'Am I Asian Enough?' Adoptees Struggle To Make Sense Of Spike In Anti-Asian Violence

Mar 27, 2021
Originally published on March 29, 2021 8:18 am

Bethany Long Newman says she saw herself in the victims of last week's shooting outside of Atlanta, when a gunman rampaged through three spas and killed eight people. Of the eight victims, six were women of Asian descent.

"When I first heard about it, I was immediately scared," says Newman, 32, of Chicago. "You kind of put yourself in their shoes a bit and think: This would happen to me — or my daughter."

Newman was born in South Korea, then adopted as an infant and raised by a white family in a small, predominantly white rural community in eastern Kentucky. She says she doesn't really have anyone close who looks like her to help her process the tragedy.

Her parents, siblings and husband are white. Most of her Asian friends are adopted.

Bethany Long Newman and her husband, Christian Newman, and daughter Vivienne, 3.
Bethany Long Newman

"I feel heartbroken and scared, and I don't know how to express it because I don't know if people around me, if they necessarily think of me as Asian," she says.

While her mom did reach out after the Atlanta shootings, Newman says she mostly asked if she felt safe and if there had been any violence against Asians in Chicago.

"And that's where we kind of left it."

Newman is not alone. Many Asians who are adopted say they can't quite figure out how to process and talk about the uptick in anti-Asian violence since the beginning of the pandemic — even to parents who've been generally supportive in the past. And while adoptees experience the same racism as other people of color, many feel left out of the national conversation right now because they've never truly felt like they belong in either the Asian American community or white America.

Asian adoption to the U.S.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, it's estimated there are more than 200,000 Asian adoptees in the U.S., with most hailing from South Korea.

Hing Potter with his parents the day he got his master's degree from Northeastern University in Boston in 2019.
Hing Potter

Kimberly McKee, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who specializes in Asian American and Critical Adoption studies, says that disconnect may stem from how they were raised.

"If your parents applied a color-blind philosophy and said that they only see you as you, they don't see you as Asian, you may just lack the language to have certain kinds of conversations," McKee tells NPR.

She says Asian adoptees experience racism and are grappling with anti-Asian violence just like the rest of the Asian American community. It's just hard to articulate that when you've never felt like you truly belong in either world.

Lacey Vorrasi-Banis, a 42-year-old South Korean adoptee living in Los Angeles, hasn't been able to talk to her parents about the shootings in Atlanta and continues to struggle with the fact that they did not checked in to ask how she was dealing with the news. She was raised in West Milford, N.J., by white parents and has three siblings who were also adopted from South Korea.

Vorrasi-Banis says that even though her parents have always been supportive of her and her adopted siblings, "they still don't understand what it means to be another race."

"But I would hope that the empathy would still be there, and that's the big difference when you have white people raising other races and they don't really get it," she says.

Emma LeMay, 22, says she was overcome with a "cloud of anxiety and fear" following the spa shootings. And when she briefly spoke to her parents about it, their reaction was based more on the situation "rather than how I was feeling," she says.

Emma LeMay with her parents, Lisa and John, in 2019.
Emma LeMay

"You think unconditional love and support can conquer all, or it can make up for the big difference, which is having different colored skin," says LeMay, who is adopted from Chongqing China and grew up in southern Vermont.

'Being open and available'

Some adoptees partially blame the media and Hollywood for a lack of coverage and recognition of their experiences. They say this makes them feel invisible and hinders the normalization of their stories as part of the overall Asian American experience.

"Am I Asian enough to have this conversation with other Asian people? Other Asian Americans in the community?" asks Hing Potter, 34, a Cambodian adoptee in San Francisco. He says Asian adoptees are constantly having to remind themselves that they are Asian.

Potter says that while adoptees don't want to alienate their white parents, they do want to call out systems "that allow systemic oppression and institutionalized racism to become reality like they have in the last year."

Though social media has always been a popular place for adoptees to express their frustrations, there has been a noticeable increase of discussion in Facebook groups and other online spaces amid the uptick in anti-Asian violence over the last year.

