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Becoming

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Soon Wiley, author of When We Fell Apart, to learn more about his debut novel, his journey there, and the complexities around his biracial identity. 

What was your path to becoming the writer you are today?

Probably like a lot of writers, I was a reader first. I was lucky enough to have parents that read to me every night when I was a little kid, and when they weren’t telling me a story, I was buried in a book. I didn’t seriously consider pursuing fiction writing until I won a short story prize sponsored by my college. Up until that point, I hadn’t taken any creative writing classes, and while I’d worked on some short stories during my spare time, I never really considered what I was doing as writing. Winning that prize was a turning point for me. I enrolled in creative writing classes during my senior year of college, and then I pursued an MFA two years later. I started working on what would become my debut novel when I finished graduate school, and I’ve been writing almost every day since, or at least the days where I can find the time. 

What was the inspiration behind When We Fell Apart?

Initially, I was interested in exploring relationships and how we often think we know people, when in fact we often know very little about them, even in intimate relationships. As I kept writing, that initial seed of interest turned into a larger project that explored questions about identity, family, and cultural expectations. 

Which character did you resonate most with in your novel? Why so?

I share a lot of the same characteristics and biographical details with Min, so I think when I initially started writing the novel, I felt most aligned with him. Like Min, I lived in Seoul, and like Min, I’m bi-racial. A number of Min’s experiences were partially drawn from my own experience, so in that sense, I’d say that I felt the most connected to him throughout the writing process. That being said, I also found myself connecting with Detective Park quite a bit. He’s someone who has very strong ideals and ethics, but he’s forced to conform or break his moral rules for the sake of his job. This isn’t to say that I’ve had to do those types of things, but I think part of becoming an adult and getting a job in some professional arena means doing things you don’t always want to do. 

I was curious to know why Min’s narrative is third person while Yu-jin’s is in first. Can you explain?

This is actually something that changed quite a bit during the drafting of the novel. Initially, Min’s chapters were written in first-person, but at some point, it became very limiting to use first-person, especially when I was trying to build suspense. During the third draft of the novel, I decided to change it to close third-person, which gave me a lot of freedom. In my head, Yu-jin’s chapters were always in first-person. I’ve always thought of her chapters as being a confession of sorts, and so it made sense to have her speaking from the “I” perspective. I also wanted to give Yu-jin a voice in the novel. Because she’s dead when the novel opens, I wanted to find some way to still emphasize her presence in the novel. 

You go into incredible detail about the inner workings of Seoul. With its people and specific locations, it feels like a character within itself. What was your research process like? 

I lived in Seoul for about a year after graduating from college, but once I actually started writing the novel, it had been about four or five years since I’d actually been back. It sounds kind of obvious, but I spent a lot of time remembering and imagining Seoul. In early drafts, I was really stubborn about not looking at photos of Seoul or researching anything on the internet. I did my best to immerse myself in the city through my imagination. I’m a huge fan of writers who really emphasize sensory details in their fiction, so I wanted to lean heavily on that during the writing process. Later on, when I was revising the novel, I did a bit of research on the internet, just to make sure I’d gotten things correctly. When I finally found out that the book was going to be published, I was planning on going to Seoul, just to fact check a few things, but I ended up not being able to go because of Covid, which only led to more Googling. 

What was your experience living in Seoul?

I’d say that my time in Seoul was quite revelatory. On one hand, it was incredible to be surrounded by other Asians. It was the first time in my life where I’d lived in a country where the dominant race wasn’t white. At times, when I was walking around the city by myself, I felt at ease, and I was aware that I felt a lot more comfortable in Seoul than I ever had in America. However, whenever I spoke to anyone or interacted with people outside of my friend group, I immediately became aware that I didn’t actually fit in in Seoul at all, and that people very much viewed me as a foreigner. This wasn’t entirely shocking, but it was very strange to feel like you belonged somewhere, only to have people tell you that you were nothing like the people that lived there.

