They Say I Look Like Her

Resemblance is a strange concept. It overflows with subjectivity, devoid of neutrality or impartiality. Colored and formed in the image of past experiences. Reliant upon availability heuristics.

They say I look like her.

I don’t know how to understand that phrase. What does it mean to see yourself in others or them in yourself if you can’t even see yourself? I’ve spent the majority of my life, particularly adolescence and into young adulthood, rejecting any part of me that could be identifiably Indian. This process of selective rejection has made it quite difficult to develop an enduring self image.

Looking back at the process of assimilation I experienced and birth culture erasure it is striking how quickly and effectively I internalized the negatives associated with being “different” and more so, being Indian. I thought, probably as most kids do, that I was playing the system by adapting so smoothly, by performing midwestern in Indian skin. In retrospect, I just played myself.

This process of assimilation served to make my daily life and interactions easier, conflict adverse and comfortable. More insidiously, it undermined my own ability to recognize and reaffirm what was “me” vs. what was purely a protective and reactive performance. I don’t believe that those performances were the only thing that served to destabilize my identity forming process as a child but they seem the most overtly connected to my inability to see resemblance.

Assimilation requires constant calculation of the traits, behaviors and and actions that are rewarded. It turned out that ethnic ambiguity served me well. Not having an ethnic group to gravitate towards allowed me to float between crowds in a way that now feels somewhat destabilizing.

I found comfort in the ambiguousness of my ethnicity, it felt oddly powerful, information that I could employ manipulatively. I sought to use this ambiguousness to my advantage, whenever possible. Withholding information or performing identities I knew I could “pass” for. This strict control over my ethnicity lead to an omission, or more accurately an active suppression of including my family in my image publicly. The work I’d done to establish the facade of authenticity and a shared identity with others was quickly dispelled once it was learned I was adopted or had a white family. Even today, in POC circles, I often have 2nd generation immigrants open up to me, hoping to commiserate about high expectations from first generation families and I’m unable to offer any allegiance beyond what stereotypes and memoirs have supplied.

An unwillingness to be open about my Indian origins also came from my insecurities and inability to articulate what my Indian origins were. What did it mean to be Indian? I had few available examples, and all of them came with significant social sanctions if explored publicly. I often times wonder if I had had access to Indian culture in some hidden way if I would’ve explored it more thoroughly. I’m not sure when I would’ve have time, performing midwesterner was a near 24/7 task. Those who have had the experience of living in a culture that is not theirs knows what this feels like.

Claiming resemblance requires some knowledge of how I see myself, after all, what is it that is being resembled. Growing up in a space where there literally were no other examples of what other versions of myself could or would look like has greatly influenced my ability to visualize myself (and potential offspring (see My Kids Are White)). It may come as no surprise that I have trouble seeing myself as Indian (see An Identity Liability).

I’m still trying to understand what the hell is meant by phrases like, “you look like her.” Having never practiced the process of examining oneself for the purpose of identifying traits or features that may connect me to others, the prospect of looking like someone else seems utterly preposterous. It is outrageous. Incomprehensible. Baffling. Abstruse. Bewildering.

Looking at that first set of pictures of my birth mother I’m not sure I would’ve been able to see resemblance, regardless of who was in that picture. The woman does not, in my opinion, look at all like me. That response, lack of recognition, felt immediately disappointing and subsequently relieving. It dawned on me as I unpacked this lack of recognition that I may have created a mental barrier that if not completely obstructed the ability to see resemblance, certainly undermined it substantially.

Even if she did physically resemble me or share “obvious” characteristics, it seems likely I would’ve downplayed any connection. It is difficult to see myself in someone else. It is difficult to understand relation as anything but practiced. All connection in my life feels intentional, circumstantial or proximal, not a priori.

All this to say, I continue to learn how important acting on agency is in developing and maintaining relationships. I am not a romantic person so the fantasy that I would feel immediately connected to a woman I’ve never really met and cannot remember is actually unsurprising. My fantasies continue to meet reality and I feel I’m consistently learning how much agency I do have in the creation, performance and reiteration of my identity. This power, or new found agency, is another unanticipated outcome of exploring adoption.

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