June 2010. China. I hear the stiff intonations of Mandarin peck at my inner ear as I am engulfed in a crowd of Chinese people that resembles a spew of volcanic ash being puked from the Boeing 777-200ER. For the first time in my life, I look like those who surround me. In front of me stands Raven Hair, behind me Saffron Skin, right next to Chocolate Eyes, and Almond Lids. Tina steers me though all these could-have-been-familiar faces as I try my best to keep focused and not get lost in place or mind. Before I realize what has happened, I am sitting in the backseat of a car listening to the smiles and watching the frantic words of love and happiness exchanged between thin lips and small ears of mother and daughter, reunited after months of separation.
Tina is an international student who lives in China. I, like the other local day students, am a “day-walker,” affectionately called so by the boarding students. Tina and I met about ten months ago during one of the first few days of our junior year at a New England boarding school, an ivy-covered bubble nestled between stonewalls and grassy fields. We both were surprised to learn that we were born in the same city. Tina spent the Christmas holidays that December at my home. She helped add tinsel to the tree, ate gołąbki and pierogi with my family on Christmas Eve, played with our kitties, and met my cousins, whose hair color matches their fiery personalities. She had gotten her dose of culture, and I was ready for mine.
I stare out the window at a sky of slate and listen to the bubble-gum pop music seeping through the radio. “I love you,” “baby,” “we,” plopped throughout the Mandarin melodies. My brain is too fried to try and catch any familiar words that Chinese II might have prepared me with. It is my first time back in this city since 1994, when I was only seven months old, and I have no idea if anything has changed.
Throughout my childhood I had fantasized this trip many times. This journey would allow me to finally understand what kind of life I might have had if not for my abandonment and subsequent adoption into an American household as an infant. I imagined walking the fisherman’s path where I may have or may have not been left swaddled with a thin red paper blotched with my supposed birthday. I imagined looking into the eyes of passersby to find warmth and common history. I imagined returning to the orphanage, where little old Asian women would smile at me and cry and pinch my cheeks. They would say through the softness of their touch and wrinkled up faces, “We remember your chicken-leg thighs, your dumpling cheeks, the way you sucked your tongue. My, how much you have grown.”
Growing up I strongly believed that I was very much both Chinese and American, and God bless you if you tried to challenge me. Many peers, and even strangers, tried to contest my culture and heritage. Some would debate my American-ness with a slight tug at the corner of their eyes, others with a passing song of “ching, chang, chong.” Still, others tried to undermine my Chinese roots. “You are American, and only American. Your birth parents are not parents, only your adopted parents are.” What really bothered me, however, was not what they said or did, but the suggestion that they knew more about me than I did – that they could decide who my “real” parents were, what was considered my “real” hometown, if my sister was my “real” sister, and which race, culture, and ethnicity that I “really” belonged to.
It’s been a few days since I arrived back to my birth town. My stomach rejected the duck tongue and jellyfish, and I am really craving a juicy barbequed burger. My clothes melt to my skin, and I am still not used to the horns, exhaust, smoke, and stenches this city breathes. I miss the chirping crickets, freshly mowed grass, and air conditioning of my rural home in the States. Tina’s mom hangs up the phone and tells us that today is the day. She cannot promise anything, but she is hopeful.
The sky is steel, the car ride is long, and I am anxious. We have left the speeding buses, the curt voice blaring exercises to the school children, the innumerable threads of windows and doors, windows and doors, the metal clicks of bicycle chains, and the clouds of cigarette smoke. We have left it all behind. I, sitting in the back seat of a car on my way to the orphanage, am watching trees slide across my window and do not quite know what to think or how to feel. Tina and her mother are in the front seat. Since I do not understand their rapid Chinese exchanges, I pass the time in thought. My mother warned that the chances of actually getting in were low; she had talked to many peers who’d failed. Think rationally, I tell myself. However, feelings of hopefulness bubble to the surface of my mind. I’m with a native. Surely she can argue our way in.
I leave the safety of the car, feet hitting the worn down pavement. The searing molasses air intermingles with my sweat, and I am reminded of the two pouches that I keep hidden; one filled with paper money featuring Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin under my pink and purple plaid shorts, the other under my gray tank top with any official written document of my being: passport, birth certificate, the like. From the latter, I supply Tina’s mother with pictures and documentation.
There is an official looking man sitting behind a window in his dirty uniform. I study the powder blue painted acid-rinsed gates. At their prime they may have looked nice, but now the metal’s tears of rust leave them weathered. The two round painted flowers, one on each dilapidated door, mimic the hardened eyes of the government-paid guard. Tina’s mother tries to reason with this man but her attempts are futile. Although the orphanage has relocated, I am allowed no further than a couple feet within the gate to this abandoned building. I see only the dull outline of a concrete structure somewhere on the horizon, concealed by misty gray fog, a fog I can’t seem to escape.
We crawl back into the car, and the radio sighs “I love you,” “baby,” “we.” As we drive to the new location of the orphanage, I try to decide if I will be disappointed if I can’t get in. I was never present at this place as a baby. The staff had probably all changed. Would anyone remember me? How would I feel looking upon the sweaty foreheads of unfamiliar babies, who like myself, are probably products of China’s one-child policy?
We approach the newly built gate, and I can see at the end of the paved road a cutout Mickey Mouse, calling me in. I snap a picture of myself standing beside a bilingual sign that reads “Children’s Welfare Institute.” As I smile for the camera, I realize the could-have-beens and would-have-beens that I taste in duck tongues, hear in bicycle chains, and see in Tina and her mother are simply snapshots fluttering in the breeze. I can chase these photos, maybe even catch a few, but they will never be a motion picture. Half-knowing what’s to come, I walk behind Tina’s mother to approach the guard. My eyes finally meet with his and I can hear the whirring in his brain, his eyes shifting across my face as he reads what everyone seems to read: “Foreigner.”