by Patti Cogan
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. I’ve gotten used to that. 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, sometimes nose to nose, or even her hand to my nose, in close proximity with my daughter. She is Chinese by birth and American by adoption. After gazing at her, focusing upon her for hours at a time, my internal world is permeated with her black almond shaped eyes, her glossy black fine hair, her warm-toned skin and her broad dimpled face. When I look in the mirror my internal self is still thinking Asian-Chinese. My eyes grow wide at the disparity between what I expect and what I see.
I thought when this happened the first few days that it would wear off. I asked a Caucasian 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. Here two grown women with good self-esteem, proud of our appearances are 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 white, 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 can only suppose.
Whenever I look at my family I see the diversity we present: three Anglos and an Asian. However, when my Asian-American daughter looks at her family, she sees only Anglos. 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. That is until something occurs to point it out. In our community and circle of friends there are few if any negative remarks made. But, unfortunately, and perhaps because people don’t know what to say, there are no positive remarks made either. 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 over a year ago, my daughter has sought out Asian people, and especially dark haired people and been drawn to them. 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 Sesame Street 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 past year, she is losing her sense of what she looks like?
We look in the mirror together when we brush our teeth or comb our hair together daily. But I don’t often take time to really focus and comment on each of our looks, and how they are different and how they are the same. Maybe I need to spend more time on this. When I remember to do so, I find myself letting my daughter know that I expect that I will look like her, and that perhaps she expects to look like me. But in fact, we each have our own special looks, looks that we got from our respective birth parents.
My daughter is obsessed with our being the same, in a variety of ways. First it was a barrette thing. I bought a bunch of barrettes for her. Because her hair was so short, everyone thought she was a boy. She had other ideas for using these new items. Everyone in the family, including both dogs, had to wear them. For weeks we all 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 (actually I was kind of proud of our matching) and people would comment, “Oh, look, you match!” Which might also have been a way I avoided the obvious, “Is she your daughter?…you don’t really match.” I mean who else would wear matching barrettes but a mother and daughter.
Now the matching takes other 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 “hurt” on our left thumb. It’s as obsessive in its own way as the barrette episode. 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 spotted an African American man and a Nordically blond women together and stared at them. We talked about how they were “different” and the same”, just like we were. The concept of race is not one easily explained to a four year old, so I just leave it in simple terms.
My daughter had three years of being a Chinese child, seeing her self-image reflected by other Chinese faces and bodies. Somewhere inside she has a picture of herself through the mirror of these other people. But that image is gradually being occluded by her new family. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for a child adopted as an infant.
One of my Chinese friends laughed when I told her about my mirror experience. “You’re some strange kind of 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’re an inside out banana!” and she went off into gales of laughter.
“Yeah, I get it,” I said, chagrined, “It’s an Asian â€˜Oreo”. My friend stopped laughing. “What’s an â€˜Oreo’?”
Patty Cogen is a frequent contributor to Little Treasure, the newsletter of FCC-Seattle where this article was originally published. Patty is a family therapist with expertise in international adoptions and is a specialist in early childhood development and attachment issues. Her website is www.pattycogenparenting.info