you can do to learn more about the history of the issue – how can you recognize your place in the problem and divest from it in certain ways?

Asian Americans – I realize that is a broad umbrella term for lots of people of different ethnic backgrounds and histories, or that you can be of mixed race and Asian American – but some questions for you to consider – what has the “model minority” stereotype afforded you? Or has it not? What are intersectionalities between your Asian American history in the US and Black history? How can you reach outside of your comfortable circles, learn and engage more on these topics?

This is a lot, but still not enough.

I covered some things on my mind, but I’m sure more on this issue will come. My family (parents and sister) and I are starting a little bookclub this summer, and the first one we’re reading is, So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo; it might be challenging, but I’m looking forward to learning more and talking with my family about it. I also watched the documentary, 13th, by Ava DuVernay, and it was incredibly eye-opening. I’d highly encourage it to everyone. I was going to say, “to people interested in learning more about mass incarceration and the history of racism in the US – from slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to an era of mass incarceration and police brutality” – but I say “everyone” because if you are living in the United States, this is your history – your past, present and future as much as is the “white-centric” history that we learned about growing up. I’m feeling pretty frustrated that I only learned about one side of US history in school. I took up to AP US History in high school and I don’t believe ever learned about the dark side, the real effects, of policy like the War on Drugs. I took global history courses in college that simply did not address to an appropriate and realistic degree the realities of the global slave trade and exploitation of Black peoples.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now because this is a very long post.

But please, I urge you to learn and educate yourself, as well as continue to support Black businesses in your communities, movements and organizations citywide and nationwide that are doing great work for racial justice.

As always, reach out if you have suggestions or want to talk with me more! I’d love to talk and learn more about these things from your perspective.

Peace and love, Joy

Black Lives Matter.

As a Christian, Asian-American, and Chinese adoptee, I’ve often found myself “in-between” cultures and places.

This is a moment in the history of our nation and in my own life where I need to make it clear that I don’t stand “in-between;” I stand against white supremacy and systemic, state-sanctioned injustice and violence against Black people. I stand against the officers that killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others; I stand against Trump and a prideful, selfish, arrogant, propagandized “Christianity” that seeks to assert its own image and righteous personal status over mourning, grieving voices crying out for justice.

I stand against being labeled as a “model minority” who is just docile, easy-going, smart, respectful and complacent.

I challenge myself and my Asian-American, White, and white-passing Christian friends to listen, lament and take action. But first, please listen and lament.

As Christians, we need to acknowledge, question and challenge the fact that our own Christian identity is intertwined in centuries of colonialism, slavery, anti-blackness and the wielding of power over native bodies. Willie James Jennings, in his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, that opened my eyes to the deep, dark history of Christianity – extending back to European explorers and conquistadors such as Cortes who came to the Americas and enslaved native peoples in the name of the cross – says that in order to achieve reconciliation, “we must first articulate the profound deformities of Christian intimacy and identity in modernity. Until we do, all theological discussions of reconciliation will be exactly what they tend to be: ideological tools for facilitating negotiations of power; or socially exhausted idealist claims masquerading as serious theological accounts.” He goes on to say, “it is not at all clear that most Christians are ready to imagine reconciliation.”

We need to lament, repent and ask for forgiveness. This will require reading books, acknowledging that we are wrong, both in our own biases and our position within a system, an institution that has been wrong. It will require listening, paying attention, unlearning and learning again how to be well-informed, humble and resistant to institutions of power and oppression. I’m still working on how to understand my Christian faith in light of its dark roots. How to untangle and understand the true way of the cross and the way of Jesus in light of ways it has been misinterpreted and wielded as a weapon of oppression and violence instead of a lifestyle of love and grace. The truth, as my Pastor, Scott, reminded me of in his sermon this past Sunday, is that Jesus and the Gospel resisted Rome and institutions of power and oppression. Jesus stood with those who were sick, poor, outcast and hurting over and over again – lepers, paralytics, demon-possessed people, a woman who was to be killed for what she had done wrong (Luke 5:12-16, 5:17-26, 7:36-50). Jesus once went into the temple and overturned tables of those buying and selling, those who had turned his “house” into a “den of robbers,” those who were disrespecting a sacred space and taking advantage of others, using it for selfish and profitable means (Mt. 21:12-13). So as Christians, we need to actively resist and reject an institutionalized, propagandized narrative of power or self-righteousness and examine who Jesus is and where he would be in the midst of our modern struggles, because he was never on the side of institutional power or oppression. He was always with those who were outcast, mistreated and hurting. He himself was put to death by Rome. He is with those who have knees on their necks, those who got hit with rubber bullets and tear gas, those who are having tough conversations with friends and family or those lamenting and asking for forgiveness and understanding.

