When I was in high school, I saw myself as someone who moved between cliques. My main friend group included smart athletic types, potheads, and nerds (we wouldn’t have classified ourselves in that way—we would have said we were “normal”). Many of us were in Model U.N., mostly because it meant a trip every year. A few of us were friends with the more popular kids. A few of us who played sports were friends with the jocks. A few of us were friends with the weird kids. A few of us were friends with the theater kids. Who was I? My junior year, I started an Angelfire site with a friend. I got my first email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I lifted weights regularly. I played a lot of Mario Kart. I made a tie-dye t-shirt one summer with a red star crushing a donkey and an elephant. I never drank alcohol. My idea of fun was to drive around on less-frequented roads or play tackle football on crashmats at the nearby University of Connecticut.
I had been best friends with one of the popular group, once. I had made fun of and felt bad about making fun of the weird kids. I had a crush on a theater kid. I wanted to believe that it was important to me that I was not like the popular group, that I accepted everyone, or almost everyone. I was the only adopted kid in school, and to be liked was, most of all, to be known for something other than being adopted.
One year, there was a report or something that our school was too cliquish, and everyone rushed to say that it was not. Someone created t-shirts that said, “DARE TO BE DIFFERENT.” There was some pressure on us to wear these t-shirts. I hated them. Every shirt was the same, yet they professed a desire for difference. I got caught up in the irony, which wasn’t quite irony. I didn’t see that what really bothered me about the shirts was that to wear them meant something different for a white kid than for a Korean adoptee.
I had to wear the shirt about difference in order to fit in. Difference, for me, was life. It wasn’t a dare. Or, rather, it was something I dared myself not to be, all the time. I dared to be one of the gang.
As an adoptee, I was always saying I was the same as others. I was always using my words to define myself differently than who I was. I’m just like my family. I’m just like you. And sometimes, I’m not like them, not like the different kids, not someone apart. My family and friends used words in the same way. “You got that from your father,” my mother would tell me about my nail-biting or my temper. I was their kid. We were family, no different from any other.
My experience, however, told me otherwise. I remember, in kindergarten, a boy pulling his eyes and chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, Korean,” as if I was supposed to figure out which I was from the angle of the slant. I remember being asked to demonstrate karate. I remember being asked how to hold chopsticks. I remember the stares when my family went out—I would wonder later if those strangers thought I had been kidnapped or was being sexually abused.
If I wanted to try a new activity, I would recruit friends. It was complicated. Around friends, the shared experience gave me permission to feel grouped. Around my parents, I felt more alone. I realized something about difference without realizing it. That there was identification and then there was association. One was not allowed me, but the other I might at least dare for.
I still hate to be seen alone. If I am supposed to go on a simple grocery run, I will whine until my wife and daughter come along or send me out of the house. The same insecurity is at root. I am afraid of being classified as an exception. Association isn’t foolproof. A shared identity became available to me when my daughter embodied it.
It was when I went to Korea that I realized I had been holding onto so much hope of inclusion. I had traveled halfway across the earth—only to sit quietly in a group of Koreans until they asked why I didn’t speak Korean. My dashed hope became clearest to me in my desire to be alone.
In Korea, being in a group (whether of Americans or of Koreans) meant trading the hope of identification for the resignation of association. In any group, I mean, it was clear that I was still daring. I had thought that in Korea, belonging would be not a gift but a given. I had thought that I would be able to see adoption as a shirt rather than as my person. But I could never take adoption off. I had to qualify myself in order to fit in. “I came here from America.” “I came here from America but I come from Korea.” My sense of self was always at risk.
I was able to feign identification in spaces where no one knew me. Yet I was more afraid than ever to say, I am like you. Saying those words would prove them wrong.
I didn’t own those words anymore. When Koreans asked why I spoke English, I am like you was not an answer. When Americans fumbled Korean, I am like you was no longer something I wanted to be. For the first time in my life, I began to volunteer that I was adopted in order to cut off questions about the language, or what I was doing in Busan, or whether I was Chinese. I started to use my difference to distance myself before anyone else could. Adoption, not race, was the identity I had left. I was as different in Korea as I had always been.
