My new book Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge is now available from the University of Missouri Press.
It is available in paperback and Kindle Version from Amazon.com
A few weeks ago, for Sophie’s thirteenth birthday, we went to see “Kung Fu Panda 2” in Guilin, in a theater named after Marilyn Monroe, where we had assigned seats and wore very heavy plastic 3-D glasses.
It was weird to watch, in a Chinese theater, an American movie in English with Chinese subtitles, set in China—a movie with themes that resonated for me in obvious ways, I, the only white person and a single mother in a theater with my Chinese daughter, in China to learn more about her heritage, watching a movie about a panda raised by a single-father goose and longing for more information about where he came from.
Children’s stories are full of orphans. Maybe this convention originated when mortality rates were higher and children were more likely to be without parents, but now it’s a popular device because it allows characters to face obstacles without adult intervention. But it’s more than that; the search for our origins is an endlessly compelling theme.
In an animated film for children, some questions are inevitably skimmed over or handled with a light touch, like how a panda raised by a goose learns to be a panda. As a child, he eats all of the bamboo furniture in the goose’s restaurant, but the question of identity becomes a fairly absurd one in a world where geese run restaurants and pandas work in rice fields, practice martial arts, and struggle to develop inner peace.
Watching this movie on my daughter’s thirteenth birthday, I was especially struck by the scene in which the birth mother panda, her life threatened, leaves her baby in a radish crate, trying to save him. All over China there are birth parents who have left behind children, not because, as Americans commonly assume, the Chinese don’t like girls or somehow don’t value life as much as other cultures. All over China, there is the heartbreak of difficult positions created by overpopulation, a strict government policy that once allowed families only one child, the lack of a social security system, the need for boys to help on farms and the expectation that sons take responsibility for aging parents—a complex web of tradition and social, cultural, political, and economic forces that pushed parents to make impossible choices.
Back in June, we’d landed in Shanghai, our seats over an enormous wing so that we couldn’t see much—first clouds, then fog, then suddenly lights and the shiny wet pavement of the airport runway. We were a couple of hours from Sophie’s birthplace, but all we could see, coming in, was the airport. Later, we would miss seeing Hangzhou, the city where I first met Sophie, nor would we have time, the next day, to try to find again the disappearing village where she was born. The haziness of these places would start to feel like a physical manifestation of all we can’t know. But it was impossible to watch a movie like “Kung Fu Panda” on my child’s birthday without believing that there’s a woman somewhere in China who regularly thinks of her on this day, too.
The upshot of Kung Fu Panda’s search for his origins is that he should “let go of the past” and take control of his future. In the end, the panda is reunited with his father, the goose, whose grief and terror of losing his son to his questions about the past is now assuaged. But then comes the set up for “Kung Fu Panda 3”: “My son is alive!” a panda working on a rice paddy declares right before the credits roll.
Late last week, we took a train from Yiwu to Shanghai, where, at ten p.m., we ordered the same noodles we had when we first arrived in China. This time, we ate them more adeptly, with fewer spills. The next morning, we took a shuttle to Pudong Airport and boarded our flight for home.
When I entered a public restroom, after weeks of squat toilets, the sound of toilet lids slamming and toilet paper unreeling from a holder made me giddy. At Wendy’s, I still found myself sidling up to the cash register to read the total to make sure I paid the right amount, and I was shocked by the hugeness of the small cups.
Though for a few days we were a bit confused about basic procedures for daily living, we’re happy to be home again. Still, Sophie also misses China. So, though this is my last blog, it’s not the end of the story any more than “Kung Fu Panda 2” allowed for neat closure when there are more questions to be answered. While I’m cynical about the additional movies and profits that this ending prefigures, I also appreciate the true-to-life message that reflects our own experience. The search for heritage is a continuing process that can’t be put to rest by one resolution or revelation or memory or discovery, much less by one acrobatic show or Chinese New Year celebration or one trip to China, or two, or three.