Without giving too much away, relationships (both family and romantic) can be touchy subjects in Asian cultures. There’s a lot of unspoken boundaries, expectations, and traditions. What was it like writing them? 

That’s a great question. Because I wasn’t raised in a “traditional” Korean household, I think I had a lot of psychological distance from some of the familial expectations that a lot of Asian kids experience when growing up, so that made it a bit easier to write about, in the sense that I could truly be an observer.  I suspect that because I was never really “inside” a Korean community when I was growing up, I felt more comfortable critiquing it or describing it. Another thing I always reminded myself of when I was working on the novel is that Asian parents, kids, pretty much all Asians, are just like everyone else. Yes, there’s certainly that cultural expectation, but at the end of the day, we all have the same fears, desires, and dreams. 

Home and belonging play major themes within every character’s journey. How has this played a meaning in your own life and can you describe how you translated that onto the page?

I think I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. Not necessarily in some terrible way, where I was excluded or treated unfairly, but I’ve always been aware that in certain places and situations, I don’t quite fit in. Whether it was because of my name or my race, I always got questions when I was a kid. People were curious about where I was from. And again, I don’t think it was malicious, but you become aware, very quickly, that you perhaps don’t belong wherever you are at the moment. This feeling is something that I think everyone experiences to varying degrees. But certainly, when I was writing the book, I was interested in exploring characters who didn’t feel like they belonged, for whatever reason. The theme of home is probably a bit trickier to answer, but I think as a minority or person of color growing up in America, you are acutely aware that some people don’t think America is your home, even if it is. Min’s decision to travel to Korea in the first place is a reaction to this kind of sentiment. 

What did you learn about yourself and/or the process of writing your debut novel?

I don’t consider myself a spiritual person by any means, but you have to have faith to write a novel. Faith in yourself and faith in the work, which doesn’t usually illicit any faith, especially when you’re dealing with a rough draft. I also learned that I write best when I’m writing for myself. 

How did this novel help you understand or further complicate your own bi-racial background?

Writing the novel helped me come to terms with what being biracial means. This isn’t to say that I was somehow conflicted about being bi-racial before my novel, but I think there’s an inherent messiness when you grow up as bi-racial. When you’re younger there are all sorts of questions about who you are and where you come from, but as you get older, you start thinking about how labels and categories aren’t really useful at all, especially to people who defy categorization. Writing the novel helped me accept and understand that it’s really important to have an internal identity, one that is separate from how other people view you. Being bi-racial means that you will often be seen by different people in different ways, so it can be confusing when you can move between different worlds. A strong inner idea of who you are – divorced from your external identity – is really important.  

For readers who are looking for their new book, why should people choose When We Fell Apart?

When I started writing When We Fell Apart, I wanted to give my readers a good story. Above all else, this is the responsibility of the writer. Afterall, we are storytellers, and there is a lot of competition out there, from movies, television shows, video games, and all the other forms of entertainment, so it’s incumbent on us to keep our readers’ interest. So, people should pick up my book if they want to read a good old-fashioned story that keeps them entertained, immerses them in a foreign culture, and maybe prompts them to ask some probing questions about identity, familial expectations, and whether we can really know someone. 

A native of Nyack, New York, Soon Wiley received his BA in English & Philosophy from Connecticut College. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships in Wyoming and France. He resides in Connecticut with his wife and their two cats. When We Fell Apart is his debut novel. Support his work today at Penguin Random House.

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The Blemishes of Internalized Colorism

One of our YIP interns, Wendy, looks back at the internalized colorism she was forced to swallow and how it contaminated the way she perceived her own sense of beauty throughout her entire childhood.

At my core lies impulsivity and a satisfaction with riding the flow of the universe. Living under a Filipino roof has conditioned me to appreciate the full capacity of the present moment and cherish my loved ones with the utmost respect and joy. From endearing jokes about who’s most likely to finish the banana chips first after shopping at Serramonte to peaceful moments at the dinner table as we thank the universe or God for always providing us with enough food at the table. I was a free spirit for most of my childhood, and all I really wanted out of life was to smile and laugh with the people I cared for.

C’mon, don’t take things too seriously. 

I was also raised to be tough, to have resilience as an excuse to cover up the blemishes of my own internalized colorism. Staying strong and choosing to ignore the hurtful garbage certain people tossed at me seemed like the only viable option. As early as elementary school, I was bombarded with statements from my inner circle that gaslighted my painful experiences. 

Why can’t you just take a joke? That’s just who they are, so why do you care so much? People are always going to say crap about other people, just forget about it. 

My friends and my family all taught me how to not let anyone get to me, which, in retrospect, is only healthy if the way you filter those negative energies come from a place of self-love. I honestly didn’t really know what that was. For me, the filter was rooted in fear and denial. 

In second grade, I was part of a vibrant group of friends, all of whom were Filipino except for this one girl (there were quite a lot of Filipinos at that school). We would all eat Popeyes together on the colorful benches of the upper yard playground and play hide and seek tag with “the boys” because apparently, that’s how you flirted as a seven-year-old. 

One day, the girl who was not Filipino initiated a verbal attack on me. Up until this point, I’d considered her a close friend. It was an incredibly clear, beautiful day and we were all happily eating our chicken when she suddenly asked me, “Why are you so dark?”

What’s wrong with that huh? 

Your skin looks like Obama’s! 

Why is that so bad?!

You’re too dark from playing in the sun too much!

Well, I guess I have the same skin color as the president, then.

I didn’t handle that too well. I called them “dumb and stupid,” (truly the cruelest of all curse words) and then they snarked at my reputation as a “smarty pants.” I ran away to the lower yard. I felt like my hands were tied. I needed help, but I also didn’t want to rat my closest friends out, especially my bestie. 

What actually hurt me was when my other close friends started laughing with her and proceeded to make fun of how dark I was in comparison to all of them. Seeing my best friend side with her hurt more than the words themselves.

I told myself that I shouldn’t let such obscene statements lower my self-esteem, but truthfully, I just buried the pain because I didn’t know how to handle it properly. From that day forward, I was nothing but my darker skin to those so-called “friends” of mine.

My best friend came to my house everyday after school, so after seeing her tease me at the playground, I didn’t know what to feel. 

I was sensing some lingering animosity, but we didn’t address it. It was like it never really happened. Then one day, she admitted she didn’t believe any of those painful remarks she had said to me. I believed her. She cut herself off from the girl who started it all. I understood that those hurtful comments she’d made didn’t come from a place of truth; they came from the fear that she’d also be made fun of if she didn’t take a side.

That girl was a bully. She was two-faced and manipulative. A lot of the internalized colorism that I juggle with today is rooted in the light-skin superiority that she was perpetuating. I was always an easy target for her, but of course I never let her truly see the way she exacerbated my insecurities. 

Now, reconnecting with what I felt during the heat of that moment has led me to examine the colorist lens that has tainted my perception of what is considered beautiful. From using the notorious Likas papaya soap to harmful, whitening exfoliating scrubs, I subconsciously accepted a truth that I was forced to swallow at such a young age. 

Whiter is better. To become more beautiful and radiant, I had to lighten my skin.

I had to scrub the darkness off. 

I was told that the more they stung, the more effective these products were at getting rid of “the dirt.” I washed my face every night with the “magical” papaya soap. It felt like erasure. A fruitless attempt to become more white. Then I pondered: Why did I need to tailor my desires to fit standards I never really wanted to reach in the first place?

I no longer use those heinous whitening products, but there is definitely a wonderful lesson I learned that now aligns with the person I’m actively trying to become. The foundation of colorism is white supremacy and racism. It trickles down from the institutional level and infects our interpersonal relationships with extremely distorted views of who or what is better. It glorifies Euro-centric beauty standards and generates products that capitalize on its power. I found that actively practicing unconditional self-love is a direct protest to this system that aims to stifle our self-confidence. 

Holistically accepting every dimension, every broken piece of your identity initiates the process of healing. It has brought me a sense of peace and stability within myself. This internal harmony has changed the type of energy I put out into the universe. The capacity of love I have for my friends, family, and community has expanded tremendously, knowing that I no longer chain myself or others to such detestable expectations of what we need to be.

Wendy is a high school senior, first-gen Filipino immigrant, joyful dancer, and music lover.

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Ethnic Studies and Identity Crisis

Jewel, a YIP intern, reflects on her own experiences in education, the need for ethnic studies, and how interpersonal and institutional interactions have influenced her academic life.

Invisibility was an unavoidable part of school life for me. 

I grew up in a majority Filipino elementary school and was devastated when I was told I was moving to a new school. I was a small sixth grader who “accomplished” getting every single teacher to mistake me for Raven, the only other Filipino girl at my new, majority-white private school. Not exactly the most prestigious and sought-after achievement out there. Raven and I were instantly best friends, and unsurprisingly, this meant that we were constantly confused for each other, to the point where we referred to ourselves as twins! At first, in high school, I ran into a similar situation and found myself a new twin (a triplet if you’re keeping track). I admit I faltered and accepted my fate for a while, but soon I lost the comfort I had in dealing with things that way. I broke free of my pseudo-sibling bond and established myself as my own person by finding support through Asian clubs, teachers, and opportunities to learn about my culture and other Asian communities. I found myself learning more about my culture than I knew I could. But I still felt like there was something missing. 

The feelings of isolation and “otherness” weren’t only caused by my interactions with my peers, it also came from the curriculum. My middle school experience was lacking in diversity, in my class itself and in the content of the classes. Knowing your own culture’s history seems obvious to me but so many people aren’t taught about theirs, even if not included in the lesson I think that the topics should be presented for young kids to learn. 

I wish I had known about the Goddesses of pre-colonial Philippine mythology or historical leaders like Larry Itliong or Yuri Kochiyama. I’ve always wanted to learn beyond the small amount of online research I’ve done but it never seemed like it would come up in an academic setting. Sure, the Philippines would be mentioned from time to time, but the actual history and people were often overshadowed by the American or European event we were studying. Any lesson plan about Asian American history was limited to East Asian interactions with America, if there was any section on Asian history at all. While I didn’t expect Filipino history to be in regular lesson plans, I wondered why I had never come across an elective for it considering the high Filipino population in the Bay Area.

My desire to learn more about the history behind my cultures has been an incredibly fulfilling project so far, but I know that without purposefully seeking the information I’d never have learned any of it. Understanding the communities I came from and the relationship I have to each of them has taught me more about myself than I ever imagined. I learned about the historical and cultural significance of clothes, dances, and myths I’ve grown up with. Without online research I wouldn’t have known why my grandparents immigrated to North America, why the United States has such a big influence on the Philippines, or how Filipino people have been treated in the U.S.. This history and context of being Filipino in the U.S. being so difficult for me to find feels like an attempt at erasing my ethnic identity, especially when white history is a requirement for everyone. Which brings me to the dialogue around Ethnic Studies. 

I’d never heard of Ethnic Studies until my junior year of high school and I certainly didn’t know specific courses like Asian American history existed. The knowledge I gained was a key part in understanding how to combat racism against Filipino communities. I began to understand how stereotypes against Filipino people were created and became able to separate that projection of racism from my own self image. 

In addition to the benefits of learning about my own identity in an academic setting, I believe that it would be an important step towards fighting ignorance. Learning the uncensored facts about the gross obstacles minorities have had to face in this country, and in the greater context of the world, could make people that don’t belong in those communities understand the differences people have to face with their identity. Especially if these classes were taken throughout the elementary school, because at the end of the day Ethnic Studies is still history, just not solely white history. Why isn’t Ethnic Studies taught like any of the other core subjects when it arguably applies the most to our lives?

I hope to pass the stories of my experiences and cultural knowledge down to younger kids, in hopes that they have someone to go to when they feel small. Maybe I can provide a silent comfort in the shared experience of becoming someone’s twin, knowing random facts about old white men but none about their cultural heritage, or any more of the countless other jabs at their identity.

