I looked at the children around me. They were the same kids I had played hide-and-seek with ever since I had learned to walk. I didn't see any Chinese people. I craned my neck, and asked my playmates where the Chinese people were. As they began to snicker, my brother's face twisted in painful awareness. "Dottie, they're talking about us," he said. "We're the Chinese people."
I looked back at him in disbelief. We were not Chinese. We were Italians born in Korea, living in California. I vowed to ask my mother all about this when I got home. When the bus came, I purposely sat in the front so I could see my face in the driver's mirror. Relieved, I saw the same features that had stared back at me when I brushed my teeth that morning. When school was over, I came home and asked my mother what those kids had been talking about.
Her response was unsettling. She breathed a long sigh and said gently, "Well, honey, you and your brother do have sort of an Asian look, like many Chinese and Japanese people. This is something people are going to say to you for a long time."
Mother never told me whether it was good or bad to be Asian; she didn't have to. The mocking voices of the kids on the bus had told me that many people thought Asians were second-rate and not as good as whites. A wave of regret washed over my mother's face when she saw the tears streaming down my cheeks. She looked away quickly, said nothing.
That first day of school taught me that not everyone would see me as I saw myself -- a little American girl who liked to show off by dancing to the Beatles. To many I would simply be the "Asian girl," my whole identity reduced to "someone who isn't white."
Today, I'm often asked by friends and acquaintances who've adopted nonwhite children whether I think it's important to address their child's racial identity. I tell them yes, that no matter how strongly they wish to ignore their racial differences, their child must also be ready to meet the world beyond the family -- and for that a child needs a strong positive feeling about being Asian, Latino, Indian. It has taken me years of hard work to understand what it means to be Korean. There have been moments of great joy, but it has also been, at times, a lonely journey -- a journey I wish my family had been willing to take with me when I was still a little girl.