February 2021 Newsletter
Featuring work from Sarah Dickerson, Lily Fishleder, Lucy Garberg and more.
迷失的女孩 : The Lost Girl
On a cool spring day in the rural Chinese countryside, I was born into the compassionate arms of a loving mother and father, living a simple lifestyle in a small village. A quaint family of three, excluding the two sets of grandparents perched throughout the centuries old house, they were content in their security and pre-established routines. While the father and son went to work at the local shop, the mother managed the house, caring for the grandparents as they reminisced about their youth, working in the rice paddies alongside the entire community. At sunset, when the father and son would return with the few yuan they had earned that day, the mother would greet them with dinner as they laughed the night away in the soothing presence of family.
Unfortunately, my birth plunged this blissful family into chaos, guilt and uncertainty plaguing every nook of the house. They faced an unspeakable dilemma: keep this second child and face serious socio-economic ramifications, shamed by their neighbors and burdened with endless fines; or leave their own kin, a helpless infant, to fend for herself, faced with lifelong regret and immeasurable sadness.
That is, at least, what I fool myself into believing.
I try to convince myself that if only I had been a boy, my life would be momentously different. If only I had been a boy, maybe my parents would not have so easily discarded me, leaving no information, no family, no name, no love. “I’m sure they had their reasons,” I reconcile to myself. But what were they? I struggle to envision a situation so intolerable that they would abandon their own daughter at the ripe age of three days.
I have a burning desire to hate them, resent them for abandoning me, for leaving irreversible scars; nevertheless, I have a burning desire to love them, forgive them for giving me up, for offering a better life. I remind myself of the agonizing policy with which they were forced to comply, restricting the gift of their public affection to one blessed heir, as I tell myself it was not their fault. It was not my fault.
Psychologists cite this type of abandonment as the initial trauma, since babies instinctually know the feeling of a mother’s touch and thus feel immense loss with its absence, a void that serves as the root for many social and psychological issues. However, while the scars from this trauma remain to this day, I have magnified the issues that have impacted every experience and meaningful relationship I have made over the past sixteen years, refusing to address my own self-destructive tendencies.
Since the age of four, I have never truly struggled in school, inducted into several honor societies for consistently strong academic performance. In contrast, my unfailingly weak athletic performance has deterred me from pursuing that agonizing torment, devoting my energy instead to school and community service.
When I was a child, my parents forced my participation in the local youth club soccer team. As the other five-year-old girls raced down the field, chasing the ball while they emitted petrifying screams, I ran away from the putrid object, readily accepting my role as a bench player. On the rare occasion that I was placed on the battleground, I would freeze, causing both my coach and family immense frustration. Soon after this game, I skipped over to my coach, handed him my jersey, and ended my short-lived career as a soccer player.
My life is defined by this approach. If I am not immediately good at something, I feel an urge to quit in fear of not being good enough, of being abandoned. Again.
I know I should not give into these urges; instead, I should fight them, learn a new skill, better myself. Experiences are essential to life, and learning is a part of the process. Still, in the face of inexperience and inadequacy, every bone in my body freezes, the fundamental fight or flight response takes over, and I choose to flee. I always choose to flee.
In part, my natural flight response contributes to my innate need to please people, often at the expense of my own wellbeing. In the past, and even now, the main adjective people use to describe me is “nice.” However, such a general, widely used term fails to encapsulate the specific, memorable qualities of a person, the ones that foster lifelong bonds. If you are not memorable, you are easily forgotten, easily abandoned.
Every year at the conclusion of camp, the entire cabin would write sticky notes to each person, detailing those memorable qualities of the person. After the special ceremony took place for the exchange of the notes, I would sit on my bed, my eyes soaring across the small piece of paper encompassing the impact I made on someone. Without fail, the principal generalization of my persona maintained that I was nice.
However, radiating perpetual amiability presents difficulties even for the most skilled actors, as it is a rather draining ordeal to conceal one’s true thoughts and feelings. While I readily listen to the concerns of my friends, my own emotions build until they are expelled at once, like soda spewing from a shaken bottle. On the surface, everything is ordinary. Over time, the contents are reduced, and only a fraction of the original substance remains until eventually, with enough agitation, an unstoppable trouble begins. As the contents begin to expand, more pressure is applied to the rigid container. It swells as much as possible, but eventually the internal pressure becomes greater than the atmospheric pressure. The container bursts, spewing uncontrollable soda, or emotion, in all directions. Thus, there is an immediate contrast between the nice, pleasant persona and the abrupt, standoffish one, fostering distrust and unease in my friendships.
