Who Am I? – From Terry Hong
“Who Am I?”
Decades ago – oooh, I feel so old! – I was an undergraduate at a small college amidst the granite hills of New Hampshire. I’d had enough of the great outdoors. I was bored with the endless frat parties (even if Animal House originated at my alma mater). And I was feeling rather homesick for Mommy and Daddy, and even my annoying little brothers, not to mention some really good kimchi! Hanover, back in the day, didn’t even have a Chinese restaurant! What all-American hole-in-the-wall little town doesn’t have at least ONE Chinese takeaway? I was truly stuck out in the styx!
Needing to get beyond my own petty woes, something took me through the doors of the college’s community outreach office. I made a beeline for the Big Brother/Big Sister Program. That very week, the office had received a telephone call specifically requesting a Korean female student for a little girl named Sarah. Undoubtedly, this was fate.
Sarah is a Korean adoptee. She arrived as an infant on an airplane to become the first daughter of a loving, childless couple living in the Upper Valley of Vermont. Eventually, Sarah’s family would grow to include a brother and sister – they would arrive via the stork, both blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
When Sarah was 6, she began asking her mother, “Mommy, Mommy, when I grow up, will my eyes be like yours?” Without any exposure to Asian faces in her home or in her community, Sarah had no understanding of ethnic difference. Thirty years ago, the Upper Valley was not exactly known for its diversity.
Sarah’s mother realized that the only place she might find an adult with an ethnic Asian background might be at the local college. That person turned out to be lucky me.
Every week during the school year, Sarah and I shared a few hours over books, games, McDonald’s (I didn’t know better then), and stories about family. She was an inquisitive, gentle, loving child with the most watchful eyes that soaked in everything around her.
When she was 8, something happened. Almost overnight, the very children she grew up with began to take notice of Sarah’s different eyes, her petite nose, her dark hair. And the reactions were not kind or gentle or least of all fair: Sarah suffered needlessly through racial taunts, slurs, and outright attacks. She and her parents were bewildered that the children Sarah had known almost all her life could suddenly turn against her so carelessly, viciously, without provocation.
Again, Sarah’s mother prevailed. She consulted with teachers and administrators, and together, they asked me to make my weekly visits with Sarah take place at her elementary school. I showed up each week in her classroom, where the children could see someone who looked like Sarah, who was an Asian adult, who was – in their eyes, anyway – a person of authority.
Every week, I came with a book or a story, pictures to talk about things Korean or Asian, or sometimes I just showed up to play. And every week, the children greeted me with excitement and hugs. Every week, I wondered silently which of these fresh-faced children could possibly be my Sarah’s tormentors. After spending time with the whole class, Sarah and I always had a few moments alone – I like to think that’s when we both nourished each other’s souls.
The next year – my final year at college – Sarah’s family moved further upstate in Vermont, to the small town in which her father and grandfather had grown up. She had the same teacher her father had had 30 years prior. And whether it was a change of place, or that decades of her family were so entrenched, Sarah did not face the same racism. Ever so slowly, Sarah began to thrive once again.
Decades have passed, and Sarah has remained a constant in my life. After I graduated, we stayed in contact the old-fashioned way – this was back in the day, after all – through letters, phone calls, and visits. She danced at my wedding and I watched with glowing pride when she graduated middle school, then high school, then college, then graduate school – at the top of her class, mind you! I like to think I’ve never missed a major milestone in her life.
When our daughter was born, more than 17 years ago, Sarah’s mother made us the most amazing quilt … she had just discovered photo transfers on fabric, a technology that allowed her to literally stitch Sarah’s and my life together. There we are on the front lawn of Sarah’s house, with Sarah sitting on a pumpkin bigger than her little self, her brother Justin plopped before us in a laughing bundle. There she is with our daughter as a toddler, gleefully smiling at each other, little nose to little nose. There she is with the wind blowing her hair – which hasn’t changed in decades! – in every direction, as she shields her gaze against at an unseen sun.
The quilt hangs over our daughter’s bed … and every night that I kiss our daughter goodnight, I see Sarah smiling, too. Sometimes our daughter asks about a certain picture – she likes to hear the same stories over and over again. And as I say goodnight one more, I wish sweet dreams for Sarah, too.
Today, Sarah has returned back to Vermont, where she’s a track coach at a local school. She’s a phenomenal athlete … and even those many years ago, I never could keep up with her! She drives a bright red, fully-restored, classic Mustang almost older than I am! – the one car I used to point out to her when I was still a teenager as my favorite in all the world! I like to think she takes a little piece of me whenever she pulls out of her garage.
With all the latest gadgets, she calls, emails, and texts me regularly, and texts the kids. While Sarah thinks she might be still be reaching out to me for advice, in many ways, she’s taught me more than she could ever know.
As an Asian American, I feel that I live my life in a place of “in-between” – not quite Asian, not quite American, but somewhere in that elusive space in between. I realize that experience is especially magnified as an Asian adoptee, especially in a transracial family situation. But whatever the hardships or challenges, in the end when all is said and done, family is everything. As Sarah’s mother proved over and over again, never mess with a determined Asian mother – and that’s an Asian mother by birth or by adoption!