Category Archives: Puerto Rican

Mi Papi

My name reminds me of my heritage. There are palms and beaches. I hear the constant beat of the rhythm of the island. Adobo Pollochon fills my kitchen with smells from my childhood. I am Puertorriqueña. It all began in August of 1968.

Prompted by my introduction letter, my father, recovering from surgery, took early medical leave to fly to Korea to meet me. He would forever wear a long scar, one that started small but stretched upon carrying all the bags for the trip.

Our meeting included several days of me becoming accustom to my parents. I think I was pretty comfortable.

I was instantly “Daddy’s Girl.” I followed my father wherever he went. I was his shadow.

His time in Korea, at the end of the Korean War, helped him acquire a taste for Korean food. When we are together, he often asks if there’s a Korean restaurant, and when he visits our favorite Korean restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, he texts me to let me know. He cannot have his kimchi without thinking of me.

Tucked away, I have his 1950s Korean/English dictionary. He tried to teach me Korean greetings, but I was more interested in the fun Spanish rhymes he would say.

Of course he had to cuddle me and our dog. She wasn’t going to be replaced by this new walking being.

I was introduced at the age of two to my Puerto Rican relatives. The island welcomed me, and I met mi Abuelita, mi Bisabuelita Ita and mi tio y las titis. The smells of the island kitchens still infiltrate my Wisconsin kitchen … especially in the cold months when I need the comfort of arroz y tostones.

My father’s family has committed the same unconditional love that forgets my biological race. In 2000, I brought my infant son to Puerto Rico to introduce him to the island, a land of abrazos y besos. My cousin, Richie, took us to the City Hall of Guayama and found my great grandfather’s portrait. He was the first Enrique. Richie proudly held my son against the portrait and proclaimed that my son looked just like his great-great grandfather, a former mayor of the town.

Quite a resemblance? ¿Verdad?

Enrique … that name has been passed on to every male in the family, but I broke the tradition. My stubborn will missed the subtle cues from my father in phrases like “What do you think about ‘Enrique’ or ‘Fernando’?” I realized my mistake when all the relatives asked how I came to my son’s name. Luckily, I have gotten some redemption now that my son is taking Spanish in school and has taken on the name “Enrique” for his class.

I speak of my mother often since I cannot see or speak with her, but my father is a constant presence in my life. I feel blessed for every day I have him to cuddle my children.

They are proud to have their Latino names and their Papito. They laugh when he uses his fart machine, they enjoy fishing with him as I did, and they admire his oil painting skills.

I am often reminded of the old audio reels from my father’s years in Vietnam. We were separated. I turned three in Tennessee, but I missed him. I cannot imagine now the pain my mother felt being so far away from her husband, or his pain at leaving us and not knowing if he would return. He tells me that he would often listen to the reel of me saying over and over, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!  I want my daddy!”

He returned safely to later share one of the most treasured days of my adulthood.

I will forever be Daddy’s Girl.

The faces we are born to wear …

As I have been reading research on transracial adoptees, I am realizing that while we have similar stories to share, we also have widely varying views on adoptions. Logically, we are different people and no two of us are alike.

The interesting thing for me, is that my feelings about race align more with my first generation Asian friends (as introduced here) than with Asian adoptees.

My first generation Asian friends, Adrienne and Katherine, were Asian minorities in their childhood communities, much like me. Adrienne blogs about her small town experience:

“The moment I first appeared on the playground of my new elementary school, the noisy chatter and laughter of children at play abruptly ceased, as if someone had pushed a magic mute button. Feverish whispering closely followed the eerie hush that had suddenly descended upon the playground. Little blond heads leaned in close together as the children conferred with each other in obvious bewilderment and consternation at the appearance of this alien in their midst. Innocently, they tried to work out how my face got so very flat, whether my eyes hurt all the time, or whether one would eventually get used to the pain of having eyes like mine … ” (Read the full post here.)

Katherine recalls her childhood in this way:

“When I was growing up my grandmother used to say to me, “You may feel like you are just like them, but no matter how you feel, you will never look like them.”

