This piece was originally published in an anthology titled Home.
It was late February, and I stood perched at my kitchen window, welcoming the sun-streaked curtains, the slightly rising temperatures, and the familiar songs of returning robins in the springtime. One red-bellied bird greeted me cordially before plunging its beak in the hanging bird feeder. Where did you come from, little bird?, I thought. And how did you know where to come home? The bird cocked its head at me, and in a language I couldn’t understand, answered me before swiftly flying away.
Like this robin had done just weeks before, I, too, was about to embark on a long journey to a place I once called home. My great migration of nearly 7,000 miles took place in 1997, when I was adopted from Nanjing, China. Removed from my homeland when I was three years old, China largely remained romanticized fragments of my imagination along with assorted images from books or videos. I remember searching the internet for pictures of Nanjing, my hometown, yearning for a semblance of familiarity or warmth in the beautiful images and finding instead a vacant foreignness, as I looked at street scenes and buildings that could have been home.
Answering an instinctual urge that had tapped at me for seventeen years, I moved back to Nanjing, Jiangsu, China in the spring of 2015. I hoped to reclaim my hometown and finally create memories that would produce the heartfelt emotions most people experience when asked to recall their homes. As I viewed people’s daily routines in the suburbs of Nanjing, local parks, and ancient buildings, I was finally able to proudly assert my identity as a Nanjinger. For months, I absorbed the city through my tastebuds, my staggering attempts to speak to locals in Mandarin, and through the rich history. I stood in awe of Nanjing, my city, that has been able to successfully develop itself as a modern area while preserving its beautiful temples and old traditions. In Nanjing, I felt so in touch with the past and the present, the city and myself.
While I was in my hometown, it was critical for me to at least begin a search for my first family – the people with whom I lived for the first two years of my life, who hold the answers to so many intimate questions I’ve never known. I enlisted the help of a local woman, a friend of a family-friend, who I trusted to guide me in some of my most vulnerable moments. Together, we visited the police station I was taken to eighteen years before.
The young police officer stepped out with the giant record book from 1996, and I stared at the aged, yellowed pages and the messy scrawls in a language I couldn’t understand. I became devastated that just one line of this book contained any information about me and brought my search to an immediate halt. The woman with me tried to comfort me and surmise different possibilities. She told me, “You were found near the train station, so perhaps your parents were from the neighboring Anhui province. Maybe your family came into the city for a few days, you got lost, but they had to go back.”
The sad image of my toddler self wandering alone in a new city jarred me. I cried for that little girl in me and the profound loss she had experienced so early in life. Moreover, I cried for my twenty year old self and the continued, compounded loss of my hometown. I had come to Nanjing in search of concrete answers but left not even certain that this was where my life began. The street I was found on has changed names and the social welfare institute where I lived for one year has now been demolished. As the few tangible pieces of evidence of my early years in the city fade away, I am compelled to create a sense of home for myself instead of relying solely on an ancestral breeding ground.
Home is in my memories, in the people who have influenced my life, in the flavorful foods that nourish me, and the places where I have grown. Some of these I know, but others remain mysteries to me that will perhaps never be solved. I am not a migratory bird with an unwavering sense of home. As a daughter of two countries, two families, and countless unknowns, my journey home will never be a direct route. Someplace here, someplace there, and someplace unidentifiable, home will always be a combination of what I’ve cherished and a continuous yearning for what I do not know.