There are long days when I finally glimpse myself in the mirror and am shocked at what I see. It's not the gray of my hair and wondering if I'm too old to be the mother of a toddler that alarms me. It's not how tired I look; I know this too shall pass. Rather, I'm shocked because I look "white", I look Caucasian. I expect to see an Asian face look back at me.
I spend most of every day face to face, in close proximity with my daughter. She is Chinese by birth and American by adoption. After focusing upon her for hours at a time, my internal world is permeated with her black almond shaped eyes, her glossy fine black hair, her warm-toned skin and her broad dimpled face. When I look in the mirror my internal self is still seeing in Chinese. My eyes grow wide at the disparity between what I expect and what I see.
I thought when this happened it would wear off in a few days. I asked a "white" friend who adopted a Chinese daughter three years earlier if it happened to her. "Yes," she replied, "and it never wears off."
I puzzled over this. Why were two grown women with good self-esteem having trouble keeping a firm hold on our self-images? My next thought was, if we adults are having this happen, what is happening to our daughters? The most pervasive image in their daily lives is our faces, our pale, high and narrow nosed, blue eyed, red or brown-haired visages. What then do they expect when they look in the mirror? To see a "white girl" I suppose.
Whenever I look at my family I see the diversity we present: three Caucasians and an Asian. However, when my Asian-American daughter looks at her family, she sees only Caucasians. What does this mean for us and for her? My sense is that we are overly aware of our diversity whereas she is less than fully aware.
In our politically correct community and circle of friends there are no negative remarks. But there are no positive remarks made either, perhaps because people don't know what to say. What would I like them to say that would give all of us a good sense of who we are without being corny ? I wish I knew.
Since coming to America at four years of age my daughter has gravitated towards Asian people, or any dark-haired person. If there are three Asian women dining in a restaurant, she has to go and say hello. If there is an Asian child in the park she wants to play near by.
Reading the book, We're Different, We're the Same, my daughter often picked Caucasian features as those most like hers. Sometimes she seemed confused about what her features looked like. She was more certain about picking what I looked like. Could it be that in the year she's been in our family, she is loosing the image of her own face?
I try to have us look in the mirror together when we brush our teeth or comb our hair. I try to take time to focus and comment on our looks, and how they are different and how they are the same. I decide to share my experience with my daughter, to let her know we both are struggling with this issue. This is an opportunity to talk about what makes skin lighter or darker, how birthparents contribute to and shape how we look.
My daughter is obsessed with making us the same regardless of our different racial origins. First it was a barrette thing. I bought a bunch of barrettes for her and she had her own ideas about their use. Everyone in the family, including both dogs, had to wear them. For weeks the entire family (including Dad) went around the house with a selection of colored plastic in our hair (or fur).
When we went out I would forget to remove mine and people would comment, "Oh, look, you match!" I found myself delighted that finally people acknowledged we were a mother/daughter duo. Who else would wear matching barrettes? My daughter loved being seen as belonging to me. For both of us it became a wonderful way to forestall the strangers' inevitable question, "Is she your daughter?" and the unspoken implication that if we didn't match racially, we couldn't be related.
Now the matching takes other, more conscious forms: we both wear sun-glasses, we both wear a red shirt and blue pants; we both have eggs for breakfast, we both have a bandaged "hurt" on our left thumb. I am thrilled we have found ways to be the same and yet different.
There's a non-matching piece as well. My daughter insists on wearing mismatched socks. Is this a comment on how two things that don't appear to go together actually can do quite well? I like to think so. The other day she stared at an African-American man and a blond woman strolling together. We talked about how they were "different" and the "same", just like we were. The concept of race is not one easily explained to young child, so I just leave it in simple, concrete terms: pale skin/darker skin; big and little noses; round eyes/almond shaped eyes; straight black hair/kinky hair/ brown wavy hair etc.
My daughter spent four years seeing herself reflected in Chinese faces and bodies. Somewhere inside she has a picture of herself through the mirror of these other people. But that image has been occluded in less than a year by her new family, her new environment. Consequently I considered it vital to find a school which had a diversity of teachers, and families; a school that was proactive in helping children identify and appreciate their own and others similarities and differences. I was fortunate to find such a school and in less than a year my daughter's drawings and self-descriptions became both accurate and confident.
One of my Chinese friends laughed when I told her about my mirror experience. "Your daughter is going to be a banana, " she said.
"What do you mean, ‘banana'?" I asked, slightly offended and totally puzzled.
"You know, a person who's yellow on the outside and white inside is a ‘banana'" she explained. "You are an inside out banana!" and she went off into gales of laughter. I realized she was right, recently I had felt I was "passing" for Caucasian.
"Yeah, I get it, " I said, chagrined, "It's an Asian ‘Oreo'".
My friend stopped laughing. "What's an ‘Oreo'?"
Patty works in Seattle, Washington, as a Child Development Specialist and Family Therapist with expertise in international adoptions.