“Mom, did I ever live inside of you? She answered, ‘No, you didn’t.'”
This conversation between Mia Rubin and her mother has stuck with her since childhood. She’s felt the answer’s faint yet insistent sting deep within all her life, never quite fading away.
The colorful portrait of Rubin above is by Mengwen Cao, an artist from Hangzhou who now lives and works in New York. In 2012 she moved to the US for grad school, and immersed in that foreign culture, she found her calling as a photographer. The portrait is part of her series I Stand Between, which she began after living in the US for four years. “When I was back in China, people thought I was too American; when I was in the U.S., they thought I was too Chinese. So where do I belong? The feeling of not being embraced by both places I consider home is what inspired me to seek out people who might share similar experiences.”
“‘妈妈，我以前在你的肚子里待过吗？’她说不，你没有。”Mia Rubin 回忆起小时候的她曾是这么问过。在听到回答后，心底那股隐约而坚实的刺痛感扎根在她成长的每一道轨迹里，不曾淡去过。
而在上方那张色彩斑斓的 Mia 的照片背后，是来自杭州的摄影师曹梦雯。她于 2012 年离开中国前往美国就学，在异乡找到自己的人生志业——摄影师，之后一直生活在纽约。
在开始此拍摄项目《I STAND BETWEEN》之前，她在美国生活了四年多的时间，“当我回到中国，人们觉得我太美国；当我在美国，人家又觉得我太中国。我到底属于何方？这种夹在两种文化之间、不被双方接受的感受，促使我想要找到更多与我拥有相同经历的人。”
Cao’s own experiences as queer played a role in her desire to explore the stories of people with non-traditional backgrounds. So for this photo series, she focused on Asian adoptees who grew up in white families.
With the help of friends, social media, and nonprofits, she found several subjects to sit for her. Ranging in age, they come from China, Korea, and Indonesia, and most were adopted into the U.S. as babies. “Before the potential interviewees felt 100% on board, I met up with them and just chatted without recording or taking photos,” Cao says. “Transracial adoption is still a sensitive and complicated topic. I am extremely grateful for those who agreed to participate in the project and shared their experience in such an honest and vulnerable way.”
The portraits were mostly taken at the subjects’ homes. Facing the camera, they seem to reveal their innermost thoughts directly to us. No matter your age, gender, or position, opening up about your vulnerabilities is something that takes a lot of courage. Her photos are full of intimacy and complexity—a valuable record of human stories.
With the conclusion of the project, Cao reflected on all the stories she had heard. She thought back to when she first arrived in the U.S. and how she felt like she needed to adapt and integrate into local culture; she felt like she needed to consistently defy Chinese stereotypes in order to become an “authentic” American. But today, she’s come to terms with who she is: a cultural in-betweener. She now cherishes the fact that she’s able to engage with both cultures, and sees these experiences as having made her stronger. Embracing her differences has helped Cao realize her distinctive place in the world.
“The concept of authenticity kept coming up in my conversations with the adoptees,” Cao says. “But the word ‘authenticity’ implies that there’s only one truth. After talking to them, I realized that authenticity means embracing all the differences of our multifaceted identity. There is no one way to be American or Asian.”
In addition to taking their photos, Cao recorded a conversation with each one of her subjects, letting us hear for ourselves as they tell their own stories. Below are some of their photos and audio recordings. (You can listen to the whole series on Cao’s website.)
“We don’t really identify ourselves as anything except adopted.”
“I’ve always known that I was adopted, but she has never been anything less than my mother. Honestly, putting labels on it—adopted mother, adopted daughter—undermines the significance of the relationship. My mom was the one who had to listen to the ignorant remarks of people who were like ‘Where did you buy her?'”
“I look this way, but I feel another way.”
“He would look at me across the dinner table and speak to me in Korean to me and expect me to understand. And he was at completely lost cause he looked around at all these white faces like ‘What the heck is going on?’ And as a five-year-old kid, I felt really stressed out and guilty that I couldn’t understand him . . . I think it was too much for me, and I started taking Pseudoephed.”
“I was born in Asia but I’m just very American.”
“There’s always a part of me to be this entity that has like dealt with being ‘outcasted’ in different ways. From being adopted, to my learning disability, to my experience of being an Asian person in a very white area, and even this ostracization from other Asian people. Growing up I have this very complicated relationship with Asian people because I felt very judged and very unaccepted.”
“I wonder, was being raised in United States worth the pain my mother had to go through in giving up a child?
“I have dreamed about my birth mother’s face as long as I can remember. I didn’t have any idea what she would look like, and I couldn’t even imagine a family member that looked like me cause I’ve never experienced it. So I contacted this adoption agency, Holt. Within six months, Holt had managed to contact my birth family and we met. I saw these two strangers there, my mom and her older sister. But as soon as we hugged, my mom apologized.”
“从我记得以来，我一直梦到我亲生妈妈的脸。我完全不知道她的长相，也无法想像任何一个长得像我的家庭成员，因为我没有那种经历。我联系了当初的领养机构 Holt，然后等待。差不多等了半年，Holt 找到我的亲生妈妈了。见面时，我看到两个陌生人站在我面前，一个是我母亲，另一个是她的姐姐。接着我妈妈拥抱了我，向我道歉。”
“I feel at home, though I’m in the middle ground of being Asian and kind of white.”
“When I hang out with my Asian friends, they always say ‘You’re so white! The way you talk, the way you express your feelings, and especially the way you eat.’ I’ll say ‘Thank you. Just like my dad.’ . . . I’m proud that I’m Asian, and I’m proud that sometimes I act white. It’s just me. That’s how I grew up.”