Stuck In Racial Limbo

Confused about my identity since my biological race doesn't match the one I was raised around.

by Hazel Luo Yafang Livingston

Names have been changed.

A few months ago, my friends and I were having a conversation about our experiences as people of color. From across the classroom, a friend of mine said, “It’s the ignorant people on the streets who annoy me the most. Like, just because I look Asian, I need to be stopped and said ‘ni hao’ to? I’m not even Chinese!”

Groaning, I added, “I know! Don’t you love it when strangers come up to you and start widening their eyes, talking really slowly, and making crazy gestures with their hands? It’s both funny and offensive.”

“Hazel,” she said with a slight laugh and then sighing, “I love you, but you can’t relate. You were raised White.”

In a room full of Asians, those words were like a slap in my face. As an adopted Chinese child of White parents, I have wrestled with my identity for most of my life. I don’t look like my parents, which has always made me feel out of place.

My mother once told me that my Filipina babysitter, Bernadette, was often mistaken for my mother, and people thought my mother was my babysitter. Hearing this story made me feel guilty—like I was abnormal for not fitting the expectations of what a daughter should look like. It made me feel like a bad daughter.

This insinuation from my peers that I was too White to understand the plight of other POC was frustrating. I laughed along with my friend but it felt wrong. Plenty of strangers on the street have walked past me making racial slurs. But it felt like my friend took away my Asian identity. I felt a complete lack of control in choosing who I was. Others seemed to decide for me.

I felt stuck in a no man’s land with other adoptees whose race doesn’t match the one they are raised around.

No One to Relate To

I was adopted from China in 2003. My middle name, Luo Yafang, is the name the orphanage gave me. The last name “Luo” and first character “Ya” I share with every other girl who was adopted from that orphanage that year. “Fang” is the distinct character that was given to me, and it means fragrant or aromatic. This part of my name is one of the few things I have always had in common with other Chinese people.

Growing up, I experienced racial taunting either out in public or in school only a few times, but it was enough to make me feel like an outcast. I’d be greeted with weird bows and saluted with foreign words I’d never heard before. People, mainly White, would place their index fingers on the outer corners of their eyes and pull them until they could barely see. I’d hear jokes from my mostly-White classmates about not being Asian if I didn’t test well or kept messing up on the piano.

But at the time, I didn’t know anyone who I thought would understand. I didn’t even tell my parents about these incidents until long after they happened, when I was in middle school.

“I can’t believe she would say that to you,” my mom said, and my dad added, “I’m so sorry something terrible like that happened.”

I appreciated their concern, but they were unable to give me advice about how to respond to these racist comments, having never been on the receiving end of a “ching chong” slur or “slanted-eye” motion.

I continued to wonder how to respond. All I knew was that they made me uncomfortable.

Wanting to Be White

Because of these instances, I was constantly trying to figure out how to feel comfortable with how I looked.

In middle school, I was the only Asian girl and one of three East Asians. Even though I knew being from China made me Asian, I felt fake in a way. I’d mark the AAPI box (Asian American Pacific Islander) on all my standardized tests but wondered if the machines looking over my test might malfunction if a girl with the name “Hazel Livingston” checked that she was Asian.

I wanted to be seen as White, rather than Asian. These were the people I grew up around, and maybe if I “pretended” to be White, the racist incidents would stop. I had never heard a stranger stop and accost my parents for being White. I associated being White with being safe from demeaning racist slurs.

Of course, I didn’t know then my wish to act White was bound to fail! Racist incidents and remarks are usually based on appearance, not by who you think you are.

Still, I began wanting to erase my middle name and every other East Asian characteristic I carried with me. I refused to watch anything Chinese, whether it be a wuxia action movie or even something about China on the international news. I exaggerated my dislike of math and science and I started feeling insecure about my love for music and singing, activities often associated with studious Asian kids. I wanted to be nothing like the stereotypical Asian, because that would set me apart. I thought this would finally make me comfortable in my own skin.

