During the summer before high school, most of my friends ghosted me. I wasn’t completely over being abandoned when I began 9th grade, but I became more observant of how people try to fit in among social groups.
One day, in the cafeteria, I was trying to console a good friend who was going through a hard time. During the course of our conversation, I told her I had considered suicide. Another girl who was sitting at the table eavesdropping proudly interrupted with, “That’s nothing. I’ve actually tried to kill myself before.”
Neither of us knew what to say; we just smiled and nodded and walked away to continue our conversation in private. This is the most blatant example of a trend I began noticing among my peers: competing against others for the “street cred” of having had the most traumatic past. I’ve seen it occur in different spaces—college essays, party games, arguments, and casual conversations like the one I just mentioned. I am guilty of having done it myself, too.
I’m An Asian American Adoptee
When I used to play what were supposed to be simple (and harmless) icebreaker games at school, I’d introduce myself as the person who doesn’t know their own biological parents. This was my way of trying to set myself apart as different and worthy of sympathy.
I knew that almost everyone else in the room had a story they could share about their birth. But part of me also wanted to take that comfort away from them since it was something I felt was taken away from me.
I’m an Asian American adoptee and have long had complicated feelings about this. I have felt at times that my home country traded my life for money.
Those feelings began the summer after 4th grade, when I visited China with my adoptive parents. We visited the orphanage I stayed at for my first 10 months. There, my adoption became more concrete—it was more than just being told I was adopted, or here are some pictures. Now that it felt more real, when I came back to New York, I really started to resent China. And I wanted to hold onto hating it as part of my identity.
I also became more aware of feeling physically out of place. In China, at first I felt comforted to be around people that looked like me. But I noticed standing next to my parents, I looked weird. I felt like people saw us and wondered: Who is this Asian girl standing between these two White people?
I think a lot of people take for granted being able to look like their family and how comforting that is. When you look at a family photo, you can see how someone got their nose from their mom or their cheeks from their dad. I don’t have any of that.
My Trauma Trump Card
So when I’d announce my “trauma” of not knowing my biological parents to friends, classmates, even strangers sometimes, I thought I was commanding respect for telling them all I had gone through.
I was guilty of feeding into the competition of comparing traumas.
One moment particularly stands out. At 9th grade orientation, when I was still getting to know some of my classmates, we were going around the classroom talking about difficult things we’d experienced. One of the kids said they had issues with their parents because they couldn’t see eye to eye on politics.
I responded with, “Well at least you know your parents. I was abandoned by mine.” That stopped the circle of trauma for that day, and I felt good about having been the one to shut it up.
I realized there was a pride I felt in being able to prove how much I had suffered compared to others. I don’t usually come across as snippy. But in these conversations, I felt like I was able to come up with a really good comeback and the quiet of the room made me feel powerful.
But as I get older, I am realizing that these competitions are unhealthy and pointless.
I’m bothered that competitive victimhood seems to convince people that it’s cool to suffer. Some people even lie or enhance stories because they think it’ll make them more interesting and unique. I was guilty of this, too. Sometimes when classmates were discussing something as innocuous as birthdays, I bragged that by being adopted, I didn’t even know if mine was my exact date of birth.
But as I kept trying to prove I had the most traumatic upbringing, there were times when people responded, “I didn’t know that about you, I’m sorry.” I began to feel guilty, like I went too far. Yes, what many others know about their identity, I do not. But why should I make others feel bad about it?
I think comparing trauma partly comes from societal pressure. I see it in college admissions; a prompt for the personal essay on the Common App asks us to write about overcoming adversity. But as an admissions officer once told me at a college information session, “You don’t have to lose an arm or a leg to get into college.”
This pressure also exists in fiction, movies, and TV in the way we treasure bright characters who have been able to mature from tragic backstories. I see it in the way therapy is stigmatized; people who are able to “get better” without the help of a therapist, are often considered stronger than those who don’t. But in my experience, my therapist has been extremely helpful in helping me break out of this behavior.
I have yet to speak up when I hear someone trying to out-traumatize another; I’m not popular, so it would feel weird to jump in and say, “Stop talking about that.” I do however talk about this issue privately with my friends, and have shared advice on how I got past the need to outdo others. I haven’t chosen to do nothing. That’s why I decided to write this story.