Thanks again to Micquel Little who took time during her busy summer to edit, title, format, and post this blog for me. Thanks also to Sophie, who read or listened to every draft and gave me feedback about what to add or change. Writing this forced me to keep a more careful record than I might have otherwise and attend more closely to the details, and I especially appreciated the comments, encouragement, and feedback from readers along the way.
Thank you to everyone who accompanied us on this journey.
I have low expectations for our visit to the social welfare institute in Yiwu where Sophie spent the first ten months of her life. The agency that made our arrangements doesn’t have a lot of contacts at the orphanages, many people have told me, and visiting families have been stonewalled, given no information, and denied access to the baby room and their children’s files.
I was surprised to hear this. Three years ago, another agency arranged for us what turned out to be a life-changing visit here. To our surprise, we ended up in a remote village, tracking down a wealthy local merchant named Mr. Lu who’d once taken a special interest in Sophie. We had lunch with him and his wife and were toasted by the town’s mayor. Later we found ourselves in another, even more remote village—what turned out to be Sophie’s birthplace, experiences I’ve written about in an essay forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and in my new book.
But after hearing others’ stories, our visit three years ago seemed like a fluke, as did the fact that I’d glimpsed a paper in Sophie’s file, a scrawl of characters that apparently contained information about her background that we hadn’t known. I didn’t ask for a copy at the time, since an employee seemed to be breaking a policy by letting me see the file at all. Now, the orphanage has new administrators, and getting a copy of this paper seems like even more of a longshot.
Sophie keeps pointing out that when you don’t speak the language, everything feels abrupt. With no warning, everyone jumps up and troops off to a noodle shop at 10 p.m., or rushes out and hops in a van and the next thing you know, you’re in your birth village. You frequently find yourself doing things you haven’t planned, and much of the time, you have no idea what’s going on. So it is par for the course when we arrive at the SWI and instantly see a familiar face—Mr. Lu bounds down the stairs, his wife behind him, leveling their hands to comment on how much Sophie has grown. Our first request has been fulfilled—they have come to see us. A former staff member, Mr. Feng, who helped us locate the Lus three years ago, also makes a special trip to say hello, and the conference room fills with people, the new director and assistant director, our driver and guide, the Lus, Mr. Feng.
And then we all jump up and go off to the baby room, another surprise, another request fulfilled. It has changed considerably in three years. Now, healthy children have been sent to foster care. Domestic adoption is encouraged by the government and the one child policy has been slightly relaxed. Now the children in institutional care are mostly disabled. Toddlers scoot around in beat-up bouncy seats and line up in wooden chairs to watch “Teletubbies.” They jump up to wave their arms and dance. This room is bare and stark and hot, and there are no toys anywhere. I don’t know what happened to the many crates of toys we donated. Maybe they have all worn out.
Toddlers grab at our legs and our hands. One girl with severely scarred skin wants me to pick her up, but when I do she goes all limp and floppy. Like Sophie when I met her, this girl, at least two or three, doesn’t know how to be held. She is very bossy and tugs me around the room. At one point she calls me “Mama.”
Babies lie listlessly on the bare boards of their crib beds, a baby with albinism with a shock of pale hair, his whiteness startling among all of these other Chinese babies. Babies with enlarged heads, babies with crossed eyes, a baby whose top lip is folded back like a blossom before it opens to sunlight, whose eyes are curious and who laughs when I carry him and talk to him.
“Will these babies be adopted?” I ask our guide, and he looks confused and alarmed, thinking that I want him to ask the director for permission to bypass the proper channels and just take a baby home. This is my first clue that he doesn’t speak much English, which becomes the main barrier to us finding out what we want to know. He’s confused when I ask him to inquire about the orphanage’s needs. Finally he finds out that they could use a sewing machine and more bouncy chairs, which we purchase later that day, such small donations to a place whose needs seem so large.
