Originally published in Gazillion Voices Magazine, 2014
Unlike most of my peers, I have never broken a bone, needed stitches, or torn any ligaments. I have no major scars on my body and have avoided the hospital at all costs. While my classmates slid down railings or pulled stunts on the playground, I was always extremely cautious with my body, as if a “fragile: handle with care” sign hung somewhere on me. I remember not passing the second level of figure skating, because I refused to jump or bend my knees. I remember running away from the balls in gym class in fear they would hit my face. I remember dreading rollerskating birthday parties or monkey bar challenges because I would do anything not to fall and hurt myself. My fear of physically hurting my body prohibited many childish shenanigans. I treated my body in the same manner people treat something they borrow, afraid to get any nicks on it, wanting to return it in the same condition they received it in.
I don’t remember a time when I have been comfortable in my body. Growing up, I was constantly told I was too thin, too small, or too weak. Since I couldn’t compete physically, I’ve always found it better to have a strong mind than a strong body. When my surroundings get chaotic and I need a peaceful calm, I will often times retreat within mind, leaving the world with a vacant looking shell. This seeming separation between my body and myself can be alarming, but it’s something I’ve learned to do from a young age.
My guess is that I first felt this disconnect from my body and myself when I was still in China. Though I was a talking toddler when I was taken to the orphanage, I shut down and didn’t speak for days. Processing my new name and new home, the Nanjing Social Welfare Institute, it was here that I learned that identity can change, and body and identity are not synonymous. Having had three primary caregivers call me three different names in three places, in two different languages, I sometimes feel as though my one body has carried the lives of three people.
My life with my American name began when I was three years old with the signing of final adoption papers, a plane ride to the United States, and learning English. This is the name on all of my legal documents, the name I use at school, and the name I identify with most. Trivia facts about myself: I am a lifelong Girl Scout member, I played the flute in band for seven years, and Disney World was one of my favorite childhood places. In these ways, my identity using this name is as American as apple pie and blue jeans.
Existing simultaneously within my body is a very Chinese side of me. So much of my desire to study Chinese history, politics, and language is to achieve a sense of balance within myself – between my Chinese and American identities. With an array of Chinese snacks on my desk, sitting in my Chinese language class, or discussing Chinese film – these are the moments I feel most connected to my Chinese name. Though I was only called that name for one year of my life, this identity is very much alive in my legal middle name, in the eyes of friends and family who continue to call me variations of my Chinese name, and in the borrowed memories from my nanny. In 2007, I returned to my orphanage for the fist time and reunited with my nanny, who vividly told me about the little girl she knew. During my time in the orphanage, I loved bright colors, I would follow her around, and I always wanted to help with the other kids. This brief window into my past, leaves me with enough hope that someday the Chinese and American parts may take up equal space in my identity, leaving my body with more a symmetrical feeling within.
But there is another piece of me, thousands of miles away in China. Unlike the Chinese name I know, there is no one to provide me with surrogate memories of my first two years. Who is this nameless, faceless toddler, the original holder of my body? The only clues to my first self lie on my skin, in birthmarks, moles, and the shapes of my features. When I look in the mirror, is my first mother’s face reflected back at me? Am I left-handed like my father? Perhaps this is why I have been so cautious with my body all these years, afraid of wiping away clues to the missing piece of me, afraid of changing my history. Through my year in the orphanage and my adoption, two additional identities have been grafted onto that original self. She is the one who remains unknown, though. As I begin a birth parent search, I am hoping to not only find my first family, but my first self. I think if I learn that little girl’s name and the life I could have had, I can welcome her home, and truly feel her as a part of me. Perhaps then my body and myself will for once feel in unison.