She pushes the camera in my direction again and raises her eyebrows as if
saying, “Why don’t you understand?” And again I say,
I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.
The woman steps back and quietly murmurs,
You’re not actually one of us.
She turns her back to me, rejoining a group of four Chinese girls no older than sixteen posing in front of a lookout point. Hailuogou glacier in the Garze Tibetan region. The girls wear long-sleeves and tights down to their ankles. Each holds a pastel umbrella.
I pant as I look out at this landscape. One I never believed could be located in a country I’d only associated with gunsmoke and smog.
My friends and I continue up the trail until we arrive at a visitor information booth. Greer, one of my traveling partners, has her wallet in hand, shuffling between bills with Andrew Jackson and Mao’s portraits. She towers over the man behind the booth, her standing six-foot, and holds out several Yuan. He looks through her silently until he notices me in the distance. I watch his mouth turn to a grin. Although to his disappointment, I am the one who falls silent as he tries to speak to my fifteen year old self clad in a University of Syracuse t-shirt.
I end the interaction with the only words in his language I know, learned three days before.
I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.
But, he doesn’t give up just yet.
Ahh, you’re an ABC?
My head tilts in the universal sign for, “say again”.
You’re an ABC. An American-born Chinese.
No, I respond. After thinking about the weight of the words, I say in English, knowing he won’t be able to understand me anyway,
“I’m a CBA. Chinese-born American.”
Then, the SFO terminal for international arrivals. Long tubes of fluorescent lights flicker above me. Barely awake, just like I am after the twelve-hour flight. My parents stand at the end of the hallway and recognize me instantly. Shoulder-length black hair with sweaty baby hairs stuck to the nape of my neck.
“Mom! Dad!” I ran for their open arms and felt my dad kiss the top of my head. Smudge’s tail shakes so violently his whole abdomen writhes from side-to-side. My backpack drops to the carpeted linoleum and I kneel, eye-level with my dog, a mutt, green-eyed and overweight.
“Is there still that statue of Mao in Chengdu?” my dad asks.
“Yeah, there was.”
“How did it feel to be there? Was there any connection, did you feel anything?” my mom follows.
“I think so.” I look up at her and smile, earnestly. Hoping this is what she wants to hear, that this is the right answer.
The sound of girls whispering behind closed doors fills the dormitory hallway. My backpack is heavy with French textbooks and journals filled with half-finished poems. I pass the motivational posters that read, “You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé!” and am so exhausted with my first taste of college-level exams, I forget to roll my eyes. I arrive at my door, and find my roommate, Naomi, collapsed, blocking any entry, crying into open palms.
“Nay, what’s wrong? What happened?” My earbuds fall as I plop down and sit across from a girl I’d met just two and a half months ago from Irvine, California. The roommate who had supplied my many midnight cravings with authentic Chinese and Korean snacks she brought from home.
“My grandfather is dying.”
“I’m so sorry.” Pause. “Do you want to talk about it?” I awkwardly place my hand on her knee.
“No it’s okay. He just has lung cancer. I grew up with him, I mean, he and my grandma were the ones that raised me. My mom and dad were so broke they couldn’t afford their own house so we lived with them. But, now I’m the only relative that speaks to him. Last summer, I drove to his house every day to remove his bandages and wash his wounds from an accident he had when he fell. I’m debating on going home this weekend. I’d miss a lot of class but it might be the last time I have to say goodbye, you know?”
I didn’t know. I had one living grandparent left and she lived in Illinois.
There is a one in three chance someone will respond, “But, do you like them?” after I tell them I’m adopted. One wild card of a high school friend even followed with, “My best friend was totally adopted, too. She hates her family. That must be so hard for you. Have you ever thought about finding your real parents?”
I love the voices inflection that never fails to transform that word “real” into an entire shape-shift of the face. A slight pause--too brief to notice if you’re not paying attention --the chin dips and eyebrows raise as if saying, “I mean real.” A bodily emphasis. Like: “I’m really lactose-intolerant”. That extra emphasis, like sharing a secret. A secret that you have known your whole life without question.
That response always reminds me of the famous PSA from the ‘80’s: “Do you know where your children are?” Sometimes I laugh at that. But usually I swallow their ignorance with indifference and move on. It’s not a surprise said high-school friend and I aren’t “totally best friends” to this day.
