Nine months after we adopted our three year old daughter from China, a Chinese acrobatic troupe came to town. Eager to experience our daughter’s culture, we purchased our tickets and went to the show. Mei Mei had a nap before we left and we assumed she was excited, as we were to see “China people”. Since our daughter was not speaking either English or Chinese to us we based our assumption on her behavior. But when the show began, Mei Mei began squirming around, laying on my lap, flopping over the edge of her seat clearly becoming uncomfortable. Finally she slid onto the floor. It was dark and I couldn’t see what she was doing. The Chinese music soared and I was entranced by the performances. I was not happy about having to sort out the “floor” situation.
I reached down, into the darkness and felt around. At last, under the seats, I connected with Mei Mei’s face. My fingers came away wet. I sat puzzled for moment before realizing the wetness was tears. Mei Mei had been silently weeping alone, under the seats. She had hidden herself where she couldn’t see the performers or be seen by us.
“Do you think she’s tired?” my husband leaned over and asked.
“No, she just had a nap… She’s crying,” I reported back.
Because she didn’t speak, my questions were limited to ones with yes or no answers. I could ask her if she wanted to stay. She nodded yes. But I couldn’t get from her why she was crying. I could only guess.
Needless to say the rest of the performance was hard to sit through with my daughter still under the seat, presumably weeping.. My attention was no longer on the performance but Mei Mei’s sadness, which I hadn’t seen since we first left China nearly a year ago.
This wasn’t the only time that our feelings about China seemed to be at opposite poles. One night, as Mei Mei’s Daddy flipped channels, we ran across a Chinese language news program. Excitedly we dragged Mei Mei over to listen. She looked less than interested. In fact, her expression was resentful. We assumed it was because we’d interrupted her play.
As I held her in my lap, I was fascinated by how much more “familiar” Chinese sounded to me now than a year ago. I enjoyed the tonal quality of the language, rather than finding it foreign. I imagined I could recognize some words the commentators used. But although she’s been having regular Mandarin lessons each week, Mei Mei clearly didn’t share my excitement. Her reaction to the news show was essentially the same as in Mandarin class: she wanted nothing to do with it.
“Can you understand any of it?” I asked her. She nodded confidently. I was impressed; I could only guess at what they were saying. I reminded myself that Mei Mei had spent over three years in China hearing Mandarin every day and although she rarely spoke, her caretakers assured me she understood everything they said to her. About the only word I could recognize was the name “Deng Xiaoping”, but I wasn’t sure, since the visuals seemed to be about bee-keeping
Mei Mei stretched out across my lap as the scene shifted to cityscapes with lots of people on bicycles.
“Look! ” I said happily to Mei Mei. “Remember how many people rode bicycles in China?” I assumed she would remember the two weeks we spent in China, seeing bicycles everywhere. Mei Mei looked up at me and said only two words, “China. Sad.”
Then she proceeded to curl up into a fetal position and cry. Her cries were pitiful, bitter, and heartbreaking. The contrast between her personal testimony and the cheery, positive propaganda on the television was compelling.
In response to her convincing demonstration I responded, “Yes, China was a really sad place for you. Do you want me to turn the TV off?”
She nodded vigorously, “Yes”.
But I have to confess, I didn’t turn the TV off. Instead I continued to watch mesmerized by my own excitement and my own happy memories of receiving my long awaited daughter in a far-a-way land. Shortly thereafter the program ended, much to Mei Mei’s relief and my disappointment. I thought, like the incident with the acrobats, that this would be the end of it. I was wrong.
The impact of this brief newscast reasserted itself at bedtime. My husband had gone to a meeting. Mei Mei began behaving in her old anxious ways, as she used to when we first returned from China. I began with the present and asked if she was worried about her absent Daddy.
She indicated she was. Then I mentally related this to her basic fear from the past (abandonment) and I asked if she was afraid he would not come back. Again she indicated yes.
