Modern Family, an ABC comedic sitcom, follows three very different but related families. One of the families consists of a homosexual couple, Mitchell and Cameron, as well as Lily, their daughter who was adopted from Vietnam in the pilot episode. In an episode entitled “The Future Dunphys” (season 4, episode 19), three-year-old Lily tells her parents that she is gay. Confused, they wonder how she knows at such a young age. However, they realize soon after that the reason Lily is saying she is gay is because Mitch and Cam both identify as gay and she just wants to be like them in finding her own identity and culture.
Although this whole moment is clearly meant to be comedic, there is some value to this scene. My sister enjoys shocking people by telling them that she is “half Irish and half German.” She says this because one of our parents is Irish and our other parent is German, but her biological parents are Asian and she appears outwardly Asian. The majority of people that she tells this to look at her incredulously or laugh it off as a joke. However, I think this exposes some truth at its core: We strive to belong. There is something isolating about looking nothing like anybody in your family.
In the latter half of “The Future Dunphys,” Mitch and Cam bring Lily to a Vietnamese restaurant to connect her with her culture when they realize she does not understand the concept of heritage. However, Lily sulks through the meal complaining that she does not want pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, and would rather have a cheeseburger. She throws a fit in the restaurant and starts screaming that she hates Vietnam. It is meant to be comedic because Lily is a mere toddler and cannot even embrace Vietnamese culture because she does not understand culture or heritage. However, at the end of the meal, Mitch and Cam remind Lily that love makes them a family and she has other shared traits with them, such as making a scene in a restaurant, that unites them.
Being an international adoptee, I often have to remind myself that I do not have to be a certain way solely because of my heritage. A large part of me wants to be more in touch with my birth culture. However, while I have a deep appreciation for Chinese culture, when I try to engage with it, it almost feels uncomfortable. First, my whole immediate family is Caucasian, minus my sister. I am of the belief that culture is inherently communal, so having no one to share in these traditions with feels isolating and lonely. Second, because I am not too familiar with the culture in the way that most people who grew up in Asian households are, there is a large chance that I am not even embracing Chinese culture correctly. Not understanding the traditions or executing them in the correct manner makes me feel like I am disrespecting a culture that I respect very much. For these reasons, my involvement in Chinese celebrations and traditions has decreased significantly. However, it is undeniable that every Lunar New Year, I feel a strong connection to the celebrations being thrown even though I am not directly partaking in them with a large community.
Embracing What Feels Comfortable
St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate for many reasons. I have strong ties to Ireland as my grandparents both lived there my whole life. I love everything about Irish culture–the amazing folklore, the warm people, the hardy meals, etc. St. Patrick’s Day is fun for me because it is ultimately a celebration of a culture that I strongly identify with. Even though I was born in China, and I undoubtedly appear Asian, I relate more strongly with Ireland and the Irish culture than I ever have related to China or Chinese culture. In the same way, I consider myself an American–not even an Asian American–because I did not grow up in an Asian household, so I feel very little connection to the culture.
This is a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, I look Chinese on the outside. On multiple occasions throughout my life, random strangers have come up to me speaking in a language I did not understand just based on the assumption that I spoke Mandarin, presumably. Acquaintances have asked me if I have ever considered wearing red on my wedding day, a tradition that many Chinese women embrace. Friends have playfully mocked me because I am not very competent when it comes to using chopsticks.
On the other hand, I understand Irish culture. Many of the people I love are Irish— my grandparents, a lot of my friends, some family members, too. The Catholic, traditional feast day celebrations are ones that I am very familiar with because I grew up celebrating them with my family. Going to midnight mass on Christmas, making and having soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day, and rooting for County Mayo while watching the GAA tournaments are more natural to me even though on the outside, I look like the last person who would resonate with Irish culture.
I have learned to embrace American/Irish culture despite appearances. While I have often struggled with not looking like the rest of my family or my community, sharing cultural traditions pulls me back into the loop. It does not matter what I look like on the outside, because I know that I am included and I belong when I celebrate with my loved ones.
Do Not Discard Your Culture
This is not to say that you should throw away your birth culture, namely if you feel very little connection to it. Having a variety of cultures is what makes this country great, and I would be the last person to suggest we should discard our own cultures in favor of American/European culture. This is my experience and my circumstance, and I do often wish I had been exposed to more Asian cultures when I was younger. It is hard to deny the connection I feel to China and the Asian community, despite being raised fairly disconnected.
On Lunar New Year’s Eve of 2023, just this past January, there was a horrendous shooting in Monterey Park, just under 30 miles from my hometown. Monterey Park was hosting a cultural celebration for Lunar New Year which lasted 48 hours and many people, Asian and not, were flooding into the city to participate in the festivities. The shooter opened fire in a ballroom, just one block away from the main festival, killed nine people, and injured eleven additional people. A vast majority of these victims were Asian. I look forward to Lunar New Year every year, and it is one of the only days I watch the news so I can see all the celebrations taking place around the world. However, when I heard the news of this shooting, I was crushed. I did not know any of the victims, but I sat in front of the television and cried for about an hour. While disconnected, I do feel a special connection to Asian people and Asian culture because I feel less isolated on the outside when I see people who look like me in my communities. I think it is important to acknowledge that.
This may seem very conflicting and chaotic—that is often what it is like for us trying to make our outsides match our insides. I am sure this is not just unique to adoptees as I know quite a few first-generation Americans who live with their biological parents and often feel similarly. As an international adoptee who looks very different from my parents, I can attest that I have received strange looks and felt out of place most of my life. It is hard to reconcile looking Asian but not understanding anything about Asian culture. Acknowledging these tensions has been the first step I have taken to validate my existence and remind myself that I am not weird or bad for not being in touch with Chinese culture as one would expect (or as much as I would like to be). I constantly have to remind myself that I am fully Asian and fully American and fully Irish, even if it does not make sense to other people. I am lucky to have a life so colored with numerous cultures, even though it has taken me a long time to understand my identity.
I hope if you are reading this, you feel validated and you get there, too. It may take time, but just be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that your culture and identity do not have to make sense to others as long as they make you feel comfortable and included.