And while some adoption agencies such as Holt International and Bethany Christian Services have offered up statements and resources to help white parents talk to their Asian kids about the current events, family members — even if they aren't Asian — can do more. Nicole Chung, author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know, says parents can help bridge the gap by taking the initiative to check in.

"I think just listening, being open and available and being present and just here for whatever they have to share," says Chung, who additionally suggests reaffirming and validating someone's experiences, as well as their racial reality. She says acknowledging the long history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. is important as well.

Chung's parents, who have passed away, would have done anything for her, she says. But she always seemed to be the one starting the tough conversations.

"I did reach a point finally where I was like, 'Our relationship and the love that we have for each other does not require my silence," she says. "It's OK if I'm honest about these things; it's okay if I'm honest about my experiences.'"

Ultimately, Chung says there's no time like the present to be having these conversations.

"And better late than never," she says.

Correction: 3/27/21

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the title of Nicole Chung's memoir as All You'll Ever Know. The memoir is titled All You Can Ever Know.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

What has a year of increased violence against Asian Americans meant for Asian adoptees? They report experiencing racism just like other people of color, and yet many feel they are left out of conversations about what's happening. NPR's Ashley Westerman explored why.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Bethany Long Newman says she saw herself in the Korean women killed on March 16 when a gunman went on a rampage at three spas outside of Atlanta.

BETHANY LONG NEWMAN: When I first heard about it, I was immediately scared. You kind of put yourself in their shoes a bit. And you think this could happen to me or my daughter.

WESTERMAN: But Newman, who lives in Chicago, didn't really have anyone who looks like her to talk with about it. You see, she's adopted, born in South Korea but raised by a white family in a predominantly white rural community in Kentucky. Even now, her husband is white and most of her Asian friends are adopted, too.

NEWMAN: I feel heartbroken and scared and I don't know how to express it because I don't know that most people around me, if they necessarily think of me as Asian.

WESTERMAN: Newman says her mom did reach out, but...

NEWMAN: My mom asked if I felt safe, and she asked if there had been any violence against Asians in Chicago. And I said, not that I know of, and that's kind of where we left it.

WESTERMAN: Hing Potter has mulled over similar thoughts when it comes to his white parents. He's adopted from Cambodia and says it's even hard to talk with other Asian Americans about it.

HING POTTER: Am I Asian enough to have this conversation with other Asian people, other Asian Americans in the community?

WESTERMAN: It's estimated there are more than 200,000 Asian adoptees in the U.S. and many, like Newman and Potter, report having trouble knowing how to feel and talk about the uptick in anti-Asian violence, even to parents who have been generally supportive in the past. Kimberly McKee, an Asian American studies professor at Grand Valley State University, says that disconnect may stem from how they were raised.

KIMBERLY MCKEE: If your parents applied a colorblind philosophy and said that they only see you as you, they don't see you as Asian, you may just lack the language to have certain kinds of conversations.

WESTERMAN: She says Asian adoptees experience racism just like other people of color, and many are grappling with anti-Asian violence like the rest of the Asian American community. It's just hard to articulate when you've never felt like you truly belong in either world.

MCKEE: So for adoptees of color, they're obviously not white. And then if your family is living in an all-white suburb, you may just not interact with a lot of people of color in general.

WESTERMAN: These frustrations have spilled over in the last year. I know because I'm an Asian adoptee, too, and I've seen more people openly talk about this in online groups dedicated to adoptees. And while having such outlets are helpful, family members, even if they're not Asian, can do more. Nicole Chung is also an adoptee and author of the memoir "All You Can Ever Know." She has some tips.

NICOLE CHUNG: I think just listening, being open and available, being present and just here for whatever they have to share, it's not nothing. You know, I think that's important.

WESTERMAN: She also suggests reaffirming and validating someone's racial reality and acknowledging the long history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. Ultimately, Chung says there's no time like the present to be having these conversations.

CHUNG: And better late than never.

WESTERMAN: Ashley Westerman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.