“We are very fond of Chinese culture.”
It was a statement I wrote sitting at a table in Nanjing, Jiangsu China on one of the many documents we signed in order to adopt our son in 2015.
I promised to love him and protect him. I promised never to harm him or abuse him. And these were true down to my core.
But Chinese culture? I mean, I liked Panda Express, and I think I read a book by Amy Tan a few years prior… but stating that I had a love for Chinese culture was a bit of a stretch.
Did learning some children’s songs in Mandarin count?
Reflecting on that time now, I see that I was so immersed in adoption trainings, attachment books, and paperwork that I didn’t take the time to learn more about China.
Throughout that trip though, actually experiencing our new son’s birth culture did prove to be fascinating. I’d never seen people in the United States painting characters on the sidewalk with water.
I’d never jumped in with a group of older people doing Tai Chi in the park.
I’d never seen beautiful temples in America.
For two weeks, I was immersed in a world so very different from my own.
Upon returning home, I reflected on what birth culture actually meant. And when we adopted a second time, I was far more mindful of bringing back pieces of China that would be meaningful reminders for our boys one day.
It’d been a little over two years since our first adoption trip, and in that time, we have been proactive about bringing Chinese culture into our family through gatherings with other adoptive families, learning about Chinese holidays, listening to Chinese music, and cooking Chinese dishes often. Our most recent endeavor to weave Chinese culture into our home was to host a short-term Chinese exchange student.
A little background… several years ago, our local high school partnered with a school in Qingdao. The sister schools regularly communicate, and they have had students travel to China and vice versa. A few weeks ago, students from our sister school in China traveled to the United States to sightsee and to visit our high school. For four days, we added kiddo number six to our family, a 15 year old boy I’ll call LZH from Qingdao.
We had talked about the possibility of hosting an exchange student for a semester or for a school year in the future, so this was an excellent opportunity to “try out” hosting a student and get a feel for how it would impact our family.
During their visit to our town, the Chinese students were offered opportunities to mingle with our high school students and participate in fun activities such as laser tag, mini golf, go carts, and a bike tour. They also got to experience first hand what an American family is like.
Day 1: Shortly after LZH arrived at our house, he excused himself to go to his room, and he came back with a gift for our family. It was a very large Chinese scroll that said something similar to “Study and work hard. Make big progress.” I had my Mandarin-speaking friend translate it for us. I was so excited to see another piece of China that we could display in our home. This was the perfect chance to explain to our kids the custom of gift giving among Chinese people.
During his first night here, LZH went to the neighbor’s house with our 15 and 13 year olds to play volleyball. They all returned to our house where we made s’mores. Then kids from neighboring back yards jumped on our trampoline with LZH and played corn hole.
A couple of younger ones showed up to toss the baseball back and forth. Meanwhile, another neighbor was hosting a barbecue, and another had a violin concert going on in her back yard. Our kids stayed out later than usual with LZH to show him the fireflies they caught. I’m not sure we could have given LZH a more picturesque version of a summer night in suburban America.
Day 2: The next morning was a free morning. After breakfast, we sat in the family room with LZH. My husband and I had a nonverbal convo with our eyebrows about whether or not it was ok to ask him questions about China. We started by asking if he had any questions about our family or about America. He politely said, “No,” not wanting to seem intrusive.
We broke the ice by asking him general questions about his hometown and his school. Our children were shocked to learn that LZH left for school at 6:00 am and returned at 10:30 pm. “When do you get to see your mom?” our concerned 7 year old asked later during his visit.
We learned about his family. His dad is a business owner, and he has a sister with three year old twin boys. Whew! This was actually one concern I had for this poor fellow… coming from his quiet home into our loud, rambunctious house. He adjusted quite well though, and by the end of his visit, he was laughing loudly at the kids’ antics and joining right in with them.
LZH politely excused himself again to go his room. I joked with my husband that he’s probably thinking, “Stop badgering me already!” We were just so eager to learn all we could about Qingdao, his school, and his life. He came back quickly to give us another gift. This time it was some jelly-like candies in paper pouches. My husband, who works in innovation for a food company, was intrigued about the snack, and he asked LZH to translate what was written on the package.
