It was December 1999 when I asked my mother, who I was helping with the Christmas decorations: "Was my mummy pretty?" She smiled and said: "Yes, I’m sure she was."
I was 5 years old and I already knew my mother and I were not biologically connected. It hadn’t come as a shock; I knew I was different from my first day at primary school. The way the children looked at me and then looked at my mother when she came to pick me up, asking: "Why don’t you look like your mom?"
I still get the odd question today when we’re together. People mistake us for friends rather than mother and daughter. I’ve had countless interactions with strangers who can’t quite grasp that I'm from a small town just outside Northampton, UK. "But where are you from originally?" or "You’re far too exotic to come from here!" they say. Some even query how I speak English so well.
How does one sum up where one comes from? For some, this might be easy to answer. They might say their hometown where they grew up, or where they were born; some may go back to their roots, to where their family came from. It’s an open-ended question for a lot of us.
For me, it’s not that simple. In 1979, China implemented the one-child policy to control the size of its growing population. If a family had a second child and it was a boy, they got to keep him. However, if their second child was a girl, then it was bad news. In China, at this time, girl babies were not favoured. They would grow up and eventually marry, at which point their only obligations would be to their husband's family. Therefore it became commonplace to abandon newborn girls.
I’m just one of the thousands of baby girls given up by birth families who had no choice. I was apparently left under a willow tree in a major city in China called Hangzhou, with a red label attached to me stating my 'supposed' date of birth and my Chinese name. That’s it. There was nothing else about my birth family. Nothing to join up the pieces. Most babies come into this world and are granted a birth certificate confirming their date, weight and time of birth. My birth certificate was written by a government official based on the red label, which may or may not have been left by my biological mother.
Not only did I lose my first family, I was adopted into a British family, who I love and adore. However this meant that I also lost the language and cultural practices connecting me to my birthplace. I am unable to identify myself with being fully Chinese or fully share my identity as a British citizen. I’m stuck between two cultures, unable to fully experience both.
Over the years, classmates, colleagues and even strangers would ask me about China, assuming I would know the answers. They thought I spoke my 'mother tongue' at home and used chopsticks with my Chinese-British family. When I couldn’t tell them anything about China, I felt ashamed for not knowing – as if I were obligated to know. I felt like I had failed to live up to my Chinese culture.
Assumptions about my identity based on Chinese stereotypes were also thrown around. A friend’s mother once confidently said: "Katie, I bet noodles are your favourite food, as you’re Chinese right?" Then there was the guy on Tinder who started a conversation with the words: "You must have a tight Asian pussy." Offensive to anyone, and met with an immediate block. This is without even mentioning the query whether I can drink without getting the embarrassing 'Asian flush'.
Feeling so disconnected, I decided the best way to tackle this was to blend in (which is actually very hard to do when you’re the only Chinese girl in school). I dyed my hair and copied my friends' mannerisms. Soon, I blocked out anything to do with my Chinese culture, to the extent that I didn’t fully recognize myself as Chinese.
This caused huge personal issues which still rear their heads. I continue to find the question "Where do you come from?" difficult to answer. If I say China, I feel like an imposter. Sometimes I decide that not telling the truth is easier and I tell them what they want to hear: "I’m mixed, my mother is English and my dad is Chinese." Which isn’t a lie. My mother raised me single-handedly without a father figure, so it's easy. People understand it.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a whole other situation to deal with as I find strangers moving away from me, giving me a look that they are disgusted by my race due to the coronavirus outbreak. The worst thing is, I don’t even know if my birth family are still alive or have succumbed to the virus.
I know I am still overcoming a lot of issues about my identity. I look at these issues in a positive way, as character-building. I am still growing as a person and, of course, there will be challenges – but I know I am getting better at dealing with them, expressing them the way I need to and talking openly to the people who are interested and care about me. In the past, I’ve spoken publicly to parents and teenagers who are part of an organization called CACH (Children Adopted from China) about interracial adoption and the complications it can have. I’ve been attending events organized by CACH for the last 24 years and have met so many incredible women who are in the same boat. We’ve exchanged stories, given advice and laughed together. I no longer call them my friends but rather my sisters, as we share an incredibly strong bond that can’t be broken.
Through spending time with them, not only have I learned a huge amount about myself but I’ve also learned to be proud to belong in an interracial family, where blood does not matter.
It’s nurture that creates you as a person, not nature. My mother taught me that one. She also taught me to grab life by both hands. Hold on to it. Seize each opportunity to give, listen and to have empathy for others. Express yourself in difficult times and happy times. Accept and love who you are, and be proud of where you come from and how far you’ve come. Because it's going to get better. I promise. I’m here and you are, too.