Tien: What are some important experiences you had growing up?
LiLi: My name is LiLi Johnson. I’m a fifth-year graduate student at Yale in the American Studies PhD Program. I’m adopted from China. I was born in China in December 1990 and in April 1991 (I was only 3 or 4 months years old), I was adopted and came to the U.S. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is in Western Mass; it’s like a college town. Both of my parents are white. My mom is actually a professor at Hampshire College and is a China Scholar who studies the One-Child Policy and family and kinship in China. I grew up in Amherst, which was a “multi-culti” type of town. It was very liberal. A lot of my peers were also children of professors.
I had a lot of problems with—as a young adult reflecting back—it was very much this colorblind ethos of “Everyone is equal. Everyone should be treated equally,” which are obviously important values but a lot it was through this lens of “Well we don’t see race” or “Race doesn’t matter.” So, I think had a somewhat difficult time in my broader town context sort of articulating or thinking about race and gender. But then within my household because my parents were pretty conscious of race and my mom was also a China scholar so she understood a lot of the power dynamics of the situation in China, I think that we did have a lot of conversations about race and gender and power growing up. And I would say when I was in elementary school, I was very aware of being adopted. That was kind of at the heart of my identity formation.
It wasn’t until I got to sort of middle school or high school—I was going from the town elementary school into a more regional middle school, that I started to become more and more aware of race and my racial identity and also my gender identity. That was also an age I started—I had a teacher once reprimand me for what I was wearing because of the whole “it will distract the boys” logic—and I think that’s also when I started becoming more aware about race and sort of the stereotypes about being Asian.
I had a lot of conversations with my peers about being adopted from China. So, a lot of my peers had a lot of questions like, “Do you know who your real parents are?” I became very insistent that my parents were my real parents—not my adoptive parents. I remember I got into a sort of fight with some friends in second grade because they were sort of insistent that I had two families. I was very insistent that I had one family—my mom loves talking about this story too. I remember I drew an hourglass on a piece of paper, and I was like, “See I have one family, and it looks like this. The narrow point in the hourglass is me. So, I’m the one person that is connecting this one family.” I had a lot of strong opinions that were developing as a child about what my family was and what it meant to be adopted.
I also went back to China several times as a child with my family. I have one older brother, who is my parents’ biological child, and I also have an older half-sister though I did not grow up with her. We would go to China, and that was always an interesting experience as a kid because my mom is very comfortable in China. She’s lived there before. She speaks Chinese. It was always interesting to be this kid, who looks Chinese but then has this mom that is able to be really comfortable in those spaces in ways that I was not.
I encountered some stereotypes about being Asian in elementary school. I remember in kindergarten a boy pulled his eyes back and was like, “All Chinese people have eyes like this.” I remember it very vividly, and I actually confronted him about it when we got to high school, “Oh do you remember that time in kindergarten.” Again, at the time, it was this sort of annoyance, I don’t know that children really have a way to talk about it in a constructive way. But obviously I remember and it’s definitely a moment of racialization that I think a lot of Asian American children experience. But it wasn’t really until I got to middle school, I started counting how many other Asians were in my school classes and more stereotypes about being good at math or being good at school started to permeate my social interactions that I became very aware of race and gender in other ways. So, in that sense that definitely impacted some of my identity formation during that time.
T: So, throughout your childhood, when people would say these things, would you tend to kind of shrug it off or would you respond to them and say something?
L: A mix, I think. I think I wasn’t as active… What stands out in my mind is that I don’t really remember a lot of my responses to comments or interactions or encounters during that time. But I do remember how I felt. I oftentimes remember feeling like, I would be thinking about it afterwards and then I would be like, “Oh, I should’ve said this” or “I wish I’d done that” or whatever. I was a pretty outspoken child, I was shy but I wasn’t unable to respond. But I think a lot of the time, I didn’t know how to respond.