I was born in the U.S., the daughter of two Asian immigrants who came here in the 1960s for graduate school. My parents disagreed on the extent of our assimilation into American culture: my father spoke to me only in English while my mother spoke to me primarily in her native tongue. My father was more adventurous in terms of eating non-Asian foods; my mother was less so. For me, there was no question—I felt 100% American and wanted to be just like the other kids, and anything that set me apart from them was a source of burning embarrassment. I begged my mother to cook American dinners like macaroni and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, buy me the same kinds of clothes and shoes that the other kids wore, and fiercely resisted her attempts to teach me any other language that was not English. Every day at school, and while playing in the neighborhood, I saw only white children—and after a while I assumed I was one of them.

But I wasn’t. Some kids would make faces at me, pulling at their eyes until they were all squinty, pretend to speak Chinese, and laugh. Some would tease me and ask me to “say something Chinese” as if I was some kind of circus freak show. And of course there was the “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” taunt that was said in a sing song-y voice. It seemed like every time I started to forget that I was different, I was reminded that indeed I was. Only when I went to college in New York City and saw first hand the incredible amount of diversity did I realize what I was:  a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I’ve lost track of the number of times an Asian person has approached me and started speaking to me in Chinese, assuming that I’m fluent in Chinese because of how I look.  On fewer occasions, I’ve had Caucasian people compliment me on how well I speak English, assuming that English was not my native language because of how I look. Time and time again I’m reminded of the potential disconnect between how I perceive myself and how others may perceive me. All people face this problem to some extent, but for first-generation children of immigrants who are caught between two cultures and who grew up without the benefit of racial diversity—the problem becomes especially complicated.”

Adrienne, Katherine and I are very proud Asian women. I stress the word, “women” because as I have written about in the post The Ideal Beauty, I believe some of our past insecurities stemmed from the portrayal of girls and women in the media. When young girls are exposed to blond bombshells (think Cinderella, Barbie and the girls of Teen and Seventeen magazine), we and our non-Asian peers believe that is what we should be. Asians are virtually absent from our American media culture.

My mother was fully aware of the one-sided representations. She made sure I had Asian dolls, including dolls from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and of course the Asian baby doll.

Notice, however, that my little sister clutches a blond doll. While my sister is half Caucasian, she is also half Puerto Rican. In the 1970s, there weren’t many brunette dolls, let alone Hispanic ones. My sister clutched her blond dolls until the introduction of the Darcy dolls, sporting not only a blond, but a brunette and a red-head.

While we all had our struggles with our identities, I believe that every person, adopted or not, struggles with his or her appearance intensely through adolescence and continually throughout life. Each person also resolves personal struggles in his or her unique way.
I enjoy the fact that I can text Adrienne and Katherine my photos of Asian market wares, only to find that we are having parallel experiences. (See Adrienne’s funny photographic tale here.) Their mothers are teaching them, and in turn, they teach me.

Adrienne’s parents inspire her and me. Her recent post summed up her feelings:

“At times I’ve felt like this was more their country than my own, even though I was born and raised here. Thanks to my patriotic parents, I’ve attended schools and have hung out with people who have tended to regard patriotism with suspicion – as something corny and anachronistic. I think it was only when I began to travel abroad that I realized how very much I do appreciate this country and how much there is to love about it.

‘THAT’S America,’ where nothing is impossible and where there are people hard at work making sure wrongs are eventually righted, and where there is a process to ensure that they are. That’s my parents’ America, and I’m glad to be living in it too.”

Yes, and in this country, we can freely be who we want to be … say things as we choose … even experience other cultures. That’s our America!

