My mother in law recently posted a pretty cool pic that she took. She takes many interesting photos, but for some reason, this one really stood out to me. The reason for that was because of the composition of the leaf and the shadow. I immediately knew that it would have tremendous metaphorical value for what I wanted to talk about in the blog. I shared this with the Sane One, and she said “Ohhh, are you going to use the Brad Paisley song Letter to Me? Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but now I guess I sorta have to, don’t I? The third item that allowed me to tie the picture in a very neat bow for this week’s post is the coronavirus pandemic that we’re all living through right now. So now you all know that I am going to talk about advice to my earlier self, leaves and shadows, and global pandemics. If the cooking show Chopped were a blog, this would be it. You have your ingredients, ready, set….TYPE!
You would have to be one of the most oblivious people alive to not get that the adoption is the leaf in the picture. It’s a small leaf, and yet the shadow is quite large in comparison. For adoptees, the shadow infiltrates so many aspects of our life, some apparent, and others far more subtle. I want to talk about one of the most subtle, yet damaging attributes. To do this, we must wind the clock all the way back to 7th grade math class.
I used to be pretty darn good at math. I really didn’t have a choice. My grandfather was a math teacher before he became the principal of the high school and if I had a nickel for every time he said that the reason why math was so great was “because there was only one right answer", I might be able to buy some toilet paper on Amazon right now. Actually,I don’t think this post is going to age very well, because years from now, people will have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. So let's change that to: buy a thousand Aston Martins. He would patiently try and teach me some obscure pre-abacus calculation method called “casting out nines”, which I very stubbornly refused to learn. Why? Well, because breaking the streak of being a disappointment to my grandfather would mean that my grandfather and I would have nothing else to talk about. It was his absolute favorite topic of discussion with me. He would consistently put me on his knee and tell me that if I didn’t apply myself, I was, in his words, “done for”. This is some serious pressure to put on a fourth grader when it first started, and a pretty awkward situation when you’re about to graduate high school, but hey, it was the 90s, and we just did things differently back then.
Anyway, once puberty hit, I didn’t want to be known as the smart kid anymore. I wanted to be funny and cool. So, I decided that I would suck at math. I stopped doing homework, stopped paying attention in class, which is easy to do when half of your classmates suddenly start sprouting these wondrous things called breasts. I became a student of the growth of human mammary glands instead of replacing numbers with letters and figuring out when it makes sense or not (here’s a tip, it never does, which is why we don’t use algebra as adults). While I think I absolutely made the correct choice of study, the reality was that by staring endlessly at boobs, I started a precipitous slide down a path of consistently failing math classes. While intensely aggravating to my teachers and parents, I was overjoyed at my academic awfulness. I was breaking the stereotype! Not all Asians are good at math, and I was living proof of that!
Why was this so important? Well, it was because I desperately wanted to fit in. That’s all. I wanted to not be made fun of by my classmates. None of whom, by the way, do I interact with today. I purposefully didn’t pursue the things that I was really interested in because of a pathetic need to be accepted, even though no matter how hard I tried, I would never really be “one of them”. This got me thinking of the path that I could have taken but didn’t. If I hadn’t cared about being cool, would I have been the valedictorian? Probably. Would I have been able to go to Harvard? Would I have studied epidemiology? Would I be one of the people on the front lines working toward a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 today? We’ll never know. I then started thinking about the 100,000-124,000 KADs in the US that might have made similar choices in the attempt to fit in. How many other international adoptees would also be working on the cure? How many other scientists, engineers, politicians, etc. did we miss out on because of the choices we made to fit into a society that made it pretty clear that we could never become truly part of the American identity? I went and looked at how many KADs are in the fields of medicine, engineering, or other science related fields. The number is shockingly low. The innate ability is astoundingly high, and the only conclusion I can come to as to why the number is so low is because we just didn’t want to become the “typical Asian kid” because our circumstances forced us to believe that we were white. Our families told us that. Broader society, however, never got this memo. As a result, the adoption shadow had denied our world some amazing achievements, forever lost on the sacrificial altar of fitting in. And I think we are most definitely a poorer place because of this.
And since that song I just shared has already been written, I suppose if I could write a letter to me in 7th grade, it would go something like this:
Not one of these kids you are trying to impress will ever care about you. Actually, I lied. They will finally show some interest in you thirty years from now when you are doing really awesome things and they aren’t. But you could be doing even more amazing things, and you could be making immense contributions to society, but you won’t be able to, because you think getting an F- in Mr. Boyer’s math class is badass. It isn’t, and it’s even worse because you knew the answers but purposefully tanked it.
You know the worst thing about your newfound boob fixation? You don’t have the skills to see one for a while. So good job obsessing over something that will be impossible to touch for at least four more years. Maybe you aren’t as smart as you think you are, Captain Bad Decisions. You could have a trillion dollars, and Jenny, Kristen, or anyone else for that matter, will never go out with you. And yes, it’s partly because you’re Asian in a super-racist time and community, but it’s also because you’re kind of an asshole. But you won’t realize that until many years from now, either.
I know you just want the name calling to stop. But you gotta embrace it. A conman is going to use that tactic to get elected president of the United States. No, I shit you not, that’s totally gonna happen! So you gotta just do you. Fuck what everyone else thinks, they’re just as confused as you are. But the difference is that they don’t have the untapped potential that you do. Use it to make great contributions to this world. But, since you’re me, you will totally ignore this advice. Goddammit, don’t make me go talk to your grandfather!”
Maybe I’ll leave the song writing to Brad, because this letter blows. You weren’t exactly right, Grandpa, but I did choose a path that has made me question my choices. If only I had listened to what you were trying to tell me all those years.