As an Asian American and an adoptee, and for my fellow Asian American and adopted friends, it’s past time for us to have conversations about race with our families. For many of us, most of our family members are Caucasian and may not be active in racial justice conversations or movements. Some may even be openly or more covertly racist. We are all embedded in a society of institutionalized racism, and it’s time that we positioned ourselves in a way that calls attention to that. There are lots of lists out there of things to do; I encourage you to find them and start reading, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, writing out your thoughts and talking about them with friends and family. The New Jim Crow, So You Want to Talk about Race, White Fragility, The Fire Next Time, Invisible Man, Race Matters, countless other books – are a good place to start. And if anyone has suggestions of books that discuss race from an adoptee perspective, please let me know! We have an intersectionality to our story that others don’t have, where our families likely don’t share the same racial experience as us. Yes, we may be the “model minority,” stereotyped as cooperative, intelligent, driven and quiet, among other things – but we also have likely experienced racist or unjust assumptions in this current time of COVID-19 surrounding the inception of the virus in Wuhan. I’ve heard things specifically told to me in a joking way because I am Asian, “oh, you know it’s being called the Kung flu” or people eyeing me skeptically and avoiding me in grocery stores (more so in the beginning of the pandemic) because of my Asian features. It hasn’t been extreme, but still, it’s noticeable. Now is more a time than ever to start having conversations about race – examining our own racial and ethnic identities as Asian Americans adopted into white families, who share a culture that is different than our racial identity. What does this mean? Where does this position us in regard to a larger racial conversation?

Again, I’d implore you to take a stance. We can’t stay “in-between” forever, or give in to our “model minority” stereotype. We understand, on a level, what it looks like to feel out of place or in-between places. We can use our platforms to seek understanding, engage in conversation, listen to both sides – our Black friends, and Black voices in our communities – and then take that back to our White circles – our family members or friends. I think that our “in-betweenness” can be used to our advantage in that sense. Sign the petitions, make the calls, go vote when it is time, donate money to reputable organizations like Black Lives Matter, this great list by Reclaim the Block, Bail Project, Black Visions Collective, George Floyd Memorial Fund, Equal Justice Initiative, or countless others.

Thank you for reading all this, and please reach out if you have suggestions of resources for Asian Americans, specifically adoptees, in navigating racial topics. Or, if you have suggestions of informed theologians writing on race, lament or reconciliation – I am especially interested in Asian-American or Black theologians (at this time).  

Blessings to you all,

Joy

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – MLK Jr., Strength to Love

Preserved.

My name is Emily Zamora, I’m a lifestyle and wedding photographer born and raised in Los Angeles, CA and now living with my husband and furbaby in Portland, OR.

Most photographers would say that their love of photography started when they got their first camera in their tweens/teens/college years and haven’t been able to put down the camera since.

My story with photos goes a bit farther back than that.

First, I guess I should start with a little blurb about my family history and how I came to be the woman writing this article.

I was born Emily Jean Stephens to a teenage, drug addicted, unwed mother who just wasn’t ready to be a mom. And that’s okay. Because that opened the door for me (and 3 of my biological siblings) to be adopted by her grandparents, my great-grandparents.

Can I just add that adoption is a BEAUTIFUL thing. It’s difficult, messy, political, scary, and yet oh so needed beautiful thing. And sadly, some children aren’t fortunate enough to be adopted by blood relatives. Some don’t find their forever homes for several months, years, or ever. All of that time spent in the system, passed around from place to place. With little to no documentation of their growth or preserved memories or knowledge of where they came from.

This breaks my heart.

By the grace of God, that was not my story exactly.

Like I mentioned earlier, I was adopted by my maternal great-grandparents. My own living family history. I even still visit my childhood home and grab my family photo album that documents ever milestone and accomplishment. But with this connection to my (well half of my) gene pool, also came the knowledge of our family’s history of memory loss and dementia. Especially among the females.

Yeah.

While I’m not guaranteed to inherit the disease, that doesn’t stop the worry that, someday, I just might.

