Stuck Somewhere Between my Chinese and American Identities

Stuck Somewhere Between my Chinese and American Identities

Sounds of laughter fill the room as my two host sisters, host mother and I shake our hips and sing along to the Chinese song “Little Apple”.   It is in this moment of silly dancing and off-pitch harmony that I find some of the greatest happiness. Only three years earlier, the Chinese half of myself was buried deep inside of me, waiting to be uncovered. It was my first trip back to China, in the summer of 2012, that opened the door to my past, and set the stage for my future. Since 2012 I have been back to China once more and then spent a “gap year” between high school and college in Taiwan, learning Chinese and living with the host family that became a part of my own family. 

For me, going back to China for the first time was enormous.  For the longest time I felt lost, even before I could articulate that feeling. The circumstances of my birth and the first few months of my existence will always remain a mystery. I was found on the doorstep of a police station in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China when I was about four months old.  No note, no hint of who had loved and cared for me until that time.  When I first met my adoptive mother, I grabbed a pen out of her pocket and wouldn’t let go. Chinese tradition says placing objects in front of a baby gives insight into their future based on the item they choose. For this reason, we don’t find it coincidental that I love to write. And I write a lot about being stuck somewhere in between my Chinese and American identities. Although I look Chinese, I have an American family. Writing gives me an outlet to untangle all my feelings and find a clearer definition of who I am and want to be.

The time I prepared to go back to China for the first time since I was adopted, back in 2012, I was an anxious mess. The trip was a two-week introduction to Chinese culture and all the other students on the trip, most of whom weren’t of Asian background, had been studying Chinese for several years already.  I had studied Spanish, and had not been back since I had left as a baby. How would Chinese people view me, a Chinese-American who hadn’t bothered to learn her birth country’s language? Would I feel abandoned by my country a second time?   Instead, while in Jilin Province and then Beijing, I saw the wall I had built between China and me come tumbling down. I felt not only accepted, but welcomed home with open arms and what felt like confetti. My first words to my Mom when I returned were, I am going back next summer.  And I did.

In April 2013 I was accepted as a participant for a U.S. State Department scholarship program that sent me that summer to study Chinese and live with a host family in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province.  I made the most of each day and made sure there was always time to practice conversation through my favorite way, playing soccer with my new Chinese friends. Even several hours of learning Chinese, two hours for practice with my language partner, three hours of playing soccer each day, and many more with my host family wasn’t enough to satiate my hunger to learn more.  Through this experience I became confident in the person I had grown to be, proud of my birthplace and eager for any opportunity to travel back to China.

I got my third opportunity to visit Asia right after my senior year of high school.  While I was working on my applications for college during fall of senior year, I applied and was accepted for a year-long State Department scholarship program.   With my college agreeing to defer my enrollment for a year, and my mother agreeing, reluctantly to let me go away for nearly 10 months, I headed off in August after high school graduation and threw myself into the swing of life in the bustling city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. 
My host family, which consisted of a mother, father, and two younger sisters, were the biggest reason for my improvement in the language and understanding of Taiwanese culture, and maybe even more importantly, they made me a part of their family.  Each morning I would wake up early and sit with my four year old host sister, Ruby, in the living room as she watched her favorite television show full of silly songs and dances which she knew by heart.  After eating breakfast with the rest of the family I would walk to the bus stop and ride the bus to the local university where I had my Chinese class and extracurricular classes and activities. The afternoon was spent playing soccer with a boys high school team I had found near my host family’s apartment. The boys I played with, as well as their coach, extended the warmest hospitality towards me from the first day I stumbled upon their team, never making me feel out of place. Nighttime was one of the most exciting parts of the day for I would often get together with my Taiwanese and American friends to go shop at the local night markets, filled with cheap and delicious food, as well as fun souvenirs like t-shirts with scrambled English.

Every day in Taiwan I walked out the door wondering what today’s big adventure would be. With this mindset, and the help of all the friends I had made and the new ones I would meet I was able to make the most of my experience in Taiwan. Becoming as close as I did with my host family reminded me of how families can be made from all different parts of the world. Being adopted has made me realize that the people you come to treasure the most are not always the ones who are related to you by blood. For me, personal bonds that connect people from halfway across the world are the strongest link two people can share. 

One of my most life-changing experiences was the day I got lost on the bus system in Zhuhai. This was on my second trip to China and I always took the bus home from school. However, that one fateful day I had missed my stop and was panicking at what to do. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a soccer field with a bunch of people playing and instinctively decided to step off the bus and join them. By letting go of my fear that I wouldn’t be able to make it back home, and stepping into a new challenge of making new friends even though at the time my language skills were at the basic level taught me a very important lesson. In life there will come a time where you can either choose to sit on the sidelines or join in the game. Always join in the game. When I joined in not only was I able to figure out my way back home with the help of new friends, I made friendships that are still strong today. After that one day of missing my bus stop, I made it a daily routine to miss my stop so that I could play soccer with the locals everyday and by doing so was not only able to improve my Chinese more easily, but also was able to say that I was not afraid to take on new challenges.

I returned from Taiwan at the end of May.  In August, I headed to western Michigan to start practices with my new soccer teammates at Kalamazoo College.  Now I am about a month into my classes at Kalamazoo, and I have already started looking into my study abroad options. As I look to the future, I know that China is written all over it. When I look at my family, I find it crazy how strangers’ fates could have been tied together from halfway across the globe. When I think of Yunnan, I see an unfinished painting. In Yunnan, I hope to visit with my mom and sister the orphanage that was my home for most of the first 18 months of my life, not because I believe the door to my past will suddenly open, but because I hope a new door to my future will be discovered.


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