Sea of Familiar Strangers

I was lost in the Forbidden City in a sea of familiar strangers. Beijing’s vibrant reds and yellows assaulted my eyes. Under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao, whose portrait hovers over the entrance, I traveled to another world. 

I had never seen such ornately decorated buildings as those at the Forbidden City.  Fantastic stone carvings created bridges spanning man-made moats. Gardens blossomed with a kaleidoscope of colors and defied the notion that things fade with time. I was awed by golden statues and relics so enriched with a culture I only had been able to grasp secondhand. I entered a world in which any peasant in Imperial China would have been killed for getting within 100 feet. I went with the flow of the crowds through the 961-meter-long palace, feeling oddly at home. It was only after passing through the third inner gate that I realized I had lost my family in the crowds. 

 My family should have stuck out like a sore thumb. The entire tour group should have been easily found, composed as it was of average, middle-aged, white American couples with children who, unlike them, were Chinese. I am, along with all of the girls on this trip, the byproduct of China’s infamous One Child Policy. 

I was adopted by a middle-class American couple after enduring roughly a year of my life in an overcrowded orphanage in southeast China. My parents tried their best to instill in me a cultural identity that they just didn’t have. They enlisted me in Chinese heritage programs with Central Ohio Families with Children from China. Six-year-old me didn’t appreciate the effort. Instead of paying attention and trying to learn Chinese, the Zhuang culture (my ethnic heritage), or oriental dance, I played in the gym. Now I wished I had learned Chinese.

For the first time in my life, within the walls of China, I was surrounded by people who look like me. I was no longer the easily identifiable Asian girl surrounded by white faces. Lost in the sea of familiar strangers in the Forbidden City I was free: No one attributed my intellect to my ethnicity. No one assumed I knew karate.  No one told me I didn’t really look Chinese. I was lost in the comfort of being “normal.” However, while trying to ask for help, the realization hit me like a wave: I wasn’t really their normal. I could pass as “one of them” until I had to speak. I’m like a copy of a book with the same cover but translated in a completely different language.

I’m stuck in some liminal ground between Chinese and American culture. 

My family and tour group, with valiant efforts to find me, ran throughout the Forbidden City hollering my name in what must have seemed the stereotypically loud American way. “Mia, girl from America” blared on the loud speakers but fell deaf on my ears as I was caught up in the turbulence of the crowds. I wandered through the last gate of the city and looked outwards – gray cityscape framed by gold and red gates fit for an emperor.

The waves of people broke and my tearful tour group of relieved parents engulfed me. I was hauled out from the sea of familiar strangers and into my mother’s arms. One of their own was found in a great expanse of lookalikes. 

Being Chinese alters my perspective on the world, and how the world sees me, but I’m so much more – an artist, an academic – not just an Asian. I want people to acknowledge the privilege provided by my white parents and the social obstacles faithfully shackled to me by my Chinese birth. I want people to see me for my vibrant reds and yellows.

Mia Cai Cariello (she/her/hers) is a Chinese transracial, transnational adoptee from Guangxi province. She is a third-year Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with minors in Studio Art, Human Rights, and Asian-American Studies at The Ohio State University. Mia is a Morrill Scholar and is currently the President of two organizations on The Ohio State University’s campus – Transracial Adoptees at Ohio State and Take Back the Night at The Ohio State University. 

My Name Is…

My name is Mia Cai Cariello

And I want you to know,

I was born in China, Guangxi Province 

As 吴彩卓

I wasn’t even old enough to know

That my own government wanted me to go

It would take a year for them to ship me out 

People would have you believe my life would blossom and sprout

That the stars aligned

when I was adopted to the U.S. in 1999

It was told to me that in this new country I could sew a new future…

A future with freedom and liberty

No police censorship or brutality 

Freedom to be who you want and need to be 

Everyone hand in hand 

equality – achieved.

But that’s just the American dream

Playing constantly on the world-wide screen

propaganda masking the imperialist scheme

I was taught that the US is the greatest country on Earth 

But then why am I still judged by the place of my birth? 

Kids Making fun of my eyes with a slight slant

kids being given the seed of racism to plant

Early on 

Acting like my whole ethnicity is a phenomenon- 

That’s meant to entertain them. 

