On June 16th, 2009, I stood in a guard shack in a foreign land where I was handed one of the four greatest gifts of my life. I was surrounded by people who did not speak my language. They were having me sign documents filled with writing that I could not discern. In my arms was a child whose looks were so very different from mine. She was crying hysterically, calling out in Mandarin for a woman I did not know. I had been in China for one day. It was chaotic, emotional and bittersweet.
We stayed in Beijing for two weeks. We toured all of the national treasures, The Great Wall, The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Ma Weihong struggled some, but overall seemed comfortable with us. We had decided to name her Sophia a long time ago, and she was responsive. But whenever someone asked for her name, she would say “Ma Weihong”. Of course she would…she was almost four years old and this had been her name all of her life. I had very limited knowledge of Mandarin, but I knew how to say I love you. So I would l say “I love you Ma Weihong” in Mandarin and then “ I love you Sophia” in English. Sometimes when I held her at night I would call her Ma Weihong. I wanted her to know that even though I was calling her something else, I knew her Chinese name and that that name did not need to disappear.
After we returned home to the United States, I became dedicated to helping her learn English as quickly as possible and also to helping her maintain her Mandarin as much as I could. We have friends who own a Chinese restaurant near us and also a neighbor who is Chinese who all speak fluent Mandarin. My father had a Mandarin tutor on retainer to help Ma Weihong keep her native language.
At first, she talked with our friends who spoke her language. She was shy, but she would speak with them. She became very excited when Ni Hao Kai Lan came on television. She would talk along with the show and loved it when Mandarin words came through. She would count in Mandarin along with the characters. She would sing beautiful songs in her native tongue in the car when we were driving.
After about a month, things started to change. She was learning English very quickly and was becoming more comfortable with her American family and American life. And with each step that she was taking bringing her closer to us, she was decidedly leaving her past and China behind. My father bought her the Little Mermaid in Mandarin, she barely paid attention to it. She started shying away from the Chinese people we would come into contact with. She would not speak with our Chinese friends in Mandarin anymore. She made it very clear that she only wanted to speak English. I would count along with Ni Hao Kai Lan in Chinese and she would say “No Mama, one, two, three, four”. When I called her Ma Weihong, she asked my “Why Ma Weihong?”. When people asked for her name, she said, “Sophia”.
I was riding in the car with her the other day and I heard singing. I have always loved to hear her sing. I turned off the radio so I could hear her sweet words and my heart just sank. In place of her beautiful Chinese songs, she was singing over and over in English, “yummy yummy tummy chicken”.
As time passes, she has become more and more like all of the other children around her. She now calls Mandarin “China Talk”. She still refuses to speak it. She told a friend of mine that she won’t speak Chinese because she doesn’t want to be different. This saddens me, but I understand. She just wants to be like every other child in her home, her preschool and her ballet class. If you ask for her name today, she will tell you, “Sophia Jane Weihong”. She is comfortable with that. I guess I am too.