Meeting Philip Goldstein: The Adoptee Enters Abraham Lincoln Middle School

Adoptees on Twitter and Facebook were abuzz about Fresh Off the Boat’s episode eight, “Philip Goldstein,” which aired on primetime Tuesday, March 10. While excited about seeing an adoptee entering this Asian American production, a palpable disappointment seemed to be felt by folks who thought it failed to accurately portray the nuances of adoptee identity.

I suggest that the disappointment over the episode is similar to communities of color regarding the one-dimensional portrayals of Walter and the school janitor in previous episodes. Viewers are only privy to Eddie’s perspective. My hope is that we will see more of Albert Tsai’s character (Philip Goldstein). (Note: I loved him as Bert in Trophy Wife. He’s one of the younger representations of male Asian adoptees seen in television as both Bert and Philip).

I will grant you that the episode was not perfect regarding its representation of adoption. However, I do think it did get some things right. They exposed stereotypes/archetypes that plague Asian Americans.

  • We pretend race doesn’t exist. Case in point, Principal Hunter does not want to say that Philip is Chinese in his office as he’s talking with Eddie about the new student
  • We believe all Asians look the same
  • All Asians are best friends with one another
  • Racial microaggressions may be perpetuated by those in power (e.g. Principal Hunter’s idea of the Pacific Rim Club)

But more importantly we witnessed an exploration of cultural identity and how adoptees become enmeshed in the culture of their adoptive families. We also see how Philip conflates Jewish religious identity with whiteness. In other words, the traditions of Judaism serve as an avenue for the adoptee – Philip – to claim and exercise his culturally white identity.[1] Philip serves as an exaggerated archetype for adoptees’ cultural whiteness. I contend that Philip embodies adoptees’ desire for acceptance within their adoptive families. Lacking access to Chinese culture, Philip latches on to the one culture that he is exposed to – Jewish culture and whiteness. In doing so, Philip seeks to be that perfectionist adoptee, becoming the model adoptee – one that believes in his (cultural) whiteness in order to mask the visible racial difference. By performing Jewishness, Philip presents viewers an over-the-top, in your face portrayal of adoption as the erasure of positive ethnic/racial identity.

In their performance of “whiteness,” adoptees represent what Butler describes as “an ideal that no one can embody” as the parody of “whiteness” fails in its mimicry.[2] For the adoptee can never be white in that he/she will never gain “white” physical countenance, even if he/she obtains cultural whiteness. To this end, Tobias Hübinette contends that adoptees’ pastiche of whiteness is similar to the performances of “ethnic drags and cross-dressers, transvestites or even transsexuals or the transgendered who are troubling, mocking and parodying supposedly fixed racial, ethnic, and national identities and belongings.”[3] I locate my analysis of Philip within this understanding of adoptees’ whiteness. Viewers are left with a palpable discomfort by his dis-identification with Eddie and more importantly, Chinese culture. The juxtaposition between Eddie Huang and Philip is never more evident than when Philip rejects Eddie’s food in favor of gefilte fish and then Jessica Huang’s snack that she included in her son’s lunch. Due to this performance of whiteness, Kevin Vollmers suggests that in this particular episode, Fresh off the Boat underscores how adoptees are not “Asian enough, ” for example.

Even as his performance of whiteness fails, all is not initially lost. Philip is read as the perfect Chinese son in the eyes of Jessica Huang, even if he does eat her food. His musical prowess and academic success make him more of a match for her than Eddie. But this honorary “Asianness” comes crashing down when Philip leaves Eddie alone at a theatre believing that he lost his new friend. Coming face to face with Philip at the Goldstein home, Jessica Huang proclaims: “You’re not a good Chinese boy.” Nicole Soojung Callahan notes, “[T]hat is a really loaded line when it’s directed at an adoptee.” Specifically it addresses adoptees’ insecurities concerning their authenticity as Asian Americans. In other words, that because of his adoption, Philip is not really Asian. While we know that this is not the case, these words can have damaging effects on adoptees’ psyches. Yet this inauthenticity also may arise for Asian Americans who find consider themselves to be culturally white or American and are called twinkies or bananas.