Undercover Adoptee

Yesterday morning at breakfast, I heard this Story Corps taping (before you continue, you might want to listen). 
This dialogue between a mother and daughter will surprise you when you reach the end. In less than three minutes we discover the mother was adopted but did not discover this until adulthood.
This 2012 was a year of discovery in my adoption story, but mine focused on the discovery of other adoptees. 
Up until this year, I wandered around believing that I was quite alone and undercover. Every now and then, my secret identity would need verification through statements like, “I have no medical family history because I’m adopted.” and “Well, that isn’t really my birthday, it was given to me by the Korean government.”  
As I have mentioned, my life has been recently touched by three Korean adoptees. In a couple of instances, the adoptee knew immediately upon meeting me face to face that I must be adopted … few Koreans have a full Puerto Rican name.
Over the holidays, I had a cookie exchange. While introducing people, a new friend, Amy. (not to be confused with Amy in this post), asked how Miya and I knew one another. We mentioned that our adoption histories were similar.  At this, Amy said with a smile, “I’m adopted too!”
Amy is a caucasian woman with blonde hair. Her identity as an adoptee is not written on her face, nor does her name give any indication that she is adopted. Amy, Miya and I started sharing our common frustrations with routine questions like “Do you have any diseases in your family history?”
Like me, Amy lost her adoptive mother too soon. Like me, Amy has a younger sibling who is not only six years younger than her, but the sibling is also the biological child of her adoptive parents. 
Unlike me, Amy lost her father to cancer and had a middle brother who was also adopted. She had a sibling with whom she could confide as well as share her adoption questions as they became older. 
Amy is an art teacher. It is our love of art education that brought us together. When she began teaching, she spoke with her adopted brother about her fear that any of the children she was teaching could, in fact, be biologically related to her. Being so close to her birthplace and much like the adoption story in Story Corps, there was the possibility that those whose social circles intersected hers could be biologically related to her. Her brother assured her that she would be a fabulous teacher regardless of the background of her students.
Amy shares the deep love of her adoptive family that I do, but now I see another side of adoption. Those adoptions that are not international pose completely different questions and challenges. When you aren’t racially different from your family, you are undercover. My race has helped me find others like me, albeit some 40 years into my life, but for Amy and the woman in the Story Corps article, no one assumes that they are adopted.
This year has brought me rich relationships with people who share my adoption experience. I am truly grateful for these friendships. While we are all adopted, each of our stories varies and flows in differing ways, but we all can relate to one another in a way that others cannot. With one another, we are no longer undercover.

Hapa

Living in Rwanda, my husband experienced something I had felt for a long time.

He could not hide the fact that he was different. When we were in the market, kids and adults would point and whisper (though he could hear), “Wazungu,” Kinyarwandan for “white person.” It was disconcerting.

As I have written, two Korean adoptee women have entered my life and are teaching me a little more about myself. They each adopted two Korean children, something for which I admire them deeply. In the process, one of them said her husband mentioned that the tables had been reversed once they visited Korea. In Korea, he couldn’t hide his race. His wife, on the other hand, could finally blend in.

I have spent a good portion of my life trying to blend in and secretly wishing to meet someone as confused by race as myself. On the one hand, I wanted to be seen as white or Puerto Rican. On the other hand, I wanted validation that being Asian was okay. As a teen in the 80s, I searched Teen magazine for Asian models. There were few, maybe one every few months in the Teen Model Search finalists.

TV gave me no respite. The media had few Asians other than Connie Chung, to whom I was often compared as I studied print journalism in the late 1980s, and Yoko Ono, to whom I was referred when I wore large sunglasses. At the time, I was trying to assimilate, and in my efforts to do so, I would often shun such comparisons.

Regretfully, I didn’t share this feeling of alienation with my parents. My mother sensed some of it, as she special ordered an Asian baby doll for me.

These experiences drive me today to create a better childhood for my own children. While they are mixed race, both Korean and Caucasian, they are often placed solely in the Asian category. My husband and I have sought to place them in racially diverse communities and schools. I’ve tried to make sure they see themselves as both races.

We own a fantastic book, Part Asian, 100% Hapa. In it, photographer, Kip Fulbeck, has photographed numerous subjects who are part Asian, from children to adults. My children pour over this book. It is worn from all the page turning and marking. It affirms them and assures them that they are not alone in their confusing ethnicity.

While I hated the references to Yoko as a teen, I relate to her now as a mother. Her son, Sean Lennon, has written the forward in Fulbeck’s book that addresses my children’s feelings.

Sean Lennon says, “It is only human to want to belong to a group. … If, like me, you are half-Japanese and half-English, you will in Japan be considered white, and in America be considered Asian. This can be lonely at times … ”

Yet, this book reassures my children that they are not alone in their feelings.  They are indeed Hapa!

Race Matters

“No one will date you because you’re mixed race.”

My heart sank this past week when my son told me someone had said this to him, but I hid my hurt.

I said, “Did you tell him, ‘That’s okay, because I won’t date racist people’?”

“No!  I never thought of that,” he replied excitedly, “That’s good.”

I explained I had many years of experience thinking of comebacks. Yet, this wasn’t the first time my son had experienced prejudice. At eight, he had his first bout with it as I described in this post. At the time, he didn’t seemed phased, but he admitted this week that he had held onto that memory as well.