I often wonder about the traits I inherited from my parents – the similarities, the differences, the links that have connected thousands of shared generations. Are beauty marks, the prevalent features on my face that have always served as a source of insecurity, common in my family? To what extent does my fear of confrontation come from familial history rather than one conscious choice? I too often revert to my tendency to blame the negative events in my life on my birth parents, when in reality I do nothing to correct my behavior and prevent these misfortunes from occurring. Moreover, I hate myself for casting my parents, the people who brought this daughter into the world only to have her ripped from their arms, in such an evil role. How is it possible that I could resent someone so much, yet desperately seek reconciliation despite all the damage?
Unfortunately, I am not the only person dealing with these questions, as China’s previous one child policy separated countless babies from their families. As a result, in some parts of China, there is a tremendous social stigma against Chinese Born Americans, or, people adopted from China into a white American family. An old friend of mine, when visiting Beijing with her white parents, was physically assaulted by two older Chinese women in a grocery store, attempting to punish her for abandoning her birth culture. Meanwhile, I am constantly reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, saved from poverty by a nice American family and raised with the principles of the American dream.
Regardless of the varying sentiments on adoption, I cannot change reality. While my exterior presents the appearance of a stereotypical Asian girl, at my core, I am no different than my white peers.
Despite my convictions, my physical appearance serves as a constant reminder, not only to myself but to others as well, that I am different – that I do not belong. Like a piece of monopoly money mixed with actual dollars, I stand in stark contrast with my family, a fact that a grown man found imperative for a three-year-old to know. When my mother was picking me up from pre-school one crisp fall day, one of the fathers went out of his way to deliver sensitive information: “You know you’re adopted, right? That means your parents didn’t love you,” this stranger retorted, a sense of self-righteousness gliding from the elegance of his words. At that moment, I began to make a concerted effort to distance myself from the culture I was born into in favor of the one I was adopted into, my resentment of my birth parents growing steadily.
I remained the only Chinese girl in my class until seventh grade, when someone transferred from a school in China. Her presence reinvigorated a desire inside of myself whose existence had remained unknown to me since the age of three. While I desperately sought to connect with her, by neglecting Chinese culture for years, I had effectively accomplished my goal of becoming fully white; however, now I was no longer embarrassed of my Asian identity.
I have lost myself in a conflict between two opposing identities, both vying for dominance. In seeking acceptance in predominately white culture, I have lost connection with the one most people assign to me; yet, by seeking reconciliation with my birth culture, I will lose connection with the one I identify with. Because of my own confusion and self-destructive tendencies, I am lost to both cultures, instead lying somewhere in between. I am, essentially, 迷失的女孩 – the lost girl.
“What I Choose to Believe: My Adoption Story”
“The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” ~ Mark (The Broadway Musical “Rent,” 1996)
Sometime in July of 1994, I, an unnamed baby, was born. I choose to believe this is the
beginning of my adoption story. The circumstances of this birth and the family that delivered me into existence are unknown, and may never be known.
Un-known. Un-done. Un-written. The opposite of known. An opportunity for choice. But what does it even mean to know –to have certainty? Is knowing based in facts, beliefs, hopes, fears? Over the past 24 years I have slowly begun to take more ownership of my choices, and further align with my beliefs. I’ve noticed a shift towards balance when I lean into beliefs with intention. How we source our beliefs is dependent on how we process the information we gather. There’s a lot to it, but for now I’ll just point out that we interpret information differently. Often we tell ourselves a narrative and often we can change perspectives within our own story. The unraveling of my adoption story is just that, a story that is still revealing itself, and I, with the pen in my hand, am the author. This, I know – this I choose to believe. This I choose. There is an abundance of things I choose to know. How does choosing to know something
change my perception?
As human beings we must feel in control of our lives. When certainty is so close to danger, we become out of balance. For example, if we are being chased by a wild bear the closer that bear gets the more we feel “it.” We feel out of control, and at the mercy of that scenario. It’s the fight or flight part of our body that kicks in, shuts down other systems in order to ensure our survival. If knowing is control and control is safety -predictability-, then the canvas of my life has been painted by a constant unsettling feeling of not-safety, or danger. A constant minimal sense of danger, unknown, has impacted my inner sense of security from the beginning. The mechanism to manage our sense of security, of knowing, are questions. Questions burning my inner candle at both ends take energy to maintain. I cannot let them burn me up to oblivion. So, I take these questions, I hold them gently in my mind, carry them with me and take steps to answer a few of my own. If there are some things I don’t know, can never maybe know, then I must take back control in other ways. Arguably for my own endurance.
