Asian Girl With a Secret

Lisa Marie Rollins grew up thinking she was part Asian, part white, and part Latina. The truth was different.

Lisa Marie Rollins has locks that would make the average straight-haired chick grit her teeth with envy. She’s a classic curly girl, and each strand of her hair forms a taut, geometric spiral. And there are hundreds of them: springing from her head, coiling to her neck, and bouncing down to her shoulders. It’s the type of hair that only exists in nature; you couldn’t manufacture it with a perm or curling iron, and it would take hours to imitate with rollers. But for Rollins, hair was always a cause for consternation. Throughout childhood, she tried to tame it every which way, applying gel, mousse, Johnson & Johnson products, hot presses, and chemical treatments. “I would try to Farrah Fawcett my hair with my white girlfriends, and the curl would hold for like five seconds,” she said. “And then it would frizz out. I have horrible pictures all the way up through university where I’m trying to do different stuff with my hair.”

One of the framed photographs on Rollins’ bookshelf shows a little black girl and two white boys. The girl is Rollins. In the picture she sports a small headdress and a brown tunic modeled after the one Tiger Lilly wore in Walt Disney’s Peter Pan. The boys are her older brothers. They wear cowboy costumes. Rollins’ hair is pulled back in two curly-cue pigtails, and fastened with pins. “My mother always struggled with my hair,” said Rollins. “If you’re a white mother parenting a child of color, either you have access to resources to help the hair, or you don’t. My mom didn’t. She tried to do my hair just like her hair — ponytails and ringlets — and of course it didn’t work.”

One of the most evocative scenes in Rollins’ new autobiographical play, Ungrateful Daughter: One Girl’s Story of Being Adopted into a White Family … That Aren’t Celebrities, centers on hair drama. In the scene, Rollins is six years old, sitting on a kitchen stool and wincing. Rollins’ mother is tackling her hair with a comb. (It’s a solo show, so Rollins plays both parts.)When the comb doesn’t work, mom reaches for new ammo. First she applies a seemingly noxious amount of Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tangles. Then she gets frustrated, grabs a pair of shears, and starts snipping. “She cut off my hair,” said Rollins. “It was super-short. I remember it was an impulse decision, it was done under anger. I remember being completely horrified, hating my short hair, hating myself. Not wanting to go to school. Feeling ugly.”

Hair stood in as a metaphor for something much larger. Rollins remembers her mother describing her hair as “messy, wild, and out of control” — an exotic presence that had to be tamed or molded in place. Put in academic terms, it was “the Other.” So, too, was Rollins. Adopted in 1970 at five months old, she was characterized by the official paperwork as “an Asian mix”: Filipino and white on her mother’s side, Irish and Latino on her father’s side. That’s a rough approximation of what her adoptive parents asked for. They wanted a little girl, and they asked for someone of Asian descent. But according to Rollins, they didn’t get what they bargained for. “My parents were telling me I’m not black,” she said. “But I’m going out in the world, and everyone’s saying ‘No, no, no, you’re black, you’re black, you’re black. … I was walking through the world as a little black girl, and people were treating me the way a little black girl got treated, in the 1970s.”

Rollins is, in fact, part Filipino and part African American. She has pecan-brown skin, reddish-gold hair, and soft facial features. In Oakland, she’s a hot number. But growing up in a Republican-Christian sector of Tacoma, Washington, Rollins felt isolated. “I went to all-white schools and attended an all-white church,” Rollins said. “When I say ‘all-white,’ I don’t just mean ‘no black people.’ I mean no people of color at all.”

Since her parents are conservative evangelicals, Rollins attended church every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, along with Saturday youth group. She went to two different church camps every summer, which meant consecutive weeks of indoctrination. She attended Christian elementary school, and showed up everyday in a red plaid skirt and white blouse, later replaced by a blue pinafore with matching pants. She memorized Bible verses. There’s a picture in her Facebook profile of a little girl with big glasses and blue barrettes in her hair, scowling. “Every time I see this photo, I have to laugh,” someone commented. “You look like someone took your chocolate milk.”

Growing up as the only black girl in an all-white community meant that Rollins had to deal with everyone’s conceptions of what it meant to be black. People stared when she hung out with her parents or her big brothers. Boys wanted to make out behind the church, but didn’t want to hold her hand in public. One boy asked her out in fourth grade, and decided to break up two days later. “It came back later that he was afraid of ‘getting black on his hands,'” she said.

Later, she switched to public school, which served a mixed group of kids. She finally got to hang out with other black children. Guys thought she was cute. It was a little disorienting. “I was trying to understand racial politics,” said Rollins. “Trying to understand why the dark-skinned black girls didn’t like me.” Rollins began flunking out of her classes, and arguing with her parents at home. By sophomore year of high school, she’d had enough. She moved down to Palmdale, California to live with her aunt and uncle, and finished high school there. She went on to California State University, San Bernadino, and for the first time met other African-American women who taught her how to relax her hair. In her twenties, Rollins grew dreadlocks.

As an adult, she began searching for her biological family, which was a rather painstaking process. Washington is a closed-records adoption state, so it’s nearly impossible for adoptees to contact their blood relatives, unless they contract a disease or obtain a court order from a judge. But they can request “non-identifying information,” and do the sleuthing on their own. Rollins went that route when she began her search fifteen years ago. She requested her official relinquishment papers and decree of adoption from Washington state, which came in the form of an FBI file — with all surnames and “identifying” details blacked out. She went to old high school archives, investigated marriage and divorce records in Washington state, and guessed her parents’ years of graduation. It became a full-on research project. In 2004 she founded the organization Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) to help other trans-racial adoptees locate their families. The following year Rollins started a blog called “The Birth Project.” It chronicled her search for a more concrete sense of familial identity. That year she also began writing Ungrateful Daughter. And she found her mother. They exchanged e-mails, but still haven’t met.

But Rollins fianlly did get confirmation that she’s African American. “My birth mother said she saw my picture,” Rollins said. “She knew I was black, and knew who my father was. She didn’t tell me anything else.”

In the meantime, Rollins’ relationship with her adoptive parents remained rocky. Five years ago she went home for Christmas and saw a random Aunt Jemima doll on the wall. Rollins’ mom had found it at a church bazaar and bought it for nostalgic purposes. It wasn’t supposed to be a provocation, said Rollins. “Apparently there was a woman creating all these Aunt Jemimas as kitschy things — you know, as countrified rural white people do.” At that time, Rollins was already well-ensconced in the African-American studies program at UC Berkeley, where she’s writing a dissertation about trans-racial adoption, and the development of Ungrateful Daughter. She added Aunt Jemima to the show. “There’s a whole conversation that I have with myself in the show,” Rollins said. “About Aunt Jemima, and what it means to be a black woman in a white household.”

To this day, Rollins hasn’t talked to her mother about her black identity. Nor did she ever bring up the Aunt Jemima curio. Her family still doesn’t know about Ungrateful Daughter. When Rollins goes out to restaurants with her family, waiters still ask if they need separate checks. But Rollins said she has made some progress over the years. When she graduated from her master’s program at Claremont Graduate University, Rollins opted to do the black graduation, rather than a regular department graduation. “My parents came,” she said. “They were able to see a wide diversity of blackness. My dad said, ‘It’s so nice to see you here as a black woman, around all of these other amazing people.'”

“It was the first time he’s ever said anything to me about that,” said Rollins. “It was huge.”

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