by Ericka Guevarra

Emma-Li Thompson was resistant to the Mandarin courses her mom enrolled her in in the fourth grade.

“I just remember being so angry and frustrated and humiliated because there are other Asian kids in that class and I was the only one, in my perception, that wasn’t doing well,” she explained.

Thompson, who is Chinese, is a transracial adoptee. She was raised in Scottsdale, Arizona by white parents. Her opposition to Mandarin courses, she said, was an example of her internalizing racism.

“I knew that I was already very different from the other kids in my school,” said Thompson, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University. “I look different. I wanted to be similar to them. But I couldn’t do that if I was trying to learn Chinese or if I was trying to connect back to my heritage or my culture.”

Growing up in Scottsdale, a predominantly white neighborhood where three percent of the population is Asian, forced Thompson to question her place not only in public life but also in her own home.

“I grew up listening to Fox news,” Thompson said. “I listened to Rush Limbaugh, I listened to Glenn Beck and Bill O’reilly talk about how they hated people like me.”

Listen to Emma-Li's story

by Ericka Guevarra | Next Generation Radio

“I look different. I wanted to be similar to them. But I couldn’t do that if I was trying to learn Chinese or if I was trying to connect back to my heritage or my culture.”

Emma-Li Thompson

Thompson remembered a time when she was listening to Rush Limbaugh with her dad. The topic was about George Zimmerman passing as a ‘white Hispanic.’

“My dad decided to tell me that there are only two races: there is black and there is white, and anyone who wasn’t black was white,” she recalled.

She questioned what her dad thought of her as a Chinese-American woman.
“Does that mean that he thinks that I’m white? Is that why he has lightened my skin in some photos when I was younger?”

Thompson said her experience at home didn’t make things easier for her. She hated school, had a difficult time making friends and didn’t like how she looked.

“That kind of toxic environment is not suitable, especially for a kid of color. And my parents just didn’t see it and plus they were part of it too.”

It wasn’t until college that Thompson was surrounded by the diversity she said she needed when she was growing up.

Taking back the narrative

Thompson said that it was difficult to have discussions about adoption and race without having her voice drowned out.

“There’s the whole white privilege aspect that starts playing into adoptive parents voices being the main ones that are heard,” said Thompson. “Adoptees do have feelings and that we grow up with a lot of hurt and a lot of internalized racism.”

Now, Thompson’s dream is to get a Master’s in social work and fix the system that brought her to Scottsdale.

“I feel like it’s part of my own personal duty as a transracial adoptee to help other families or potential families,” said Thompson. “I know what kind of change I want to see in the adoption system so I want to be part of that.”

At three years old, Emma-Li Thompson was adopted from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi in northeast China. She spent the next 18 years 7,050 miles away in Arizona.

Ericka Guevarra

Ericka Guevarra

Ericka Cruz Guevarra studies journalism and international relations at San Francisco State University. She is KQED News’ first Raul Ramirez Diversity Fund intern and has produced stories on everything from San Francisco’s contentious Proposition F debate to Filipino-Americans who don’t learn their family’s native language.

A native of the California bay area, naturally, she says “hella.”