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Mei Tomko

Pennsylvania, USA

Guangdong Province, China

I do feel imposter syndrome sometimes. I still get worried if I tell someone else who’s Asian American that I’m adopted, they'll think I’m whitewashed and I’m not Asian enough. Part of that fear is just wanting to be so badly accepted by people that you want to relate to.

My brother is also adopted from China in Guangzhou. He was adopted when he was three and I was four. Growing up, it was a very white area. There were only a few other Asian kids in our whole school growing up and my parents took the colorblind approach. We did encounter some racial incidents and my parents were really proactive, like going to the principal and saying, “Hey, this isn’t okay. You need to do something about it.” But we never really talked about race. My parents were super open to us learning more about Chinese culture or learning Mandarin though. They were really supportive, but I think when you’re being raised by someone that isn’t of the same race, there’s inevitably going to be downfalls in terms of racial identity development. If you don’t have those experiences, it’s really hard to educate your kids on that.

In middle school, I got into anime and my school had an anime club. It was the first time I ever really had exposure to East Asian culture outside of it being centered around me being adopted or being around other adoptees. I was like, “Other people think this is cool. Am I cool now?” Because before I specifically remember I wanted to edit my eyes to be blue in photos. At the time I thought it was just something quirky, but I realized I probably really did want to look like that which is pretty sad to look back on. So I got more into anime and I was having some family issues at the time so watching those shows really helped me get through that. And then in high school, like freshman year, I got into K-Pop and that’s when everything changed. I wanted to look like an East Asian idol. And I feel like that’s when my view on my own identity as an Asian American completely changed for the better. I finally saw people that looked like me and general representation. Also, when I saw that other people thought it was cool there was that moment again of “Oh wait, other people that aren’t Asian think people that look like me are amazing and beautiful.” At that time I also created my second Instagram account which is kind of a visual diary for self expression. I started following more people who were Asian and it was nice having that representation online because I didn’t have it in person. That really helped boost my confidence and self image as being someone who is East Asian.

I remember in high school I always wanted a group of friends to get boba and K-BBQ, but the people at my school didn’t even know what it was. Starting from middle school until now, my confidence in my Asian American identity had become stronger and healthier though. As time went on, I started learning not just about things that are stereotypically Asian like boba and Kpop but more about the political and activist side of it - like the history and Western imperialism. Also Kpop and anime really got me interested in learning languages and just learning about different countries. I learned Japanese for two years and taught myself how to read Korean just because I thought it was cool. I think all of those things helped me foster a really healthy and political Asian American identity.

I go to American University now and in my application I said I want to be the president of the Asian Student Union. I just really wanted that community and was willing to actively seek it out and be around other people that had experiences like me. So the first club I joined at our Student Involvement Fair was the Asian Student Union and now I’m on their E-Board. Last semester I was the Chair and now I’m the Co-Chair of our advocacy committee, so it’s really helped me learn about different issues that I’ve personally not experienced but other people have experiences in their communities. It sounds so shallow, but it’s been really inspiring to be surrounded by people that look like you and feel included. Like you’re not that one POC in your class and you’re not having to count how many Asian kids there are. It’s also been really nice trying to make a bigger space for transracial Asian adoptees in AAPI spaces especially through my school because I was told that there has never been an adoptee centered event before the event that I held last year.

For me, I feel like a large part of being able to connect with being Asian was K-Pop and anime because there are a lot of Asian people who enjoy that. And I think just having that interest helped because I also liked listening to Japanese music and different Korean artists. I also grew up watching Ryan Higa and Wong Fu Productions just because I enjoyed their content. And then I studied Mandarin. I feel like all those things just happened to be parallel. I had that foundation of, “Oh my gosh, you watch Ryan Higa. I do too. Isn’t that video so funny?” Things like that. Also other Asians would make jokes about the Asian American upbringing, like the jokes about your mom getting the slippers to beat you or something. So through that indirect socialization of just watching Asian Americans or diasporic youtubers talk about their experience I inadvertently started understanding the jokes and finding it funny even though I couldn’t relate. And I was intrigued because I had Asian parents. I was thinking, “Is this what it would be like?” There was a longing to connect with other Asian Americans. Even when I went to Shanghai to intern at a family friend’s company, I lived with them for a month and a half and they would say, “Oh yeah, she’s our niece.” Or I would just sit at the table and they’d be speaking Mandarin and I remember I felt like I belonged. And I was like, “Is this what it would be like if I was raised by Asian parents?” It just felt so good.

