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Kathryn Cuiffo

California, USA

Jiangxi Province, China

If I beat people to the punch by saying that I don’t have an Asian accent or I don’t act very Asian even though I look it then other people can’t say it. It was just a way to protect myself, but it was sad because I think it never allowed me to let people accept me for who I was or who I could have been.

The story I was told about why my parents adopted specifically in China was that my mom was watching Oprah one night and there was this segment about how there were many babies in China that needed homes. The orphanages were very overwhelmed by the number of babies that were being brought to them and so my mom felt like this was almost like a call to action to people in the US. If they had the means and if they wanted another child in their family they should go to China and adopt from there. My mom had a son before she adopted me who’s actually fifteen years older than me. She had been trying for many years to have another kid, but she just had a lot of complications. So when she saw this Oprah segment and still wanted to have another child, it seemed like a good fit.

Growing up, in the early years I had pretty good memories. I had everything I needed and I felt very loved. But because my brother and I were so different in age, it was really hard to connect. I was told that when I was younger, like before I was five, he really loved and adored me. But when I got older, my earliest memories were that he was really mean to me. My parents told me he was jealous of me because I got so much more attention because I was younger. So it was a weird dynamic to grow up wanting to have a brother that I looked up to who loved me, but I didn’t. And then as I got older, like into high school, things kind of got rockier at home.

Recently finding adoptee communities has been so cool and it’s such an interesting thing realizing that there’s so many other people who were adopted and have so many of the same thoughts that I had growing up that I just didn’t really ever share with people. But one of the things that I have struggled to find are other stories where the households that adopted some of the babies weren’t as supportive and loving. And that’s kind of my story. I think in the beginning things were really good. But then hitting my teen years things got really hard at home. My parents were always fighting and there was that weird dynamic with my brother. There was verbal and mental abuse between my parents and then with me and especially with my brother. So it just became really hard to grow up in my more formative years.

My parents were always very open about the fact that I was adopted. They told me from a young age and I think it was because it’s very hard to hide. Both my parents and my brother are Caucasian and I look very different. But it always kind of ended at “You were adopted from this place in China.” I actually didn’t know the name of the province or the city until recently when I started looking into my paperwork. It was really just like, “You were adopted from China, but that doesn’t matter because we love you and you have everything you need here in the US.” For so many years I just never questioned it. I went along with “Everything’s fine. Nothing’s different. I’m just like any other child that was naturally born.” Although I look Asian, I was raised very white and I wished I was white.

Growing up, going to college, and moving out to the Bay area from Arizona, which is where my family currently is and where I went to college, made me have to make decisions for myself and decide who I want to be. It gave me that space and distance to be like maybe I don’t have to be so influenced by everything my parents told me. And then being in the Bay, there’s so many more Asians out here than many of the communities I grew up in. Seeing so much more representation out here made me question, “Why don’t I celebrate that?” or “Why don’t I know what that food is?” I think that’s definitely been an instigator to help me explore that side.

I don’t think my parents tried to connect me to Chinese culture. I can’t remember them saying anything like, “This is something from China.” For my more formative years, they never asked me any questions like, “Do you want to go shopping for this outfit?” or “Do you want to celebrate Lunar New Year?” I didn’t even know Lunar New Year was a thing until last year.

I didn’t feel it growing up necessarily, but I can see looking back that the savior complex was so evident. Even with just the story of why my mom thought of adopting in China; it was because you need to save these children that are overflowing these orphanages. And just in comments my parents would make about how if I was in China and wasn’t adopted then I probably would be working in a rice field and I probably wouldn’t have the education I have now. I should be so grateful. The way they talk about the country vilifies it too, which is sad because it’s vilifying where I came from. I think they never created the space to appreciate my heritage.