I dropped LZH off for a scheduled school activity for a few hours, and after dinner, the girls (13 and 7) and I took him shopping. We were told by the school coordinators that the children really like to shop in America. They suggested places like TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Kohl’s and the mall. We began our trip by hitting Marshall’s. Even with our limited communication, it didn’t take very long to figure out his goal: Nike and Adidas on the cheap. I laughed to myself thinking about how I stressed over what gifts to take to officials and orphanage staff on our adoption trips. We tried to find things local that represented our town in Ohio. In reality, I see now that these would have been welcomed as well.
LZH explained that the shirts he bought for $15-20 at Marshall’s would have been well over $100 each in China. We set out for Kohl’s next where he sought more Nike and Adidas clothing, and then I helped him pick out some sneakers. During check out, we saw some of his teachers from China shopping as well. This was a big highlight of the trip! They were able to load their closets with the latest styles for far less cost than they could in China. When we talked about it on the way home, I told LZH about the electronics market we visited in Guangzhou. My husband and teen son went there multiple times on our last trip.
They come here and buy clothes. We go there and buy electronics. In fact, we needed to purchase an extra suitcase for the trip home in order to bring our spoils home. I totally understood the excitement of all our Chinese visitors!
Day 3: LZH had another field trip from 9:00 am until 2:30 pm. When I picked him up, I told him that I would need to work for a few hours that afternoon. He was ready to nap. The jet lag really sets in after a few days. We talked about my job, advocating for the adoption of special focus children in China. With the language barrier, it was a little difficult to explain, so I settled on showing him orphanage pictures and saying, “Those babies… no mama or baba. I find a mama and baba for them.” He was intrigued by this and began asking me questions.
That night, I had planned on making a Chinese meal for LZH. It was a risk, as my Asian meal repertoire is pretty limited. Plus, we had been told to cook what we would normally make for dinner so that the kids experienced the American culture.
However, with 40% of our kids being Chinese, I DO cook Chinese food pretty regularly for our transracial family, so I went with it. And I’m so glad I did. This was a big turning point in LZH’s comfort level in our home. He eagerly asked to help cook when I told him we would have Chinese food. Again, to bridge the language barrier, I simply handed him a measuring spoon and an ingredient and said, “Two” or “Four.” He seemed to take pride in helping cook for our family. He happily went back for seconds. I did ask if the frozen Ling Ling frozen potstickers were good, and he said, “Yes!” (Maybe he was just being polite, but he did eat several!)
We made another shopping trip with LZH and our 15 year old son to the mall that evening.
Day 4: I took my 7 year old and the two toddlers to drop LZH off at the high school for another day of activities. We met his friends and teachers and stuck around to watch the high school band perform for the Chinese students. He returned around 6:00 pm, at which time, we had a full night of driving around for the other kids’ activities. LZH was starting to feel like part of the family at this point, so I motioned for him and said, “Time to go!”
He enjoyed all the riding around, as he got to see things that were new to him. “What’s that?” he asked as we passed a flock of geese around a pond. “Everything is green,” he said as we drove by fields of corn and farms with barns. Again, it was an opportunity for him to explain to the kids (through a lot of Google Translate) the difference between here and where he lives in Qingdao.
I think maybe the highlight of the trip was his last night at our house when the kids brought the Plasma cars in. Our 7 year old told him to ride it, and he said, “No, too big.” I then hopped on one and showed him how to fly through the kitchen on it. All the kids squealed and laughed as our 15 year old pushed LZH through the house on the tiny car. It made me wish we had a few more days with him… he was just starting to really open up.
Day 5: All we had for day five was to get LZH to the school where his bus would depart for the rest of the tour of America. When we arrived, we took lots of pictures of him with us and his teachers. I gave him a photo album as a memoir of his time in Ohio with us. I could tell he was trying to stifle a few tears, and he hugged me several times before they had to depart.
Since then, he has texted me updates on his trip and about his safe return home. He also included a link to his blog where he shared about his time with our family.
“They are very fond of Chinese culture.”
It’s what LZH posted on his blog after he left our family.
It made me happy to know that he had such a great time visiting, but this is what really affirmed our efforts to honor our children’s birth culture.
It’s not just an empty statement anymore. We are actively trying to make our house a fusion of China and America. Is this our best effort? Maybe for now, it is, but we are constantly trying to incorporate more Chinese culture into our lives.