Cue the part of the story where I get my first “real camera”, your mid 2000s basic point-and-shoot. I guess technically you can trace my VERY first camera back to the Kodak disposable film ones my mom would give me and my siblings when we did theatre in elementary schools. Every new play/production we’d get a new camera to fill. I even still have the images from those cameras. Man, the content you get from an 8 year old with a camera. But before I go too far on this tangent, I just want to explain how I’ve used cameras (and photography) since that first point-and-shoot. I took pictures of EVERYTHING. My food, family vacations, trips to the mall, my dogs, my feet … basically of anything to preserve the memory of what I was up to that day. Nowadays people get a bad rep for taking “food pics,” “shoe pics,” and basically over photographing every moment. But I say, take those photos! Preserve those days! And maybe refrain from the hundreds of selfies – those ones do get old.

Now as a professional photographer, I absofreakinglutely LOVE that I’m the one charged with preserving someone’s special moment. Whether that be the first look between a bride and groom, the sibling meltdowns that happen at basically every family session, or that special moment when someone asks their significant other to spend the rest of their lives together. I get to play the comic relief, the peacekeeper, the quiet fly on the wall, and so much more. How freaking lucky can one person be?!

And because I feel like I started off this whole thing pretty heavy, I’m going to close with some of my favorite camera/photography related memories …

  • When my husband and I were dating, during the Summer before my first year of college he bought a disposable camera and documented random moments during the summer. He then developed the photos so I could have them before I left for school. The images weren’t the greatest, but the memories are some of my favorite.
  • When I’d get my middle school+high school besties group together for dinners and then turn them into mini friendship photoshoots. We even posed on my dad’s Mustang during one of them. Serious dorks.
  • The childhood summers during my Jr. Lifeguard years where I’d create FULL albums of images of my friends/what we did that day and upload them to Facebook. Almost EVERYDAY. I’m talking heavily filtered. All uploaded to the internet. One upside was that they made for great end-of-the-summer slideshows.
  • My mom taking our “special occasion outfit” photos in the same exact spot in our house my entire life. I’m talking toddler years to present day. Talk about consistency!
  • And basically anytime someone prints a photo I’ve taken. It gives me the feels every time.

And with that, I’ll sign off. Thanks for reading! Enjoy some of my favorite life moments encapsulated in the following photos.

PHOTOS

That underwater point and shoot that was my constant companion.
Pictures of everything, I tell ya.
Even food.
Some of my earliest memories are hanging with my aunt. I’d later learn to actually play on this same piano and continue to play on it for over a decade.
Kindergarten Emily. Probably why I chose to be in FRONT of the camera.
That iconic photo location!
While the people in front of it grew, it always stayed the same. Pictured here with my biological brother, the first to get adopted by our great-grandparents.
Young, probably around 7 years old, Emily showing off her new found skill of hand sewing. Sporting an ever-present, during those years, Snow White costume.
There were never any bad pictures for me growing up. I kept everything.
One of those friendship photoshoots, location was usually one of our houses.
Or in this case, my dad’s car!
Funny how photos can also help you remember “pose trends” from the time?
An early photo of me and my now husband.
A candid from my highschool grad night. I’m sure on of my sisters caught hold of my camera for this one.
And this one.
A college sophomore roommate shoot, on the last day as we were packing up to leave for the summer.
And another, this one commemorating that we had made it. Finally.
I truly have a love for photos that capture movement or a candid moment in time, I definitely chose our wedding day photographers carefully based on this fact.
Commemorating a moment in time during our honeymoon in Spain. It was so surreal to feel the Mediterranean between our toes.
And the Sagrada Familia. I never wanted to forget this view.
And another lifetime moment as I looked out over such a magnificent sight while hiking in Zion for my 23rd birthday.
Here’s that iconic photo location again. This one was for Easter family photos. Featuring my younger biological sister and our parents [great-grandparents].
As a photographer, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to be in front of the lens with your loved ones, so moments like these are near and dear to my heart. [and ALWAYS printed out multiple times and scattered throughout our home].
And now a few special moments that I’ve been able to capture for others…

Because I want my small business to have an element that does something for others without any expectation of anything in return and as a way to “pay it forward”, I’d love to offer any foster or adoptive families in the Portland, OR area (or Los Angeles, CA area with coordination with my return visits schedule) a complimentary family or portrait session.

I’d like to gift these sessions as a way to say thank you and offer these families, who open their homes and hearts to other children, a way to preserve the memories of their growing families and the lives of those they foster. If I can provide some memento of this time in their lives with the people who helped them grow, to be able to look back on when they are grown, I will have accomplished my mission.

If you or someone you know is interested, please reach out!