Jewel is a senior in high school, Japanese and Filipino American, sometimes artist, aspiring psychologist, and food enthusiast.

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A Piece of My Puzzle, A Love for My Heart

My life, as everyone’s life, is like a puzzle, full of wonder, challenges, beauty, and a work in progress. 

Growing up in a transracial family from the age of 3 months in a predominately white town, I became accustomed to not looking like my parents and people being naïve enough to think my sister, who was also adopted from China though two years prior, and I were biologically related, even though we don’t look alike at all. As the youngest, I always felt like I needed to try harder, do better to be as good, smart, beautiful, athletic as my older sister. Our different body builds (she’s tall and thin, and I am short and stocky) and her natural talent at school and sports, in addition to already feeling like an imposter, living in a predominantly white community, being one of just a handful of people of color led me to a perpetual feeling of being an outsider and “not enough” growing up. 

At a young age, I did not want too much to do with my culture. Sure the food and the traditions around the Lunar New Year were great, but I did not want to learn what would have been my native tongue if I were not adopted, and I did not want to partake in Chinese traditional dance. My sister, on the other hand, loved Chinese School and Chinese dance. As a result, I always felt like the rebellious child, the child who did not partake in what her parents expected of her and wanted from her. 

What now remains from my own and societal preconceived notions, is that as an adult and a Chinese adoptee, not only do I feel the societal pressures of being an Asian American woman, but I also feel that at times I must work harder to prove myself to myself, my family, both my adoptive and unknown biological families, and the world. 

However, I can fully express and work through these notions, in part because of a big piece of my life story puzzle: Chinese Heritage Camp, one of now 9 camps from Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families. 

I do not remember the first time I went to camp as I was only three. However, what I do remember is that from a young age once I could remember what camp was and what it meant to myself and my family is this: every year when it was time to register for camp, it was pre-internet days at first, my sister and I would make sure my mom was able to fax in our registration first thing so there was no chance of being put on the waitlist. 

I also remember driving up to camp in the mountains each year after school on a Friday, as Chinese Heritage Camp is over Labor Day weekend, and that feeling of excitement, happiness, and eagerness creeping into my belly as we passed landmarks along the way: the mountain pass, that Starbucks in a mountain town, the A frame sign on the side of the road, and finally the sign that read “Snow Mountain Ranch”, with each one telling me we were getting closer to our friends, community, and annual home over Labor Day weekend. 

I remember stepping out of the car into the smell of fresh mountain air feeling embraced by love standing in the cool, crisp air and feeling excited as a little kid feels on Christmas morning. 

I remember stepping into the Kiva (the main meeting place for camp) each year for the first time smiling ear to ear and looking around for the directors, the other campers, and most importantly the counselors (who were teens and young adult racial mirrors) some of whom would be assigned to my group for the weekend. 

As time went by, I remember seeing the faces of dear friends and a community, stepping into the Kiva felt like stepping into a warm hug, both literally and figuratively, as many warm hugs usually presented themselves over the years. 

I remember sitting on a big wall that separated the gym space and roller rink space with my friends just chatting, giggling, and feeling at peace in a place where we all felt like we belonged, because our families all were built the same way.  

It was here, at Chinese Heritage camp that I was met with racial mirrors and role models, many of whom have become family to me. 

It was here that I found out more about my heritage, the complexities of adoption, the importance of post-adoption services/ resources, and how important it is to recognize, celebrate, and look introspectively at these intersecting areas and aspects of my life. 

