Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
The Culture of a Bangladeshi British American Adoptee
By Marion Ruybalid
I watched the character of Devi, a high school Indian girl, in Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever struggle to imagine the cutest boy in school could like her. She approached her crush Paxton and asked, “I know you would never date me, but would you consider having sex with me?”
In this moment, I was right there with her. I had always wondered in high school if guys thought of me as girlfriend material — even when I had a boyfriend.
As a Bangladeshi British American adoptee, there were moments like this in my past. Maybe it was during our potato chip party senior year that a guy said this to me, “Marion, I have a hard time imagining your boyfriend actually finding you attractive like that.” A group of friends and I were gossiping about who we liked and I was one of the only people in the group who had been dating the same guy for several months.
His comment hurt, but I was never really sure why he thought nobody could find me attractive. Did he mean I was ugly or that people who looked like me could not be sexy?
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey where most of the population was Italian, German, Dutch, or a mixture of European nationalities. Even though I had a boyfriend, I always felt less beautiful than my white friends because the most popular girl at my school was a blonde girl with blue eyes and the body of Cameron Diaz.
My boyfriend and I broke up soon after the potato chip party because I went to college in Washington. I wondered how college guys might be different from the ones I knew in high school.
A few months into my freshman year of college, I met the man who became my husband. My white husband Tim grew up in Loma Linda, California. He proudly told me the first girl that kissed him on the cheek was Filipina. I asked, “Why did you have to mention her ethnicity?” He blushed and said, “I don’t know.” I think I was supposed to feel more comfortable around him, but I was confused.
Unlike me, he grew up surrounded by people of color, many of whom were from mixed-race families. After spending more time together, I grew to understand that he was protective of me because he understood that some people judged me because of my race.
We were the perfect match. I loved his sandy blonde hair, his thick eyelashes, and his eyes that were different shades of greens and browns. I had always fallen for blonde guys and he liked Asians.
I just hoped he would not be disappointed by the fact that beyond my looks, I was not Asian. My parents were British American and instead of a flavorful meal that included warm spices, a typical dinner at my house was roasted chicken, potatoes boiled in mint leaves, and green beans.
When I told Tim about my conversations with high school boys who did not find me attractive, he wondered if it was because they could not imagine being with a brown girl. When I was in high school, racism was something I tried to ignore. It turned out that learning about race and culture would be something we would explore together.
My British parents who adopted me from Bangladesh and my brother from Nepal were new to American culture when we moved to New Jersey a few months before I turned six. Their way of navigating their new country consisted of buying a home in a good school district and saving money for college.
If they worried about racism, I did not know about it. The only time I noticed my mom worry about race was when we were in France and she understood race dynamics in Europe much better. Close to a stone wall on a small street, my parents sat in a parked car. I took in the mountains around us, the Pyrenees, and tried to block out the smell of sheep, donkeys, and other animals.
“We should ask the lady at the front desk if she has a room,” my Dad said.
“She wasn’t very friendly at lunch,” my mom said. “Maybe she didn’t approve of our family.”
“Either way, we need a place to stay,” my dad said.
My younger brother and I had eaten snails for the first time because my mom told us they were kind of like noddles in a shell. I pulled one of the creatures out of its shell and dipped in butter. It felt slippery in my mouth.
I heard my mom mention something about a disapproving look. She worried it was because my parents were white with brown children. Being different from my parents had always been obvious. We talked about my adoption when I was four, but after that, I had felt like their own biological child.
Dad went into the hotel alone to see if they had room for our family of four. To my mom’s surprise, the lady who might have disapproved of us was accepting and we stayed there.
This was my earliest memory of race and how our family could be treated. In the following years, my family and I did not speak about race. I was pretty certain my mom did not expect kids at my school to treat me differently because of the color of my skin.
I felt like I was a white kid in a brown girl’s body. My color did not stop me from making friends. If I felt different, it was more because people liked to point out how much they loved my mom and dad’s accents.
Marion Ruybalid received her MFA in creative writing from UCR Palm Desert and her work has appeared in Mutha, PANK, Chicago Now’s Portrait of an Adoption, BLUNTmoms, and The Manifestation. She also writes a column for Raising Mothers called Traces of Lineage.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter
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