Back in the conference room, I ask the guide to request a copy of the paper in Sophie’s file. For a good twenty minutes, I reword my request and am told that there is no file, there is no paper, I have all of the available information. “Mom, give it up,” Sophie says when I try again and again.
Mom, give it up—a common phrase these days, the reason I didn’t inquire about what came with her meal two days ago and she ended up with ketchup drizzled all over her fries, the reason I rushed off without getting enough information about a train yesterday and we raced frantically along the platforms, not sure where to go.
This time, I’m not giving up unless I hear a firm refusal, but I’m worried: what if I somehow imagined this piece of information about Sophie’s past? That scrawled note, that visit to Sophie’s birth village suddenly feels like the moments before anesthesia sends you into a twilight sleep, like the moments when the lights are bright in the hall and the orderlies are wheeling you along and then it’s all gone, and you wake the next hour or three years later and whatever happened in that gap between then and now has utterly disappeared.
But I reword, gesture, pantomime, demonstrate, and explain until the merciful moment when understanding dawns on faces around me. Someone retrieves Sophie’s file, and I locate the note, and the assistant director makes us a copy, just like that. We don’t have time to visit Sophie’s birth village again. The driver isn’t even sure where to find it; it is even more elusive than Hangzhou has been for us. Sophie’s once-rural birth village is changing, disappearing, its people moving away, ponds replaced by high rises as it is gradually absorbed into the city’s edges. We will request a trip there next time. Our agency may not have a lot of contacts at the orphanage, but I realize that somehow, miraculously, we do, that our previous visit has paved the way for this one, and this one, in turn, will pave the way again.
For now, we go to lunch with the Lus, able to communicate only through re-enactments of the past, of the way Mr. Lu brought me this baby on a train twelve years ago. I point at Sophie and imitate her, clutching at Mr. Lu, protesting: “Waaa, waaa, waaa.” Everyone laughs. Mr. Lu passes me his memory of the baby my daughter was, and I pretend to take her while he wipes a memory of tears from his eyes.
Last Monday, we left early for the Beijing airport, anticipating a quick flight to Hangzhou and a chance to finally see the city where Sophie and I first met more than twelve years ago.
Back then, a half hour after I arrived in Hangzhou and a day earlier than expected, I was called to a hotel room to pick up my baby. For the next few days, the city was a vague backdrop to our first days together. On the West Lake cruise, a leaky diaper ruined my cousin Jody’s pants. During the tea plantation tour, I stayed on the bus because Sophie had finally fallen asleep after days of nonstop screaming. I skipped the silk factory tour because the clacking machinery threatened to set her off again. I’m pretty sure we strolled through gardens by the lake while I lugged a squirmy 16-pound baby. The favorite Chinese verb, enjoy—as in “We will now enjoy some time with friends” or “Would you like to enjoy here or take away?” instead of “Is that for here or to go?”—did not quite apply to those days in Hangzhou.
Almost ten years later, we planned a return visit to the city where we’d become mother and daughter, but then had to skip it when Sophie got sick. So now, this week, we were finally on our way, or so we thought until we reached the ticket counter and were turned away. Thunderstorms the previous day had delayed flights and no one was allowed to check in. All over the airport, people slept on chairs and camped out on top of their heaps of luggage. Our guide, who didn’t speak much English, cheerfully informed us that it could be a day or more before we would be able to leave, since more thunderstorms were expected that afternoon, and we would just have to wait in the airport, maybe all day and all night.
Eventually we managed to get tickets for a six-hour bullet train. We were too busy juggling luggage at the station to get food to take away, nor did we have time to enjoy it there. Once our train was underway we trooped off to the dining car, where we futilely requested the noodles that Chinese passengers were eating. The attendant blocked the noodles with her body and pointed insistently at snacks like muffins, pistachios, and microwave popcorn, things she was convinced that Westerners prefer. I didn’t argue. I bought snacks and planned to get a very late dinner when we arrived in Hangzhou at 10:30.
