It was 2 weeks ago and I’d just dropped my son off for afternoon kindergarten. On the radio, a woman with some title that I fail to remember was saying how important it is for children adopted from other countries to have ties to that culture, how crucial it is that their parents make every effort to connect them with their motherland and seek out others who share their birth heritage.
Then, the host’s familiar voice, a voice that I hear every Monday through Friday at 12:30 said, “Have you adopted internationally? What’s your experience? Give us a call at…….”
I don’t know what came over me. I have never called a radio show. Ever. Giving it less thought than I probably should have, I pulled into a parking lot and dialed. The phone rang many times and I was about to hang up, when a voice spoke rapid-fire, with hardly a pause between words: “Hello NPR Are you adopted or have you adopted internationally?” I quickly said yes because it seemed like speed was what he was after. “Can you very briefly tell me what you would say on the air?” I spit out my story and he said, “We’d love to have you share that with our listeners. What is your name and where are you from? Turn off your radio and stay on the line……”
Then I sat there sweating. Oh dang. What have I done? Because, you see, I was kind of going to slightly disagree with the expert woman. Well, no, not disagree, because I DON’T disagree. Birth culture is important. Seeking out similar people is wonderful. Chinese New Year is cool. Mandarin class is a fantastic idea. But I also think there are other things that are just as wonderful, just as cool, and if a child wants to pick those things over say, Chinese Culture Camp, who am I to force feed chow mein when someone’s said “no thanks, I want the cheeseburger”?
As each caller finished, I held my breath, waiting to hear, “And now we have Eileen from Poulsbo….”
I tried to go over my story in my head so I didn’t stammer. I reminded myself to not say “Ummm” and under no circumstances should I laugh because I have a tendency to do that snort thing when I’m nervous.
I listened to the other callers–a woman adopted as a teen from Russia, a man who heads up a local chapter of Families with Children from China, a woman who had adopted a boy from Guatemala and had him in Spanish immersion…..
And then the familiar voice said, “I want to thank our callers, but unfortunately, we’re out of time for today….” And I sighed a deep sigh.
But I thought about my story for the rest of the day. Almost telling countless NPR listeners my views helped me figure out what my views actually are. So, I’ve shared this here before, but it’s been a few years, so bear with me. This is the story I would have told the radio audience:
A couple of years ago, I was at the mall with my then 5 year-old daughter, who’d been adopted at 11 months from the Guangxi province. As we were walking through the food court, we passed the counter selling Chinese food. My daughter heard the people speaking Mandarin and said, “Mom, I think those people are Chinese.” I told her I thought she was right.
Then she said, “I used to be Chinese.”
I had to stifle a laugh. “You’re still Chinese,” I said.
She gave me a strange look, shrugged, and said, “Kind of.”
It was a small interaction, but one that gave me a glimpse into how she sees herself. Evidently to her, being Chinese is all about the culture and the language, not necessarily the “look” or the name of the country written on your birth certificate. Since she doesn’t have that culture and that language, she feels only kind of Chinese. She very much identifies as an American, and rightly so, because she is.
Which makes me wonder, how much do we push? She’s happy. She’s confident. She’s American. In that interaction, should I have insisted that she IS Chinese, always will be Chinese? I took the “kind of” as an honest assessment.
For my part, when we first came home from China, I sought out a chapter of Families with Children from China. We went to their monthly dinners until the organizing family moved away and the group petered out. Some years I’ve hosted Chinese New Year parties at our home; but to be honest, some years the holiday completely slipped my mind. We’re friends with a local family of 6 girls, all adopted from China. Recently when my daughter asked if we could see them again, I said I would arrange something and made the comment that it’s fun that all of them are from the same place. She shrugged it off and just said, “I love their swing set.”
She connects more with the swing set than the fact that they’re from the same continent or have similar eyes. Will that change as she grows older? It very likely may. But for now, I don’t push all things China. We adore China and she and her siblings know that. But if she’d prefer soccer to Mandarin class, I won’t lose sleep over it. And if down the road she wants the Mandarin class instead of the soccer, I’m O.K. with that too. What I do think is crucial is that she feels loved and supported. Loved as a precious combination of China and the United States. Loved as a mix of nature and nurture. Loved as her own completely unique God-endowed spirit, a force the world has never before seen, and something that ultimately, can’t be claimed by either country.