I had and have a very close relationship with both my parents. They knew what was happening, and I would talk to them about it. It’s was always interesting because my mom is a very headstrong person, and she very much speaks her mind. I remember there were times when I would say, “Oh Mom such and such happened.” She would be like, “Well, you should’ve said blah blah,” or “You should’ve punched him in the face.” In some ways, I relished that because I could feel her anger or upset on my behalf and that made me feel recognized, heard, seen, and understood. But I was also like, “But I can’t do that now.” It was a little bit of this conundrum of feeling like, “Oh yeah I wish I could speak up more.” In that way, that was always tough at the same time I felt like my mom is on my side or she understands why this isn’t just a little thing. I think that’s something that I really appreciate about both of my parents. They were pretty good at validating my experiences and not saying, “Oh, just forget about it. Just ignore it.” I think that’s something I’ve internalized in a positive way. I think microaggressions is a very functional term, but I also feel like even microaggressions are problematic and racist and aggressions. In that sense, I do feel strongly that I don’t want to downplay any type of racism or sexism or problematic behavior in that regard.
T: Can you talk a little about your undergrad experience at NYU [New York University], and what are some key moments that you felt were very informative? All of these questions are like, “What are informative moments?”
L: I went to NYU for my undergraduate degree. I actually chose NYU because it was in New York City. I think it was because I come from a small college town, and I just wanted the opposite of that, which is this huge city. I think it was this huge driving factor was this sense of anonymity that I felt in New York. Growing up in a small college town, everyone knew I was adopted. You could walk around, and you’d be at a restaurant and it was just obvious that I was an adopted child. Actually, there’s a quote—I can’t remember who it’s from—but it’s about adoption. It’s something like, “If you ever saw me with my family, you already knew too much about me.” I kind of felt that—well obviously because I remember the quote. That was really sort of how I felt about my family growing up in this college town that was very liberal but also I felt like I was exposed all of the time. Then, I went to New York and I was just totally anonymous. One, I wasn’t with my parents for the first time. I didn’t grow up with this friend group that all knew that my parents were white. I could suddenly choose to disclose whether I was adopted or not. I could choose to disclose my sort of own racial journey. Actually, people sometimes misread me. My last name is Johnson, which is a very white name. Sometimes, people thought I was half-Asian. Suddenly to be misread or misrecognized or not recognized at all felt extremely new and exciting to me. That was just at the start. I think that was day one.
In college, it was really interesting because I was kind of going through a different type of process about my relationship to being an Asian American woman. My friend group kind of was similar to my friend group in high school, which was kind of this multi-culti friend group. We were all different races and ethnicities, and we never talked about race or ethnicity. We sort of had a good time and said, “Race doesn’t matter.” But at the same time that was happening, two things that I think are important/ interesting to note is one, I started embarking on my journey with Asian American Studies, which has led me to here and two, my first year at NYU, I actually pledged for an Asian American sorority—so that’s a whole side story in itself.
In terms of my major, in my first semester of college, I took an Intro to Asian American Studies class. I remember after the first class, I went to my dorm room and just cried. I think part of it was that I just had never realized that there was this whole language and world and way of understanding all of the things I had experienced but had never been able to talk about. Everything that I had ever experienced that was about my race, every comment, and every feeling had this broader structural context. It wasn’t just me struggling by myself. I think that class was very transformative, and I ended up majoring in what they call at NYU “Social and Cultural Analysis,” a term they used to describe the American Studies program there. My concentrations were Asian American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. Both of those areas were really important to me in terms of how I thought. I think I excelled because suddenly there was a language to be thinking about my own experience.
Academically at the same time I was also a premed. I was a premed all through college, and I think that started when I got to NYU. I thought, “Oh I’m going to be a premed,” and I just stuck with it. I just couldn’t let go, and there was something very exciting about the sciences to me. I liked that I was this premed that was also doing this humanities major. That culminated in my senior thesis project being on discourses of family and kinship in general biology textbooks. For my senior year of college, I looked at a bunch of general biology textbooks. These are books that people used in A.P Bio [Advanced Placement Biology] or Intro to Bio and how a lot of the books—especially when they talk about genetics and reproduction—incorporate the language of family to talk about science. They would say you have 23 chromosomes from your mom and 23 chromosomes from your dad. Here, I am saying but I don’t have any chromosomes from either of my parents. What are some of the narratives that get reproduced in these biology textbooks that are supposedly objective, true, not political?
