I was recently asked to speak at the Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies through Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The panel I was on asked participants to think about how heritage travel influences our national, ethnic, and racial identities? How do these physical and bodily movements of exploring our roots affectively and emotionally shape our sense of ourselves?
I was joined by Bayo Holsey, associate professor of anthropology at Emory University and director of Emory Institute of African Studies, and Emily Schneider, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northern Arizona University. Both professors shared their fascinating research on heritage tourism in Ghana and Israel respectively. My presentation deviated from the scholarly research on the subject, and instead I told the story of my complicated Chinese American identity and finding myself through heritage travel. If you weren’t able to join, this is what I shared:
Unlike most people, I don’t know when I was born, exactly where I was born, or what name I was given when I was born. I actually don’t know anything about the first two years of my life. The first known record of my existence is a police report in Nanjing, China that says, “the child was brought in at 8:05pm.” I had been found on the street as a toddler and was taken to the local orphanage the next day. I was adopted to the United States when I was three years old and raised in Wisconsin, by parents of Polish and Welsh ancestry.
My parents did the best they could to keep me culturally connected to China. I went to Saturday morning Chinese school, my mom and I ate at a Chinese restaurant every Monday after my ballet lessons, and we went to an annual cultural camp every fall as a family. As you might have imagined, though, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me in Wisconsin. And though I always felt proud to be Chinese American, I felt really lopsided in my identity on the American side, just because I had so much more access and exposure to American culture than Chinese culture. My creation of a racialized identity was self-taught and more of a pan-Asian one at first. I would observe the similarities among the families of the few Asian friends I had and tuck those away as “Asian” things in the back of my mind.
My first flight after my adoption was back to China when I was 13 years old. In the adoption world, heritage or homeland tours have been normalized, kind of like a rite of passage, and often include some standard touristy sightseeing as well as some very personal excursions including going to the adoptee’s orphanage and hometown. My family visited my orphanage, the police station I was taken to, and the street that I was found on. We reunited with the woman who was my nanny at the orphanage, who was able to give me memories of me from an age I didn’t previously have. This trip was significant for me because it was the first time that I stepped foot in China since my departure. I ate Chinese-Chinese food, was surrounded by faces that looked like mine, and could really visualize what life might have been like had I stayed in China. I came back to Wisconsin with new Chinese stationary and clothing but also a new sense of Chineseness internally.
A couple of years later, two Social Studies teachers at my school lead a student trip to China over the summer. I was immediately interested in going and had one goal for this trip: to simply be a tourist. My last trip to China had been so emotional, and I thought this time I could go and just have fun. So I packed my bags and went on this week long trip with several classmates. I remember feeling smart because I had already been to these cities, so I knew some of the basic facts about the monuments and foods. But it also became clear to me quite quickly that I could not be simply a tourist in China. My identity is forever tied to China, and I can’t just shut that off. When I walked around and looked at people’s faces, I often thought, that person could be my aunt or he could be my father. I constantly scanned my environment hoping to see my face reflected back at me and tried to soak up as much Chineseness to bring back with me as possible.
I selected my undergraduate college in part because of study abroad programs. As soon as I learned about the concept of study abroad, I knew that I wanted to study in Nanjing, China, my hometown. This dream became a reality for me almost 6 years ago when I participated in an intensive language and culture program. When I returned and friends and family asked about this experience, most wanted a short answer about how amazing it was, some funny stories about cultural mishaps, and maybe some travel recommendations. But the truth is living in Nanjing was complicated, just like adoption itself. It one of the hardest and simultaneously most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
I went to China, this time with the simple goal of reclaiming my hometown. I had always felt a certain sense of pride in being from Nanjing, and I wanted to learn the nooks and crannies and the best secret spots in town. I wanted to make new memories there, the kind that produce the heartfelt feelings most people have when they think of home. The problem with having simple goals but a complex identity is that the results are never simple. Because reclamation was my primary goal of studying abroad, my experience there was isolating in some ways. Yes, I was Chinese, but I wasn’t Chinese in the way that the Chinese people expected me to be. Words didn’t fluently fall off of my tongue, and I had very few similar cultural references. And while I felt comfort in speaking English and exploring the area with my American friends and classmates, I knew none of them were having the same type of emotional experience as me.
An important step for me was to begin searching for 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 police officer brought out a book of old records, and there was just one sentence about me. There was no information about my parents, no information about my finder. Nothing. My translator 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.
After this devastating blow, I had one of my proudest moments in China, when I gave my orphanage nanny a phone call. 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. The last time I had seen her was in 2007, when I returned to China for the first time with my parents. This time, too, I gained an important piece of information from her. I learned that my nanny was the one who had given me my Chinese name, Pinghua, 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.
We went to a little noodle restaurant around the corner from her apartment, and her seven-year-old grandson joined us, sloppily slurping his noodles and making funny faces at me. As my nanny carefully scooped out the eggs in her bowl and plopped them into mine, 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 have such warm feelings toward her. My nanny encouraged me to eat more, 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 in Mandarin, 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 was affirmation of why I worked so hard to learn Mandarin. I didn’t find the answers or the mother I was hoping to find, but I did leave China with more information about myself, with a greater sense of Chineseness, and with the knowledge of one Chinese mother’s love. I truly regard my nanny as my middle mother, the one who took care of me between my first mother and my adoptive mother.
I haven’t been back to China since my study abroad semester, but I know that China will always be a part of my life and a place that I return to again and again. This sentence alone is resistance to a system that dictated so much of what has happened to me. The adoption system likes heritage tours that are a family vacation and that provide closure to the adoptee that their new life is better than the one they could have had in their home country. But for me there is no closure because I don’t know who I would have been. There is no better or worse; there is only different. My multiple returns to China and the acknowledgement that I will continue returning is a direct challenge to the adoption system and an adoption-promoting society that believes “love is all you need.”
Yes, I have been extremely loved in the United States by my parents, neighbors, and family friends, but that love has come at a great cost to me. The international adoption system mandated that in order to receive this love, my entire identity had to transform. In any other situation, we would not call it a loving act to force someone to change completely. After losing my first parents and all biological connection to the world, I had to give up my first citizenship, nationality, language, culture, and name. All of the love in the world did not erase my need for biological and cultural continuity.
I’ve decided to reopen my search for my first parents again. Like many Chinese adoptees, I’ve turned to Chinese social media in hopes that someone pertinent will see my image. I don’t know if I will be able to find what I am looking for, and that terrifies me. But I know I can only move forward in my complicated Chinese American identity by going back and collecting as many of the fragmented pieces that remain as possible.