Questions of Survival
Lifelong questions such as: who would I be had I not been adopted? Who am I now? Why was I “put up” for adoption? What are my parents like? Do I have siblings? If yes, what are they like? Why did they let me go? Was it their choice? What were their options? Do I have any important genetic predispositions? Do I have any habits or tendencies that my biological parents have? Is there something wrong with me? Why am I here? Should I be angry? Sad? propagate my mind space constantly. A hum I have grown to tune out over the years. White noise.
Who says what “should” be? Do I? Can I?
I can know I can do something with all these questions. The “should”s of the world are not meant to hold me back and will not hold me back from my journey. These questions will not tear me down but in some ways hold me upright.
Here are some things I know for certain about my story. My experiences are full and present with a predilection for seeking deeper human connections and understanding. In the past 24 years of my life, “life” has happened to me. The main plot twists and turns were not my directive. The choices I’ve made do not have to determine the choices I will make but in a lot of ways they do and will – but with greater awareness I can secure certainty in the origin of my choices. While life may have happened to me before I can take charge and source my actions. No longer do I need to act in fear, but I can choose something else.
That is: my belief.
But perhaps this sounds a lot like what every other human needs…
So, what is different about me? What makes my story unique? Well, simply, it is because I am the only me there is. And my perspective can only come from me. No one but me can tell me what I should do. No one but me can direct the significance of my future. At the end of the day I am the survivor, I am the actor, and I am the creator of my own life. I will flourish into my own. The details of the context of my creation get tricky. Because, I am not my brain, but my brain is very complex and responds effectively for my survival. (And the survival of my body).
Responding to Change
The science on this brain matter is clear: we build survival patterns into our body, mind, and emotional center, when our immediate environment changes, when the people around us change we still bring those old patterns of our interactions with us. But time has moved forward and different people surround us. This is well highlighted by Bessel Van Der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”
It becomes in our interest to investigate our inner landscape our inner reflexes, to re-write what we know. For example. We may know our parents who raised us, but not all adults we encounter thereafter are our parents. As children, for our survival, we adapt to the known and the unknown factors of our household. As children who don’t know any different because of our brain development may make up beliefs about a situation without choosing to. Our brains work hard to protect us.
Sometimes our matured brains and bodies of today ask of us to answer the cries and calls of our inner child that didn’t understand our situation at a different time. All the things we didn’t know as children reflect our perceptions in our matured life. Many are unconscious. Stories are our basis. Brené Brown in her numerous books, including “Braving the Wilderness,” (2017), references this too. In conflict resolution, and interpersonal relations, when we work through and notice the stories, we make up in our heads about the world we may find clarity, compassion, and understanding. Our brains are creative at making up stories about the world and people that may not always be true.
Understanding, transforming, the unknown, the-unknown to the known in terms of the contextual self (where we are right now), is our purpose. Essentially, every day we are adjusting. If we go deeper, we’re aiming to understand -make meaning of- the ongoing changes in our lives. Of course, this idea gets fun because we have dreams, goals, and things to accomplish and must think forward, present, and backwards.
Purpose: something set up as an objective or end to be attained: intention, resolution, determination.
I choose to believe that it is my purpose, to continually work with what I know and what I don’t know, in the context of my changing situation. It is my story to make meaning of my adoption, and the death of my adopted mother. To have a clear understanding is to reach a certain conclusion. It appears to mean to cross a knowledge threshold. Discovering your life purpose seems to be another “level” of knowledge. But to figure it out, we’ve got a journey ahead of us. This other “level” is beyond collecting data but churning it in our mind in only the way we as an individual knows how.
My Process in Steps
Here we find a particularly challenging epistemological query: what value does the process of reaching a goal hold to the attainment itself? And how do we know when we’ve attained a mental understanding of our life? How do we know when we have created the meaning? The event of our adoption is a snapshot in time. But the movie of our lives…now that is an entirely different matter…
Does the goal, which necessitates a process – a way to get there – eclipse the significance of attention and care to the process? Arguably it should not. I believe the “goal” of “purpose” is the guiding light which serves are your compass through the woods at night. The steps we take may create a new path, but our guide points us in a particular direction. We may never reach it because it is the accumulation of steps that altogether define the direction, which set an intention (written as values) that result in not a proscribed but reflectively, a purposeful – meaningful series of steps. These steps, over time, define the story, in retrospect – in reflection.
So, only after the fact we understand? Only after this exercise can we hope to choose with knowledge. The steps of knowing what it means to be adopted to me is equally weighted to the “ah ha” moment of awakening realization of my life purpose. We may not reach a goal, but we will always “reach” somewhere. It may not always be what we had planned. But it has a way of going.
