Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Lucy Waldmeir
“Where are you from?” I’ve been searching for the perfect answer to that question for my entire life. On occasion I will say I’m Chinese, and then an American asks me, “Why is your English so good?” or “How come you don’t have an accent?”
Other times I will say I’m American if a Chinese person asks me, “But where are you actually from?” or “Why can’t you speak Chinese better?” Most of the time however, I say Chinese-American in an attempt to avoid any follow-up questions.
I am far from a conventional adoptee, as I have lived equal halves of my life in the US and in China. I have experienced the stigma that comes along with being adopted from both sides of the world, most of it stemming from lack of understanding.
As a young child growing up in America, I can remember little about how I was treated in reference to being adopted. All I can recall is realizing I was different. My black hair and almond shaped eyes never matched the blonde or brunette hair and round eyes of my friends and family.
I’ve always known that I was different, and as a young child wanting nothing more than to fit in, I resented not looking like the classic American princess. Although back then I thought I could dye my hair and that would be the end of it, I now know that my identity problems (if you can call them that) are far more complicated than that.
Fast forward to when I moved to China and I experienced entirely different problems. I had never been in a place where I looked like the majority as far as I could remember up until that point, and that helped China quickly start to feel like home (though I would not admit this to my mother until years later).
Though it wasn’t all good as I had never, up until that point, been held up to an impossible expectation: to speak Chinese fluently. While praised for the ability to speak fluent English (my mother tongue), the inability to speak what was assumed to be my first language made me feel inferior.
The first couple years we lived in Shanghai, before I got fluent in Chinese, were the worst. I was constantly being spoken to and expected to speak fluent Chinese. When I was unable to converse, I got nothing but looks of confusion and disapproval. I felt like a failure in the eyes of “my own people” which perhaps motivated me to learn Chinese.
Culture shock hit me in many different ways besides from the language barrier. I may not have looked the part, but I had been treated like an American princess my whole life and this meant cleanliness and friendliness — two things China is largely lacking.
Between the snot-filled spit that littered the streets and pavements to the dreaded public restrooms which were worse than I could imagine, I was getting hit with a major reality shock in culture difference.
The pollution and trash-littered grounds were almost unbearable in the beginning, though I quickly found all of this to be routine. I tried to keep interaction with locals as minimal as possible for fear of either getting scolded for my inability to speak Chinese, or lectured about how lucky I was to be adopted.
Whenever I did come into contact with people, I quickly learned to keep my head down, never to smile, and not to go out of my way for any stranger because that favor would not be returned. People in China were fast-paced, always moving, and so I quickly adapted to do the same well (a habit I had to correct when moving back to America).
What would seem rude or isolating in America was the norm in China. I spent the most crucial years of my childhood in Shanghai, and most of my seemingly bad habits (including rarely smiling or interacting with strangers, only doing things if I have a strong purpose to do so, and maintaining a constant quick pace about me) emerged because of my time there.
I may not have been enamored by the locals, surroundings or the language, but I was quick to fall in love with the food. Unlike my sister, I loved and continue to favor Chinese cuisine over any other.
I remember joking around with my sister saying I was “the perfect example of an Asian stereotype” as I love Chinese food, play Chinese sports, have good grades and a competitive need to do well in school, as well as the conventional Asian body.
In a way, I liked this joke more than I should, as it made me feel connected to a culture in a way I never had felt before. Though living up to my Asian stereotype in many ways, I was lacking in a talent for math. I seemed just average for the Chinese standard, which was always a disappointment.
At school, I was far from a conventional Chinese student, and I quickly fell into the “foreigner friend group” with all the children at my international school who were westerners ranging from Nigerians to Finlanders.
I fell into this group simply because of my interests including theatre which was something the Chinese students didn’t have time for. My school had and continues to have one of the best Chinese programs among the international schools, and I quickly picked up on the language. I studied Chinese for 8 years and became fluent. Recently I took my AP Chinese self-study, and received a 5.
Many of my Chinese teachers were my favorites. They took a liking to my story and unconventional personality as compared to the normal Chinese student. School was where I felt the least stigma for being different, though it was hard being one of the only adopted people many of the children had ever met. They gave me constant pity.
I was never one to appreciate pity and always made sure people understood how I felt about adoption. Being adopted was the norm for me and I did not feel bad because of it.
With mastering the language to the best of my foreigner abilities came mastering the signs, locals, everything. I could get to wherever I wanted cheap, easy and quick. I could order food at restaurants or buy groceries proficiently and towards my final years in Shanghai, I was often never recognized as a foreigner as I perfected my accent and would translate for my friends (even ones with Chinese-speaking parents).
My proudest moments were when I could maintain an entire conversation without anyone detecting Chinese as not being my first language. Though I didn’t receive any praise because of it, unlike my mother, I felt personal pride and achievement when I was able to prove my Chinese abilities.