We cannot believe a single show will capture the nuances of all Asian American experiences. However, I remain hopeful that Fresh off the Boat will further develop Philip, so viewers can witness the tensions and complexities of adoption. Viewers have witnessed the writers tackle whiteness head on, so perhaps there is a chance to see the whiteness associated with adoption unpacked. After all, viewers finally saw the sliver of character growth with Walter as the episode ended with him and Eddie bonding over the Beastie Boys.

[1] In her memoir Invisible Privilege (2000), Paula Rothenberg deconstructs whiteness and Jewish identity.

[2] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 139.

[3] Tobias Hübinette, “Disembedded and Free-floating Bodies Out-of-place and Out-of-control: Examining the Borderline Existence of Adopted Koreans,” Adoption & Culture: The Interdisciplinary Journal of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture 1, no. 1 (2007): 143.

Scenes of Misrecognition: The Absence of (Visible) Family Ties

Adoptive families marked by their transracial or transnational composition find themselves existing in contradiction to traditional definitions of family, which place primacy on genetic-relatedness. Yet, the visual of the adopted child and parent has become solidified in the American imaginary. From depictions of war orphan waifs waiting for adoption in the immediate post-Korean War period to celebrations of multicultural families in present day society, the adopted child has become a more common site in portrayals of the American family. This is not to discount the rude questions asked to adoptive parents (e.g. “how much did they cost?”; “are these kids yours?”) or adoptees.

What happens when that adopted child matures and enters adulthood? Rather than being viewed as a family, the Asian adult adoptee and white adoptive parent may be mistaken for a myriad of relationships other than child/parent. For example, from conversations with other female adoptees it becomes clear that stereotypes concerning Asian/American women impact how they may be mistaken as their fathers’ girlfriend or wife. Adult adoptees may also inadvertently be mistaken for the foreign exchange student. Drawing from my own experience, when I go out to eat with my mother, we are asked if we want separate checks with the implication that we must be friends, not mother and daughter. Adoptive parents should be prepared to grapple with these scenarios. They also should feel comfortable with lists that clearly raises questions concerning adoptive parents’ understanding of racial microaggressions  (e.g. “You’re not ready to adopt an Asian child if…”).

Further, questions arise when considering how the adopted child and their siblings are viewed by the outside world. Within my own family a marked generational gap exists between my youngest siblings (ages ten and eight) and I. For example, when I brought my now ten-year-old brother to the first day of pre-school with my dad, I remember stares of other parents, who wrongfully assumed I was his mother. Recently, I have been mistaken as the nanny of my eight-year-old brother. While the age difference may exacerbate misrecognition of our relationship, I’ve also encountered other questions concerning my relationship with my younger sisters (ages twenty-one and eighteen). We are commonly mistaken as friends. In addition, during her so
phomore year of high school, my youngest sister needed to provide photographic evidence to a peer that she in fact had a non-white sister. Even upon meeting me at her high school gradSistersuation party in Summer 2014, this same individual still does not believe that we really could be sisters. The dissonance produced by my sister and I was further evident when I attended Parent’s Weekend at her university in Fall 2014. At the registration desk, I was mistaken as the student. We did not realize the female volunteer’s mistake until it five minutes into our conversation.

How do we prepare adult adoptees and their families for these scenes of misrecognition? These are conversations that no parent or child or sister or brother would like to have with one another. Yet societal logic concerning legitimate families is bounded to genetic-relatedness and monoraciality. Consequently, kinship units that differ from this legible construct encounter intrusive questions regarding their familial ties. No “right” answer exists to how we prepare ourselves to such intrusive and awkward questions. Instead for parents of young adoptees, I encourage you to think about how you will respond to the first and subsequent instances of misrecognition. Will you laugh? Correct the person? Or simply remain silent? Your reaction may impact how your child reacts to such misrecognitions in the future. Your reaction will also pave the way for future conversations with family members and friends about the subject. For adult adoptees, I encourage us to discuss our experiences with one another and other adoptive families. In doing so, we can contribute to conversations concerning the impact of adoptee status in adulthood.