The mirror reminds me of the past. I stand there every morning, each time a little taller, a little older, a little more experienced. My face has changed over the years, but so slowly that I could never describe exactly how it has changed. The eyes that meet mine through the glass have remained the same dark brown despite how I used to wish for Dad’s blue eyes. My straight black hair falls down my shoulders, a few strands draping over the sides of my face. I brush some of the hair out of my face revealing one small freckle on my cheek. The freckle hasn’t changed.
Morning light fills the room with a burst of sunshine. Meanwhile, I picture the other side of the world covered with darkness, ending the same day that I am just beginning. I wonder what my parents in China are doing. Are they tucking my siblings into bed? Do I even have siblings? Are my parents still together 17 years later? I wonder if they ever think of the sun rising on my side of the world when they turn off their lights at night.
Ever since I can recall, Mum and Dad have told me that I was adopted from China. The concept never surprised me—I could see it for myself. In the mornings, when Mum untangled my rat's nest of hair in front of the mirror, I saw the stark contrast of our facial features. My dark features versus her light features. Sometimes, I told Mum that I wished I could have hazel eyes like hers, and she told me that my face was beautiful just the way it was. “Being Chinese is wonderful,” she repeated to me time and time again. But every time she said that I still questioned how she knew. To me, being Chinese, or at least being a Chinese adoptee, seemed more like a curse than a blessing.
Throughout my elementary school years, I wanted to be white so I could fit in with my peers at school. My hometown of Gloucester, MA, was the opposite of diverse — the whole population was white, and of either Italian or Portuguese descent. In kindergarten, I drew myself as a blonde haired girl with blue eyes. It’s hard to say if I forgot I was Asian or if I wanted to be white like everyone else.
My parents understood that fitting in for me wasn’t easy. They believed strongly in keeping me connected to my roots and thought that teaching me about where I was from would help me come to terms with my adoption. Learning Chinese, they told me, would help me build a connection to my past. “Who knows what you’ll want in 10 years, maybe you’ll be fluent in Chinese and even want to live in China,” Dad suggested to me when I denied any desire for a relationship to China.
Despite my attitude, my parents insisted that I attend a Chinese language school. So, on the Sundays of my third and fourth-grade years, my parents and I made the hour-long drive to the nearest school, the Wincheng Chinese School. On the first day, my parents, the only Caucasians at the school, caused a spectacle, the regular school-goers expressing their surprise
“Wow, your parents are so brave. They want to learn mandarin! Tough language!” one older Chinese woman said to me with a thick accent. At first, she tried to speak to me in Chinese, but then quickly switched to English when my face filled with confusion.
Before that encounter, I had never thought of learning Chinese as a brave act of any sort. Rather, I complained that Mandarin took up my Sundays while all my other friends had playdates or went on trips with their parents. I didn’t understand why my birthplace dictated my Sundays.
But, it was at the place I was abandoned as a baby where I realized that I could not walk away from the Chinese side of me. At 10, I stood under the archways of a government building in the town of 笔架山乡 (Bijiashanxiang). My parents and I got out of the van after a two hours’ drive from Yiyang city on a bumpy dirt road. My legs were cramped and the day was blisteringly hot. But as I stood under the arch and Mum stroked my hair, I matched the photo of my finding location to the place I stood at. I noticed that the barren earth beside me caved in slightly as if a child lay there.
I was that child 10 years ago.
The moment lingered with me for months, and I realized my growing desire to find my parents back in China. Even a glimpse of them would alleviate some of the mystery. I often wondered about them. Did my mom have my eyes or did my dad? Where did I get my smile from? Why did they give me up? Were they too poor? Was it China’s one-child policy? Were they too young to have a kid? Though I was curious, I often tried to answer questions of my abandonment with the reasoning that they loved me so much, they let me go seek a brighter future. Because I believe that they made this sacrifice for me, I feel an obligation to not disregard the past, but embrace it for them.
At Exeter, I have been able to find the ties to China I have long wished for. Mainly, it’s because I am no longer the only Chinese girl to walk the halls; I am one of many. I no longer stand out as “the Chinese person.” I have many Chinese friends, with distinctly different stories than me. Some of them are American born Chinese while others are international students who hail from China, Singapore or Hong Kong. They too struggle with their feeling of belonging.
“My parents told me that they think that I’ve become too white, and I feel ashamed of my lack of [Chinese] culture,” one of my friends told me last week.
“My grandma offered to get me double eyelid surgery as a graduation gift, and I turned it down,” another friend said.
In those moments, I recognize that I am the one in luck. My white family accepts me for the girl I am. They do not shame me for being “too white” and they do not pressure me to fit into Chinese beauty standards. But luck is a matter of perspective. Although I have luck in one way, my Chinese friends have luck in another way. They seem to have found an equilibrium between the two cultures. They can float within China and within the states. They can speak Chinese and speak English. I can’t say that I know what their situation feels like, but I know that being a part of both cultures is what I strive for.
Today, my adoption causes me to pause a moment longer in the mirror. It’s not out of vanity. It’s out of remembrance and realization. I am Lucy, but I am also 益永敏. I am both the light and the quick intelligence of my names, and I realize now, that I learn Chinese for myself. The language holds a promise—it’s not quite tangible, but it’s a connection to those I’ve left behind.
I look out the window. The sun fades into the horizon. I’ve given the sun back to the other side of the world—to them, the lost parents.