Love, Em

Crazy Rich Asians from a different Chinese-American perspective.

Who didn’t go see Crazy Rich Asians this weekend?! is the real question … as theaters in and around Pasadena were selling out as my friend and I were trying to book tickets on Sunday afternoon, and even after finding one we spent half an hour parking and barely got seats (as they were unassigned).

Obviously I didn’t come here to complain about the reality that is LA on a pretty consistent basis, but despite our temporary troubles, am happy and highly impressed that this movie has had such an incredible turnout.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to and most things I’ve read and heard have been extremely positive — it’s funny, the characters both have depth and are well-rounded, the main cast is entirely Asian and Asian-American, it’s creative, it broaches the theme of Asian-American identity in the midst of rigid and traditional Singaporean-Chinese wealth, and it raises questions of cultural, ethnic, generational, socioeconomic, etc. identity that challenges even those of different contexts.

Despite the backlash about the lack of diverse Asian representation, it does well at its limited goals. As a Chinese-American woman, it was empowering to see so many beautiful Asian faces on screen in a popular and desirable American context, and to see the way in which a version of the Chinese-American “rags to riches” story was portrayed. A girl (Rachel Chu) basically defends and reclaims her unique mixed identity and history as her very value and worth because of her poor, immigrant background is challenged by her boyfriend’s real estate tycoon mom and family.

All I could do in the theater was laugh and thoroughly enjoy this movie. At first thought, seeing Asian people on screen and hearing an adaptation of a very different story than mine was purely entertaining and barely personal. However, reflecting on it a little bit, and what the Asian representation questions and cultural identity questions it poses mean in a personal context, I realize that it hits me in an interesting way. As a Chinese-American adoptee, I can come into this story at various angles — on one hand, I identify with the backlash that complains about the lack of representation of other ethnic, cultural and/or economic histories of Singapore or Asia, because the story of adopted Chinese girls is almost never told. We are certainly Chinese-American too, but our story and history is completely different than 2nd-generation Chinese-American kids’ stories whose parents immigrated to America (like Rachel’s mom). I have yet to see our story told on the big screen in any way, shape or form.

The other truth and point of identification is that I can wholeheartedly identify with Rachel’s feelings of isolation and rejection by this Singaporean family because I experienced similar feelings (in different contexts) during my time studying in China. China is of course completely different than Singapore, and I was not trying to gain the favor of a wealthy family, but everywhere I went I constantly felt at the very least, out of place, uncomfortable, a too-tan, slightly overweight, wavy-haired, abnormal, non-conforming, maybe-Chinese person in the eyes of locals and natives (they really weren’t sure where I was from, and they didn’t hesitate to say it). On bad days I really let it get to me and I genuinely felt lesser than, completely rejected, disconnected, bitter and ready to give up. It was one of the hardest years of my life trying to learn the language and the culture of a people and a nation that I expected to connect with and be welcomed into — I saw more faces that “looked like mine” than I had at any other juncture of my life — but I had never felt more alone or isolated among them. So, if we’re tapping back into those feelings, I can empathize with Rachel’s frustration, questioning, and anger when coming face to face with cultural values that opposed her identity at its very core. I’m fairly confident, Asian-American or not, whether they were connected to our culture or ethnicity or not, that we have all felt similar feelings before.

I don’t want to give the end of the movie away, so I’ll just say again that the resolution of my story of cultural rejection will never look the same, but my own journey to a place of pride, reconciliation, courage and acceptance in my unique mixed cultural and ethnic identity is taking shape in its own way. I think that if we want to interpret the movie this deeply, despite its particularity, Rachel’s version of her story can serve as a symbol of empowerment and reclamation for people of mixed backgrounds confronting opposing forces, however those may take shape. This movie shows us that there are always two sides to the story and that both can show empathy and pride.

Go see the movie and let me know your thoughts!

How Lion helped me think about my true identity.

About a month ago, I saw the movie, Lion, which I would highly recommend because it probes at questions of identity, family, belonging, culture and love in a way that will likely deeply move you, as it did me. I have been inspired to write a response to it for some time. Let me give you a brief summary of the story, connect it to my own, and then use those connections to draw a larger conclusion about identity formation.

