Asianness can be multitudinous and complex.
It’s not merely dependent on a shared language, food or experience, though these things can still foster a sense of cultural community. It’s also deeper than where you were born, how you were raised and what your family looks like. Yet Asian identity can sometimes become muddled when one has been transplanted between homes and across oceans within the first few years (or months) of life. This transplantation is something many Chinese adoptees are familiar with.
China enacted its one-child policy in 1980 under Deng Xiaoping as a response to unchecked population growth. Following its institution, the policy received backlash from both domestic citizens and international spectators who criticized it for violating women’s bodily autonomy and cited it as a severe human rights infraction. The one-child policy was finally terminated in 2016 in favour of a two-child policy and later succeeded by a three-child policy in 2021, but its repercussions are still deeply felt across generations.
To say that all Chinese adoptees share the same uniform experience would be far from the truth, but there are fundamental commonalities in how our lives were shaped: we were not raised by our biological parents, grew up outside of China and have endured bureaucratic processes to validate the creation of our adoptive families. It’s also likely that we all have a photo of our adoption group sitting on the famous red couch at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou — the prime choice of hotel for adoptive parents due to its convenient location in the city’s consulate district.
Not always, but often, being an adoptee also comes with a sense of imposter syndrome. This could be due to the mismatch between one’s ethnic background and that of their family, unfamiliarity with one’s culture or the general uncertainty around one’s origins. For me, it’s a combination of all of these.
To honour Asian Heritage Month as a celebration of all Asians, regardless of upbringing, here are the stories of three Chinese adoptees at UBC.
Jialin Poduch 佳琳
Jiā Līn — beautiful jade
Anqing, Anhui Province
Jialin Poduch is a third-year arts student. She pronounces her name "Jalen" but has kept the Hanyu Pinyin spelling as a marker of her Chinese heritage. She was adopted from the city of Anqing at 11 months old.
“There’s two very different parts of my origin and who I am: … my cultural heritage as a Chinese person, and then my family ties and how they raised me.”
Poduch’s background as an adoptee has been influential in informing her degree path: she is currently pursuing a major in Asian studies, which has included accelerated Chinese language courses. “Whatever I do with my degree, adoption will have shaped that in some capacity,” she said.
For Poduch, her perception of her Asianness differs based on the people she is around. She describes Vancouver Island — where she lives outside of the school year — as “really white.” She often stands out as the only Asian in the room.
“But then internally, when I interact with other Asians one-on-one, that’s where I start to lose some feeling of Asian[ness].”
Poduch recalled feeling imposter syndrome when interacting with some of the first- and second-generation Chinese Canadians at her high school.
She described the embarrassment she felt when topics came up that she couldn’t relate to, like celebrating Chinese holidays and growing up with a Chinese family in general. It wasn’t quite shame, but a feeling of exclusion. “I’d be like, ‘My parents don’t do that’ …. I can’t relate as much to the classically Asian American experience.”
Online communities like the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits tend to perpetuate an East Asian stereotype that is supposed to represent an entire continent and its billions of people. Many posts suggest that there are certain experiences one must have to earn entry into an exclusive (and mythical) tier of the East Asian community. This leaves the question of where all other Asians — and Asian adoptees — are meant to fit in.
Poduch has still found ways to connect with her Chinese heritage on her own terms. She enjoys trying new restaurants and eating Chinese cuisine, like pork buns. Learning how to cook Chinese food has been challenging without guidance from an Asian parent. While she acknowledges that her mom’s Chinese cooking may not be the most authentic, there is still value in the comfort a home-cooked meal brings, especially when prepared by a loved one.
Poduch’s identity as an adoptee has also shaped how she views the role of family. Since most adoptees do not have ties to their biological family, the strength of their relationships is not defined by genetics. The definition of family is more open to interpretation, and is not limited to those you share a name with.
“I think you can still find that familial fulfillment absolutely with other people …. Your family is not who you’re related to by blood.”
Mya Ballin 小丽
Xiǎo Lì — small, beautiful
Jiangmen, Guangdong Province
Mya Ballin was born in the city of Jiangmen, Guangdong, and adopted at half a year old.
Ballin is about to graduate with a dual master’s in library information science and archival studies. For her thesis, she interviewed 12 transracial and transnational adoptees from China and Korea. Her goal is to redefine what is typically considered an archival record, specifically in the context of the international adoption process.
Adoption records are typically products of bureaucratic processes, Ballin explained. “It would be the literal papers that facilitated the adoption.” These could include documents signed by the adoptive parents, the adoption agency or the country of the adoptee’s birth. However, Ballin stressed that “that body of records does not encapsulate all of the materials that are made in relation to adoption.”
An example of an alternative record could be the clothing an adoptee wore on the day of their adoption, according to Ballin. This type of relic carries significant emotional weight but is typically excluded from traditional scholarship.
Through her research, Ballin hopes to shift narratives surrounding adoption and some of the assumptions that are made about adoptees. “What it means to … accept or what it means to understand adoptees and their experiences shouldn’t just be focused on how we fit into traditional heteronormative, very blood-based family narratives,” she said.
Ballin aims to foster more open conversations about adoption — Chinese or otherwise — so that others can better understand “the myriad of things that adoption can affect.” Importantly, “not everyone is interested in searching for their birth parents,” she said, and adoption narratives shouldn’t automatically revert to this objective.