All at once I realized that she might think that her daddy would disappear the way that all the people she knew in China “disappeared” when we adopted her and took her to America. Here she was at four years old, and we had not explained what happened to her. No wonder she was worried that the past might repeat itself. The only way to sort this out, to help her make sense out of her feelings now was to retell her story from the beginning…
I began with her birth mother and father. “Somewhere in China is your birth mother, a women who grew you in her body and your birth father.
After I retold the tale, she asked a question for the first time since she’d joined our family.
“Who Mama , Baba. Who?” Mei Mei asked looking directly into my eyes. I felt that this was the beginning of our first real conversation since she’d arrived. I began the painful process of explaining how little we knew about her birth parents. After months of silence Mei Mei chose to speak.
“Why ?” she asked.
How could I talk explain? My throat closed up; my eyes filled with tears. Should I let her see me cry? If I didn’t cry for her, who would? If I didn’t weep in her presence for her losses, how would she understand that mothers, including birth-mothers, weep for their daughter’s pain?
Trembling, I explained that in China was against the rules, to leave a baby or a child and not come back.* Because her parents had left her they would be in “big trouble” if anyone knew. I knew this might sound jumbled but who can provide a scripted explanation when the overwhelming moment arrives?
“Trouble, big. Huge. Trouble.” Mei Mei repeated in a serious tone. Clearly my message got through. Then she continued, “Go China, Mei Mei. Look Mama, Baba. Find. Mei Mei find.” Mei Mei’s overly developed independence, a residual from her orphanage life, asserted itself as a plan a search for her parents.
“No, you are too little, ” I told her.
“Mommy go? Daddy go find…” she hopefully suggested.
“No.” I was choking back my tears to answer. No one told me that four year olds decide to search for their birth-parents. “Mei Mei,” I told her, ” no one can find Mama and Baba now. They are hiding to be safe.”
“Hiding, big trouble.” Mei Mei repeated. These were things a four year old understood. When you do something bad you get in trouble, and when you are in trouble you hide to try and avoid the consequences.
“Mei Mei, we hope when you are older, grown up, things will change in China and we can all go together and find Mama and Baba.” I wanted to add something more. I felt I needed to help make a fuller connection between her two families. “I wish Mama and Baba had written you a letter and told you why they couldn’t take care of you. I wish they had told you about who they were.”
“Mommy, you write letter.” Mei Mei instructed me with utmost confidence.
“I wish I could write your birth-parents a letter about you. I wish I could tell them how you think about them and miss them. I would tell them how brave you are and how sad you were in China in the orphanage. I want them to know that now you do have a family to take care of you.”
As I spoke I could feel Mei Mei tense little body begin to relax and curl up into her sleeping position. Before I’d finished speaking her eyes were closing and she wrapped herself in her blanket.
I have come to accept that every encounter with China is double-edged; both a bitter and a sweet experience. Mei Mei and I each have our part to play in creating a true and integrated sense of what China means. Mei Mei is better than I am at keeping in touch with the bitterness. However, she needs me to give her permission to allow that bitterness to surface in our life. I help her hold on to her memories and I provide the information and explain her birthparents’ choices. I keep us in touch with the love, confusion, and pain that parents feel who, for whatever reason, relinquish the care of their child to strangers, to fate. When I imagine the endless uncertainty that Mama and Baba live with, I have to agree with Mei Mei: China. Sad.
Mei Mei is seven years old now and she has many memories of her life in China that she has chosen to share with me gradually over the years. I realize now that expecting her to be “excited and happy” about all things Chinese was a unrealistic and expecting her to “forget all about the past”. Together Mei Mei and I are searching for an integration between what she feels about her past life in China, what I know of China’s living conditions and the achievments of a remarkable, but not always kind, 5000 year old culture.
* Lois Melina’s Adopted Child, vol. 17, no. 4, April, l998, for an valuable discussion of language and value judgment regarding birthparent’s decision.