When I sat down to write about how our family incorporates and celebrates Chinese culture in our American home, I first thought of the decorations we put up during celebrations. However, my mind quickly turned from decorations, events, and holidays, to the people who have enriched our lives by sharing their lives and culture with us and by bringing us in or “adopting” us. I can’t share about the decorations and activities that mark our year without sharing about the people and experiences through which we learned about them.
Our journey, especially my journey to adopt, specifically from China, was one that started long ago. The desire to adopt was placed on my heart at a young age when I overheard a somewhat secret conversation that my grandmother had been adopted and had adopted my uncle. It was around that same age that I developed a special interest and liking for Asian knick-knacks and culture.
My mother and grandmother owned an antiques business so I was forced to spend more hours than I wanted at estate sales, auction houses, and the like. But soon, I was spotting the porcelain figurine of a Japanese woman in traditional dress, or the Chinese fan. It wasn’t long before I had a small collection of the least expensive of these treasures. Since then, I always had the desire to travel to Asia, specifically China.
Fast forward almost 30 years to 2013 when our family was invited to an informational meeting regarding the International Friendship Program at the University of Houston. This program was designed based on the research that showed that the international students often find and socialize with only students of their same nationality or culture and that many students never set foot in an American home! Families are recruited to befriend a student and engage them by inviting them along on family outings and into their home for meals, family game night, birthday parties, etc. Essentially, we were asked to share our life – and thereby, our culture – with him or her.
We were handed a list of students that included their gender, nationality, hobbies/interests, major, and how long they planned to stay in the Houston area. Immediately, my husband spotted this young man’s profile that listed his interest as basketball, guitar, table tennis, and watching movies. (This would have been the exact combination of hobbies for my husband if he had been on the list.) This young man was planning to be around Houston for 5 years as he was working towards his PhD. We loved the idea of an extended amount of time to really make meaningful connections with this person. He happened to be from China. We were matched!
We decided to meet our new friend, Dongjun, for the first time at the zoo that May as we had two small children and I was expecting our third. We hit it off right away. He was eager to interact with our son and daughter, as he explained it, because he was an only child. I am an only child, though not from China. We discussed both the advantages and disadvantages of having no siblings. Our kids immediately took to his kindness and playfulness.
Our relationship grew over the next few years. He came to meet our third born and she enjoyed it when he held her. He attended all of our family gatherings and celebrations. He invited us to the Chinese New Year festival at the Chinese Community Center which became a yearly tradition. He asked us to come watch him play guitar as a part of the Mid Autumn Festival at U of H each year hosted by the Chinese Student Association. We shared a meal with his parents when they visited from China and they gifted us with two Chinese knots, which we proudly displayed in our home.
On two occasions, Dongjun has offered to come and cook Chinese dishes for us and attempted to teach me how to replicate them. Once, Dongjun came to our house bearing a gift he had asked his friend who had returned to China to bring back for us: a cross-stitch of a boat and a pier with Chinese characters that translate as “People are like the floating boats and home is the warm, safe harbor.” (I may have become a little emotional at this gift and we weren’t even in the adoption process yet.)
Before we knew it though, Dongjun wasn’t our only Chinese friend. Through my husband’s job, we met and befriended two Chinese Americans, one of which happened to be long time friends of a family we are very close to through our church. It was also around this time that we felt the prompting that it was time to adopt as the way to grow our family in the future. (You can read more about our adoption story here.)
We honestly looked into every option for adopting – domestic, foster to adopt, various international countries. But at the end of it all, we had ruled out domestic and fostering. We were limited by health issues and other criteria to only a couple of international options. We leaned toward China because it was a good fit for practical reasons, the ones that limited us from so many others. We were open to a large range of medical needs due to being so close to Texas Children’s Hospital. We really wanted a boy, as we had 2 girls and 1 boy who prayed for a brother daily and we knew that China had/has so many boys with special needs waiting. Houston’s Chinatown with Asian markets, various authentic (read: not buffets that pass out fortune cookies) restaurants, and cultural events is just a short drive away.
However, it was the relationships that we had with our Chinese friends, who had so openly and lovingly welcomed us into their culture, that gave us appreciation for this culture and the confidence that we could continue to learn about our son’s birth country and culture, and truly adopt parts of it as our own.
Here’s a funny story to illustrate that I have learned more than the little I once knew about Chinese culture, again thorough interactions with a Chinese friend. I wanted a fun, more-creative-than-blurting-it-out way of telling our three kids and extended family we were adopting from China. So I, of course, thought of fortune cookies. I searched and found a local couple originally from Hong Kong who make custom fortune cookies and you can get any short saying you want inside. Knowing that our kids and family associate fortune cookies with China (thanks to the Chinese buffet restaurants aforementioned), I only asked that “We are adopting!” be written as the message. After sharing a meal of Chinese food at home one night, we gave one to each of our kids. They got the point — that we were adopting from China. We handed them out as we met extended family. They, too, got it. And, the next time Dongjun came over, we gave him one. He opened it, read it, and said something to the effect of “that’s nice.” We had expected a bigger reaction. We were, after all, adopting from his country. But no. He said nothing more, nothing less. I was left scratching my head.
