15 thoughts on “Views on culture and race

  1. This is a fantastic, very insightful & meaty question that requires a lot of contemplation. I would like to answer in greater detail at another time.

    But in short for now, I will simply say that my views on culture and race have dramatically metamorphosed as a result of searching and, in my case, reuniting.

    It is hard to put into words how life-altering and how psychologically and socially demanding the process of searching & reuniting are and how drastically these processes change and alter one’s perspectives and experiences of culture and race…

    I look forward to reading the responses of others…

  2. Growing up, I always identified with marginalized races, as one would expect.

    My parents were very liberal-minded people who raised me to value the ideals of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and I was the living testament of their liberal thinking. However, it was clear that these were in all other ways academic ideals as brushes with ethnic minorities were spoken of with pride, as if a feather in their liberal caps, and remained isolated events. We lived a segregated life, in a segregated community, and I was forced to test the racial tolerance of all those around me. Which, I might add, was quite surreal — because I was not marginalized as an Asian immigrant would be, but elevated as an exotic and unique prize.

    And being thus raised as, what I call white plus, I found myself fearful and envious of other minorities who all seemed, despite their controlled demeanor, rich with culture and confident in who they were. Being raised white plus I learned to tense up in fear, like my parents tried to hide, around assertive African Americans and to be ashamed of meek Asians, who seemed more foreign and whose presence diminished my own status whenever in close proximity. I had been raised to be a liberal yet repressed racist.

    Recognizing that anti-racism was academic for my family and myself and that this was a personal deficit, I endeavored to sympathize with minorities around me whenever possible, and the minority at hand were African Americans. You could say I became a student of their culture. I became fascinated that they had a culture, when my white parents seemed to have none. And this was not so hard to access, because I was also exotic to them. They had a voice. They were the edge and the energy driving pop culture as well, their influence was everywhere, and their anger was justified and brought them solidarity.

    I, on the other hand, had only myself.

    I am still enamored and envious of their community.

    Asians didn’t even register: they had no voice and their culture was totally foreign to me. They didn’t understand what I was, or how clueless I was, and all encounters with them were traumatic for me. I became petrified of Asians. There was nothing they had in America that I wanted. I was horrified to superficially appear to be one of them. I think that says a lot about the messages we derive from western culture about eastern cultures.

    And so it went until just prior to my search as a woman in her forties. For me, my search was not just about finding my family (unsuccessfully) or finding my identity (I didn’t – maybe still don’t – understand quite what that means) or the culture of my mother country. Search has been mostly about overcoming fear of my own race.

    It is a long painful process and I can not say I’m fully successful yet, despite two years living here in Korea. Being raised white plus is embedded in me. It is with a conscious effort that I confront the racist in me every day. I am beginning to feel comfortable around Asian faces, but am having difficulty accepting a culture which in many ways behaves in polar opposition to my western cultural values.

    The major change that has taken place is a new-found repulsion with western men. As quoted from a poem by adoptee Christy Namee Ericksen, I’ve had enough of “only dating color-blind white men who have a thing for Asians.” Being exotic in America was exhausting and, in retrospect, caused great anxiety and insecurity in me. Likewise, disappearing in a sea of black hair and olive skin I feel erased. And also impotent, as I am deprived of the tools everyone else has to communicate their unique person-hood to others.

    My views on culture have not changed since coming here: they have been strengthened. I always felt any attempts at introducing me to my birth culture was merely an empty gesture. I had no idea how right I was, and how even more paltry it appears after having lived here – surrounded by it – and yet still it is inaccessible and I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s just too rich to retrieve after an absence during ones formative years. It’s just another loss to add to the pile.

    As for racism, it is everywhere. Here it is compounded with envy, adulation, and mistrust of colonists. On many days, I am ashamed to be part of the human race – western or eastern.

    It’s quite early in the morning, so I’d like to finish here. But I do want to revisit this topic again at a later date. Maybe when I figure out what finding one’s identity means…all will be revealed.

  3. I don’t even know where to begin answering this question. Everything posted above rings so true and resonates so much; it’s almost enough to just sit here and bask in the knowledge that others know what I went through.