Ballin said that being an adoptee — specifically an Asian adoptee — “is a lot of being a bridge … it’s a lot of having to sort of make connections between two very distinct and very different cultural communities.”
Ballin finds herself bridging both the Asian and German Jewish (her mother’s ethnicity) sides of her identity while still exploring how she fits into each and where they intersect.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to want to be in those spaces. And yet at the same time, I’ve more and more noticed the fact that I’m not automatically considered to be someone who belongs in those spaces,” Ballin said — referring to her presence as an Asian in the Jewish community.
Like Poduch, Ballin revealed that she “[feels] imposter syndrome all the time,” especially coupled with the independence that comes with entering university. “People make assumptions about you when you first introduce yourself based on your race, right, like what you look like.”
Understanding the sheer multiplicity of Asian identity has helped Ballin come to terms with her Asianness. Being raised by Asian parents doesn’t guarantee one’s knowledge of their language or culture. “And so I think that’s definitely … boosted my ability to feel like I can claim being Asian or being Chinese.”
Ballin explained that it’s easier to feel Asian in her own right than it is to justify and provide proof of her Asianness to others. Now that intersectional approaches have begun to guide discourse about race and identity, “there’s less pressure, I think, for my Asianness to be like the same Asianness as everyone else,” said Ballin.
Isabella Falsetti 淑娇
Shū Jiāo — refined, delicate
Yangxin County, Hubei Province
I am in a unique position as a combined writer, photographer and source for this piece. This is not typically done or encouraged in reporting, but since there is such a small population of Asian adoptees at UBC, I felt including my voice could be a worthy contribution. So here is a bit about my experience as an adoptee — in my own words.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a region that had a fairly large FCC — Families with Children from China — group. Looking back, it seems unlikely for northern Illinois to have such a sprawling Chinese adoptee community. I never questioned it when I was young because that was just the norm for me, but whatever the reason, I’m grateful to have been a part of it. There were around 50–75 families altogether, and we would gather in smaller groups for Lunar New Year banquets, mooncake- and dumpling-making, and Chinese language and culture classes every Saturday morning.
Since pretty much all of us are grown up and either finishing university or already graduated, the group has mostly gone our separate ways. I’m still close with a few of the girls and their families though. One remains like a sister to this day.
When I was little, I didn’t question my identity as an adoptee very much because there were so many other adoptees that I interacted with who had lived experiences like mine. I’m thankful I was able to grow up around people who looked like me and knew what it was like to not look like our parents.
But as I’ve grown older, it’s a topic I can’t help but think about more and more. I consider how adoption has influenced my everyday decisions, maybe even subconsciously, as well as larger ones about the broader trajectory of my life. I wonder what growing up in China could have been like. I wonder if I had siblings. I wonder if I’ll ever meet my biological parents. There are a lot of ifs.
I was born in Yangxin County in China’s Hubei Province in 2001 and adopted as a 13-month-old in 2002. I grew up in the midwestern US as an only child raised by a single mother. I had a happy childhood. But as I’ve come to learn, not all other adoptees can say the same.
After coming to UBC for university, I’ve begun to realize how well off I had it, growing up among a huge community of Chinese adoptees. Of the UBC adoptees I’ve spoken to, it sounds like that wasn’t always the case.
Like Jialin, I am studying Chinese language and culture in the Asian studies department, though as a minor rather than a major. This was also sparked by a desire to learn more about my Chinese heritage. Having just completed my minor requirements this term, I think I’ve accomplished that: I can speak conversational Mandarin, have a decent understanding of modern Chinese history and am able to analyze Chinese media through a critical lens.
However, these courses have also brought out something else in me: a looming sense of imposter syndrome.
This became more noticeable after the shift to online classes. In Zoom lectures of 100+ students where no one bothered to turn their camera on (myself included), I found myself engulfed in a sea of gray rectangles with undoubtedly Chinese surnames. Then there was mine — almost aggressively Italian, suggesting that I was too.
I know that the facets of one’s entire identity can’t be summed up into a single name, and it would be foolish to think they could. But in an online classroom where space, body language and social interaction are compressed into one dimension, we only have so much to go off of to form impressions of each other. When the visual component is removed as well, all that’s left is a name, and sometimes a voice, in a breakout room.
I know I’m more than my name. My mom kept my Chinese name, Shujiao, as my legal middle name, so I still have that attached to me. I’ve been trying to use it more as a way to visibly connect myself to my heritage. As a way to say, “Yes, I’m Asian too.” Sometimes I ask myself if it’s all just for show.
Still, I think I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with my identity. I’ve made new Chinese friends at UBC who I can at least attempt to practice Mandarin with, and who have introduced me to other aspects of Chinese culture that I may have missed out on. It feels welcoming, like returning to a long-lost home.
I’m continuing to reconcile the dual parts of my identity. There isn’t anything I would change about myself, my family or my friends, but I still wonder what my life would have looked like in an alternate reality where the one-child policy never existed.
I’m working to quiet my imposter syndrome and the lingering feeling that my Asianness — the Asianness of adoptees everywhere — is not enough.
But it is. It always has been. 家
The version of this story that appeared in our May 24, 2022 print issue misspelled Jialin Poduch's first name. Although the pronunciations of her English and Chinese names are different, they are still spelled the same way. Mya Ballin's section has also been amended to clarify her feelings about her Asianness in the Jewish community specifically. The web version of the story has been updated to reflect these changes. The Ubyssey deeply regrets these errors.