I was recently asked to write about my time abroad. Since coming back to relationships and cities that seem relatively unaltered, it has been easy to pocket my experiences away, and continue living life the way I had before. My time in Nanjing was profound, though, and I want to share my journey of root-searching with you. In this new section of my blog, I will be posting journal entries from last year and my current reflections one year later.
Touchdown – Nanjing Airport – 2/27/2015
My feet touched the ground, and my heart knew it was home. This is the story I want to tell.
As I sat on my short flight from Beijing to Nanjing, I started the journal that would accompany me and hold all of my stories from my time in Nanjing. I, of course, came to China to gain an immersive language learning experience. Moreover, I came to Nanjing specifically, seeking to reclaim my hometown that I left when I was just three years old and to make the memories that produce the heartfelt emotions most people have when they speak so fondly of where they are from.
When I was finally able to wander around the city, I couldn’t stop staring at the sea of faces around me that reflected my own. For the first time, I felt this comforting sense of anonymity, and it was my white-American counterparts who squirmed at being the object of unwanted stares instead of me. I looked in the eyes of every passerby, thinking, he could be my uncle! What if that was my great-aunt?
A formative experience that happened within the first month was the program sponsored visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum. I had only heard minor details of this atrocity that haunts my city, and so I didn’t anticipate having such a visceral reaction. Immediately after the entrance was a dark room with the wall of victims list. I scanned back and forth, looking for my surname. While I wasn’t able to find any on the wall, the realization that I don’t know my original last name set in. Any of the names up on the list could have been my family members.
Clearly, my adoption experience and identity as a Chinese American was hugely influential in my decision to study in Nanjing, but I struggled with explaining my identity and choosing which parts to share with people. I didn’t think that the man making my breakfast pancake or the woman in the convenience store around the corner needed to know this intimate detail of my life, but this sometimes meant that I left people in confusion as to how I could hold this Chinese appearance and have American parents. I was often frustrated by the lack of understanding that I could be both Chinese and American, and the association of Americans with only white people. When I would tell people that I was American, the common reaction was, “你看起来中国人 (You look like a Chinese person!).” Additionally, many of the restaurants and bars in the area had a foreigner discount that my friends all received. I, however, did not because I didn’t look like a “foreigner.” Never in my life have I had to so ardently defend my status as an American.
When I tried to explain some of my feelings to my American peers, I was confronted with simplistic thinking that was also not affirmative of my complex identity. While I was told repeatedly by local Chinese people that I looked Chinese and couldn’t be American, some of my fellow peers told me that they only regarded me as an American, and not Chinese. It was exhausting to have my identity doubted and false or unilateral ones projected onto me on a near daily basis.
I knew coming into the program that none of the other students would be able to understand my position fully, but we could all relate to the intense amount of work, memorizing sixty some characters per night and preparing for two tests every Thursday. Living on the 10th floor, studying on the 6th floor, and having classes on the 2nd floor of the same building sometimes made it seem like the only time we left was to eat. I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to experience China, and so taking one of my six credit classes for pass/fail credit was one of the best decisions I made, allowing me to get out in the city more and focus on being present there.
In an attempt to fulfill a lifelong dream, I began the process of trying to find my first parents. I went to the police station I had been taken to nineteen years before and was devastated when my search came to an immediate halt. The officer brought out a book of old records, and there was just one sentence about me. “The child was brought in at 8:05pm – 04/04/1996.” That’s it. There was no information about my birthparents, no information about my finder. Nothing. The woman who accompanied me surmised that perhaps I was actually from Anhui province or maybe I had gotten lost. No hypothesis could lift my mood, so I spent the rest of the day alone, releasing the tears that had welled up all morning – for myself, for my first parents, and for all the answers that remained unknown.
Perhaps the most rewarding experiences of my time abroad was reuniting with the woman who was my nanny when I was at the 南京市社会儿童福利院 (Nanjing Social Welfare Institute). The last time I had seen her was in 2007, when I returned to China for the first time on a heritage tour with my parents. She was able to tell me about my young toddler self, something that is documented nowhere but in her living memory. This time, too, I gained an important piece of knowledge. I learned that my nanny was the one who had named me my Chinese name, which is my legal middle name. Acquiring this knowledge gave me a deeper connection to my name as well as this woman who cared for me and named me with love. I truly regard her as my middle mother.
My proudest moment was when I gave my nanny a phone call, trying to see her one last time before I left the country. I remember when I hung up the phone feeling total exhilaration that I had set up this meeting in Mandarin by myself and was 100% confident where and when we were going to meet. A few days later, I took a cab to her neighborhood and we talked, this time without a translator. While the content of our conversation was much simpler, the intimacy and eye-contact was so much greater.
We went to a little restaurant around the corner from her apartment, and her seven year old grandson joined us, sloppily slurping noodles and making funny faces at me. As my nanny carefully scooped out the eggs and plopped them into my bowl, the waitress asked her if I was her daughter. That question stuck with me because it is one I am so rarely asked when with my mother in the U.S., and because I had such warm feelings towards her. My nanny encouraged me to eat more once I had filled up. And as we walked through her neighborhood, she held my arm tight, patting it as she pointed to the various fruits, animals, and vehicles that lined the street, saying their names aloud, as if I was that three-year-old child in her arms again.
The afternoon with my nanny left me feeling so fulfilled personally and linguistically. I might not have said everything, but this conversation was the best reward to show how far my language skills had come during the semester and affirmation of why I am working so hard to learn Mandarin.
Just two days later, I left Nanjing. When I arrived at the gate in Beijing for my connecting flight, I noticed a woman with brown, frizzy hair and wire-rimmed glasses, and peering over her shoulder was a small baby with tan skin and a little spiral of dark hair. We spoke while we waited to board the plane, and I wondered how I serendipitously ran into this new, young adoptee at the end of this transformative, identity search. We were on opposite ends of our adoption journeys, yet the same, as we both didn’t know what to expect when we got off the plane in the U.S.A.
The fifteen hour flight gave me ample time to think to myself. I realized that this would be the last time people were going to speak to me in Chinese and that the number of Asian faces around me was going to trickle to very few. There was something bitter-sweet about landing, having to say good-bye to one hometown in order to come back to the other. It is the price I pay for having my heart on two continents across the world, 7,000 miles apart.
When I wearily walked through the doors towards the exit of the airport, I immediately saw my parents, holding each other and a sign with my Chinese name on it. And in that moment, I kew that I wasn’t completely leaving behind Nanjing. My parents who have encouraged and supported me my whole life love me as both the name they gave me and the one my nanny gifted to me. And just as I can use both of these names, I can bring both of my homes with me wherever I go.