    I like that definition of “white plus”. It fits so well. When I think about it, my family was this protective shell, and I would have to leave them and face the world on my own–in school, at work, etc. At home, it was conveniently forgotten, and I was told that race didn’t matter, and I could pretend to belong. But this was only immediate family–uncles and aunts asked my parents “what color the baby was” when they were told I had been adopted. The first question I was asked in school at age 6 was: “why are you brown?” There is that issue for some of us of a certain age of the disturbingly named “flesh” crayon in the Crayola box (bright pink); again in first grade this was endlessly pointed out to me. In my neighborhood, being the darkest one meant being referred to as “nigger” by certain kids. And children say what parents don’t dare say, or admit. In and of themselves, these are so many nothings. But we were denied a supportive community to fight this, and we were fed the mythologies that no one else believed in. I call this death by a thousand cuts.

    Growing up, this all translated into a deep hatred of my ethnicity, and a desire to erase it. I, too, took on reviling those who resembled me, and falling for some All-American ideal of beauty in terms of relationships and the like. Growing up in New Jersey made things a little bit easier; my high school was pretty diverse. But we still voted for “Most All-American” in our high school senior yearbook poll. It didn’t even register with those of us in the 40% non-white population of my school that this was in any way repulsive. Such is the dominant cultural mode of the U.S. But then there was Roots, and the reveling in one’s ethnicity followed soon thereafter by ethnic studies. In this bizarre twist, I was able to celebrate an ethnicity that wasn’t mine, whereas I could never truly announce that I was “Irish” or “Dutch” or “English”, the ethnicities of my adoptive parents. So, I was then Lebanese; at least among non-Lebanese; Arab among non-Arabs….a stealth existence of dancing with shadows.

    This was turned on its head when I moved to France to finish my undergrad studies. All of a sudden I was placed in a situation where there was no hiding from the French hatred for Arabs. Landlords told me they wouldn’t rent rooms to Arabs; I was stopped by the police at least once if not five times a day on the street, in the subways and forced to present identity papers. When I complained, my friends would tell me it was because of my “gueule arabe”–My Arab face (snout). How was this possible? I denied being part of a cultural group again to try and fit in. This was made worse by expatriate Lebanese who reminded me constantly that I “wasn’t truly Lebanese”. New York City then became my refuge. This is where I resent the bogus talk of multiculturalism in the States. New York is completely segregated, still. After September 11, 2001 this changed again, and like in Paris, people were staring on the subway. All I wanted was to feel comfortable in a place. I knew I had to leave again.

    Now that I’ve returned home, I can’t describe the joy of fitting in physically speaking. This is enough at times. At first of course it was hell–not speaking the language, and not wanting to give that away. But now that I’m able to converse, the discussions I have are quite revealing. There is racism here, especially among a certain class that sees itself as European and not Arab or, God forbid, Muslim. There are the moments when I have been literally lost in a crowd for the first time in my life. This is absolutely exhilarating and completely devastating at the same time. This points to where I am likely from, and I find myself against my will in a strange way developing an attachment to places I don’t know based on what I can’t know, and I know this is dangerous. At the same time, flying back to the States has become a nightmare, summed up by a man on a domestic flight, obviously uncomfortable with me sitting next to him, asking me when we landed: “Do you call this home? Or are you just passing through?”

    Do you call this home? When do we ever get to call that place home?

    Girl4708 you touch on something that really gets to me viscerally. The absence of belonging, and the inability to bridge with other communities based on our adopted class, that is the biggest crime of this identity theft. We become false messengers of our class. When I hear adoptees berating us for speaking out, I don’t get angry because they are still drunk on KoolAid, I get angry because I was there, and I know the words that would be used to describe us in a different context: Uncle Tom; comprador; self-loathing. And how sick that when called “nigger” as a child, or “bougnoule” or “sale Arabe” in France my reaction was horror at being called out, instead of anger in the face of such racism? Why were the platitudes we were fed at home so useless in the real world?

    And so there were times when ethnicity became a calling card that allowed entrance into certain activist groups, especially in an Anglo-Saxon society that defines us based on core identity markers. I avoided this to my great regret because there was no surmounting the base problematic of the dissonance of who we were and how we presented. It’s the same dissonance that is causing such problems in terms of Obama being president–until such a time that this man can stand up and say “I am white”, there has been no advancement in terms of race in the United States. We couldn’t/can’t say we were “white”; we were/are “white plus”.