My Chinese way was exercised constantly, whether it be in school, everyday life or even at home. At home was where my beloved AiYi (which loosely translates to nanny) worked for us for all eight years. Though she was there to cook, clean, walk the dogs and look after us, she was more like family, and we called her our Chinese mother.
I love AiYi as my family and my mother treasured her as her best friend, despite the fact that she could not speak a word of English. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with China when you had family there. She knew my sister and me better than we knew ourselves and catered to our every need, spoiling us endlessly.
I will keep in touch with AiYi forever, and she will always be in my life. She was constantly sticking up for me during my earlier years in China when I couldn’t speak the language and she helped me through any tough times.
I found it hard to get used to public transportation. It was less convenient than having a car, though I quickly realized it was my ticket to freedom. I knew that living in such a safe place came with its perks and was quick to take advantage of this. I was able to navigate my way around the city which was full of fun and exciting things to do especially as a teenager, something I would never have gotten to experience in America and for that I am grateful. It was dirt cheap, too, which was always appreciated by my scrappy teenage self.
There is a lot I was able to experience in China that I never would have encountered in America. I was engulfed in a third world country for half of my life, and this changed my perspective of the world as a whole. I often feel American peers know and experience little outside their American bubble and are stunted by ignorance because of it.
I have travelled not only Asia but to the rest of the world and that has given me experiences far more unique than many people I know. I have been to ice festivals in HarBin, seen the Terracotta Warriors in XiAn and climbed The Great Wall in Beijing. I have been exposed to dog eating festivals, up close and personal fireworks, and the poorest of locals. I have experienced all the Chinese holidays partaking in the traditional holiday activities and traditions. My life in eight years has been filled with more exciting experiences than many people achieve in a lifetime.
One of my favorite experiences was going back to visit my own orphanage in AnHui, though I was young at the time and my memories may deceive me. I remember it was one of the holidays where I got almost all of the attention, something I loved, being a theatre student.
I remember meeting all these people who made my very existence seem like such a big deal. I recall seeing the disabled children left in the orphanage and feeling sadness in my heart knowing they would most likely end up living their whole adolescent lives in the stuffy orphanage.
Most of all, I remember feeling such privilege that I had made it out of that place. I remember thinking about what my life could’ve been like before going to bed and for the first time really thinking about who my birth parents were and why they abandoned me.
My curiosity fueled by personal interest started my research into adoption in China. I wrote many papers about this topic over the years of my schooling. Though there were many facts that shocked or interested me, my favorite part about learning about adoption in China was trying to connect it to my own adoption.
Was my family one where my parents loved me but were forced by my grandparents to give me up? Or could they simply not afford the fine? My mind always raced with questions whenever I did my research and this eventually led to my curiosity about finding my birth parents. This was something much more complicated than I could ever really imagine.
I never wanted to find my birth parents at a time that was inconvenient to myself. I took a more selfish approach, because I often blame my birth parents’ decision to give me up for my lack of feeling good enough and the constant need to prove myself.
I was harsh and unemotional whenever my mom asked my about finding my birth family, because in my eyes, they didn’t want me for whatever reason and that was all that mattered. Be this as it may, unreasonable or unfair, it’s how I felt and how I still feel to some extent.
I feel no obligation or responsibility towards them though my mother fears this to be untrue once I have a more mature view of the situation. I have now decided to wait until I’m older to start looking, though I may never look.
Though now I have moved back to America, I still consider China my home and have made it a necessity that I go back and visit at least once a year. In 2017, I went back and volunteered at the Shanghai Healing Home where disabled orphans were taken care of and nursed back to health with the love and one on one care they wouldn’t be able to receive in a crowded orphanage.
Little did I know at the time that this was going to be a life changing experience for me. My sister and I went to the orphanage every day for a week, spending our time feeding the children, playing with them, and just giving them love and attention.
I expected it to be depressing and was surprised when I saw how much love these children got and how much love I felt for these children. They were like me, not knowing where they came from, and I felt an instant connection to them because of it. My sister and I were quick to develop our own favorites and bonded with them as much as we could.
Prior to that experience, I had never considered adoption for me, though I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I wanted to love a child I had created, because all my life people seemed surprised an adopted kid could get as much love as a biological kid. This experience showed me how untrue this was as my bonds to the children were strong and almost immediate.
My outlook on being adopted has been significantly influenced by my experience overseas which I now call home. I can honestly say I feel more Chinese than I do American. I am not like any other adopted kid I know as simply speaking the language sets me apart let alone living in the country I was born into for so long.
Yes, I am different and I have often found myself wishing I could be just like anyone else, though now I realize how unique I truly am. As far as answering the question “Where are you from?” goes, truth is that I don’t really know. Perhaps there is no right answer without an intro to my special life story.
However, I do know I am and always will proudly identify as an adopted Chinese American.
Lucy Waldmeir spent spent eight years of her life, from ages seven to fifteen, living in China as a Chinese American adoptee. She is now a high school senior at an American public high school. She is interested in pursuing anthropology as a major in college.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter