Ashley Gleske

Ashley Gleske works in information services in the healthcare sector in Cleveland and resides in the suburb of Lakewood. She was born in Nanning, China and was adopted at one year old by a family in the Cleveland area, where she subsequently grew up.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Ashley, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) on February 7, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.

RC: What would you identify yourself as in terms of ethnicity?

AG: I would identify myself as Chinese for my ethnicity.

RC: Tell me about how you grew up. Where were you born?

AG: I was born in Nanning, China in 1995. And then I was adopted when I was a year old and moved to Cleveland. Then, for five or six years, we were in the Cleveland area and then I grew up primarily in a suburb of Cleveland called Strongsville.

RC: What was it like growing up in that neighborhood?

AG: I would say a lot of developments. Strongsville, I like to say, has everything. We have a mall. We have every store that you would need. My sister is also Chinese, and we were the only Asians on our block, I would say.

RC: Do you know anything about prior to adoption? What was the story behind Nanning?

AG: I don’t know too much. I know that it’s in the south of China and that I had a foster mom before I was adopted. So, my parents actually got to meet her when I was adopted. And I also had a group of 10 other families besides my parents, so we call ourselves the Nanning 11. We were all adopted at the same time from the same orphanage. So we all celebrated our first birthdays at the orphanage and then came to America from there.

RC: And when you were growing up, what was it like? Did you learn Chinese?

AG: Growing up, I did not learn Chinese. We were full English-speaking households. When I was in eighth grade and could start studying a language, I took Spanish. And then I continued Spanish through I think, 11th grade.

RC:  Were there opportunities or an environment for you to explore the Chinese heritage or identity? 

AG: My parents got plugged in — it’s called Families with Children From China, an organization in Cleveland. We would do activities with them, I would say maybe once or twice a year, and they would meet with other adopted families. And we would meet with other peers our age. Growing up, we [also] went to a church in Middleburg Heights and from there, formed really good relationships with three other families who also had adopted from China and various other countries, as well. But four of us were all adopted from China, from different organizations or agencies. Actually, some of them were from [the same] agency but adopted at different times. We all grew up going in Strongsville and went to the same church. So, once we made that connection, we would do Chinese New Year parties every year as a way to connect, but they were, I would say, Americanized. We will watch Kung Fu Panda and eat Chinese food from Strongsville. But that was — I think it was still a bonding experience for us growing up and being together and having that tie.

RC: What were some of the things that you guys would bond over — similar experiences that you could share?

AG: Well, I know of a couple adopted Asians that went to Strongsville, as well, but most I would say, maybe less than 5% were Asian, who were in my class, at least in Strongsville. And so I think there was just a familiarity, and especially being adopted as well — just another piece of the story that we could all relate to. I think that growing up, their perspective on their adoptions and them telling their stories and being able to bond over that and have the similar perspective, helped form a lot of my thoughts, and I was able to process different parts of my adoption and my identity as being Chinese and my family with them, as well.

RC: You would consider yourself “American” [in a cultural sense]? 

AG: Yes.

RC: I would say that if you ask a second or third-generation Chinese American, they would probably say the same thing. Have you ever encountered second or third-generation born here, raised here — Chinese Americans? And were there any similarities? Or would you say there are more differences than similarities?

AG: Yeah, I would say, I feel like there were one or two in high school. I think there were similarities. Sometimes they would come to like our Chinese New Year gatherings. And there was just a time for us all to celebrate the New Year. But I think the maybe growing up was a little bit different and the expectations that their parents had for them versus the expectations that maybe my parents had for me, in school or academics, or just maybe their household in general, was different. Just because my parents weren’t Asian. 

RC: Tell me about your parents then. What were their expectations or how were they when you were growing up?