    This has been the single most bizarre aspect of coming back to Lebanon. My class level and my being American allows me access where many Lebanese could not go. My story resonates with many who are likewise dispossessed, and so I have access to many places that most Americans couldn’t go. These six years have been nothing but a complete tearing apart of every constructed identity aspect of my being. I give them all up, readily. This is incredibly painful. I still refuse to claim being “Lebanese”, even though I might get my nationality back. I refuse to claim being Arab, though many here tell me kindly that this is who I am; this is the blood in my veins. This is when I can be reduced to tears on my street based on such a comment. I do claim to be Muslim, because this is allowed me, though I have much to learn at this late stage in my life. The single most ironic thing is being able to go back to the States and engage as being of the ethnicity that was denied me my whole life. I don’t strive to do this; it is almost foisted upon me. I don’t like it, because it is a reminder of so much that is hurtful. It is like walking around with the mask I refused to wear when I lived there: It isn’t me.

    I now believe that ethnic studies and this Roots stuff is a way for the dominant culture to force us up and out, like a splinter destined to be removed; like a foreign body that is revealed and then destroyed. And I see adoption as being a function of this as well. And I’m finally comfortable with myself on a physical level, now at a stage in my life when it is too late to let this take its normal course. And this I can’t get over.

  4. “The absence of belonging, and the inability to bridge with other communities based on our adopted class, that is the biggest crime of this identity theft.”

    Oh… the pained moments when I hear other Canadian-Chinese talking in their native dialects… even if they were/are Canadian-raised…

    Or when I try to speak Chinese, and people ask me if I speak it and then proceed to let loose a string of Chinese at native pace. Is it not incredibly obvious by my accent and fragmented grammar that I wasn’t raised in a Chinese environment?!?

  5. One very sobering result of the contrast (ironic) of being in the midst of my own color has been the realization that my parents’ color-blindness in adopting an ethnic baby was really a mantle over excessive color-awareness, which seems to still be a pretty common phenomenon among adopting parents…

    I think that, just like I sought out understanding African Americans to appropriate their culture (which, of course, is inappropriate) because I had none of my own, I think my parents sought to adopt internationally for parallel reasons. Not that this was the main reason for adopting, but one of them.

    Only it wasn’t really my culture that they wanted to appropriate, because they didn’t know anything about that culture, and what could a toddler teach them, and frankly, it’s too much work – impossible, actually – to take on something esoteric like that. What my parents enjoyed and appreciated was my superficial difference: my race.

    So coming to Korea, I used to see little children and babies and the first thoughts that came to my head were, “oh how cute! I want one!” And I had to stop myself because I realized it was the white raised me, the person who rarely sees Asians and who exoticizes my own race, who takes any baby who is almost always cute and then combines that with the Asian race into an irresistible desire. And I realized I had become a consumer, and I was sickened by myself.

    And then I would look and see they were holding their mothers’ hands, and I would look further up and see an Asian woman on the other end, and then I would cry, because that seemed so strange to me, and it was not right that that should seem strange.

    Anyway, I’m finally getting over that.

    btw, I spoke at a high school about adoption recently, and afterward, the teacher mentioned to me that it seemed a little bizarre how I used the word Asian. It seems I still group all yellow people together, the way I did and everyone else does in the west. It seems I am so used to being grouped together as the other that it may take me the rest of my life to accept that somewhere in the world – even the place I am currently living – I am of the dominant race. As a result of international adoption, I will forever be a minority. In America, I was a minority due to race and here in Korea I am a minority because I am a deaf mute with the wrong culture. I just seem to always have the wrong packaging or the wrong ingredients, no matter where I go.

    You know, adoptees talk about loss of identity or identity reassignment. But cultural re-branding of imported goods has a pretty huge impact as well.

  6. I am not going to be able to do justice in my answer because the topic of race is so complex, particularly in adoption.

    Five years ago I attempted to attend a Chinese-Canadian cultural event. It was then I realized how deep the chasm is between a Caucasian-raised Chinese person and a Chinese-Canadian-raised Chinese person is.

