There is a photo on my refrigerator that I absolutely love, taken of me and my daughter at Yankee Stadium. Eleni is holding a homemade “Go Yankees!” sign, and I am waving a little flag, emblazoned with the team pinstripes and logo. It was a warm, late-summer’s day, and everyone was in a great mood. The Yankees had a sparkling new stadium, they were headed to the playoffs, and World Series fever was in the air. Eleni was 10 then, and shorter than me by about two inches. She had just started middle school, and was not yet deluged with homework and other academic concerns. On that day, it was just the two of us, cheering the home team, sampling the stadium food, and reveling in the afternoon sun.
This past December, my daughter turned 13. These days, when Eleni stands beside me, she looks down, having grown five-plus inches since that day. She wears jeans and fitted sweaters, Chuck Taylors and boots, high ponytails, side braids, and, on occasion, a cool green-gold shade of nail polish. She studies things in school that I can’t comprehend, like integrated algebra. Her Facebook page overflows with friends.
In many ways, Eleni is the same child I adopted as a baby from China — curious, funny, kind, determined, compassionate. Our bond as a single mother and only child has grown deeper as we’ve weathered life’s ups and downs. Even though I am 42 years her senior, I remember the plague of teenage angst, and I can relate to her self-imposed pressure to excel. I can also roll with her latest interests in books, music, films, and TV (though I’m not quite sure about Dance Moms). But as Eleni gets older, spends more time outside our home, and develops a stronger sense of identity, there’s one thing I can’t comprehend: what it means for her to be Asian.
Eleni lives in Brooklyn, and goes to school with kids of all races. In her class this year there are seven students of Asian ancestry, including another girl adopted from China. Sometimes, a child from an Asian family — not knowing that Eleni was adopted or that I’m white — will try to bond with her, seeking out similarities. On the first day of school, a Chinese-American girl, who had just moved here from Ohio, learned that Eleni was born in China. “Oh, do you speak Chinese?” she asked excitedly, hoping to have someone to converse with. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. But I can help you in French class,” Eleni countered, trying to be friendly.
Two Asian boys in Eleni’s class like to tease her, good-naturedly, about her lack of interest in technical subjects. Eleni takes advanced math and science, but she prefers world history, foreign languages, and literature. The boys joke that she’s not a “real Asian.” One of them even retreated in mock horror when he learned that we weren’t doing anything special for Chinese New Year, a cold, rainy Monday in January, and that Eleni doesn’t know how to cook rice.
Eleni says that race doesn’t matter to her, that she’s drawn to others based on personality, character, or common interests. While she acknowledges that she’s an Asian girl, born in China, this is not at the heart of her identity. She dislikes racial stereotypes of any kind, even “positive” ones (“Of course you’re smart, you’re Asian!” or “You’re so pretty, so exotic!”).
Yet Eleni lives in a world where most people are not color-blind. Even her dearest friends, most of whom are white or biracial, will say things like, “I never think of you as Asian, Eleni,” or “You’re white on the inside, just like us.” It seems these remarks are meant to be inclusive, but they catch her off-guard.
At 13, Eleni is still figuring out who she is. Race is one part of the picture, adoption is another. In the future, being Asian may be more central to her identity, and she may experience a more hurtful kind of racism from others. But for now, my daughter is strong, self-assured, and happy — a child who believes that skin color should not determine how we feel about anyone. Not everyone agrees with her, but I do; and I’m proud.