The cultural gap between my wife and me is now a constant stress on our relationship. It requires explanation and often, rather than empathy, acknowledgement. Or perhaps what I mean is that empathy for each other sometimes takes the form of understanding that our experience of something is not and will never be shared. This is a difficult gap to accept. But to understand someone different is impossible without trying to understand the difference between you.
One thing that comes up often is our relationship with race. America has a unique racial context. Before our daughter reached school-age, for example (when we discovered that foreign language speakers, no matter their English ability, are placed in ESL classes), it was hard to explain to my wife why Asian Americans are offended when white people ask where we are from. She was always proud to answer, “Korea,” sometimes even for both of us. She didn’t care what the question implied, because to her the answer was unambiguous. Now she might say that I am from America and she is from Korea. I want to answer with a middle finger. The question itself demands qualification. Difference is not a privilege but an obligation—no wonder it becomes undesirable even as it is unavoidable. No wonder it is so hard to acknowledge and accept, when demanding it are people for whom it is a dare.
The way one classifies difference depends on his understanding of himself. For my wife, Japanese and Chinese are different races from Korean. Of course, race is a construct. Difference is a construct. To see an Asian person as anyone Korean or Indian or Tibetan or Filipino, people with diverse cultures and skin colors and even colonial influences, is to see a constructed singularity of difference. The singularity of how various differences are treated by white Americans. The boy who chanted, “Chinese, Japanese, Korean,” at me wasn’t differentiating those ethnicities from each other; he was differentiating them from him. It didn’t matter which I was supposed to be. My wife sees Japanese as different from her in one way, and Chinese as different from her in another way. I felt different from Japanese and Chinese because I felt white.
The demand for qualification can be confusing. Lately, I have seen those t-shirts from my high school reappear in spirit, as it becomes trendy to protest for equal rights by declaring, “I am So-and-so.” Those declarations, even for causes I believe in, make me feel excluded. I have trouble saying, I am, without remembering all of the times I have been told, You are not. To someone who has always had to qualify himself, it can be frustrating to see identification with difference ignore the burden of qualification. It is easy todare to be different. But solidarity with difference is impossible without acknowledging the inherent non-solidarity of difference. Accepting a life of I am not becomes very difficult when the pressure on difference is I am. The idea that my wife and I must be a unit is what makes our cultural differences a stressor. A shared identification and a shared difference are not the same.
As an adopted child, I wanted badly to prove—and to feel—that my parents were right when they told me I was like them. That is why it hurt so badly to be seen with them. I felt that I was letting them down, that I was not holding up my end of the bargain, to be their real child. “Do you know anything about your real parents?” was a question often asked of me. I always said my parents were my real parents. It hurt me as much to be told that they were not my real parents as it must have hurt them when I told them so. Everyone, including me, was always asserting our difference, even as everyone, including me, was asserting our sameness.
I remember having to convince strangers that my parents were mine at all. Sometimes, my father would head off a waiter by saying loudly that we were his kids, didn’t we look alike? It occurs to me that he, too, might have felt them wondering whether he had kidnapped us. I thought he was afraid of our difference. Sometimes, the waiter would look at me as if to give me a chance to save myself. I took to dismissing my father’s jokes, a gesture I have come to recognize as a way to identify us even more as father and son.
For most of my life, I thought that my parents didn’t believe in our difference, didn’t want to believe in it. Maybe I was wrong to think that. They probably thought that their best move, with an angry, sensitive child, was to show me that there was nothing wrong with me. That the way to accept my differences was to act as if in the end we are all the same. I do not blame them. It is a common instinct, to think one is protecting someone’s right to be different by claiming universality. And yet I grew up wondering what was wrong with me that I could not be the same when we were all so equal. I grew up wishing to be the same. I grew up wishing I could dare to be different. What I needed was for the people who loved me to call out their differences, not to see or un-see mine.
Matthew Salesses’ new novel, The Hundred-Year-Flood, is out today.
Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. He has written for NPR Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode blog, Salon, the Center for Asian American Media, and The Good Men Project. Follow him @salesses.