As we talked further, he felt better. He realized that he was not alone, that his mother had grown up with the same, and that as author Eric Hoffer once said, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”

I’ve spoken about some personal incidents of racism in this blog, but recently, I’ve been able to pinpoint some things for myself.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, my life was about assimilation. I wanted to be white. I wanted to blend in to the Appalachian human fabric and disappear. During those years in the South, those around me often reminded me that I was different, strange, or simply “not normal.”

My mother tried to console me when these things happened, but after time, I realized that she truly did not know how I felt. My father, on the other hand, did to some degree.  As a Puerto Rican whose English was heavily accented, he had endured his share of racism. We spoke some but rarely about it.

I have spent my life longing to “fit in” racially. In Virginia, I found my two closest friends, Katherine and Adrienne, strong Asian women. I have blogged on how they taught me a great deal about Asian culture, another crucial step in my development.

What they lacked was the experience of being raised in a family where one feels racially out of place. Enter my next step in development … meeting two adult contemporary Korean adoptees.

We are just learning more about one another. In the coming days, I hope to share with you the continuing maturation of the person I haven’t fully known … myself.

Korea is my mother.

My husband recently came home obsessed with another woman.

He explained that she looked similar to me and had the same mannerisms. Every move I made was followed by a “Do you realize how Korean you are?”

This from the man who has lived with me for the last 17 years. He knows everything about me. And I feel at times we’re truly one person. But that day, he viewed me as a different person.  He had made a discovery.

That week, during his work trip, he had met a Korean American woman. He said he felt he had seen my twin. While she certainly did not have a Southern drawl, she did have my fastidiousness. And he felt her mannerisms mirrored mine.

This seemed to intrigue and disturb him all at once. I think he felt he knew everything about me: my upbringing in Tennessee, my Puerto Rican roots, my lack of interest in my biological background. But now, he had seen glimpses of my Korean heritage. Glimpses he felt I knew nothing about.

Sure, I do not know that much about Korea. But recently, my friends have been educating me on all things Asian. It has been a journey, but a personal one. All this time, I realized that I hadn’t shared my discoveries with him.

Once again, there is a reminder that I am not completely sure of who I am. I do know myself as a Korean-adopted Tennerican, but I do not know myself as a Korean.

I recently watched my first episode of the television program, Glee. In it, a young teen, raised by adoptive fathers finds her birth mother and longs for a relationship. The birth mother seems to sum up my quandary and says, “I’m your mother, not your Mom.”

Korea is my mother but not my Mom.

Mistaken identity

I never took my husband’s last name. I was too attached to my Latino name, the one given to me by my parents. In fact, I embraced their heritage as my own.

Though my mother tried to keep me in touch with my Asian side, I rebelled. I rejected things Asian and clung to things Puerto Rican and southern. In grade school, high school and college, I was often paired with the Asian boys, though I was never attracted to them. However, they did become some of my most treasured friends.

In second grade, my mother helped my brownie troop dress in traditional Korean dress and learn a Korean dance for a community international day. I still have the dress she so painstakingly made for me. I also kept a scrapbook with the Korean flag on it that she had bought on one of her trips to Korea. But in everyday life, I, too, forgot my own biological past.

However, I was often reminded. In grade school, I was teased about my eyes, and chants about the Chinese would be used to me to intimidate me. Once in college, I was at a frat party and wearing sunglasses. A brother came up to me and said, “Wow, you actually look normal with those sunglasses on.” Normal. My life was never normal, but I love it that way.

In one large college class, I sat. The professor started calling roll. He said my name, and looked around the room. He was scanning for a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, someone who wasn’t me. I raised my hand. His gaze passed over me, as if to say, “Oh, she doesn’t understand English well.” He then repeated my name again. And I had to clear my throat and say, “Um, that’s me.”

Another classmate’s mother was doing research on the make-up of our freshman college class. Her daughter was in my Spanish class and told me her mother had mentioned a Latino student who had ticked the incorrect Asian American box. She told her daughter that she would have to change the data for that student. The classmate revealed to her mother that such a young woman existed … me.

I still struggle with the race question. What box should I tick? Should I answer “yes” to the question of Latino descent? I usually tick “other” unless there is the wonderful option, “prefer not to answer.”