Blog: Further reflections on adoption, Chinese study abroad

Copy Chief Kim Rooney looks out over the Great Wall of China during her summer study abroad program.

Courtesy of Kim Rooney | Contributing Editor

Copy Chief Kim Rooney looks out over the Great Wall of China during her summer study abroad program.

By Kim Rooney, Contributing Editor

When I become too embroiled in writer’s block, I often remind myself that, so long as I stay alive to do so, I can update pieces I write. I studied abroad in Shanghai in the summer of 2017, during which time I returned to my hometown Gaoyou. When I came back to the United States, I wrote a column reflecting on my experience as a Chinese-American adoptee returning to China for the first time. Two years have passed, so it seems about time to dust it off and make some changes.

My focus at the time was on adoption. It still is, since I’m currently researching racial identity formation in Chinese-American adoptees. My racial identity and my adoption are questions I’ll spend the rest of my life answering. But in focusing on adoption vis-a-vis going back to my hometown, I didn’t let myself think about other lingering questions about my experience abroad, and how they’ve rippled through my life since I’ve returned to the United States.

How did I even get to China?

On a plane, next question. In all seriousness, though, I got there because I was born there. Because of the one-child policy, my birth parents left me near a welfare center in Gaoyou when I was a day old, and I stayed there for the first year and a half of my life. So for me, it wasn’t “going” to China but “going back,” which is why I went — but also why I hesitated so long to do so.

“Going back” carried a weight to it that “studying abroad in China” didn’t. I felt a greater pressure to do it right, although I wasn’t sure what that meant. For a while, I was so bitter toward China for its one-child policy, which caused vast human rights abuses through forced sterilizations and abortions, and I didn’t want to go back at all.

But in my first year of college, I started writing more about being Chinese and then about being an adoptee. And in my sophomore year, when I watched a professor slide comfortably from English to Italian, I wanted to do the same for Chinese. Two months later, I received notice that the Chinese Nationality Room committee had unanimously awarded me the John H. Tsui Memorial Scholarship to study abroad in Shanghai.

Now that I’m back in the United States, the question I often get is, will I go back again? Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes. I know I will always face the challenges of a language barrier and negotiation of my identity in China. Growing up in a white family without immersion in Chinese language or culture, save for the time I spent at friends’ houses, made it difficult and alienating to navigate the streets of Shanghai. The distance from Chinese culture was invalidating in a place where the hurt ran deeper than usual, where it was sharpened and compounded by a desperate need to belong.

Because if I didn’t belong there, how could I call myself Chinese? If I didn’t belong there, maybe everyone who told me I wasn’t really Chinese, who took away my personal history, was right. But I feel a need to go back and keep confronting those questions. I know I’m going to go back. It’s only a matter of when.

How was learning Chinese?

I previously wrote about the difficulty of starting to learn Chinese, since it came with similar pressures and stakes that going back to China did. But ultimately, the language barrier hurt more. I had a stint in middle and high school of trying to learn Chinese, but the curriculum focused on writing and reading, which wasn’t as applicable in daily use.

In Shanghai, not only did Chinese surround me in a constant cacophony, it was my 8 a.m. class Monday through Friday. Waking up early was easier in China — something I didn’t manage to bring back with me — but learning Chinese was challenging in ways I didn’t expect.

Learning Chinese for me will always be a different experience from my peers, whether Chinese or not. I can’t call or text my parents for help with a confusing grammar structure, but most people expect more of me than they do of non-Chinese people learning Chinese. They expect better tones and pronunciation, fewer pauses and less stumbling over grammar and vocabulary, more Chinese-ness in the way I think and phrase things.

When I came back to the United States, I continued learning Chinese — I even decided to minor in it. Learning Chinese in the United States is strange. I have speaking-based classes every day and vocabulary-based classes two days a week, but I’m no longer surrounded by the language outside of the classroom.

I want to keep learning, though, even after I graduate. Admittedly, in part it’s because it helps make me feel Chinese. It’s not the only facet of my Chinese identity, but it helps me connect to that part of my history and self.

What else did I experience in China?

In my original column, I focused on my trip to Gaoyou, my hometown. But while I was in China I also traveled to Shaoxing, Huangshan, Beijing and Nanjing, and each place offered different glimpses into China’s past and present. While I had never heard of Shaoxing or Huangshan, going to Beijing and Nanjing carried history I’d learned in classes and through my own research and reading.

The Great Wall was beautiful and a stunning piece of architecture, but I wondered how many ghosts haunted each step, since many workers were buried in the wall while building it. Beijing is an enormous city that has retained much of its traditional architecture and atmosphere.

But Beijing is also where the one-child policy was passed, and I felt a lingering, unnerving tugging my entire time there. Standing across the street from the building where it was approved, where Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to 1989, tried to legislate me out of existence years before I was born, I felt unsafe. It felt as though someone might find me out, like I had something to hide because of my mere existence.

I only spent a day in Nanjing, but in that time, I visited the Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It was louder than any museum I had ever been to in the United States, since people talked throughout the museum, passing by artifacts quickly with their phones or tablets up, recording for later viewing.

I had only briefly heard of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, but standing in front of a tomb-like exhibition hall that displayed excavated bones the Japanese soldiers created when they murdered 300,000 Nanjing citizens, it hit me that I was only a few hours away from my hometown. And that I will never know whether my birth family was directly affected by the Japanese invasion.

Facing that gap in my history will always be difficult. But when I go back to China, I want to go back to Nanjing and Beijing. Maybe it’s just masochism, but if I can’t learn about my personal history, I at least want to learn more about the history and culture of the place where I’m from. I know I can never fully fill in all the missing pieces, but learning more is a good start.

Why do I keep talking about adoption?

On a certain level, none of my experiences can be fully extricated from my adoption. Sure, the Apple Jacks I impulsively bought at CVS last week seemingly have little to do with my adoption, but without my adoption, I wouldn’t have been in the position to both crave and be able to find Apple Jacks in a store.

In a similar way, all these other parts of my experience abroad are interwoven with my adoption because they’re all threads in the fabric of who I am. Telling stories necessarily means leaving out various details and perspectives when you decide what to put in. There are some parts I’m not yet ready to write about because I deeply wish they hadn’t happened. But I want to continue picking different threads to follow and focus on for a more comprehensive look at the cloth as a whole.