After Mengwen Cao moved to New York from China, she started to feel like she was straddling two different worlds. To her friends and family back home, she had become “too American.” In New York, she said, she was “always a foreigner.”
Wanting to grasp what it felt like to grow up around family members who “don’t look like you,” she set out to photograph adoptees who were born in Asia and raised by white American parents for a series called “I Stand Between.” An analysis by the Institute for Family Studies found that the proportion of adoptees in the United States with Asian backgrounds nearly tripled between 1999 and 2011, while the majority of adoptive parents were “white, older, well-educated and relatively affluent.”
Ms. Cao, 28, found that particular family structure interesting. To her, it seemed Asian adoptees and their parents constantly had to consider their racial and cultural identities. In 2016, she reached out to friends and nonprofit organizations for help in finding subjects willing to open up about adoption — a subject Ms. Cao says is largely stigmatized in China.
She said she felt grateful that people were willing to share their stories, especially because she wasn’t adopted. And some of the contacts she made had already been contemplating the issue through their own creative endeavors.
Cydney Blitzer, a photography student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who was adopted from southeast China, created a photo project that incorporates self-portraits with hurtful remarks people have said to her about adoption, like “I’m sorry your mother didn’t love you enough to keep you.”
Ms. Blitzer was raised by a single mother who openly discussed her adoption. Still, there has always been a lingering uncertainty. “I’ve never really felt like I had an identity because there’s this big question mark in my past,” she told Ms. Cao. “It’s been kind of hard to move on into the future in confidence, because I don’t feel like I know that much about myself anyway.”
Mia Rubin, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, grew up in a white Jewish family in Chicago after being adopted from China. For her thesis project, she designed textiles using childhood photos and artwork to tell her own adoption story and those of others.
She told Ms. Cao that she identifies as Jewish but has struggled to embrace Chinese culture. “Every time I was doing something that was Asian,” she admitted, “I felt like a fraud.”
Ms. Cao found that most of the people she met shared that concern over authenticity, that question of what makes a “real” Asian.
“It kind of indicates there’s only one real truth, but talking to them made me realize that there’s no one way to be Asian or American — or just a person,” Ms. Cao said. “It’s so important for us to embrace our differences.”
Other interviewees agreed: Mathew Luce, who was adopted from Indonesia and lives on Roosevelt Island, doesn’t take insults or ignorant comments to heart. “I’m proud that I’m Asian, and I’m proud that sometimes I act white,” he told Ms. Cao. “It’s just me. That’s how I grew up.”
Una, whose parents asked that her last name not be published, was only 9 when Ms. Cao photographed her at home in Brooklyn. But she had been wondering about her identity for a while. With her family’s support, she already had contacted a Korean adoption agency to search for her biological parents, but she was told she was too young to open her case.
If she can’t find them, she told Ms. Cao, she would be content knowing she tried.
Ms. Cao hopes to expand the photo essay to include people of other ethnic backgrounds. She said adoptees might not feel the need to address race at home, but “when they grow up and step into society, race is just a thing that nobody can escape.”
Her project has also helped Ms. Cao come to terms with her own identity. “I’m not trying to force myself to fit any categories,” she said. “Now I think I’m really comfortable, just knowing that nothing can take away from my Chinese roots.”
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