A young Indian boy named Sheru is separated from his brother at a train station and ends up taking the train hundreds of miles away from his family. After disorienting weeks of (mis)adventures, he finds himself in an orphanage where he is soon after adopted by an Australian couple. The story then jumps ahead to Sheru in his mid-twenties, about to go off to a hospitality university program away from his parents and brother (also adopted from India). As Sheru eats Indian food with friends at school, he is confronted with questions of his ethnic heritage and vivid memories of his mother, his brother and his childhood. He begins a (long-awaited) search using the (at this time) newly invented Google Earth, to find the train station where he long ago fell asleep and was separated from his brother. I won’t give away the ending, but it is gut-wrenching to watch Sheru struggle with memories of his family back in India and the knowledge that his mother and brother do not know what happened to him. Because he knew his mom and siblings for years before he was lost, these memories are cripplingly powerful.

Sheru’s experience searching for that train station and his family resonated deeply with my own feelings of loss and disconnect from my birth culture. His personal journey to find his family of origin centers much more around his feelings of love, loss and guilt toward the train station separation and less around the sense of lost cultural and ethnic identity that I have encountered. However, despite our age differences when we were adopted or where we were adopted from, I believe that every adoptee faces questions of identity and feelings of loss, disconnect and longing. These feelings can be because of a remembered separation from parents or a culture, like Sheru’s story, or they can be imagined based on cultural or ethnic disconnects that occur later in life, if the adopted child was too young to remember his or her birthparents or siblings.

Even though my personal story of adoption and search for Chinese cultural and racial belonging is very different from Sheru’s search to find his family in India, the feelings of love and loss have a similar origin. At one time, we were both separated against our wills, from a family and culture that we either loved very deeply or never had the chance to love. For years leading up to my return to China, I wrestled with a deep longing in my heart to discover what place China held in what I felt was an incomplete cultural and racial identity. I harbored a fantasy that there was a part of me left behind in China that I could somehow return to and reclaim – it wasn’t like I wanted to find my birthmom or family necessarily, but that I wanted to somehow reclaim some pieces of my identity that I believed had been taken from me against my will.

Lion barely touched upon any cultural disconnects that Sheru experienced (either as an Indian adoptee in Australia or as an Australian returning to India), however, the couple brief moments that were illustrated resonated with me deeply. There were moments in class and at his Indian friends’ home when he has to explain that he’s culturally Australian, not Indian, and so supports the Australian cricket team and doesn’t know how to eat naan with his food properly. Watching those on-screen moments, I felt exactly the unspoken, jumbled feelings of embarrassment, shame and discomfort that Sheru experienced, because this discord between how I look and who I actually am in determining how I am perceived by others and who I consider myself to be has been something I have carried with me for years.

I have been beyond blessed to find myself among family and friends who have never questioned my ethnic or cultural identity in a way that has made me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, but instead given me the space and support to discover what pieces of my Chinese heritage I want to claim and which pieces I don’t. The moments of discord are random and nothing I can complain about, because they always challenge me to think, reflect and grow in both my self-awareness and understanding as well as my humility, compassion and forgiveness toward others. Blaming others for their ignorance has never helped anyone or solved anything. Laughing off insensitivities hasn’t either, however, and so I am learning the fine art of challenging peoples’ misperceptions and reverting stereotypes gently and humbly. If I hold my identity in Christ above my cultural or racial identity, than maybe over time the ignorant questions about my race won’t cut quite as deeply because they simply are not that significant to who I truly am. Over time, I am learning to respond in a way that reflects this true identity rather than responding in a way that reflects an immediate emotional reaction. This means asking questions and responding with affirming, truthful statements when people misunderstand, instead of acting offended or upset and saying nothing.

Where our devotion truly lies is ultimately revealed when aspects of our identity are mistaken or rejected, because it then becomes apparent what we hold at our core — is it devotion to a racial identity, an ideology, a socioeconomic status, a people group, a nationality, a set of religious standards or values, a level of education, or a vocation? For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, whether we are adoptees, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, African Americans, professors, pastors, businesswomen, the list is unending — in moments when these different identifiers of who we are are rejected or misunderstood, like my “American-ness” was by Chinese culture, than how does the way in which we choose to respond reflect the God that we serve and that which is most important to us?

Our self-image, our different identities, our passions and gifts, the way we move and connect in the world, are definitive to who we are, but we can never lose sight of what these identifiers should point toward. They were never meant to be disparate, singular, stand-alone identities, but instead reflections of the fearfully, wonderfully created images of our Creator that we are. We must remember that our various racial, ethnic, cultural and vocational identities are supplements to the identity that we have in Christ, as beloved sons and daughters of the King, saved by grace, on this earth not for ourselves, but to reflect his love.

