Originally published in Gazillion Voices Magazine, 2014:
Home. It’s a word that brings a smile to many and is supposed to offer a sense of warmth and comfort. But identifying and defining home becomes a struggle for many students during their college years. Often times, we have lived in the same house or state all of our lives until we come to college. We have friends and fond memories associated with this one very special place. Once on campus, though, it’s a whole new adventure filled with intriguing people who have come together in a very intentional community. The experiences we have with our fellow students are bonding. We share the same mantras, dialogues, and living spaces and represent a common institution. For seven months of the year, campus becomes home. For me, the idea of home is further complicated by my status as a transnational adoptee. I was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, and lived there for the first three years of my life. I refer to Nanjing as my hometown and China as my homeland, yet I don’t have memories of my toddlerhood there. When I was thirteen, my parents and I returned to China on a homeland tour. I remember feeling a flurry of emotions: sadness and grief, a certain hint of nostalgia mixed with awe and pride in belonging to such a fascinating and vibrant culture. I thought this trip back to my hometown would give me a sense of contentment in finally seeing what I had only known through illustrations, stories, and imaginations, but I found that I wasn’t content just being there for those few days. This trip gave me a hunger to know more, to become fluent in my first language, to return again soon.
When I visited my orphanage and reunited with my nanny after 10 years, I was welcomed back with smiles and hugs in a homecoming fashion. My nanny told me how I loved bright colors and would follow her around. She was able to add some pieces to my gap-filled personal history; they were the most important new memories from my hometown. The level of comfort I felt in China wasn’t like that of the other places I had traveled to with my parents. I felt at home.
A common phrase and way of looking at the idea of home is: “Home is where the heart is.” While I love the saying, bits of my heart are in so many places. How does this saying give me a sense of which one is my home? I relish in sipping hot chocolate by the fireplace in my favorite coffee shop with high school friends, but I also love reading on the lawn while the humming of the bagpipes can be heard from some corner of my college campus. My roots lie in the 雨花石 yuhua stones and the bricks used to create the Nanjing City Wall, but I also have a particular fondness for Germany and the language I studied for six years.
Now at college, I am finally able to attempt achieving fluency in Mandarin. The Chinese word for home, 家 (jia), is synonymous for family. There is a clear distinction between 住的地方 (the place which I live) and 家 (home, where my family lives). As an adoptee, I have two sets of families who live in two very different places on the globe. Though I don’t have memories of my birth parents in the same way I know my adoptive parents, I’m proof that they exist. That is enough to feel torn and confused about which place is my 家.
Many college students seek music as a means of expressing themselves or finding solidarity in shared sentiments. One of my favorite bands is The Head and The Heart. A lyric from their song “Lost in My Mind” says, “Momma once told me you’re already home where you feel loved.” I have felt loved in all of my homes. I know that my first family loved me, and I was reaffirmed of the love I received in the orphanage by my nanny’s genuine joy in seeing me 10 years later. I feel love whenever my mom makes a hot chocolate for me when I’m stressed or whenever my dad inconveniences himself by driving me somewhere or tries to understand some girlish fad his brain is obviously struggling to comprehend. I am shown love every time a friend or colleague gives me a boost of encouragement when my workload becomes overwhelming. While this abundant amount of love makes me feel valued and safe, love alone can’t create a sense of home.
In each of these places I cherish deeply, I have simultaneously felt belonging and isolation. Among my white neighborhood, in my predominantly white high school, and within my mostly white family, I stand out as a person of color. I have been asked repeatedly to internalize racism by peers with statements, such as “You’d admit you’re a banana, right?” or “Don’t take offense, but your eyes are chinky.” I am often reminded that while I consider the U.S. to be my home, others don’t necessarily agree. Because of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes, my citizenship and loyalty to the country can be questioned at any time. With constant reminders of my different country of origin and exterior appearance in the United States, being surrounded by a sea of Asian faces in China was a profound and comforting experience. For those brief weeks, my race didn’t make me part of the minority, but my adoptee experience did. I became an object of curiosity, as people marveled at this Chinese body with Western mannerisms and perfect English. My inability to communicate in Mandarin further separated me from the connections I wanted to make and stole some of the intimacy of meeting with my nanny.
I have been told on countless occasions that I’m so lucky to have both the Chinese and American worlds open to me. I don’t fit into either world perfectly, though, leaving me to feel as though I’m an outsider of sorts wherever I am. These feelings of concurrent acceptance and rejection have been difficult to navigate and contribute to the struggle in labeling home.
After much reflection, I’ve come to the belief that home isn’t a place – it’s a feeling or a conglomeration of feelings. This realization allows Nanjing, China to be home, as well as the state I grew up in, my college, and the adoptee community. While imperfect, each place gives me a feeling that is unique and vital to my creation of home. The large, politically charged and social justice-oriented community of my college campus is something I couldn’t find at my high school in the place I was raised. The familiarity and comfort in being with the people who have watched me grow up is something that I can’t possess in China. The ability to see my face reflected back at me and my features validated in the media is something I don’t experience in the U.S. And my thoughts are heard and understood in the adoptee community in a way unlike any other place.
To me, home isn’t about the four walls surrounding me, but the feelings of acceptance, identity, warmth, understanding, and the relationships that are built within a specific space. As an adoptee, I now realize that, unfortunately, no one place will hold all of these qualities, and that is precisely why I need each of the other spaces for a sense of completeness. Though it’s a concept with which I’ve struggled, home is now a word that comforts me. It incorporates memories of the people, places, and activities that have been integral in shaping my emerging identity, something I carry with me wherever I go. This hard-won sense of self as a young adult adoptee of color compels me to create more inclusive environments so that finding home will be an easier journey for the next wave of coming-of-age adoptees.