All the Universe is Perfect
A yoga teacher of mine once provided an invaluable perspective that still resonates with me from when we spoke in February of this year. He said something to this effect. Similar to how water always finds its way to the sea, the universe of all matter is perfect. So too is my physical being, because my body exists in the world of matter. The challenge – the process lives in me figuring out what it means to live as an
adoptee and a person whose adopted mother died. As the original texts of yogic practice are Hindu, they reference another part of my existence. Hindu belief is that we have a physical nature and an eternal nature. Your purpose is how these two intertwine and move through time. This perspective is a form of knowing. It is a belief about the physical world and how we and it move through time. It is a choice. One can choose to believe that our physical bodies, while here for a short time, houses our ability to perceive (one might call the spirit or soul, that which is eternal), which in Hinduism is connected to an unchanging nature of our being. This is called Purusha. The eternal part that lives through all of our lives in the nature of rebirth. Prakriti is the
physically changing aspect (our bodies). There are lots of texts that go into these concepts in greater detail.
The question becomes, especially one we tackle in yoga, how do we manage the experience of perception and presence?
Since we can remember, to some degree, the events of the past we are tied to it. But our physical experience is grounded by the laws of physics to the present. The trick, however, is that our bodies also “remember” the past, but in some ways is also stuck to the here and now. Practicing meditation, or yoga can immensely help our ability to manage being in the here and now. This includes all the pains and pleasures of our reality. A reality that may be very difficult being in the present because it remembers the past.
Whatever you believe about reincarnation or not, we all die, and thus have a sort of conclusion. It is likely in your nature to seek for meaning in the life that you’re given.
They say the present is all we have. I choose to believe in this:
I am here to live fully into my presence and place given the way behind me and the way forward paved by my choices and beliefs -in essence my purpose is crafted daily by how I choose to be present with the information of the past and the body of present.
Friends, let me clarify this is no easy task. It is a choice that I strive to do, but it is a difficult and arduous journey. It is not easy to let go.
Presence of mind, body, and emotional center give serenity, strength and endurance to the spirit. So, events happen, and we create the way forward in how we choose to carry that event forward. The event of the past has no bearing on the future, other than what we choose to give it. Understanding that I can choose to treat my adoption as a lifetime event that will not be understood in a month or year but takes (at least) a lifetime to process because this is how I choose to live.
Any and all of my feelings of sadness, or loss regarding my adoption are still awakening in me each day. I choose to be open to joy, love and belonging as I journey onward. I choose, every day, to let my adoption be an important and elemental part to energy I bring to the moment. I choose to define my moments because I know why I am here, and I know what I want. I do not want the factors of not knowing that surround my adoption to steer me into a dangerous and unsafe place. I can steer my own ship. I am the author of my story.
The events of our lives are burdens to bare, but not weights to hold us down. They are roadmaps, tools in our survival kit, elements of our existence, the roots to our growth, the pillars to uphold our vibrance.
If you have not journaled ever about how you feel about your adoption, I highly recommend it. Start out 5m a day for a week and see what you notice.
It is when our belief becomes a choice, that we realize our human potential.
Walking the Red Thread
In the country of my birth, I’m like everyone else. I have the straight black hair, the almond brown eyes, the features that check off the typical Chinese girl boxes.
In the Beijing airport, a security woman stops me—I’m the only Chinese person in the group. Words spill out of her mouth, and I know she expects that I will understand. Most of what she says floats past me, but I’m able to grasp a fragment of her thoughts. It’s something about luggage, but what exactly about it? Wo bu dong, I say. She walks away shaking her head.
One day, you’ll want to go to back to China, Mum and Dad say to me in the car. We were driving back from Chinese school, the place where all the Chinese-American kids and their parents go. The school is 40 minutes away from home, and we go there every Sunday to study the language and participate in traditional Chinese activities, like tai chi and calligraphy. There, we’re out of the ordinary: two tall Caucasian parents and their Chinese daughter who can barely cough up a word of Chinese.
Do you know your Chinese family? I’m asked this at the dinner table where I’m seated with my Chinese host parents, Mama and Baba, and their thirteen-year-old daughter, Alin. We eat san xian (pork, shrimp, and mushroom) dumplings that Baba made the minute he found out how much I loved dumplings. They’re delicious, and they smell just like they taste—full of umami. I look up from my plate, No, I tell them in Chinese. Silence wells up for three minutes. They stop eating and drinking, and they hold their chopsticks still. Baba nearly drops his dumpling in the vinegar bowl. Really? they finally say in disbelief.
In Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, in the west of China, I go into a restaurant where they serve hand-pulled noodles. The store is pristine and ornate—the tables are set with red napkins folded like cranes and red banners with characters I cannot read hang on the wall. I suppose they are about good luck and prosperity. Fragrant scents waft through the air—star anise, stewed beef, and freshly cut herbs. I approach the counter with my friend, mapping out the conversation in my head. The woman at the counter sings huan yin guang ling, which I recognize as welcome. I stumble over my words as I try to order a simple bowl of beef noodles for the two of us. She smiles at my friend and I and asks us where we’re from. America, my friend says. Her too? the woman asks as she looks at me, she looks Chinese.
Mama and Baba are the only Chinese parents I’ve ever known. They treat me like their own daughter, giving me identical slippers to wear in the house, taking me to calligraphy class and making me all their favorite traditional Chinese foods: zhajiangmian, noodles with vegetables and sesame sauce, yang mei, a sweet and somewhat bitter berry, and you tiao, a Chinese-style fried dough. They tell me I act like a Chinese girl, that the Chinese life is suitable for me, and I puzzle over what this means. Is it the way I carry myself? Is it my manners? I wish I had the Chinese to ask exactly what they mean—but I’m speechless.
Every day at seven, Mama cooks me a big bowl of congee and a fried egg. First, I eat the egg and then I slowly eat the bowl of congee, one small spoonful at a time. The flavors of pickled ginger and fermented vegetables in the morning are overwhelming for my western palette. At seven-forty-five, I leave our xiao qu, our gray, twelve story tall residential complex and head to Er Fu Zhong, the local public school. The Beijing hutongs and streets are painted with colorful motorbikes, elementary school children in their yellow visors, and business men who talk on their phones with cutting Beijing accents. I wear the t-shirt with the school’s mascot of three colored sails on it and the baggy blue boy shorts. Wearing this outfit, I blend in—I look like any other Er Fu Zhong girl. I am unnoticed.
The lesson of the day is China’s One Child Policy. I shudder as I recite the words in Chinese: only child, abortion, policy. This is language learning, I tell myself, nothing less. As we continue reciting, the words don’t become numb like I want them to, but rather, they become raw and cutting. I am a product of this One Child Policy. The policy that sent me six thousand miles from my birth family that I do not know. We repeat after the teacher: ni bu neng sheng liang ge hai zi (you cannot raise two children), and tears fill my eyes. I was probably the second child they couldn’t raise. I never knew language learning was this hard.
One night, I walk into the living room where Mama and Baba sit on the couch watching their favorite Chinese reality show. Mum is on the phone, on video chat, and I ask Mama and Baba if they want to say hello. Their faces light up, and they say hello in their heavily accented English. We love having a second daughter, they say in Chinese, and Mum beams. I know she doesn’t understand a word they have said, but their smiles have spread to her across the world. Then, I tell her what they have said, and she smiles even broader, and the conversation slips into a dance of translation.
In the country of my birth, I’m not sure if I’m like everyone else. I walk the red thread between China and America, seeking a balance between the two. As I walk, I wonder if you can ever be at the end.
Anonymous Chinese Adoptee
Dear Adoptive Parent(s)/Prospective Adoptive Parent(s),
My wish for you is to know that your child is hurting. We come to you already mourning and in grief from the loss of our first families and possibly loss of our culture. As our parent(s), I want you to understand that no matter how much you tell us that you love us, that will not replace the rejection we received from our first families. I wish you were able to understand that in order to become our parent(s) legally, there was a separation and a loss for that to be possible. The more you deny that and do not sit with us in our sadness, anger, and complicated emotions with our abandonment, the more pressure it is to put on a brave face, pretend to be a "perfect" child, and not show you our pain that badly needs to be released. Am I against the genuine, ethical and pure form of what adoption is meant to be? No, I do think it's wonderful that familial love can be formed between non-biological parent(s) and child(ren). But, what I am pushing for is past the physical and economic security that adoption gives to children. What I call on from adoptive parents is the understanding that your child is suffering whether or not we are able to verbalize it or even comprehend it. The bond that happens in utero highly influences the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the child. To disregard the connection that your child has with their first mother and first families is exactly what I am talking about with denial of our life reality and trauma. Separation is trauma no matter how many times you try to explain the logical reasons for why our adoption happened. Your child will have a hard time trusting because of the fear of rejection. When our initial separation from our birth mother happened, that sends the message to us that we were rejected - even if we know the reasons behind the adoption. Please know that we do appreciate the love you have given to us but we had a life before you and when we came to you - we were already wounded and that wound may never fully heal. But, do what you can to recognize our pain and accept that you may never be able to "make it all better."
An Adult Adoptee, adopted in 1997