My findings were based on three dominant ways of thinking that biological textbooks incorporated. One was biological kinship, the other was heterosexuality—this assumption that everyone has a mom and a dad, that’s how families were made—and third was able-bodiness—especially thinking about genetic counseling and how certain types of bodies are seen as healthy or desirable especially when it comes to reproduction and genetics. You can kind of tell from my story that all of my interests just coming together. I got that idea when I was studying for the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test].
Eventually, I applied to medical school, and I didn't get in. That was kind of devastating. All of junior year, I was on the edge of thinking, “Do I want to go to grad school or do I want to go to medical school?” I just couldn’t let go of medical school and so I applied. I applied to 15 medical schools, I took the MCAT twice, and I just didn't get in anywhere. I got into my senior year of college. I got one interview, and I just didn’t get in. I was suddenly like, “What do I do now?” I took one year off after my undergrad, and that was the year I did a lot of soul searching in a lot of different ways. I also decided to apply for graduate school for American Studies. Here was this other passion I had developed and done work in and had found that I was really good at. I applied to graduate school, and I got into Yale. So I took one year off between my undergrad degree and coming to Yale for my PhD.
T: Can I ask, in your thesis, you talked about the language of heterosexuality and able-bodiness, but did you also explore race within kinship? Because your other area of study was race.
L: Not really, this is kind of what’s funny is that I—well I will say all of my advisors in undergrad were ethnic studies scholars. I was taking a lot of ethnic studies classes as I was writing my thesis. To be honest, it didn’t come up that much in the thesis maybe at all. I think some of it was just trying to look at the sources. The sources—at least in the areas I was looking at which was genetics, identity, reproduction, inheritance—race was not really talked about. My sense is that race is not talked about very much in biology courses precisely because it has become common knowledge that race is not this biological phenomenon. But just not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. Actually, my project itself did not talk about race that much.
But when I graduated, I was almost surprised because I actually received an award for distinguished achievement in Asian American Studies. But it was one of those moments where—and I thank you for bringing this up because it’s been a part of my intellectual trajectory that I sort of got into this field because I was so compelled by the study of race and Asian American racial formation. It kind of fell by the wayside a little when I was doing my senior thesis project and really digging into these cultural studies of science. Even when I got to graduate school, I wasn’t sure how much Asian American Studies was going to be a part of my intellectual life. Now I’ve sort of circled back around, and my work is really at the heart an Asian American Studies project. The science has become a little bit more secondary as I try to dig into family and kinship not just in scientific and biological ways but also in terms of social, historical, and cultural practices.
T: It’s interesting because I’m reading scientific papers or going to lectures, and they will use the term “race”. But it’s vague—it’s almost like saying species. In general, in biology, they like to talk about how certain diseases are more prevalent within certain populations. It’s interesting that race is not necessarily talked about within kinship and stuff.
L: Totally. One, I totally agree with your observation about race both being in regular scientific discourse at the same time that nobody really wants to talk about it outright and also the fact that race becomes a kind of shorthand for certain types of populations. Yeah we can’t deny certain trends of certain diseases or situations amongst populations. But that race then becomes a shorthand to articulating what those populations are. There was something else I was going to say—what did you say at the end of your comment?
T: I said it’s interesting how we use this language but we don’t necessarily outright talk about race or something like that.
L: Oh with family! The second part of that is sort of the inverse which is that we don’t really talk about race when it comes to biology, reproduction, family, because we still live in a society that is very heteronormative and is very biologically minded about family. The majority of families—at least in the United States—are same race (at least in the nuclear family) that have had children through biological reproduction. The whole point is that scholars in kinship are starting to disrupt those narratives because there’s a lot of different forms of queer kinship and adoptive kinship and other types of nonbiological, nonnormative, nonheternormative family, kinship models. But there hasn’t been a ton—this is kind of why I’m really interested in doing this work I’m doing—there hasn’t been as much trying to put these two things together. There’s been a lot of work on nonnormative kinship structures or practices, and there’s been a lot of work on disrupting the biological model of family and a lot of work done on the mixed race family or the way race fits into multiculturalism. The mixed race family becomes an icon of that. But there hasn’t been a ton trying to put all of that together.