And then the train came to a stop. At first we thought it was a long stop at a station, but gradually it became clear that we weren’t going to budge. I asked the man next to me what was going on, pantomiming a zooming train coming to an abrupt halt. He answered in Chinese, gesturing and then folding a piece of paper and waving it to accompany his explanation. Sophie kept up a running attempt at translation, like someone playing charades: “It’s New Year’s Day and a ball is going to drop? A ball dropped onto the train? The wheel has fallen off? It’s raining and the track is slippery?”
The man concluded from the authoritative tone with which Sophie made wild guesses that she was bilingual and proceeded to speak to her at length in Chinese for the rest of the trip. I found myself looking at her as if waiting for her to translate, and each time she looked thoughtful and said, “I have no idea whatsoever what he’s saying” to which I’d nod enthusiastically as if we’d understood, and so the man went on talking.
After a three hour wait because, we found out later, a train ahead had broken down, we were underway again, and starved, because now there was no food at all left in the dining car. At two a.m., we finally arrived and had sandwiches at KFC. In the hotel elevator, the bellman said something to Sophie and, meaning to introduce herself but half-asleep, she instead announced in Chinese that she loved herself.
The next day we had an hour to walk around West Lake before catching another train. It was 113 degrees and sweat pooled in our eyes and left our hair looking like we’d just stepped out of the shower. The lake was clear and green, big patches of lotus flowers on the edges, pagodas built along the walkways, small cruise boats drifting out on the water, and I recalled walking here twelve years ago with other new parents who pushed their babies in strollers or wore them in carriers.
Sophie hated confinement, so I carried her constantly, and I remembered how my arms and back ached, how I had a sore throat and had barely slept, how we passed gardens and puppet shows and people singing opera in this city that I didn’t know would remain so elusive. But somewhere on these walkways interspersed by relief carvings of famous historical scenes and a map of the city, I also discovered that kissy noises made my baby laugh. As we hurried along the paths, dripping with sweat, I remembered walking here as she laughed and laughed as if she had no trouble at all deciphering what I meant.
More than a week ago, we arrived in Beijing for a program which to our surprise had been named the Happy Chinese Camp for Sweet Family. It probably should have been called the Grumpy Chinese Camp for Irritable Family, because it turned out that we were staying in a dorm—one that would probably represent luxury for your average Chinese student, but not so much for your typical middle-aged Americans too tall to stand under showers mounted on the wall at a height suitable for a Chinese two-year-old.
Our dorm room came with a service guide that explained that smoking “in elevator, in bed, and in suitcase is prohibited.” It also reminded us that we were not allowed to have a birthday party in the lobby or breed poultry in our rooms. Our teachers were concerned if we didn’t ask for permission to leave campus on our own, and at every meal we had to beg for drinking water before someone finally brought us a pitcher of hot water fresh from being boiled because the Chinese believe that cold water is unhealthy, too much of a shock to the system.
The real shock to our systems was the schedule, eight nonstop days of compressed introductions to Chinese language, culture, and history. A sign outside a museum we visited requested, “Please be self-restraint and be a good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination.” I tend to think that imaginations should be somewhat ill-mannered, charging around heedlessly, and we did enjoy art projects more when we embraced our friend Lee’s philosophy: “I am not attached to the outcome,” she kept repeating, giving us permission during paper cut class to cut out slightly uneven characters for double happiness and, in my case, a scraggly butterfly. Pottery painting and folk dancing were a lot more fun when we weren’t attached to the outcome, and the tai chi lessons would have been, too, except that the instructor was very attached to the outcome, walking around adjusting our arm positions for fifteen minutes at a time until the children got so bored they were lying on the floor or turning cartwheels.