Hazel is on the left, next to a friend from her orphanage.

The most egregious example of this transformation effort was befriending Sarah, a white, Starbucks-obsessed, “I’m not like other girls” kind of girl, who believed she didn’t “see color” because she “grew up in the hood.” That was exactly the kind of friend I wanted, someone who said she didn’t see race at all. Her professed “color-blindness” was relieving to me because I thought being with her would make race disappear.

On our way to Starbucks one day, Sarah and another girl told me that I was their “Honorary White Girl.” Although I cringe at the label now, at the time the nickname felt like a compliment. I thought I had become the “basic White girl.”

Honorary Asian Girl?

But I was still taunted with Asian stereotypes and reality set in that my face would never be read as White.

The move to high school helped. There are a lot of Asian American students and now most of my friends are Asian American and raised in New York City. Having people who looked like me in my social circles slowly helped make me stop feeling so different.

I started watching Chinese classics like Kung Fu Hustle and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For my friends, Chinese subtitles were the norm, not something seen as weird or different.

I thought I had made a huge leap in figuring out my identity. Of course, that didn’t feel like the case when my friend dismissed me as “raised White.” I was still being excluded because of my background, but this time it was the reverse: Was I now “Honorary Asian Girl”?

I had been tentative about discussing these subjects. But then I got up the nerve to ask my best friend—who just happened to be my crib-mate from the orphanage I was adopted from—if she had had similar experiences. I began by framing it as a joke, to blunt the blow if she thought I was being weird.

“Wanna talk about adoption and some crazy fun racial experiences we may have had some time this week? Just for funsies,” I asked.

She responded with a casual “sure” and then we spent three hours talking about how our adoptions have shaped our interactions with others. I told her about Sarah and the people on the street and suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone.

I began engaging my friends—whether they were from school, camp, or other girls from the orphanage (we’re all in the tri-state area)—in long conversations about race, culture, and identity.

This included “heavy stuff” I never brought up before, like if having White parents held me back from a true “Asian American experience.”

At times it was frustrating, like when I was told I might be subconsciously “promoting Orientalism” if I wore a qipao, because I don’t have the authentic, lived experiences that actual Chinese people do. Aren’t I an actual Chinese person myself? I thought.

In these discussions, though, I’ve discovered the breadth of our backgrounds and am beginning to think that there isn’t one way to be Asian American. We have differences in not just culture, but class. I’ve learned that there are thousands of immigrant families in neighborhoods like Flushing and Chinatown that experience racism, economic inequality, and other hardships I don’t. Asian Americans aren’t a monolith or solely defined by a checkbox.

Having these conversations allows me to learn from others about things my parents could not have taught me because they are White. I’m treated like a minority because I’m seen as one, and my friends have shared their wisdom with me about the way these perceptions work.

Accepting Racial Limbo

I think I’ll continue to sometimes feel like I’m in racial limbo where I’m not White enough for one group but not Asian enough for others. It’s hard looking like something you don’t necessarily identify with.

Over time, it’s become easier for me to talk about my discomfort. Yes, I’ve been raised with White privilege, and now I can say, yes, I’m East-Asian-representing. I have bona fides not even my friends do. My middle name. I am also the only one of my friends who was born in Asia, and I have the scars to prove it—from the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis given to babies born in China, Japan, and Korea.

There are days when I still feel strange claiming Chinese identity. And then there are times I find myself looking for the next chapter of a manhua (comic story) that’s still only available in Chinese. I’m still figuring things out.

Discussion Questions

  1. What effect do racist remarks and insults have on Hazel?
  2. What are the dangers or disadvantages of treating a group of people as a “monolith”?
  3. How can we show people that they are more than just a representative of a “monolith” or racial category to us?
  4. What might be difficult about being in “racial limbo,” as Hazel defines it? In what ways is it difficult for Hazel?

I felt stuck in a no man's land with other adoptees whose race doesn't match the one they are raised around.
Explore All Topics