When the plane in Minneapolis took off, I was hit with a lot of emotion – happiness, excitement, nervousness, reprieve, and even sadness. I was happy because an adventure had just begun, but I also suddenly felt sad because the realization kicked in that I was finally returning to the country of my birth. I thought to myself, “I am going back and my birthparents don’t even know.” They don’t know I will be in Beijing, learning Mandarin and Chinese culture. They don’t know the work I’ve put into this moment. They don’t know any of my fears or aspirations. They know nothing about me, and I know nothing about them.
In 1996, I was adopted from Xiamen, China when I was two and a half years old. Although I wish I could remember, I do not have memories before my adoption. I grew up in a loving home in Minnesota with my dad and mom who are Caucasian and my older brother who is adopted from South America. The city I lived in most my life was not very diverse, so once I attended college in Minneapolis, my understanding of identity suddenly became very complicated. Who am I? Where do I belong?
Upon arriving in CET’s Intensive Language program in Beijing, my thoughts about adoption were pushed to the side by the excitement and anxiety of being in a new place. When classes began, I was also too busy to really reflect on being in China as a Chinese adoptee. However, little things each day reminded me of my difference. My roommate, along with every other local Chinese person I met, was surprised I was a foreigner. And when they found out, they asked if my parents are Chinese. It usually doesn’t bother me, but sometimes, I just want to feel normal. I don’t want to always have to explain myself.
The loneliest time I have felt during study abroad was on the bus ride to the Great Wall. As many students slept, I started thinking about my time in Beijing, which led me to think about my adoption. The world is so big, and I am so small. It seemed impossible for me to find answers about my past. On the bus, I felt isolated because I couldn’t compare my situation with the others. As an Asian American adoptee, I am different from my white peers as well as my Asian American peers because I don’t look like what the Chinese perceive as American (white skin and light colored hair), and I also don’t have parents who are Asian. Whether in China or in America, I’ve found it difficult to fit in because of my adoption. I can’t relate to Asian Americans having a stereotypically Asian upbringing, and because of my appearance, I also can’t blend into the “white culture” that I have grown up in. It can be difficult for Asian Americans to find their identities, and it is even more confusing for international adoptees.
Despite sometimes feeling like the odd one out, studying abroad in Beijing has helped me grow in more ways than one. I think most importantly, as an adoptee, I’ve been able to experience part of my birth culture and make my own memories. Before returning to China, I only knew China through my parents’ stories or what I heard on the news, which made me feel distanced from the origin of my birth as well as my American lifestyle. In the US, people would sometimes ask me if I knew how to speak Chinese or if I knew about certain Chinese customs. I didn’t know then. But now, I can say that I’ve tasted authentic Chinese food, I’ve taken the subway in Beijing during rush hour, I’ve bargained for goods, and I’ve talked in Mandarin with strangers, so even though I’m not an expert on China, I can say I have experienced China’s sights, smells, and sounds on my own.
During the weekend, CET provides us with opportunities to explore Chinese culture: I’ve been to an acrobatics show, the Great Wall, an art district, a canyon in An’yang, an opera show, and many historical gardens and palaces. But some of my fondest memories are the conversations and shared experiences I have had with my roommate. For example, even though we enjoy similar foods, we also bond over how different our tastes can be; she thinks eating a banana with peanut butter is strange, and I don’t understand how she can eat meat snacks that come in vacuum-packed wrappers. During one weekend, another CET student and I cooked spaghetti for our roommates because our roommates often cooked Chinese food for us. We’ve also shared our different cultures by talking about deeper topics like comparing China to American in regards to education, environment protection, job opportunities, and so on.
During this study abroad experience, I think I’ve been able to control my emotions about adoption because I’ve focused my time on my studies and exploring the city, which I think is a good thing since I would have been too depressed to do well in class if I was hung up about “what if” adoption questions. I believe that a trip as important as returning to a birth city shouldn’t be squeezed into a program that is mainly for Chinese language and culture learning. As an adoptee during this intensive language program, I think it’s good to focus on appreciating the things Beijing has to offer, especially since China is so big and an adoptee’s birth city may be in a completely different place than the study abroad location. In the future, when I have more time to relax and think about my adoption, I plan to return to my birth city. I am grateful that this program has brought me closer to my birth country as well as helped me improve my language skills, which will ease communication in the future when I return to China to search for answers about my past.
In the end, living in Beijing has taught me to be more open about different ways of living and thinking. Beijing has also given me a new appreciation for family, friends, and daily comforts in Minnesota, like having clean water and fresh air. Although I may not have come to a new understanding about my identity and adoption, this program has helped me become more independent and has given me the opportunity to share my adoption story with people who may not have had much understanding of adoptees. But, perhaps the biggest impression that Beijing has given me is the sense that when it comes down to it, no matter where we come from or who we are, we are all human beings. Even though people live thousands of miles apart, we all still need food, shelter, and water. I’ve learned that it is important to celebrate and understand the world’s different cultures, but it is also important to remember that we are still connected through human experience. We all feel sad at times and happy at times, and we all seem to want to find a place in this big world.