Just a few nights later however, we watched on TV a show that explained that fortune cookies don’t exist in China, that they were invented in America, and only became a staple of Chinese restaurants here to satisfy the American culture of having dessert after a meal. Oh! A lightbulb went off in my head! Dongjun didn’t associate the cookie with China and the intentional meaning had been lost! I realized that he still didn’t know we were adopting from China! When we finally told him, we got more of the reaction we were expecting and curiosity as to why China, to which we shared some of the reasons I’ve mentioned here, but that our relationship with Dongjun was an important part of it as well.
The fortune cookie reveal may have been a fail to some degree, but through it I met the nicest couple from Hong Kong, Long and his wife, Lin. When our friends hosted a Chinese-themed adoption shower/dinner for us a few months later, I ordered more fortune cookies from them. Long and Lin remembered me and asked about the adoption and I shared a picture of our boy we were waiting to get.
When our son came home in April 2016, I texted them an update and picture. Even though I know fortune cookies aren’t from China, they now remind me of both the cultures I love, compromising to understand one another, and of my friends, Long and Lin. You know, I think I may have to order some more fortune cookies for Lunar New Year this year, if for no other reason than to take our son to visit Long and Lin.
As I mentioned earlier, we had started celebrating in some small way two of the major Chinese holidays – Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival – with our friends. As we were preparing to travel to China for our son, an idea came to me as a way to decorate in a way that would keep China in the forefront of our minds and hearts on a daily basis, not just seasonally. When Dongjun had gifted us the lovely cross-stitch piece, I had it promptly framed and it was given a place of honor on the only empty wall in the living room. But the wall really was quite large and the frame was quite lonely, so my idea was to make it “Our Great Wall of China” by using pictures and souvenirs from our adoption trip to decorate it as a permanent representation of our son’s birth culture. On this wall I included photos I took on our trip of interesting things that represent Chinese culture, a series of photographs of the Canton Tower in Guangzhou in its various colors, and a collage of more personal pictures of our sightseeing and adoption process, including guides and staff that we wanted to remember. From chopsticks that had been used at our adoption shower, I chose one pair for each one of us and mounted them. (See my inspiration here.) A few other pieces finished out our “Great Wall of China,” like one of the vinyl stickers of the character for “friends” that a man from our church made for our entire airport welcoming party which I stuck on a black canvas. I painted our son’s Chinese name on a red board, his name translates “celebrate the road ahead/future.”
I often catch our adopted son staring at the wall and when I engage him he will say “China.” I know that there may come a time that he may not want to be reminded every day of his heritage and the loss of it, but for now it’s a great conversation starter both with him and people who visit. I hope he hears the pride and respect I have as I share about each item on the wall.
Since we returned from China with our boy almost 2 years ago, these are some of the decorations and traditions that have become our norm with some variations each year depending on what works best at that particular time. Since we just celebrated Lunar New Year, I’ll start there. I have some Asian/Chinese ornaments that have been gifted to us, were bought while in China, or I’ve ordered and we leave our Christmas tree up (yes even when CYN falls in mid-February). We take all the other ornaments off, except red and gold balls, and add these Asian ornaments to it. Our Christmas tree skirt looks, well, Christmas-y too, so I found an inexpensive red with gold glitter one at Big Lots last year.
I take down our Christmas décor and stockings from the mantel and replace them with some Chinese décor — the dragon decoration that was gifted to us after our adoption shower, some artificial oranges, and this year I’m excited that I finally found a use for at least some of the Beanie Babies I collected in my much younger days. There is a retired set of Chinese New Year Beanies, but I only had the rooster from that set, I suppose because it represents my birth year. But due to the size of my collection I was able to find a Beanie to represent each animal in the zodiac. (You can find the CYN beanies here.) We still attend the local Chinese New Year festival and eat in Chinatown. We try to find new books about China or Lunar New Year each year to read.
During homeschool time, we try to learn about China or Chinese culture in one way or another often. Every now and then we will pick up a Mandarin word and add it to our vocabulary. We have used a few different sources but really like these books from Usborne. During homeschool, my older kids (8 and 6) have enjoyed listening to me read aloud several of the YWAM Christian Heroes Then and Now series about missionaries to China such as Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, and Eric Liddell. Last year at this time we hosted an exchange student from China, which was a learning experience for all!
We know we could never recreate in its entirety the culture that our son lost by not growing up in China. What we can give him is a family culture where China – the people and the culture – is respected, celebrated, cherished, and loved because of what it lost, and what it gave – our son. This is the story of how we have assimilated parts of Chinese culture into our home and our lives. However, it is the people who brought these traditions and ways to us that have a place in our heart.
– guest post by Marla