 Camp was full of other kids and families that looked like me and my own family from all over. There were so many Asians, mostly Chinese and Tawainese faces there. Throughout the weekend, I loved walking with my peers and counselors to workshops full of arts and crafts, food to cook, talks of adoption, and presenters who looked like me and knew about my own culture full of happiness to share their own experiences with us campers so that we could know and learn more about our own heritage. One of my favorite workshops, even to this day as my role at camp has come full circle with me being the counselor/ role model, is titled HeART Talks. In this workshop we always did some form of art that was about self expression, emotions, and/ or adoption. We always read a story together about adoption, and we always discussed what adoption meant to us and any feelings we had about adoption. HeART Talks has always been one of my favorites, because I always felt seen and like I belonged here, and as someone who tends to be more on the emotional side, I loved being able to express myself and share my emotions and story with others. I truly, and strongly, believe to this day that this workshop really helped lay the foundation for me understanding my own adoption story more and being able to cope and adjust into this strange, sometimes lonely world that we live in, especially during transition periods in my life, like going to college. 

As I grew older, camp not only continued to feel like home for me, continuing to grow with excitement as we approached camp, but it became a place I realized I could also have an impact and be there for other adoptees. From evolving from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator, I have truly become a part of camp, and camp has become a part of me in so many ways. I’ve seen how my own experience and bringing what I loved doing as a camper and child growing up in camp can be brought back and enjoyed by the next generation. I learned how important it is to have racial mirrors and people you can relate to with similar upbringings. 

Growing up with this special place and community each year has allowed me to be innovative at different stages of my life. For example, when beginning college, camp allowed me to realize how passionate I felt about connecting with other adoptees and bringing awareness about adoption to others, and with my knowledge and experience at camp, I was able to create a student organization on campus so that adoptees in my new community, and others who wanted to be allies for adoptees or had connection to adoption, could have a safe place to go. 

Furthermore, in my young adult years as a new professional, I was able to tap into my passion again for adoptees and those who have been separated from biological family by working on a project on children in the Foster Care System (Out-of-Home care) and how as healthcare providers we can do better for this community. If it weren’t for camp and the acceptance and vulnerability it has allowed me to express and experience regarding my own adoption journey, I am not sure I would have been so open or innovative in my later years. If it weren’t for camp, I don’t think I would be as passionate about finding and connecting to other adoptees or sharing my own story, because who knows how my processing about my own story would have changed. Lastly, through my own knowledge and experiences with camp, I have been able to serve as a role model for younger adoptees and be there for them, not only as an adoptee, but also as a person of color who grew up in a predominantly white community, went to a predominantly white college, and now works in a predominately white profession. Camp has allowed me to be there as a resource for other adoptees and also adoptive parents who are looking for more answers and connections for their own children. 

For over 20 years now, Chinese Heritage Camp has been a part of me. It has watched me grow up into a confident, inspired, empowered young woman; it has watched me transition from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator. Camp has given me opportunities to lead, reflect, and share with others. Camp has given me a place, both in the tangible and intangible sense, where my adoption story is just one of many, where I cannot only learn from others but teach others, a place where I can build upon life bonds and make new connections, a place where I will always feel comfortable crying to “Happy Adoption Day” and feel nostalgic for all the memories I had there growing up. Chinese Heritage Camp knows so much about me, more than I likely even realize. 

Chinese Heritage Camp has given me life, love, happiness, and a place to soul search and discover myself and where I can help the next generation do the same. Chinese Heritage Camp is, and always will be, a piece of my puzzle and heart, and without it in my life all these years, I would not feel complete.

Emily Quinn (she/her/hers)  is a transracial, Chinese adoptee who was adopted at 3 months of age from Zhejiang Province and identifies as pansexual/queer. Emily grew up in Colorado, and she currently works as a pediatric physical therapist. Emily is passionate about connecting with other adoptees of all ages, and her own journey as a transracial adoptee has made her passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, including fighting for social justice for all people. She continues to volunteer with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, especially the Chinese Heritage Camp, and she enjoys rock climbing, being outdoors, spending time with family,  and working on acts of self-care and self-kindness in her free time. 

Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families serves as a post-​adoption resource and advocate for children, adults, and families with diverse heritages. They focus on supporting international and domestic adoptive families, including adopted children, parents, non-adopted siblings, and extended family. Learn more about their work at https://www.heritagecamps.org/