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Samantha Fortener

Kentucky, USA

Fuling, Chongqing, China

"Are we a burden to you? Are we imposters? Are we frauds? Or is this all in our minds?” There's this mindset sometimes that we’re not "real” Asians. And that's hard for me to grapple with.

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I grew up in Louisville, which is the second biggest Catholic city in the nation. I went to Catholic grade school where most other children and their families were the perfect stereotype of an “All-American Southern Family,” with a Mom, a Dad, three children, and a golden retriever. People didn't like that I was Asian. They didn’t understand that my parents looked "normal,” but I looked different. As Kindergartners we used to get paired up with eighth graders and do activities together. I remember they would tell me things like, "Oh you’ll only be able to work in a restaurant when you grow up.” And I was five years old, I didn't know what that meant. That was my first experience I remember of a microaggression toward me, and it got worse from there. It wasn’t everyday, but I would be bullied about once a month for various reasons. I think they took the fact that I was Asian and ran with it. The kids pointed out all the stereotypes of East Asians, even if it didn’t fully apply to me. It was about my eyes one day, and how slanted they looked, or how my skin was comparable to a potato.

I had a real breakdown, around 13 or 14 where I felt like I really didn't know who I was. I didn't understand why I looked the way I looked because I don’t particularly look like an East Asian. I’m darker. I don't have monolids. My face shape is different. And as an Asian kid in a white community, I didn't understand that not all East Asians are the same. As a young kid, I was looking at Japanese and Korean and Northern/Eastern Chinese people and I couldn’t see the resemblance, so I would question, "Am I even Chinese?”

There was this one summer in eighth grade where I didn’t go outside at all. I didn't want to be tan. The white girls in my school had such long eyelashes and I used to practice to make my eyeliner look like these girls and I would curl my lashes. I would clump on mascara until it looked like I had spiders on my eyes, but they were still never long enough. I used to have friends in Louisville who were also Chinese adoptees, but as we grew up, we drifted apart. They went on to go to Catholic High School and became very preppy; they assimilated. I used to be really jealous of these girls who could assimilate and be with the white girls. I was always seen as that weird girl and I would question if I was a good person or even a desirable person.

When I was young, we had these Chinese DVDs with Chinese dancers teaching you how to dance. And I would speak fake Chinese, basically gibberish trying to imitate those ladies on the screen. That maybe should have been an indicator to my parents that I wanted to learn Mandarin. They put me in Chinese lessons (with all my other adoptee friends at the time), but it was only for once a month and it wasn't very serious. We learned basic vocabulary, like family members, and counting, but there was never an emphasis on grammar, or learning Chinese characters. In those developing years, I do wish I would have had some language experience in Mandarin. I try learning now and I’d say that I can read a couple sentences and speak a little bit, but it's hard to find the time to continuously study. I have a job and homework, and somewhat of a social life. Sometimes I try to eat authentic Chinese food, but there isn't a big Asian community in my town so there’s not a lot of authentic restaurants. I always feel like a fraud when I eat sriracha with an English label or get very Americanized Chinese takeout. Recently, I have been going to Asian grocery stores and I’ve felt a lot more connected and part of a community. I’ve also picked up cooking and I’ve been trying to recreate dishes from Chongqing, and even just general Chinese dishes. It has helped a lot to continue to connect to my culture and to feel more Asian.

I have these questions for other Chinese Americans who are not adopted. Like, "Are we a burden to you? Are we imposters? Are we frauds? Or is this all in our minds?” There's this mindset sometimes that we’re not "real” Asians. And that's hard for me to grapple with.

My mom is very religious and she would tell me I could have been aborted or just left for dead in China. And she would ask why would I want abortion in this country when I could have been aborted there. But I didn't choose this life here. For a long time, I just wished I was living a miserable life in China. At least I'd speak the language and I would know where I came from. I'm thankful, but I’m also reflective.

My Mom’s a Democrat, but she is also pro life. Her heart leans more towards the Catholic belief. But my dad is a devout Republican. And I’ve had to sit down with him and tell him that I walk around differently from him. I’m a minority. Even though I don't share this culture, when people see me they automatically think "Oh, Asian. Ching Chong.” I don't even get to be uplifted by my culture. I just get shut down. And I’m a woman. I'm very short and I walk around this world being afraid. And my dad doesn't have to go through these experiences. But he didn't really give me the time of day. That's what breaks my heart the most. He couldn't even see that in his own daughter.

I had a conversation with my friend about this. She’s black and her ancestry dates back to slavery. She told me that we’re very similar in different ways. We're both stripped of our culture. But at least she had a community of people, and a family, and a place she could call home. I didn't necessarily have any of that growing up. I'm glad there’s these groups like CCI that connect us because I didn’t really get that kind of connection with my older friends who have assimilated.

My parents weren't very educated in anything regarding Chinese culture. We went to these Families with Children from China (FCC Organization) gatherings, but they were so watered down. Very whitewashed. Most of the speakers or the people in charge were white. We didn't have traditional Chinese food. We would have chicken and dumplings, turkey, broccoli, asparagus, etc. It wasn't right and I knew it wasn’t, but I didn’t have access to anything different.

I got my 23andme results and the closest I got was a fourth cousin. I’ve always had this feeling in my heart that my birth mother is dead. I don't know if it’s just because my inclination is right and she is dead or she’s just dead to me. In part because I don’t know her. I don’t know who held me for the first time. I don't know whose belly button I was cut from. I would always look at my belly button and tell myself that because I'm not from here; my belly button is different from other kids. That was the only tie to my birth mother that I had. I also have a fear of rejection. The relative results from my 23andMe were very slim, but if I got somebody closer there might have been a chance that they would know who my parents are. And I don't know if I’m ready for that. My parents could be the greatest people on earth. But they could also be the worst. And either my mom didn't have a choice giving me up or she did. And if that came up and she told me they didn't want me, that would be heartbreaking.

My whole life is followed by my adoption, which can be sad but it's also a defining feature in my life. I want to carry it around with pride. I'm one of, let’s say 80,000, children adopted from China. Even if it's not all good, it’s special. Even though we weren't all together in China or are scattered across different states or countries, we can find a community where we have these experiences that nobody else can take from us. I want that to be prideful for not only me but for everybody.


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