There’s quite a few feelings I’m uncovering more every day. I’m realizing, “Oh that probably comes from feeling abandoned at some point or feeling like I have to be grateful for things that no one asked me if I wanted.” I’ve always had this irrational fear of getting Alzeheimer’s at a young age or even when I’m older just forgetting my entire life. My friends always joke with me because I have a pretty bad memory, but they’ll say, “Even though you have a bad memory, that’s not going to happen. And even if it does, you have people around you to support you and help you remember.” But it’s just something that’s always on my mind that I’m just so afraid of. I was talking with Kyle, my partner, and it just hit me. What if this comes from literally not remembering China. I was there for eleven months. I know that’s still a really young age, but just not remembering being adopted from there or what those first eleven months were like or even just the couple of years after I was adopted. I can’t really remember anything from before the age of four. What were the first couple years of being in a completely different country and a completely different household like? Because I can’t remember anything from China, there’s no one there to tell me what I could have remembered. My other friends who aren’t adopted can’t remember things from before five years old either, but their family members can say things like, “Oh you did this” or “You would always say this funny word” or “This was your favorite toy.” I don’t really have that.

Also my parents were always really hard on me. Even from a young age, they were hard on me to do really well in school. I would always joke that even though they were white, they were like Asian parents who wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer and play piano and do a million things on top of just going to school. I think a lot of my validation and self worth came from just doing really well in school and at work or anything career aspirations wise. Even though I‘m not living at home anymore and I’m not even in the same state as my parents, I am so self critical. It’s so hard for me to just relax and have a day off or take a weekend just doing nothing. I’m seeing a therapist right now who specializes in adoptees and just helping them with identity. She asked me something interesting that I never thought of - “Do you think that you almost had to prove that you deserve to stay in this household by meeting the standards that they set and being a great student” and “Was there ever a fear that if you didn’t perform that they would love you less or abandon you the way your parents did?” I don’t feel that way right now, but I think there was a fear growing up that if I wasn’t the perfect kid then it would be easy to give me up again.

I think if parents are looking to adopt from another country or just adopt in general, they should create the space for conversation around that child’s background if they’re interested. If they’re interested to know more about why they look different or finding communities of other people who look like them, the parents should encourage that or try to provide the resources. You can’t expect your parents to know everything about the country they’re adopting from, but just creating that freedom and the space to have those conversations would have been really beneficial for me because I’m doing all this research on myself now by myself. It’s been really fun, but I think it would have been nice to have been able to start this so much earlier.

Because I was mostly surrounded by white people and then raised very white, I always felt this disconnect between my personality, the culture I knew, and then what I look like. I felt like I was in the wrong body. I wished I was white, which I’ve heard so much from other transracial adoptees. I would look up trends in China for lightening your skin and I had asked my parents if they could buy me this bleaching soap. I hated how straight my hair was because other girls had naturally wavy and curly hair. I hated how makeup didn’t work on my face the way it worked on my white friends’ faces because of my eyes. I could never find tutorials for hooded eyes when I was younger. In high school, I know some people have said this in the past and I have definitely said it a lot, but it makes me so sad remembering that I would say “I’m a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” Looking back I think I used that as a front because if I beat people to the punch by saying that I don’t have an Asian accent or I don’t act very Asian even though I look it then other people can’t say it. It was just a way to protect myself, but it was sad because I think it never allowed me to let people accept me for who I was or who I could have been.

Very recently I found this girl who was my crib mate. I was going through my adoption paperwork and there was a Christmas card in there that had a picture of a baby girl. She was Chinese, but it wasn’t me. I read the card and it was from her mom to my mom. It had her name and address and basically it was saying, “This is Abbey and she’s x years old and we’re celebrating Christmas. Hope you’re doing well. It was so great to have met you in China.” It was this other mom who had adopted with my parents, but my parents never told me about her. They didn’t even tell me that they went with other parents. I didn’t know that was a common practice until pretty recently talking with other adoptees. I got more in touch with Abbey and she told me she used to stay in touch with a couple of other girls who were adopted around the same time as us. So she’s linking me up with them which is really cool.