In some ways, I thought, we were too westernized to fully get the Chinese perspective, since its educational system is all about rote memorization and recitation of facts and sharing and respecting rules, while our cultural values lean much more toward individualism and thinking outside the box. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that while rules seem to proliferate in China, no one pays much attention to them, leaping up to open overhead compartments while the plane taxis down the runway, barreling right through red lights, eating ice cream as they stroll through exhibits at the Beijing Capitol Museum, smoking beneath no smoking signs. That inspired me, so during the lesson on painting opera masks, when the instructor reminded us every couple of minutes that we must, absolutely must, be sure to stay inside the lines, I followed all directions before succumbing to a little moment of rebellion in which I gave the fierce face of my loyal, brave, and hot-blooded warrior some dangly earrings.
And so the week continued as we took lessons in cooking dumplings and Chinese language instruction in pronunciation, making introductions, telling time, writing characters, and asking acquaintances what their sign is on the Chinese zodiac, which as far as I can tell is mostly a sneaky way of figuring out other people’s ages. We took a field trip to Olympic venues, where Sophie and her friend Grace, both on western Pennsylvania gymnastics teams, did the splits in front of the Bird’s Nest, bridges in front of the water cube, and handstands in front of the gymnastics gym.
We were late to a colorful show called “The Legend of Kung Fu,” arriving right about when Chun Yi, distracted from his Buddhist discipline by a beautiful illusion, finally manages to demonstrate his strength and courage and free himself of his ego to enter the gates of the temple and achieve warrior monk status. We spent hours fighting crowds at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but the Temple of Heaven was oddly silent. The folk and ballroom dancers, the ribbon dancers, the tai chi practitioners, the kite fliers, the community groups singing opera, the lively games involving shuttlecocks had all been cleared out of the historic site that once doubled as a park for locals. According to our guide, the locals were getting in the way of the tourists, so these activities had been banned from the park. There were many groups of men playing cards and checkers, but it wasn’t quite the same.
A Peking Opera performance involved a sampler of scenes from various classics, tales of loyalty and revenge where there were many tears that fermented the wine, abysses of misery, and years of secret sorrow. As was traditional, men played the female parts, their falsetto voices sounding like chipmunks, making our children giggle. I wondered what our kids would make of these shows, of these intensely male traditions where women are still played by men and in Kung Fu women are nothing but a beautiful illusion. Our guide was disappointed by our inability to fully understand the beauty of these ancient art forms, and I felt torn between wanting to understand and not wanting to fully embrace aspects of Chinese culture that I wouldn’t be willing to embrace in my own culture, either.
I had signed us up for the camp because I wanted a chance to connect with other families like ours while avoiding a traditional tour. It was difficult for us to adjust to the lack of independence and free time, but in the end, we made new friends and learned a lot about Chinese culture and language—and even more about differences between our cultural mindsets and the reasons that misunderstandings arise.
Sophie was proud of herself for being able to explain to a woman selling fruit that she didn’t understand Chinese and that she and the other girls were Americans and Canadians. And I was proud of myself for making extensive use of my days-of-the-week vocabulary acquired in Guilin when, convinced at dinner one night that it was Wednesday but told by everyone else that it was Thursday, I figured out how to ask someone at the next table whether jin tian was xing qi yi or xing qi er. Turned out that it was Thursday. I was pleased at remembering a little bit of Chinese, but then a little sad at how fast the time was speeding by. In just a few days, we would have to cram six weeks of dirty laundry and souvenirs into our overweight luggage before heading on to our last stops in Zhejiang Province, Sophie’s birthplace.
It’s our last day in Guilin, and I’m a little sad to be packing, making our last bus excursion to the botanical gardens, taking Sophie to her last traditional Chinese dance class, and saying goodbye to new friends today. I thought by now I’d be chomping at the bit, raring to get home, desperate for my own space and familiar foods, and I am looking forward to going home, but I’m also surprisingly reluctant to leave Guilin. Sophie, though, is downright resistant. As much as I wanted to honor her sense of connection to her roots, I guess there’s a part of me that hoped that an extended visit to China would get this country out of her system. But if anything, she’s more attached than ever.