I don’t expect every person I introduce myself to to know I was adopted in Chengdu when I was seven months old by two white people from the Midwest. And that the only reason I resent my birthplace is because I’ll never know what astrological moon sign my birthday is in. I’m kidding, only partly.
My first name is the only relic I have that ties me to a parallel universe where I grew up Chinese. Authentically Chinese. Pei Ja. But that’s not even -- for lack of a better word -- my real name. Legally my Chinese birth certificate reads, Pei Jia Zhou. In its native tongue my name is spoken like a knife on a chopping block. Pei JIA. But the way I prefer it to be pronounced is with a soft “j” sound, i.e. “Asia” with a “P” in front. This is the mnemonic I use in every meet-and-greet situation. Nowadays, I’ve even played around with Peija. My CBA-name, if you will. Formatted to the everyday conventions of Western society. A word that fits nicely below, “Hello, my name is,” and which Facebook recognizes instead of cutting my first name in half. I’ve never met a “Pei” before. Because I grew up in Marin County, north of San Francisco, north of the Asian-American communities I have never been welcome to, part of, or known existed before college.
I led my high school’s Asian Student Organization club, which, looking back, I was not at all qualified to run. In the process of applying to ethnicity-based clubs, I asked a teacher if I could lead Mixed-Ethnicities. “Well, do you identify with being half-Asian, half-Caucasian?” she asked. If I could go back I would say, “You’re right, I don’t identify with that. Or Asian-American. Or Chinese. Or white.” Despite living in a place where Asian-adoptees were commonplace, logistically out of sheer wealth, I didn’t grow up with friends who shared my multiracial family experience. Just writing that word is far too technical and sterile that I will never resonate with it. The language to express my particular situation is few and far between. I’ve been called a banana before: white on the inside, yellow on the outside. But that doesn’t work either (for a number of reasons).
After screaming matches with my parents in high school, I would go on runs through the neighborhood. When I’d climbed that stubborn little hill that always winded me, I saw her standing in the private lookout point on my favorite trail. A sheath of thick, black hair--true black--hung behind her. It swayed easily to the afternoon wind and only started fraying at the small of her back. She was taller than I was, her posture was stiff, upright, but I immediately envied the way she held herself: with care, fragility, grace. A creamy silk robe pooled below her, each shadow in the bunched fabric purposeful. Panting and sweating, I watched her fingers, the longest I’d ever seen, comb through her hair. I wiped sweat from my hairline and then she was gone.
This is the way I used to imagine my birth mother. An ancient Chinese archetype. This was my answer to the questions of who was real or not, what family I belonged to. I wrote down what I saw in my notebook that night. In the middle of it, I stopped and realized if this was true, if this woman of my fetishized ideal of Chinese culture even was based in reality, even if she did finally turn around and showed me her face, I would stand there, absolutely speechless. She would have tried to talk to me and I wouldn’t be able to respond. My birth mother would speak to me in the language my physical appearance dictated me to know, the one I was foreign to when I toured my native country, the one I hear around me in the clusters of “FOB’s” on my UC campus, the one my white roommate minoring in Chinese can speak better than I’ll ever be able to.
We wouldn’t have even spoken the same language. It hits me again. Harder.
Tears spill out, as I imagine what the one opportunity with my birth mother might sound like.
我不敢相信,是你。 你长这么大了, 我一直想见你。 告诉我你所有的事。
I can’t believe it’s you. You’ve grown so much. I’ve waited so long to see you, tell me everything. What kind of person have you grown up to be? What are your aspirations? I want to know everything.
She would open her arms.
来坐在我旁边。 别害羞。 我们有19年的总总事要说。说吧。
Sit by me and share, don’t be shy. We have nineteen years to catch up on. Go ahead.
With my head bowed down, out of embarrassment, out of shock, out of the years of unrealistic dreaming of finally getting to meet this woman, of failing, I’d whisper.
I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.
Peijia Anderson is an emerging writer and a sophomore at the UC Santa Barbara studying Writing and Literature. Her work has been published in Mochila Review and won the Marin County Teen Poetry Contest.