As far as just Asian groups, I think I met my first group of Asians around my age in high school. It was freshman year and it was a very small group. They all knew each other and they were the only Asians in my high school - maybe like six or seven people. They approached me on the bus because we all lived in the same neighborhood. They sat around me and basically said, “We’re the Asian group at the school and you should hang out with us.” It was very short lived though because we didn’t have a lot in common. They grew up in traditionally Asian households. I hung out with them, but they were speaking different languages at times. I didn’t even know what boba was at the time and they were always wanting to go get boba. So it was really hard to relate and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t know Chinese or understand culturally how to be Chinese. And then they found out I was adopted because I invited them over to my house. I didn’t bring it up often that I was adopted until people came over and then it was just weird. They were like, “Oh, you have white parents.” It was hard because they were almost discriminative towards white people. That was another area of disconnect and it was hard for me to relate because although we looked alike, they spoke negatively of the cultural differences between their families and mine. And then after that going into college, I met other Asian groups or Asian friends, but it was so hard to have those deep connections with them because of the same issue. I just didn’t understand culturally how to relate to them.

In elementary school, there were these fifth graders who would always pick one me when they realized that my parents look different from me. When they found out that I was adopted from China, they would make comments like “You know your parents didn’t love you. they just dropped you off like a sack of rice in front of the grocery store.” Just means things like that, comparing me to inanimate objects. Things like “I’ve just been tossed out basically and I was so lucky that white people found me.” So there were very direct insults like that when I was really young, but then growing up in middle school and high school I don’t remember any direct racist comments. I think there were just small things. Like I remember this time I was sitting at the lunch table and I wore my hair in a bun. Usually I had my hair down and someone at the table said, “Wow, you look really Asian today.” That inherently isn’t a bad thing to say, but the way they said it made me feel so small and noticed in a way that I didn’t want to be noticed. So I never wore my hair in a bun again. I refused to. I remember there was this guy who I was actually friends with, but looking back he was kind of an asshole. But he would always make comments whenever I wore something yellow. Like if I had a yellow shirt or yellow shorts on, he would jokingly say, “Oh, you’re blending in with your clothes today.” or “Be careful. Don’t wear too much yellow or people will think you’re just walking clothes.”

I’m very excited to start exploring more. I just started trying to teach myself Chinese and I will get a tutor later when I get the basics covered. But that’s a huge goal of mine right now - just to learn how to communicate with people who are Chinese. I think that can open up a lot of doors to really be able to learn more about China as a country and Chinese culture. I’m also trying to learn more about the history of China and just how people celebrate their Chinese identity here in the United States. I’ve been trying to reach out to more friends who I had known were Chinese and practiced Chinese traditions with their families, but I just never talked to them about that part of their life. So I’ve been asking more questions on that front and getting more involved with the adoptee community and seeing what other people are doing to explore their Chinese identities. I’ve also been watching more media from China, like Chinese shows and movies and people who share what living in China is like on Youtube.

I think my Youtube channel has helped with communication. People are interested in how I celebrated Lunar New Year this year for the first time and it’s been cool to talk with other people who either also celebrated for the first time or are interested in celebrating again. So that’s been awesome to just open up a dialogue. With Lunar New Year, I mostly focused on food. I asked a couple of my friends who had been celebrating it just with their families, “What do you do?” I’m vegetarian and Kyle’s vegan so we had to find ways to modify certain dishes. But they shared different options with us. So we made dumplings and we watched videos of how to fold them. We had noodles and beancurd which I’d never had before. Our friend told us that traditionally around Lunar New Year people buy a new outfit or a couple of outfits and they should all be red. So we bought a new outfit that was red and hung some decorations around the apartment. Then we had two friends over who are not Chinese. They’re actually from Bombay in India, but they’re really interested in learning about my self exploration and Chinese culture. So we had them over and exchanged red envelopes.

Now that I have opened my eyes to the world of transracial adoptees and just in general, the prevalence of Asian American communities across the US, it’s so much easier to find representation of those who are unapologetically Asian and be inspired by them. I think before all of this self discovery, I knew that there was representation in some areas of my life, but I just kind of had blinders on. I was like, “I can’t relate to that because I wasn’t raised Asian, so I shouldn’t even try.” I think overall, I’ve felt very apart from the Asian American community for most of my life, but I’m realizing that wasn’t by choice. Now, I’m doing the work to rectify that. I’m realizing that it’s like, “Wait, I can relate to that and here’s how I can continue adding to the conversation around what it means to be Asian American.”


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