But I do feel imposter syndrome sometimes. I still get worried if I tell someone else who’s Asian American that I’m adopted, they'll think I’m whitewashed and I’m not Asian enough. Part of that fear is just wanting to be so badly accepted by people that you want to relate to. Even with my boyfriend, he grew up in the Philippines and came here when he was a teenager. Most of his family is still there and they don’t know that I’m adopted. He asked if he should tell them and instantly part of me was like, “No, don’t tell them. They might think I’m not Asian enough.” It’s like when kids would ask you when you were younger, “Oh, you’re Chinese, can’t you speak Chinese?” Even though someone else shouldn’t have to validate your identity, that was part of the reason why I wanted to learn.

My brother and I grew up going to Chinese culture camps that were held by a local branch of families with children from China. It was specifically for transracial adoptees to really connect with their culture. But part of it always felt kind of fake to me because it was white adoptive parents teaching us about Chinese culture. It just felt so forced because it was like the parents probably wouldn’t be learning about this if their kid wasn’t Chinese. It was still fun; we would go to events like Lunar New Year and it was nice having that community. But I was never super close with anybody. It was just a thing we did.

It wasn’t until last June when I started really thinking about my adoptee identity and how it affected the way I thought about race. From other people I’ve talked to, it's like they go from adoptee identity to Asian American identity. But for me, it was just Asian American and I completely missed the whole adoptee exploration part. On Instagram, I saw something about transracial adoption and talking to your parents about race with the height of the George Floyd protests. And that’s when I started thinking about how it impacted my view on race because before that I kind of disassociated. I was very like, “I am not white.” But I never really thought about the dynamics of transracial adoption. I remember one time before I went to college, I tried to talk to my mom about how she needs to see me as a non white person because that’s how I experienced the world. Like most adoptive parents, she said, “Oh no, it’s like you just came out of my belly. I see you as mine.” I was like, “No you can’t do that.” She just wasn’t getting it. I feel like now my parents are understanding it a lot more, especially because my family members have said problematic things in the past and my parents never said anything about it. And they’re supposed to be my ally.

One Thanksgiving, I brought my two best friends home with me for break and one is half Filipino and half Laotian and the other is Malaysian Chinese. So they’re both very visibly Asian. My whole family is white and one of my aunt’s was asking me what clubs I was in and about my first semester of college. I said, “I’m really involved in our Asian Student Union.” And she said, “Oh, so you’re an Asian elitist now.” They started trying to go in about “So you think you’re different from us?” Like I’m not white, so yes I am different. We’re good now, but I just try to avoid talking about it with them.

My mom has two sisters and we’re closest with my mom’s side of the family. My one Aunt openly said immigrants are stealing all of our jobs, so I don’t think she’s open to conversations about race. The younger one - you know when you think of old, nice, white, liberal people? She’s like that. Like she’s open to a conversation and is nice to everyone. But I haven’t had a critical, constructive conversation about it because it hasn't come up. My parents raised me in that very wholesome white liberal “We’re not racist” way where they haven’t really thought about their own privilege or positionality. My parents are becoming more aware now, but like my community is getting brutalized and they haven’t even checked in on me.

The general understanding around transracial adoption is shrouded in a sheet of whiteness. Everything is just viewed through a very Eurocentric lens. My parents never had the Savior Complex which I’m very grateful for. But I definitely think it might be more prevalent in the Vietnam War or Korean War - like saving these war orphans from communism. I think also with adopting specifically black or brown children, the Savior Complex is more prevalent where people are like, “We’re saving these starving African children.” But for general misconceptions about adoption, I know when my boyfriend and I first got into a relationship I told him I was adopted, but I don’t think it really registered for him. I don’t think he would realize that I was a transracial adoptee and he told me that if I didn’t tell him my parents are white before he came to meet them, he wouldn’t know. I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand transracial adoption because then there’s that other layer of race on top of it. They don’t know the magnitude it can have on some people’s lives, like how it can affect them. I definitely think in the events I’ve held about adoption, people just don’t know how to talk about it. It seemed like they were just walking on eggshells or like, “I don’t want to offend you.” Or they’ll ask, “Do you want to do a birth parent search?” It’s like, “Why are you so focused on birth parent search?” There’s more to being an adoptee than that. Just in general, people don’t know or it’s not talked about.

I came across this transracial adoptee who’s also a therapist specializing in adoptee informed therapy. And he had this one video on Instagram called “Ambiguous Loss” where you don’t know why you feel sad or why you feel this longing or sense of loss, but you should be able to feel that loss and have it honored and respected without your family feeling offended like, “You don’t love us anymore.” That needs to be a conversation with the adoptive family. Because they could be invalidating those feelings, but adoption is literally based on loss. Yeah, it’s beautiful that you’re able to form your family through adoption, but someone had to give up part of their family.