It’s funny actually because when I got to grad school, I was working on a totally different project than what I’m working on now. At the time, I was really interested in the mixed race family as an icon of multiculturalism and how the mixed race family is always seen as political—is always seen as “the future,” the Time magazine covers where everyone is going to be tan. How are they going to become tan but through mixed race families? The mixed race family is always seen as political and racial whereas the same race family is not political or not racial. I’m still interested in these discourses about the mixed race families both through biological reproduction but also through adoptive kinship, which is kind of where I’m going now, thinking about transnational adoption and the mixed race family in that context.
T: As we are talking about this, I was thinking a lot about how there’s a huge interest in genetic testing now—this expansion of kinship, thinking about “Who are my ancestors 200 years ago?” I feel there has been a lot of discourse about “How we’re all from Africa. We’re all human.” I’m wondering what you think about.
L: I have two different answers for this. One, is this broader observation about this phenomenon that you are mentioning—I do often think genetic testing is used to mobilize multiculturalism. In that way, that can be problematic. This sense of we’re all from Africa, and our DNA shows it. We’re all related if you go back far enough. I think that is often used to diminish or erase or eclipse a recognition of inequality today. Why would you say, “We’re all from Africa.” except as a response to the fact that there’s discrimination and racism and prejudice happening already? In that sense, I’m very resistant to this idea that this genetic testing is going to solve racism or that it’s somehow is going to reveal something about ourselves that will then help us all understand that we’re all the same. A lot of people aren’t thinking about that when they’re doing the genetic test, and they’re just curious. In that sense, I’m a little skeptical because it essentializes your genetics. I’m very hesitant to support or buy into models of genetic testing that really imply that your genes hold some information, particularly racial or cultural information, that we don't already have. Just because it’s science doesn’t mean it’s objective or that it’s true or that it hasn’t been produced by these broader cultural models. On top of that, any geographic locations that are being named are already interpreting political data or political geographies.
The other region of thought that I thought a lot about this is through adoption because a lot of adoptees do these genetic tests. I will say now I did 23andMe with my mom. It was interesting because obviously—actually not obviously. It was interesting because my mom is a white woman and is probably the intended audience for these genetic tests. Hers came back with this great little pie chart with English and German and whatever and this and that. Mine came back 98% Chinese, 1% Korean.
My understanding is that the companies have acknowledged this as well that they don’t actually have a lot of data for Asians and Asian Americans. Obviously as well because it’s a U.S. based service—they’re not really impacting some of the broader ethnic politics that are happening in Asia itself. I can use China at least for an example but I imagine this is true for almost all Asian countries. There’s a huge number of ethnic minorities in China. Some are recognized by the government; some are not. They all have political meanings, and they all are shaping different identities in China. 23andMe does not have the data or the access or the geography or the cultural/ethnic knowledge to be aggregating or disaggregating their genetic data that way. Even if it weren’t already problematic just trying to quantify or create ethnicity into this type of genetic information, they also don’t even have the data for Asians to be doing this kind of work. In that sense, I found a lot of Chinese adoptees do the genetic tests like 23andMe—I think there’s some other ones, WeGene or something—and they are not thinking about these kinds of complications or implications or the broader context. They get this information, and they say, “I’m 10% Korean or I’m 3% Thai.” Then they just get confused. Suddenly it becomes this whole new way of thinking about their adoption. For me, that feels a little like it’s going in the wrong direction.
This is what I say to people who ask me what I think of adoptees doing it. I’m not going to stop any adoptee from doing a genetic test if that’s what they want, but it feels a little bit like—how do I say this—it feels a little bit like giving a starving person a bag of chips. Here’s a person—I mean I’ll speak for myself. I’m a person who doesn’t have any information about her birth family, the first month of her life, the people whose DNA I share. I’m a person who has no knowledge of what it was like to be born, who doesn’t know anybody who knows what it’s like for me to be born into this world. I don’t know what it was like when someone was pregnant with me. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone who looks like me. That’s hard. That is a loss. I think a lot of adoptees want to pretend that it’s not a loss because they don’t feel like they can ever have that information. But that’s hard. That’s a huge thing. Whether it feels like a loss or not, whether or not adoptees think it matters or doesn’t matter—it’s a lot of information. I think it’s very difficult to find that information.