    That is not to say the Chinese-Canadian person cannot relate at all, but to emphasize the difference in cultural and social elements in a Chinese-Canadian household versus a purely white, Caucasian household.

    The Caucasian household tends to exoticize the culture of birth since the culture of origin is usually passed down by an academic (“surface”) sense. White parents cannot teach what they themselves don’t know; if they were NOT adopted, they cannot pass down the child’s culture of origin in the same way they can of their own cultural backgrounds by the mere foundation of having been raised by their flesh and blood and family traditions.

    Therefore, trying to teach an adopted child culture in a way that doesn’t seem to pass as strictly “textbook” (ie. making dumplings once a year for “special events” versus living in a community where stuff like this is done frequently to the point where it’s more natural instead of “academic learning”)
    delves into the issue of cultural appropriation.

    It can also come across to the child as obligation. Why pass on a culture you gained an interest in because of your child? How can one claim to be “multi-cultural” if the only reason they take their child to Korean classes is because they don’t want their child to feel loss? That’s not intrigue.

    That said, it is impossible to replicate the culture & language of origin. Since it is impossible, we should realize that fact for what it is and accept the consequences and effects that come with it: disappointment, fear, anger, racism, etc.

    I will never be like a native Chinese person because I was raised as a white Caucasian in a white family. There was no way my parents could have replicated my birth culture, short of physically moving TO an area which would have immersed me in the language and culture.

    Therefore, reactions such as anger towards the inability to read or speak should not be minimized or placated. It is what it is: it sucks. This is a loss that is impossible to alleviate.

    Attempting to branch out tends to either get the “You’re Canadian now”/”You’re not really Chinese and you will never be since you weren’t raised by Chinese parents” vs “Oh, you’re learning Chinese, how cool!”/”It’s natural to have curiousity in your roots, but don’t forget, you’re Canadian.”

    I am fully, linguistically and culturally Canadian. Attempts to submerge myself into the surface of Canadian-Asian culture feels “false” and “foreign” even as I have this nagging feeling it shouldn’t be.

    And then… then there are others who see me as “white honourary.” To them, I am not Asian, and I should not “try” to be. For them to truly see me as Asian, that would mean having to deny my Canadian heritage, as that is all I have ever known.

    And so I remain divided: longing for my birth culture, and repulsed by how little knowledge I truly have beyond a textbook and a phrasebook. Heart-wrenching sorrow that I will never truly know it except as a “tourist” in my birth country.

  7. Oh, yes, whenever I am asked about where I’m from, the topic of race rears its head:

    What do I say? I’m adopted? I’m Chinese but-not-really since I was raised as a Caucasian? I’m honourary white but-not-really since people tend to assume I can speak my “supposed” mother tongue with some degree of proficiency?

    For me to say I will never “truly” be like a Chinese because of my linguistic capability and lack of intuitive Chinese upbringing, that is a harsh blow. It cuts deep.

    It is far, far worse when others use that to point out how white I am and how I will never be Chinese. Adoption forces me to deny my heritage because adoption created my Canadian identity. I am Canadian because I was adopted.

    Just because I can “go back” does not I can magically reassimilate.

    It is a reminder I will never be a “true” sibling to my kept siblings, a “true” daughter to my blood mother, a reminder that I am an “intruder” in the cultural sense.

  8. “And then I would look and see they were holding their mothers’ hands, and I would look further up and see an Asian woman on the other end, and then I would cry, because that seemed so strange to me, and it was not right that that should seem strange.”

    I remember seeing this in Taiwan.

    It was so heart-wrenching, I can’t describe it. One time a toddler started a conversation with me in a dumpling shop. His mother assumed I could speak Chinese and spoke in a way that was obviously intended for a more mature pair of ears about her toddler’s curiousity.

    It was so humiliating to have to tell her “I can’t understand” (in Chinese) and witness her total perplexity.

  9. This has been absolutely the hardest thing: Language. Not just in terms of learning the language itself–this is where adoptive parents make their mistake in signing their children up for culture lessons or what have you. I mean in terms of the distance from thought; the cognitive remove from a culture. There is no overcoming this. This is why within dominant cultures who remove people from their linguistic origins via adoption (Native Americans; indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia; the Irish; etc.), there is no seeming problem allowing them the cultural reference. Once you have someone thinking in your language, then you have won the primary battle.