Yelling Ching Chong

Acting like I don’t belong

Saying all Asians look the same 

And when they’re called out

All their excuses are so fuckin lame 

Tired of people assuming I can speak fluent Chinese

Like a language with 30,000 characters can be picked up with ease

Tired of people assuming all I eat is rice 

and that I’d be their china doll if they just act nice

Tired of being told I don’t look like a “real Asian” 

As if there’s only one specific look.

Like I should be studying out of some sort of handbook

Would you like me better if I took a page from your Asian look book

In a qi pao, sari, kimono, or hanbok?

Tired of being told that I am not a real Asian because I’m an adoptee

Spitting names like banana or Twinkie

The adoptee experience is real and the dismissal of it is ominous

Because Our collective Asian identities are still a plethora 

of experiences that are not homogenous  

I may not be innately gifted at math

But I know I am more than the sum of my parts

it’s hard to believe so many people still play a part in the perpetuation of our subjugation – constantly chaining us with limitations, fixations on how we must be from a different nation, questioning our affiliations, forcing our assimilation, migration, but still profiting off imitations of our culture. 

I guess I can’t blame people for thinking Asians have made it, 

When the only image they see is Crazy Rich Asians

But I gotta get something off of my chest,

Our struggles are glossed over 

For the story of the model minority —

I want you to see 

Our existence in this country is missing some facts

How many people even knows about The Chinese Exclusion Act? 

Were you taught about Executive Order 9066

Or were Internment camps glossed over in the name of politics?

Do people know our demographic has the largest wealth disparity? 

Not all of us are living a life of luxury 

The Asian image is tailored to pale skin and exotic 

and all the fetishization is nauseating and toxic 

I’m tired of playing this game 

That results

In the perpetuation of white supremacy 

Telling me to open my eyes wider so that I can see

I can already see

And the answer is simply and beautifully me

We don’t need to change our eyes

go down a size

Or Whiten our skin 

To be worthy 

Worthy of love and respect

Our self-worth I will kill to protect 

Don’t be fooled by the lies you’ve been told

Self-love and dignity are worth their weight in gold,

But my liberation isn’t complete 

Freedom for my fellow People of color must be concrete

Stereotypes try to lock the truth uptight,

Trying to keep it out of the light

We are not separate from one another’s struggle 

we have a place next to our black and brown sisters and brothers

We can be limitless

but we must continue to fight 

To ensure that all who follow us can forever revel in the light

Mia Cai Cariello (she/her/hers) is a Chinese transracial, transnational adoptee from Guangxi province. She is a third-year Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with minors in Studio Art, Human Rights, and Asian-American Studies at The Ohio State University. Mia is a Morrill Scholar and is currently the President of two organizations on The Ohio State University’s campus – Transracial Adoptees at Ohio State and Take Back the Night at The Ohio State University. 

Dis/assembling Identity: From the Margins to the Page

by Muriel Leung

(Note: This paper is a condensed rewrite of an original piece which is currently 60 pages in length)

The emergence of Asian American poetry as a genre is not without its historical grounds. Asian Americans’ contributions to the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s eras introduced performance, song, and poetry as forms of protest against injustices towards Asian Americans during this politically volatile time. The social and political materials which informed Asian American experience were later solidified as a new type of genre by the spirit of 1980s multiculturalism in which Asian American writers as well as other writers of color began to gain mainstream appeal. The dramatic shift in social and political visibility played a valuable role in the transformation of Asian American identity discourse as it grew from grassroots arts and political movements to earning the institutional legitimacy of academic scholarship.

A discussion of Asian American poetry as a genre and “Asian American” as an identity is impossible without recognition of its social and political grounding. While these were formidable years that demonstrated the efforts of countless Asian American activists and artists to concretize their presence in the traditionally exclusionary U.S. historical narrative, contemporary Asian American identity discourse acknowledges that this identity is more prone to fracture than union. This is not to say that the works of previous Asian American scholars and activists have failed in their efforts. Rather, in the face of dramatically shifting political and social terrains, Asian American poets are challenging traditional ideas of identity formation, and ushering in new themes and styles of exploring Asian American identity which welcome fragmentation. Continue reading