Liu Volpe – A six-month-old baby with a furrowed brow stares out of the 3×4 photo. She’s underweight and barely has hair. The hair that she does have stands up at odd angles as black clumps, because her head has recently been shaved. A shaved head protects her from lice and is more manageable. She looks more like a punk rock baby than an orphan. This is her first photo.
On December 17th, 1995, a couple returned from a journey that so many other American families have made. This couple is my parents, and I am that six-month-old baby in the photo. This is my story, a story about transnational and transracial adoption. This is why my first name is a Chinese surname. This is why my last name is Italian. This is why my parents are white. This is who I am.
I grew up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I attended a majority white K-12 private school for girls. My dad has deep Philadelphian Italian roots, and my mom was raised Methodist in the small North Carolina town of Greenville. My entire family is white.
Though it was my parents’ hope that I would not lose connection to my Chinese heritage from the get-go, growing up I seldom identified with nor did I readily own my Asianness. In retrospect, I would say that my disinterest in and refusal to accept my Chinese and Asian-American identity was due to the fact that I grew up in what I would consider to be a white, liberal community. Rarely did I feel out of place and I was fortunate enough to avoid experiencing overt racism. Blending in was easy. This, I believe, was ought to the many families in my area who had adopted children from China and to the fairly open-minded residential and academic communities to which I belonged. I was also an extremely active child, who would not sit still and behave in Chinese language school or the Chinese painting classes that my parents signed me up for. To put it simply, my parents put a lot of effort into affording me opportunities to reconnect with Chinese culture, which I am grateful for, but I was a kid. I much preferred to run and play outside with my friends. Regrettably, I did not understand the importance of their efforts until much, much later.
In her sociology thesis, “Adopting an Identity: A Study of Identity in Transracially Transnationally Adopted Girls from China Raised in White American Families,” Davidson alum and fellow Chinese-American adoptee, Hannah Sachs interviewed a Chinese-American adoptee named Kara. Kara recalls a time when she was walking down her middle school hallway and heard one of her peers remark that “the Chinese girl wouldn’t move faster.” But it did not register with Kara that it was she to whom the comment referred. In many ways, I can relate to Kara. There are several experiences in my life that I can confidently point to and say that those were the moments that I was shaken and forced to recognize my Asianness, Chineseness, or “otherness.” Most of these points occurred when I was very young. I would receive questions from people who did not know my family, and sometimes purely out of curiosity people would ask me about where I was from, “what I was,” meaning what was my racial and ethnic makeup, or why my parents were my parents.
However, most recently, over last semester a good friend and I were having a coffee. He told me, sort of off a whim that “someone was like ‘oh yeah, that girl Liu who acts white.’” This comment took me aback. I thought to myself, “Me? Acting white? Who said this?” After composing my thoughts, I replied to my friend that the individual who made this comment most likely did not know me, but if they did then maybe the comment wasn’t entirely groundless. I was after all raised in a white household and attended a majority white school. I was raised eating collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Years and spoke English at home. I do not have nor should I be expected to have the same experiences as other AAPI individuals who were raised with AAPI parents (AAPI stands for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders). I was socialized in a specific way. If I were to respond to the person who accused me of “acting white,” I would tell them that I am not trying to be something I am not. I am simply being what I am.
Throughout my life I have had to straddle a line of being Asian but also having a white family. When I was growing up, I knew I was not white but I certainly did not see myself as Asian. I felt like I did not have a full or guaranteed membership to either group. However, when I came to Davidson College, I experienced some sort of racial awakening. My suppression or apathy toward my Asian heritage lifted. I joined the Asian Awareness Cultural Association (ACAA) and became acquainted with and have made life-long friendships with people who also identify as AAPI and/or who were not born in this country. After I joined ACAA, I have attended AAPI conferences such as SERCAAL and ECAASU that discuss AAPI issues, giving me an opportunity to connect and learn with others like me. During the most recent ECAASU conference, there was even an adoptee caucus, where I met fellow Asian-American adoptees.
At this point in my life, I do not shy away when I say that I’m adopted or that I’m from China, and that, yes, I’m a product of China’s infamous One Child Policy. It is tiresome to explain to people who I am, why I like this type of clothing, why I majored in English, or why I eat certain foods, and it’s frustrating to have people make assumptions and put me into a convenient, little box without even trying to get to know me. I suppose that’s natural for everyone to do to some extent.
When I was contacted to write a perspective for the Davidsonian, in all honesty, I was nervous at first to share something so personal. But I am using this perspective as an opportunity to finally tell my story to the Davidson College community, so that when I graduate this spring, I will feel as though I left Davidson as my truest self.
Liu Volpe ’17 is an English major from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com.