    And thus re-integration along these lines is very difficult. I can say growing up I had an intense hatred for situations where I would stand out in any way; I think this is echoed by many adoptees. And so when I moved to my neighborhood here in Beirut, I was faced with being in a place where most people were still living after decades and decades; where an intense communal sociality held sway and the people outside of that were literally foreigners–French, mostly, as I’m close to the embassy and the cultural center.

    There was no one to translate for me. I had no ability to relate my story, or who I was. In my job, I spoke English and French all day long and so had no practice. I was petrified of any and all social situations that required me to speak. You guys have all written about this on your blogs and it sits with me like a stone and fills me with such sadness….but I also remember going through this with French in France, and so knew that it was a question of time and effort. I can also relate experiences in the States where because the expectation was that English would not come out of my mouth, my words were not understood. Some of my colleagues at the university do this to me when I speak Arabic. There is an effort to speak, but there is also an effort to understand.

    And so for the first years I forced myself, every night, to go and hang out on my corner. I drank tea with the guys, standing stock still in a world I could not penetrate, trying not to think the thoughts that otherwise would have me run to hide in my house. All of my feeble attempts at speaking Arabic were met with a desire to learn the English words i was trying to say in Arabic. Meaning, no one was listening to what I was saying, they wanted to learn this other language that to many is seen as a way out of their life situation. I was a walking, living dictionary, and not much more. Half the neighborhood thought I was a spy. The half that didn’t, they didn’t understand why I would want to live in a neighborhood like this one, or why I would want to hang out with people not of my “professorial class”. Every night. Forcing myself to attempt to re-integrate….

    There were so many phases to this: understanding I was the subject of conversation but not understanding what was being said about me; being treated (again) by the French in my neighborhood as just another Arab on the street (though my Rouen accent from Normandy freaked them out); understanding the local dialect but then not fathoming the television (Modern Standard) much less the Qur’an (Classical); etc. After five years I’m finally able to hold my own in conversations, stick up for myself, play with kids in the neighborhood who no longer see me as this weird living statue….

    I’m going on and on. I mean to focus on a realization that was really life-changing for me here: that of understanding that even though it was torture to hang out at times, the welcome was genuine. The ideas I had going in my head that I was being “put up with” were leftover baggage from growing up. Once I cleared this from my head, things got easier in this regard. This is what makes it easier here; growing up different means being the Painted Bird, slated for destruction by others in the flock. Also, I can see in my students who were educated French or American this same remove from their culture, and so I am not “alone” in this quest for re-integration.

    All the same, there is still this kind of ever-present remove that exists: no matter how close I come to this destination, the further it recedes; the greater the energy required to move closer. This is the hardest part.

  10. “Not just in terms of learning the language itself–this is where adoptive parents make their mistake in signing their children up for culture lessons or what have you.”

    I don’t understand what you mean.

    “This is why within dominant cultures who remove people from their linguistic origins via adoption (Native Americans; indigenous peoples in Canada, Australia; the Irish; etc.), there is no seeming problem allowing them the cultural reference. Once you have someone thinking in your language, then you have won the primary battle.”

    Well, of course. It’s inevitable given the nature of adoption.

    But I don’t see why it’s a mistake to sign children up for language classes.

  11. Culture classes are inauthentic and superficial.

    I don’t think he was rallying against language classes: maybe the opposite.

    The quote you cited is saying that assimilation efforts which replace language of origin is a major way in which culture is erased. Survival depends upon thinking and speaking in the ways of the dominant culture. Language assimilation is a violent process, cutting us off from communicating with what was our birthright.

  12. It’s not a mistake signing up children for language classes; it is a mistake thinking that this gives them their culture back.

    Language requires immersion. How many dialects in China? I understand and speak Levant Arabic, but have a big problem with Egyptian, North African, or Gulf Arabic. Perhaps if I had grown up and had been taught Classical Arabic I would be having an easier time now. But I don’t see or hear of this intensive kind of training in our original languages as adoptees. It’s a superficial cultural conceit; window dressing. Further, I still would not be thinking in the language. I studied French all my life and lived in France for four years; I have an insight into French culture through the language, but my mother tongue is English–I think in English.