And here I am and I try to do a genetic test. That’s a miniscule amount of information in comparison to all of this other information that I don’t have. I’m hesitant in the adoptee context to really push or support the genetic test route for self-knowledge when actually it provides relatively little knowledge. However, I would also say it could be useful for future birth parent searching if there was enough people that did it. In that sense, there might be other arguments for community based action around these genetic based tests.
T: Basically they also don’t have a lot of data from Latin America, from Africa, and especially from indigenous people. So this raises a lot—[NPR's] Code Switch had a podcast on this—it raises a lot of questions for people of color when they try to learn where they’re from, there’s no data pretty much for it. It’s pretty inaccurate. It’s interesting that you talk about that this genetic testing tends to be meant for a white audience, because that’s where they’re concentrating all of their data collection.
L: Right, totally.
T: This is going to be a turn around, but can you talk about your experience being in an Asian American sorority?
L: Oh yeah, I wasn’t actually in it. It’s fun to look back now, but it was difficult at the time. This was my first year of college. In the spring of my first year, I felt like I don’t really have any Asian American friends and how do I make them. People like to pretend you can just make friends. Some people gravitate towards others and if you just let these organic interactions take its course, I think there is a racial politics to that. I was very comfortable with this multi-culti friend group, which was not all white. Actually, there were a couple of Asian Americans in this friend group. But in terms of Asian American women that I could be friends with, you couldn’t just walk up to them in the dining hall.
I saw an ad or got recruited or something for rushing this Asian sorority. I thought, “Yeah! Here’s this group of 30 Asian women, and they were all really nice to me at first. They all seemed so close.” So I rushed the sorority and I got about halfway through the pledge process. They hazed—not in a dangerous way—it was a pretty elaborate hazing system. I dropped out, and I remember I failed a math quiz and realized it wasn’t worth it. It was tough, because a lot of my friends didn’t really understand why I was doing this. My two best friends at the time were white women, and they really didn’t understand. They were kind of mad at me because I wasn’t around and I was kind of going crazy because of this pledge process. They didn’t understand why I decided to do it. It’s kind of hard to explain—I mean at that time I don’t think I really knew why I felt so committed to try to enter inside of this kind of community. Eventually I was losing sleep over it. I was frantic. My parents were worried about me, and I eventually quit. I didn’t complete the pledge process so I’m definitely not part of a sorority.
But it was an interesting experience because the types of activities that we did were not really about being Asian American. There was more social activities. In that sense, I don’t really regret not doing it. For me, in my memory it sort of exists as this moment of wanting to connect to being Asian American, feeling uncomfortable where I was at and then trying to do something about it. At the time, it wasn’t the right thing for me. I was really uncomfortable with my identity or existence as an Asian American woman until I got to graduate school. Being at Yale was the first time I had this amazing group of Asian women friends. That and working at the AACC [Asian American Cultural Center] were some of the most transformative experiences as an Asian woman for me. I mean it’s easy to say now that I’m happy and have all of these amazing friends. But it’s funny because I do look back and think about how I spent a long time of my life really feeling alienated by this identity.
T: So, was it just the fact of not having a lot of Asian American women friends or was it also having friends that are willing to have talk about identity and race?
L: Both, my friends in college were open to talk about anything that I wanted. It’s not about that they didn’t want to talk about it. But they didn’t really have the lived experience or any kind of shared experience—obviously—about being an Asian woman. Neither of us really had the language to have a conversation about it. I think it’s tough. This is what it’s like to be a person of color with friends that are not people of color. Or even in my situation being an Asian woman with friends that are not Asian women so not just white women but other women who are not Asian. The racialization of Asian women is pretty specific in American culture and in our society. A lot of the experiences that I had—especially negative ones of racism that were specific to being an Asian woman not just being an Asian American person—are hard to untangle with people who one have never experienced it and don’t really know how to talk about it. My friends were extremely supportive when I experienced racism as a college student, but that’s a little different than understanding what was happening. I didn’t always understand what was happening either even though I wanted to think I was.
T: What are things that are specific to being an Asian woman in terms of that racial formation that you were talking about?
