Meet Sophie, Project Pengyou Winter Intern


Hi I’m Sophie Allison, a senior at the University of California, San Diego studying International Studies and Political Science. Right now, I’m in Beijing at Beijing Normal University studying Chinese! This is my story of cultural identity and self-discovery.

I know people anticipate a certain answer when they ask me this question: “Where are you from?” But I stubbornly refuse to give in to their generalizations of “Asian”, because it seems to imply that I’m not American simply based on my appearance. I did not cleanly fit into one category because my heritage is a mélange of cultures; for a long time, I felt I was neither Asian nor American.

Breaking the Mold in Albuquerque

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico with an Australian father, an American mother. My sister and I are adopted, and we are ethnically South Korean. As a child, I was always anxious about going out in public, where people would inevitably ask how we were related.

Sophie and her parents at Washington DC’s Botanical Gardens

I distinctly remember at four years old, the moment I became aware that others perceived me and my family as different. My mother took my sister and me to the Corner Grocery Store in the Jemez Mountains. We were enjoying being pushed around in the grocery cart when an elderly woman came up to us and said to our mother: “These children are so beautiful! Whose are they?”

Another time, when I was seventeen, my father and I attended a symphony at our local concert hall with some family friends. As we walked towards the concert hall, my father and I linked arms, thinking nothing of it. Later on, our family friends joked that they thought we were a couple when they saw us. Since then I have avoided hugging my dad or holding his hand in public.

I subconsciously allowed other peoples’ perceptions of me not only influence my relationship with my parents but also my understanding of my identity. Not truly understanding my origins or my place in my family, I tried finding connections with Korean culture, only to find it more unreachable than the distance to the country itself. When we traveled to San Francisco, my parents encouraged my sister and I to buy our first hanboks (traditional Korean dresses). I wanted to feel a deep connection, but there was no context. All I knew was that hanboks were traditional attire in Korea; I knew nothing about the history or meaning behind them. There I was, in a Korean store, an adopted Korean who knew nothing about a culture I had only physically inherited.

Finding Identity in France and China

The place I grew up had started to feel stale and overly familiar, and I thought going abroad was my solution to escaping a community that I felt did not accept me. In France, I hoped to have a fresh start where I could be defined by something other than my race or my status as an adopted Asian American and find a community of my own.

I soon learned that I was still labeled, but this time I was the “American.” My friends fondly called me “La Petite Americaine” but this was a label I embraced. Living in France made me realize: I am American, not Korean. It was gratifying after years of trying to answer questions about a place that was never a part of my upbringing (I had never eaten kimchi, and never known any other Koreans before university,). Even though people in Europe would often question Americans’ possession of guns or the obesity epidemic, for once I felt this was a culture I could explain, and in doing so I better understood American culture.

Sophie travel
Adventuring in Europe!

Although my year abroad in France solidified my understanding of self, it sparked my desire to learn more about the rest of the world. I was intrigued by China, a place whose history was so long, yet whose development in the modern world had only just started. It seemed like a paradox. Sitting in history class learning about the many dynasties, the Mao period, foot-binding, trade, and the Silk Road felt like the missing pieces to a much larger puzzle.

When I went to university I took Chinese courses which proved to be a welcome challenge. Unlike French, which influenced English over time, I had absolutely no linguistic foundation to learn Chinese, but I was determined. I decided to take the leap to study abroad at Beijing Normal University for a semester.

Upon hearing plans to study in China, people started saying I actually looked Chinese. Even my parents told me they thought I had more Chinese features than Korean. They speculated that I might even have ethnically Chinese roots. Wait, what? Am I actually Chinese and not Korean? More confused than ever, I hopped onto a plane bound for Beijing hoping to get answers. Upon arrival, I started realizing that I am an enigma to Chinese people as well. Instead of saying “I’m Asian,” people expect me to say, “I’m Chinese.” When I talk with locals, I often joke that I look Chinese but speak like an American.

Sophie in China!

But, I also realized that I had been holding onto some stereotypes about China as well. Before coming to China, I thought China was a homogenous country that only spoke “Chinese”. I did not understand the diversity that exists here (outside of Mandarin and Cantonese, there are also many other dialects spoken by ethnic minorities in China (少数民族 shaoshu minzu). For me, China was one big country with one people, but when I arrived, I realized that in many ways, it is even more diverse than the US. The once linear history that I had learned had evolved into a three dimensional picture of China with depth and nuance. Chinese history is like a patchwork quilt of cultures, comprised of more than one group of people and one history. Coming to China made me realize that appearances are just that, appearances. What we think we know about one place or one person based on a shallow history or understanding will create a flat picture, but once it is given more depth, it can evolve beyond its confines.

Learning to Look Past Stereotypes

My experiences in France and China have made me realize that stereotypes limit our knowledge of a place, a culture, and even a person. I was able to escape the “Asian” stereotype I had been boxed into only through my relationships with my friends and family. These were the people who saw past my “adopted-Korean-child” status, and knew me as just Sophie. Living in China furthered my understanding of how limiting cultural stereotypes can be. Had I never experienced all China has to offer I might still have it in an unintentional box of my own. I’m still curious about my own heritage, but I’ve found that the stereotypes really don’t matter to me as much as they used to, and that culture comes alive only when you start to discover the depth and personal histories of the individuals whose lives they are comprised of.