“Sometimes I wonder, what are we doing?” an American dad of a Chinese-born adopted daughter said to me as we strolled around a lake the other day. “By encouraging our children’s interest in China, are we also encouraging them to leave us someday?” Because we do fear, a little, that our children will someday want to live here, that we’ll have to fly halfway around the world to see our grandchildren. Not all children from China are so curious and passionate about their homeland from a young age, but ours were. So we had a choice: stand in their way or clear their paths. We have chosen to clear their paths, though sometimes with trepidation about the consequences to ourselves.
But of course, our dilemmas are the dilemma of every parent: how much to hold on, how much to let go. And it’s amazinghow much the world has changed just in the last few years, how much smaller it feels, how different still it will be by the time our children reach adulthood. Twenty-two years ago, when my friend Sara lived and taught in China, handwritten letters in tiny print on thin aerograms were her only contact with the outside world, and for reading material her only English-language choices were Penguin classics from local bookshops.
Now, even visiting Guilin, regarded by the Chinese as a small town because its population is “only” about 700,000, is no longer such an isolated experience. We have e-mail to keep in contact with friends, made the dangerous discovery that we can still buy Kindle books here, and on the rare occasions that we missed TV or movies, went to the local cinema or picked up $2 movies to watch on the computer. It wasn’t quite the same eating dragon fruit instead of popcorn, since the only microwavable kind is sweet, not salty, but it was close enough.
Our routine has stayed pretty much the same as at home. Sophie has read eight books, learned some new games, and spent hours hanging out with girls in our building. I’ve kept up with writing projects, recommendation letters, long-distance advising, graduate student applications and packets, and page proofs for forthcoming publications—my normal summer work. The only difference is, as soon as we leave the apartment, I remember that I’m in China. We’re surrounded by high rises and gardens and honking cars and buses and motorbikes and the sound of people speaking Chinese. We’re both starting to recognize more words. We can put together a few simple sentences. It’s hard to leave just when that is happening, though the process will continue in Beijing.
And I won’t miss being stared at all the time, a phenomenon that is less common in bigger cities. One day Sophie and I made our way through brush down to a lake, where we happened upon a couple sitting on a rock, contemplating the water. Except then they decided to contemplate us instead. They turned to us and stared intently, faces expressionless, gazes unwavering. I smiled and waved but they remained completely immobile, like staring statues. At their feet, there was an overhead projector, half in the water. The water lapped at the screen and the couple stared at us and I thought, OK, there’s a beautiful ancient pagoda across the water and, for some reason, an overhead projector floating at your feet, and you’re staring at us? Shouldn’t we be the ones staring?
But Sophie even feels nostalgic about the stares. She admits that she misses friends, her dog, gymnastics, her violin, and tacos. But the loss of Guilin looms larger now than anything else. She can’t fully articulate what she’ll miss: “Rice noodles!” she says. “The maze.” She likes walking in the maze created from bushes outside our building, and looking down on them from our roof, and I have to admit that it’s cool, but really? She’s going to miss that?
“The buses,” she says, “the streets, the food, the people, Aiyi.” “Aiyi” means “Auntie,” our housekeeper, cook, and friend. And then her list becomes highly suspect: “The heat, the humidity, the comforter,” she says. “I’ll miss the comforter.” In China, even in tropical regions like this one, we have never encountered a thin sheet or blanket. For some reason, the beds have heavy comforters. And I’m sorry, I do believe that we’ll miss Aiyi, but the heat, humidity, and comforters?
Sophie dug in her heels when it was time to leave Beijing three years ago and again when we left Barcelona two years ago. So maybe this is more about the lure of foreign places than it is about China. But I don’t know. I only know that I used to think I could make a list of places that I wanted to visit, and once I’d traveled there, I could check them off and move on to the next. Our visit here was supposed to be a one-time thing, but Sophie already wants to know if we can come back next year. Probably not next year, I say. But as we head to Beijing to meet up with Pennsylvania friends and attend a language and culture camp, I have a feeling that we’ll be back someday.