Music Will Lead You Home
There are some days when I’m taken aback when I look into the mirror.
I forget that I don’t have my father’s freckles or my mother’s blue-gray eyes.
Instead, I find a girl with dark brown eyes and almost black hair staring back at me, surprised. I see my tanned skin, my high cheekbones, and my eyes that gently slope into winged curves at the corners when I smile.
I grew up in a predominantly white town in a suburb of New York City, where my siblings (who are also adopted) and I were the only Asian people in our school. It was only when I left that town to go to college that I realized how my adoption and me looking different from my parents affected me.
In our town, everyone kind of knows each other in some way or another, so there were not really those questions of “where are you from.” I also grew up surrounded by the incredible love of my family, yet I was raised with a white kind of mindset. It was only when I looked in the mirror that it would hit me that I was different when I did not feel any different than those I grew up around.
When I was younger, about early elementary school or so, my parents did try to keep in touch with the families who also had adopted children from China around our age. They also attempted to keep us in touch with our Chinese heritage such as Chinese dance for my sister and I and Chinese school on Sundays. I remember memorizing poems in Mandarin, reciting them in front of the rest of the school, and trying Chinese calligraphy for the first time--I still have the sheets of paper somewhere. Yet, I also remember, somehow, going to church one Sunday and telling my mother in a resigned tone that I did not want to go to Chinese school that day. I remember her agreeing with me.
That was the year we quit going to Chinese school.
I do not think I had a particularly strong attachment to the Chinese side of my identity; in fact, I remember being quite passive about it. I did not have a fierce hate for it or an anger towards it, nor did I find myself wanting to embrace it wholeheartedly. I never went out of my way to connect to the culture that I had been born into and removed from.
My disconnect made me more self-conscious in college. There was a course I took in the spring semester of my sophomore year where one of the units was doing Chinese calligraphy. My senses heightened to the fact that I was not particularly good at it. I had also chosen to write my middle name, Nian Lan, in Chinese characters. It felt more personal, and I felt more vulnerable. I knew that I had no reason as to why I should be good at it because holding the brush was awkward, and I had not done Chinese calligraphy in a very very long time (and even during Chinese school I was pretty awful). I am sure that I was the only one overanalyzing the situation, but it weighed on my mind the entire time we were working on our calligraphy.
Earlier in my sophomore year, in October, I gained an interest in K-pop. I first peered down the K-pop hole by listening to BTS (of course) and learning their names. I actually decided to learn their names after I came across “Fake Love” on the Spotify charts because I remember watching an interview with them and not being able to tell them apart. I was a bit shocked and frustrated with myself for thinking that all seven members of BTS looked alike because I was positive that they did not. I hate it when someone thinks that I look like another Asian just because we both are Asian. I felt I owed it to someone--maybe, unconsciously, I thought I owed it myself--to distinguish their faces and learn their names.
Because of that one decision, I fell (and am still falling) down the K-pop hole. I do not regret it, however. In fact, because of BTS and that one moment, a new world was opened up to me. By this time, when I was in college, I was very much so out of touch with the Asian part of my identity. Sure, K-pop is not Chinese, but sometimes I do encounter Mandarin and Chinese K-pop stars, such as NCT’s (Neo Culture Technology managed by SM Entertainment) China-based unit, WayV or through some of the Chinese members of the group, SEVENTEEN (managed by Pledis Entertainment). Getting into K-pop then grew my interest in K-dramas and then C-dramas (I have a lot more to watch, though).
It still hits me, when I am watching a music video or a drama, that these artists and these actors look like me for once. I never fully got it when I would see people talk about the books that they see themselves in--I thought it was great, but I did not fully understand why they were so excited or emotional about it.
After K-pop, I get it. I now see people on a daily basis who look like me, and they are proud of who they are and what they look like.
There are new kinds of people and their experiences that I have become exposed to through these K-pop groups’ music as well as their unique personalities within their groups, who often act as families. Although the lyrics are in Korean the majority of the time--and occasionally Chinese-- love how, sometimes, I do not have to look up the lyrics of a song because music is such a universal language. I can feel the pain, the joy, the thoughtfulness in the melody, the love in the strength of the voices regardless of whether I understand the exact words that are being sung or rapped.
However, because I do not speak Korean, I found that my interest in K-pop pushed my to start casually learning Korean, so, now, I sort of know the Hangul alphabet (except for certain vowels that I cannot seem to remember, but I will work on that), I know about the different birthday system, and the age hierarchy (ex. calling an older member in a male group“hyung”). I was introduced to Korea and China’s amazing food so that I now want to try these dishes at places in New York City and in their native countries; I find myself wanting to travel to East Asia instead of setting my sights exclusively on Europe. I am a little more curious about the country I was born in; thus, I am considering the idea of possibly going to the orphanage I was adopted from. I developed a strong desire to learn more languages because, as an American belonging to a family where we only know English, I have painfully realized my language limitations. Because of this, I am going to officially start learning Mandarin during the fall semester.
K-pop has done this: I’ve come to terms with my multiple identities--the identities that place me “in-between”--but even more importantly, I have become active in reconnecting with my birth culture, and I have come to embrace my multifaceted self. This music has, in a way, led me home. I’m proud of what I look like, and I want to learn more about the culture I was born into as well as the culture I grew up in. Yes, I'm part of a white family. Yes, I’m Chinese. Yes, I’m adopted. Yes, I do love who I am. And no one can take that away from me.