L: I don’t want to be too direct and say it is this or that. For me, a lot of experiences at the intersection of Asian American and womanhood—I experienced a lot of stereotypes and racial experiences as an Asian person, and I’ve also experienced a lot of stereotypes as a woman, and in addition to that I’ve experienced a lot of things that are specific to Asian women in particular stereotypes about dating and sexuality and affect and demeanor. I’ve experienced this a lot at Yale too so it wasn’t just for college or any other context. I think a lot of people—whether or not they identify as racist, even people who are actively identify as not racist or antiracist—still have certain ideas about how Asian women are supposed to (or do) act. There have been a lot of times where people have been surprised or intimidated by me and how loud or adamant or excited or headstrong I am about certain things. Again, you can’t really ask someone, “Did you think I was intimidating because you are racially problematic and you think Asian women shouldn’t be so intimidating?” I’ve been through a lot of experiences where I’ve gotten the sense that people don’t think I’m being appropriate or they think that I will accept less than I deserve because I’m an Asian woman. In terms of my personal life or dating, Asian women experience a specific horrible type of catcalling. In terms of dating, especially white men—but I would not just say only white men—I think there are definitely a lot of stereotypes that are still circulating about Asian women and sexuality.
T: I’ve been thinking about the different stereotypes of Asian women. It’s very interesting that you have on one hand the Dragon Lady, who’s in control and always kind of on edge. Then, you have the submissive, obedient, calm Asian woman, and there’s no in-between. I think it’s interesting that people are surprised that you’re not one thing or you’re not the other, can you speak to that a little more?
L: For me at least, a lot of this is actually at the heart of me being adopted from China too and that I grew up in a white family. I would definitely not identify as white in any way. I’m not a white person even if my family is. A lot of adoptees will say I’m Asian, but I’m white culturally. I would actually not identify that way, because I am Asian, and I don’t know what it means to be Asian or white “culturally.” But I would say growing up in a white household with a very headstrong and ambitious white mother, I definitely act sometimes in the way that people are more familiar with the way white women are acting especially when it comes to loudness or the comfort I feel in expressing my own opinion or voice. I think that speaks a little bit more to the submissive stereotype and also the model minority stereotype—not making waves, keeping your head down, and working hard. So again, at the moments I have not been that people are always surprised—less than surprised, I think people feel it’s not appropriate. They don’t really interrogate why they think that it’s not appropriate or uncouth or whatever. In terms of the Dragon Lady stereotype, I think it’s tough because that is an overly sexualized position. I’m trying to think of specific examples in my life and other than catcalling, which is just gross all around, I don’t know if I’ve encountered that sexualization directly. But I don’t know I’ll think about that more.
T: I realize that there is sense of sexual prowess within the Dragon Lady stereotype, but I was thinking more of it as the sense of control and not necessarily sexuality wise.
L: I mean Lotus Blossom is also sexualized because she is submissive sexually as well, but I see what you are saying. I think the Dragon Lady also falls into the Yellow Peril stereotype where Asians are taking over. In popular culture, these narratives are very evident. Particularly, in the dominating Asian woman and then the submissive Asian woman—there’s no normal person. In terms of my own life, now that I think about it I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve grown up in very liberal spaces. These two stereotypes—at least in explicit terms—are disavowed by these liberal, multicultural narratives. I haven’t really experienced it in this explicit way as much as again this language of appropriateness or inappropriateness. It’s hard, because I don’t think I’m able to sort out, “This is the Dragon Lady thing and this is the Lotus Blossom thing.” In thinking of an example, I was negotiating for a job, and I got an offer that was frankly pretty offensive. I just wondered to myself, “Is this because they think I’m just going to take this low pay because I don’t know any better.” That’s a chronic problem. It’s racialized. It’s definitely gendered. It’s a chronic problem of women getting paid less than men and not even knowing it, because people don’t talk about salaries. In that situation, that’s kind of closer to the type of experience that I’ve had that’s both racial and gendered at the same time that you are questioning whether it is or not. In terms of the two big stereotypes, for me it makes consuming media very unenjoyable. I don’t want to watch stuff where Asian women—
T: Are sexual objects.
L: Yeah, that’s the only available role for an Asian woman. It’s tough because there isn’t much out there. That’s why I like that show Elementary with Lucy Liu.