AG: Yeah, I think that they were honestly pretty relaxed. I think that they did have expectations for us though, and in ways that — so, both of my parents were born and raised in Cleveland. But after they were born, and were growing up, they grew up with single mothers, and I think they just wanted the best for us growing up. And so they had expectations that they wanted us to excel so that we could have a better chance or upbringing that they didn’t have, or more opportunities that they weren’t given. And so, I think, for myself, I put the expectation on myself. I am their first adopted daughter; I want to make them proud. And I’m grateful that they adopted me and that they love me. And so, I think I’ve put that more on myself for those expectations of being a perfect daughter.

RC: Would you say you and your sister had similar “coming to terms” with your Chinese heritage? Or were they different?

AG:  Yeah, I would say we had similar ones. When she was adopted, she was more malnourished, and I think from a more impoverished community in China. So, I think for her, that made a difference — and just the way that she views her adoption versus myself. But, I think as we were growing up, it was never this one moment that we found out we were adopted. It was always presented to us — and my mom would read us books on adoption and Chinese culture. We had china cabinets in our house with different things that they had brought over. So, I think it was always present in our house. We both had the same experience of — it wasn’t this like one moment where we realize that maybe we were different from those around us or looked different from our family. It was just always known because we were brought up knowing that.

Logan Sander (LS): Could you describe the things or any memories of the books that they read you? 

AG: Yeah, there was one that — I don’t remember all the plot of it — but I remember it was called, “I Love You Like Crazy Cakes.” It had this Asian girl on the cover. And most of them were just about, I think, the love of parents to go and then adopt you and bring you back to America. And then we had china cabinets with different dolls and trinkets that they had brought back. My mom also brought back these chests that had carved dragons and figurines in them. And so, we had those as well, in our house, too.

RC: Was there a moment ever where someone thought something about you that they assumed something about you that you’re like, “Well, no, I’m not necessarily ‘from China,’” or “I don’t carry that in the same way”?

AG: Yeah. I think there are probably a couple, but one that sticks out is when I was in elementary school, I was like, “Okay, I want to dress in the pretty dresses, and so I went to school and I had my ponytail and I put chopsticks in my hair. And I just remember somebody making fun of me in the morning. So, I ran to the bathroom and I took them out and I was like, “Okay, never again.” So, I felt like as I was growing up, I just wanted to fit in and I didn’t want to explore my Chinese culture. I think growing up, too, even with my adopted friends, we weren’t actively seeking it. We were just growing up in America. And so, I don’t think it was until late high school or college when I wanted to explore more and take it on as part of my identity. But yeah, sometimes even now, we’ll go to Asian grocery stores or supermarkets and some of the workers will speak to us in Mandarin and we’re like, “Oh, sorry.” But I feel like that might just be common because of the setting that we’re in. But then it kind of is feeling a little bit like, “Oh, I wish I spoke the language so I could relate to them better, or I wish maybe things were different, like in those moments.”

RC: Do you feel more of an urge to know more about your heritage, or to celebrate it, or to further things that are more important to you now?

AG: Yeah, I would say yes, for sure. I really like to travel, and China wasn’t a top priority list for me, I think, because I was like, “Oh, I just want to see other places.” But, I think maybe I wasn’t ready to process where I actually come from, and I don’t think it would have held as much meaning to me, but now, I would love to go back to China and be able to see where I was born and interact with the people in that community… And I have my parents and my sister — I think it would be a really great experience if we could go back to China as a family and experience it all together, because none of us have been back since we were born. And I think that now we’re making it more of a priority and see more of the importance in it.

RC: So, this identity then for you, do you think it’s more fluid than a Chinese American would answer?

LS: Or have you ever struggled with that — not feeling Asian enough? Or the other way around? Maybe not feeling American enough?

AG: Yes, yes! I’ve struggled in both of those, not feeling Asian enough and not feeling American enough. I think being adopted, too — I say, identity crisis within an identity crisis. I don’t feel American enough because I don’t have the same roots and background as my family — my immediate family. And then I don’t feel Asian enough because I grew up in an American household with European relatives. So yeah, I definitely think that identity is like you said, I guess more fluid for me, because I don’t feel like I fit in one or the other. But I think I’ve also come to realize that’s okay.