“Eating Bitterness” With My Chinese Relatives

© 2005


It was 1956. “Clean your plate,” my mother told me, “children are starving in China.” “That’s silly,” I told her. “China’s children have nothing to do with me.” By age eight I was determined not to let other people’s problems invade my life.

It was l986. I tried to adopt a child. I felt the same way about birth parents as I did about China when I lived in my mother’s house. I didn’t want their problems to be mine. My mom used to say, “Everyone in the world is connected.” It took me forty years and an international adoption to learn she was right.

The domestic adoption lawyer’s early morning phone call opened with the “good news/ bad news” routine about birth parents. “I have a baby for you. The mother is of your religious persuasion,” (that was supposed to be the good news) “but she is in prison for selling drugs É probably a user herself.” He sensed my hesitation and plunged on, “If I don’t hear from you in an hour, I’ll call the next family on my list.” I didn’t call back.

It was l995. I recovered from that phone call and several adoption “miscarriages”. I decided to go to China where I could adopt a child with no chance of ever having to deal with a messy birth parent situation. Chinese birth parents allegedly, and I felt at the time conveniently, vanish at the child’s birth, leaving no entanglements, no loose ends. The only string is a mythical red thread that connects a mother and a child who are destined for each other.

But my daughter’s birth family sneaked into my house while I shopped. It seemed everything I bought had a “Made in China” label. The phrase adorned plastic toys, nightlights, children’s shoes, Christmas lights, the dog bowl and my brand new fry pan. As she learned to read, my daughter commented, “How come every thing is made in China, even me?”

Putting up the Christmas lights, I paused as a thought struck me. Did one of her birth parents work in the Christmas light factory? As I put the “Made in China” toys away that evening, the ghostly presence of “parents-past” watched me from the shadows. I scanned the toys, as if a face or a red envelope might be attached.

On New Year’s Day, I lay in my “Made in China” hammock, wearing my “Made in China” slippers, rocking my “Made in China” daughter. My daughter has worn away my resolve to avoid connections with the people of the world. Now I see how futile my childish attempt was to keep separate from other people’s troubles.

I thought about The Birth Parents often. At night I read books about contemporary China and imagined their lives. I decided they lived in an apartment in a city. But, did they own a bicycle, a refrigerator, a radio? I scanned The New York Times for China stories. When I read about declining health care in the rural areas, I worried about The Birth Parents’ health. Delving into recent history, I wondered how the Cultural Revolution changef their lives. Were their own parents intellectuals “sent down to the countryside” or were they in the Red Guard? Did they, or people they knew demonstrate in Tiananmen Square?

As my daughter grew, I yearned to know The Birth Parents better. I examined her face, trying to tease out the two separate sets of features that had merged into hers. Which parent had her moon shaped face and large eyes? Did the other have her full lips and crowded teeth? Who had the dimples?

The uncertainty of The Birth Parents’ identities frustrated me. It also overwhelmed me with a staggering statistical possibility: almost any adult from China might be my relative by adoption. Consequently, I developed an eerie sense of connection to each and every person in China. I had traded an American adoption with two presumably dysfunctional (birth) parents for an international adoption that related me to a billion strangers and an arguably dysfunctional government.

It’s 2004. I learned that cleaning your plate in China is a sign to the cook you’re still hungry. If only my mother had known that! I learned that the Chinese people use a gustatory metaphor, “to eat bitterness” to describe lengthy suffering. Now I realized my mom was right, I was connected with everyone in the world. I was cleaning my plate and “eating bitterness” at the same time.

As I dine in Seattle, eating off my Made in China plates, I no longer resist my connection with others, to the world and its problems; I no longer avoid cleaning my plate or ignoring my daughter’s Birth Parents. I sit across the table from my Chinese-American daughter, in the perpetual ghostly presence of her first family. The Birth Parents have come to dinner, and I know they aren’t leaving anytime soon. I expect we’ll be “eating the bitter” as well as the sweet together, for the rest of our lives.