My two mommas

Happy Mother’s Day! Firstly, I’d like to wish all the moms I know a wonderful and blessed day. You’re all really amazing and have made the world such a better place in so many ways. Secondly, I could go on and on for pages about my mom back in Jersey and everything she’s taught me and all the ways she’s supported me and comforted me and how much I love and miss her. It’s all so true! Let’s love on and bless our moms today (as we should every day) and give thanks for the life and opportunities that they’ve given us.

On top of all of the love and gratitude I feel for my mom, today, for really the first time, I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day in a bit of a new light. I think it’s because I’m in China, probably closer to my birth mom in distance than I’ve ever been, but of course, unfathomably far from her in all other respects, since I’ve never met her and even after living here for a few months, I know I will continue to be eternally perplexed by her language and culture. But I have two moms, and although one I know closely and has loved and provided for me the past 21 years, the other one loved me too, enough to give birth to me and give me a chance at life by leaving me in front of an orphanage. Which thanks to God and my amazing parents, was truly a new life.

Last weekend, my aunt encouraged me to pray for my birth mother, which honestly and a little ashamedly, I never have. It’s not because I haven’t thought about her and my birth father, because I constantly do. However, for some time growing up, and even at certain points while I’ve been in China, all I’ve felt toward her is resentment. It sounds harsh, so let me explain. It’s not resentment toward her so much as a bitterness toward China in general. That sounds really harsh as well, and I’m truly working on it! Again, give me a chance to explain. My year here has taught me a lot about tolerance and patience and how little I understand. I could never be more grateful for the opportunity my birth mother gave me to live, and the life I have had because she gave birth to me. It’s not that I ever resent my life now, growing up in an amazing family in America with all of the opportunities that I’ve had. The tinges of resentment come when I’m frustrated with Chinese culture and the ways in which it constantly rejects me and so many other people. Which is pretty much a constant. Maybe all foreigners feel this way, I’m not sure. Maybe anyone who doesn’t live up to that Han standard feels this way. But I would speculate that I feel this rejection in a somewhat different way than most people. As a little baby left outside an orphanage gate in rural China, any possibility of ever “fitting into” Chinese culture, feeling accepted by Chinese people, understanding the language and lifestyle, etc. was taken from me forever. But in my heart, that desire to fit in was always there. It’s not like I chose to study abroad in China because of its mystique or economic prowess or the complexity of its language or its food. All not bad reasons but nah, I mainly came because of my Chinese face and a constant tapping on my heart since I was young to return to the land of my birth and experience it for myself. I quickly discovered, like upon my arrival in the Pudong airport, that I had clearly been living in a myth for however long I may have thought that Chinese people would welcome me in with open arms in the way they treated me like, “yeah you’ve come home!” I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to anyone that that was an expectation I had before coming to China, probably because I’m embarrassed that I ever thought about it that way, since it’s been so far from the reality of what’s gone down in the past year here. Anyway, more reflections to come on my China experience later, but because of that – the plethora of struggles that have accompanied what sounds on paper like a simple year in China to study Mandarin – I have had a really hard time loving and appreciating a country that rejects so many of its little babies and balks at and scorns difference in anyone. And a country that I’ve had such a hard time fitting into and feeling respected in despite how hard I’ve tried. And truly, China will never know how hard I’ve tried.

My intentions here are not to sound harsh or angry or come across like I’m complaining or ranting, because every day I thank God for the people I’ve met here who have welcomed me with open arms and helped me learn their language and navigate their culture. And there are plenty of them too. Or even the people who have politely inquired about where I’m from and looked me in the eyes with interest and asked me about my story. I am so grateful for all of my friends here and I think there are probably many others here like them, with open and loving hearts and minds.

But back to my birth mother. After 21 years growing up with her genes, I’ve just started praying for her and thinking about her a lot lately in this past week. Thinking about the life she gave me and what incredible things that has led to. Thinking about how I feel back in her country and wondering how she feels in her own country. I wonder if she has any resentment herself. I mean, she was the one who was forced to give up a child. Thinking about all the bittersweet feelings I have toward China as my time here wraps up in a few weeks. Part of me is like, “hallelujiah I’m going home!” To a real home where I am truly loved and accepted. Not sure what could be more exciting right now. Part of me wonders what place China has in my heart and in my future, which I hoped to discover in my time here, but the answers to which are still farther away than ever. Anyway, all big things to ponder on this Mother’s Day 2015. And I’m not even a mom myself; who knew that this day could put so much on my mind.