The past year has been marred by a disturbing spike in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, from the former president labeling COVID-19 the "Chinese Virus" to, almost exactly one year later, a white man opening fire at three Atlanta spas and killing eight people, including six Asian women.
It's a lot to process for anyone — but Asian adoptees who grew up with non-Asian parents (usually, white parents) face a unique challenge: How do they process anti-Asian hate when the perpetrators often look like their own families? How do they figure out what it means to be Asian American and fit in with a community they didn't necessarily grow up with?
TODAY spoke to adoptees about how they're feeling, how they grew up and how they're having these difficult conversations with family. Every adoptee has a different story, but here are a few they shared with us.
During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
“I don’t think it’s ever been easy for me to identify as an Asian person. I sort of inherited my parents’ colorblindness toward myself. Seeing the attacks in Atlanta, I was almost left wondering, 'Is this really my community?' Because I’ve never been seen as a member of this community. Whenever I met Asian people, they would tell me, 'Oh, you’re not really Asian.'
I didn't talk to my parents that day. However, I did speak to another one of my white family members. He said to me, 'You know, when it happened, I didn’t even really think of you, because I don’t really see you as an Asian person. You’re just Lauren.' That’s something that was rampant throughout my childhood: 'We don’t see color.' I know it’s rooted in a place of love. I know it’s rooted in, 'We love you so much, we don’t see you as different from us.' But it’s almost like they don’t see me. It’s this constant battle to be seen all the time, which can be really difficult."
—Lauren J. Sharkey, 34, author of “Inconvenient Daughter,” in Philadelphia
“I learned about the shooting in Atlanta through Facebook. My parents didn’t know what was happening. I was explaining it to my mom and trying not to cry because it was so hard. The man who murdered those people is the same color as my family. The people he killed look like me. At first, I felt disconnected from my family. We had a lot of deep conversations. They really wanted to just listen and learn because they will never understand what we’re going through. I told them that just talking about it is really meaningful.
My brother is also adopted from China, but we’re from two completely different provinces. He and I weren’t really close but this has kind of brought us closer together, because we’re able to talk about our experiences. It was nice to have a conversation about how we’re feeling.
I do sometimes wish I grew up with parents that dealt with what I deal with being Chinese, because I don’t necessarily have the resources. I would have known a lot more about anti-Asian microaggressions. I know there are more since COVID started. They try their best to understand."
—Cosette Eisenhauer, 19, college student in Euless, Texas
“I was adopted in the ’70s. There was no internet. You couldn’t just Google something. We grew up in an all-white, small, rural community. I had no idea about Asian culture whatsoever. Our parents had a group of friends and they tried to do an international night. My mom made beef and broccoli.
I had racial slurs said to me. These are people that I grew up with. They would sing the Rice-A-Roni song to me. My parents never talked about racism at all. Back in the day, it was all about the colorblind perspective. They were taught that they were supposed to see us as their own. I don’t blame them for the way they are. The adoption agency didn’t give them any resources.
Now that I’m older, I speak up more about racism. The Asian American community is still my community, regardless of my parents — whether or not I feel a part of it — because of how I look. All people see are my physical features, which are Asian."
—Sarah Frette, 45, doctoral student and degree audit coordinator at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa
“When the Atlanta shooting happened, I just happened to be back at home with my mom. My immediate reaction was to not bring it up or talk about it, because I didn’t want her to have to worry about me.
But it was complicated, too, because a lot of these attacks were happening on Asian elders. So my own thoughts weren’t, ‘Oh, I wonder if my mom feels fearful for herself.’ Of course she doesn’t — she’s not Asian. My grandmother isn’t Asian. It was complicated to think about my family at that time, and whether or not they were thinking about me, and whether or not I felt guilty because of that. I immediately just felt shame and guilt. I don’t want them to have to feel like I’m a burden."
—Dan Matthews, 35, creative producer in Los Angeles
“I’ve never totally fit anywhere, and I think that sort of handicaps you when you’re younger, and you have to do a lot of work to make sense of it. But for me, now, I have found community with other people who don’t fit, with other adopted people. I don’t feel like I’m Korean the way a Korean person with Korean parents who are immigrants feels, because I’m not.
My mom was the head of my Brownie troop and trying to make stinky kimchi for a bunch of second graders because she wanted me to feel proud of where I came from. There’s an inherent challenge in bringing home someone from someplace else, having them as your own and not looking alike. There’s no prescription."
—Caitlin Ringwood, 34, works in government consulting in New York City
“I don’t think having white parents prevents you from being a part of the Asian community. But they don’t provide the resources, either. So if you want to become part of that community, the onus is on you to do so. And because of the society we grew up in, where every face in the media is a handsome white guy or a beautiful white girl, that desire isn’t necessarily there.
When the shooting (in Atlanta) happened, it was a lot to process. I did bring it up at the dinner table with my parents. At that point, the police commissioner had come out and said, 'This is a sex addict.' The first thing my father said was, 'Oh, well, we don’t know for sure what his motive was.' And that really set me off. The history of fetishization of Asian women in America, based on who his targets were … you can’t divorce that. It’s not one or the other. After I calmed down, we had a really productive conversation.”
—Jeremy Burns, 33, architect in Severna Park, Maryland
These interviews have been edited and condensed.