    The language isn’t just learning words, but knowing culturally where the thought process of language comes from.

  13. “The language isn’t just learning words, but knowing culturally where the thought process of language comes from.”

    No wonder I rarely ever think in Chinese – even when I was in Taiwan.

  14. There are probably hundreds of dialects. Fortunately, my birth culture only requires I study the most prominent one – Mandarin.

    Unfortunately, Mandarin is on the opposite side of the spectrum (sans Japanese syntax).

  15. This is a great, if very complex, compound issue. For me broadly speaking my views on culture and race have most definitely changed and rather significantly over the past ten years. Initially growing up in an all white society with no more than an Indian restaurant and me as the two non-white things in the local community I was actually aware of difference. From a very early age even if I could not express it I knew I was “different”. I was schooled, my language, the culture that I knew was the same – but I was not. More importantly I was not physically the same as everyone else around me including the people who had adopted me.
    My initial reaction to this was to try even harder to fit in. To affect a “whiteness” in my outlook, in my dress-sense, in socialisation. But I was mostly shunned, ignored or worse racially abused – more often than not it was below the line racism. But during the ’60s and ’70s it was very vocal and public. So it was common to be spat at called a “Chink” or “Ching-Chong” have adults and children pull their eyes back and speak “cod Chinese” to me.

    The older I got and the more grounded I became (after having had a nervous break down) the less I wanted to fit in or be like the rest of the people around me. Once I took on board and accepted what and who I was or more importantly was not. Life personally became easier. In that coping with racism both from the white community and also those of East Asian heritage was less of a trial. But I became actually aware of the internal racism amongst many East Asian nations and also the issue of “authenticity” both from white and East Asian peoples.

    I identify, support, empathise and sympathise with all under-represented groups in society, with those that are discriminated against because of their heritage, ethnicity, race, colour, gender or religious views. But in the UK it’s a very peculiar position to be in that is an Asian – well in the UK we are known as East Asians. Asian is a term sole used to identify people from the sub continent of India. I joke about this that only overseas nations formerly part of the British Empire that understand cricket are perceived or accepted as being “British”

    British East Asians as a minority ethnic group in Britain are at the bottom of the ethnic pile. We are a minority within the minorities.
    There is a racial hierarchy in the UK –
    Black-(African, Caribbean)
    South Asian (Indian, Pakistani Bangladeshi)
    East Asian (Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japanese, Korean Vietnamese, Taiwanese Malay, Filipino,Burmese etc)

    When the umbrella term BAME is used in the UK it usually excludes people of East Asian decent and heritage (it’s not meant to) but often it does. Because British East Asian as a conceptis still not widely accepted. Britian doesn’t do hyphenated citizenship racial heritage well at all. It’s only just gotten to grips with Black-British and British-SouthAsian. For some reason the idea of British East Asian for the majority of the wider society is something they just are not willing to accept. And then you have the racism of purity from within the East Asian community. Take myself as an example many with what I would term right-wing views do not consider me to be “Chinese” because I was brought up in the West, I don’t speak, Cantonese, Mandarin or Hakka (where would a child raised by a white family in the late ’50s early 60s’ with no connections to the fareast have gone to learn speak Chinese evening my parents had been open to this?)

    Being born or raised in the UK if you are of East Asian heritage seems to “taint” you and down grades you form being seen as authentically “Chinese/EastAsian” as less than “pure.”

    So you add these entrenched views with the structural and institutional racism that is still very much in-place in British society even now in the 21stc it’s always going to be a challenge for a transracial adoptee like myself.

    Race may well be a social construct but it’s one that has stuck and is now deeply engrained and embedded into all aspects of society.
    I am both liberated and trapped by my hyphenated heritage. Im ostracised and face racial abuse (always have) for the way that I look.

    I understand who and what I am and more importantly as I have said before what I am not and I focus on what I can change, control and not what others do. Slightly simplistic maybe but I can only do what I can do.
    And basically I don’t take no shit from anyone now! I am proud of my East Asian heritage and I am also proud of being British (most of the time) I would not be the person that I am without both facets I am more because of it.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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