I’ve seen a lot of other adoptees talk about having abandonment trauma and attachment issues, like even if they were adopted as a baby. That’s something I personally struggle with and I’ve been going to therapy to deal with my attachment and abandonment issues. My parents never noticed it or really acknowledged that it’s a possibility to have that because they’re like, “You’re from a good orphanage and you were taken good care of. You were the favorite in the orphanage.” They said they wanted to adopt a young child that would kind of be like a “blank slate” with no baggage. I feel like that’s just a very ignorant and insensitive way to think about a kid. It’s like I’m a blank product that you choose. But I’m a person. You’re not honoring and acknowledging that trauma and loss someone went through even if it was the first day they were born. That’s something I wish adoptive parents would know more about and be able to recognize the signs of it or be open to talk about it.

I was watching this one film project made by a transracial Korean adoptee about other transracial Korean adoptees who are all adults now. This one person's video really stuck out to me because they were talking about how they went back to their orphanage in Korea and they thought it would be this whole transformative experience, but then she just broke down and cried realizing that her first existence in the world was alone. I never thought about it that way, but I really related because I was also left in a box on the street. There will always be a part of me that has that feeling of loss because I was born and then just left there.

The families that adopted from my orphanage coordinated a reunion every four years so the kids could have friends. And in 2013 one of the reunions was in China for two weeks. My mom, dad, and brother and I went to visit my orphanage. Going back to the orphanage was kind of sad I think. All I remember is seeing a dog eating a diaper in the street and it was just really dusty that day. The orphanage’s Assistant Director’s aunt or sister found me, so he came with us and pointed out exactly where I was found. My family has speculated that he might be part of my biological family or know them. Even if it’s not true, it’s comforting having that thought. That was one of the reasons I wanted to learn Chinese - to be able to talk to the Director and Assistant Director.

A big part of my internship in 2019 was being able to practice speaking Mandarin. Out of everyone I met at the company, there was only one person who kind of was hostile. I remember he was talking to my friend, who was the General Manager, in Mandarin, and he just looked at me and said condescendingly in Chinese, “Can you understand me?” and laughed. I’m literally there to practice and learn, why are you going to be like that? Everyone else though was super friendly. They understood that I was part of the One Child Policy because I explained that my parents are white people. I think they saw me as just American, not Chinese American, because the culture just might be too different. That experience really helped me get over my imposter syndrome of “I’m not Asian enough.” Because they just treated me like I was American. It didn’t seem like they were like, “You’re not Chinese.” It was just, “Oh, you grew up in a different country.”

I’m still learning, but I started learning Chinese in 2015 when I was a freshman in high school. We didn’t have any Chinese classes, so I took it online as an independent study hall. It wasn’t really hard because I would just be sitting on my computer reading. I didn’t have anybody to talk with, so I got really good at reading and writing. But I could not hold a conversation at all. So when I went to China after learning Chinese online for four years, I couldn’t even answer a question like “What did you eat for breakfast?” It was really difficult at first. I can conversate with people and understand, but I definitely want to get better. It’s just a process.

There’s this song called “I don’t know you yet” by Alexander 23. It’s not about adoption at all, but it makes me think about adoption a lot. It’s just talking about, how can you invest in someone you have never met? Like are your eyes brown, blue, or green? I know it’s a love song, but it just made me so sad. It’s like that ambiguous loss. I only think about it when the topic of family comes up. Even though people talk about how you don’t have to be biologically related to be family, it’d be nice if you have people that look like you. Generally, when I’m around my Asian American friends’ families I feel more in place. Or when I’m with my boyfriend’s mom, because she’s Filipino, I just feel more comfortable.

In my Chinese class, I met another transracial Chinese adoptee and we ended up becoming friends. She asked me this one question that really stuck out to me - “Do you feel like you chose the Asian side or the White side?” I feel like a lot of transracial adoptees adopted by white families can really relate to that. That moment amplified for me the way that other adoptees in my position might not feel the way I do about wanting to reconnect with my birth culture and surround myself with an Asian community. It was really interesting because she also grew up in a very white area of Texas and her family is white and I grew up in a“yee-haw” town that has a drive-your-tractor-to-school day. I’m like, “How did I turn out to be how I was?” Because so many other people too grew up the same, but they’re view is completely different. It’s hard for me to connect with some transracial adoptees sometimes because I’m so interested but then they’re not. And they really relate to white experiences, but I just don’t.

It really bothers me that you never really hear the stories of birth families trying to keep their children. It’s always like, “They gave you up.” Very passive with no struggle. It kind of goes back to the Savior Complex where it’s like, “Oh they didn’t want you. They just kind of gave you away and now we’re here to save you.” With the One Child Policy and sexism in China, there is a part of that. But I feel like there were probably so many families that fought so hard to keep their children but couldn’t. That’s just not really acknowledged. It’s just wiped over to paint China as this awful thing.


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