Saturday, July 4, 2009

Born in China, Adopted & Raised in America: Betwixt and Between?

I was thinking these were halcyon days.

My daughter has been in such a happy place of late and, like many parents, when my child is happy, I am happy. I've already had a few, fleeting moments foreshadowing what's to come in the teen years but for now, we're back to the ebullient innocence of earlier times. Given a quick peek at what's to come, I fantasize and think:

Can't I just hit the pause button now?

I want to pickle and preserve these precious moments. Catch them, bottle them.

It's been a busy, social start to summer. Visiting with friends, my daughter discovered a newfound passion: Monopoly. She loves to be the banker and now, even when there's no one to play, she sits and counts the money.

We staged a lemonade stand on two different days. The first, a sunny Saturday, she and a mutually determined friend set up shop. They sat outside on our street corner, hawking their wares from 11am to 5pm, determined to stay till the last Tollhouse cookie, the last drop of lemonade, was gone. They brought in a whopping $71 and decided (completely on their own) to keep $10 each -- and donate the remaining $51 to the Humane Society (...boasts a proud mom.) The second time around, the day was hotter, the traffic slower, her friend, a little less motivated. Still after 2+ hours minding the store, they earned $30, kept $1.50 a piece, and reserved $27 for the Audubon Society. (My daughter feels a strong affinity for the animal world.)

We've gone on more and more bike rides and, last week, biked to and from her basketball camp.

This week is soccer camp. Along with the beautiful weather, we've enjoyed watermelon fests, hula hooping contests, cookie bakes, swim parties, potlucks, and sleepovers. On rainy days and lazy nights, we've drunk in films like Anne of Green Gables (check out the Kevin O'Sullivan production, it's wonderful) The Heart of the Game (yes, a girls' basketball film) and even some old classics. On deck from the library? Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

This past Saturday, for the 4th of July, we enjoyed various visits with friends, then biked to a local park to take in the fireworks. My daughter chose to dress in red, white, and blue. (If you count my underwear, Mom.)

An all-American childhood, right? Halcyon days, right?

So why did I wake up at 5:30am late last week with this nagging, unsettled feeling?

I've got to stop reading the New York Times and the other blogs and groups I follow just before bed.

I'd been tracking the Adoptionparenting group on Yahoo. The current topic (there's a new one every two weeks) has sparked a lively debate. The subject is "On Culture and Belonging." As the debate unfolded, parents argued, some quite adamantly, that no matter what we do, as multi-racial families, we -- our kids -- will always straddle two worlds. Many argued, with increasing passion, that, as parents, we have a responsibility to acquaint, even immerse, our children in their birth culture, giving them a sense of connection and belonging to combat the day they run into the inevitable confusion, questions, or push back as to where or what group they rightly belong.

Now, my daughter and I attend FCC (Families with Children from China) celebrations. She is learning Mandarin, and we have friends (happenstance -- not calculation) of various ethnic groups, races, and religions. The problem is, short of moving to China, I am -- like a huge percentage of adoptive American parents of Chinese children -- Caucasian. I lack the kind of deep familiarity with Chinese culture that might help me pass the culture on to my child in a way that's both layered and authentic. I realize too, as much as she's of Chinese birth and descent, she is now deeply American.

The argument made by the folks in this discussion group is that, if history is any kind of yardstick, our children will end up with no clear sense of belonging, or worse, rejected, at risk, betwixt and between.


Perhaps naively, a part of me thought, given this country's changing, increasingly varied demographic, Aren't we all, in one way or another, to varying degrees, betwixt and between? And, don't we have more and more examples of individuals showing it's possible to be of a different, or mixed, racial, or ethnic origin -- and still belong? Perhaps, even lead? (I'm thinking of our President for one.)

I was struggling with this question in my head and then, late Thursday, another wrinkle:

David Brooks published his latest New York Times column titled, "Chinese Fireworks Display." Brooks recently attended the Aspen Ideas Festival (Does he have a cool job or what?) Niall Ferguson, a Harvard history professor, had presented his views on the changing state of the world. China and the US, quite recently, enjoyed a happy, "symbiotic" relationship. From 1995 to 2005, "China did the making, ...the US did the buying." We spent. China prospered, and saved. The Chinese invested their savings in the safest place available: with the US government. They loaned us back the money we spent. We chose to spend and spend again. The Chinese savings rate rose from 30% to 45%, The US savings rate declined from 5% -- to zero.

Our country is now going bankrupt (okay, strike "going") while the Chinese recognize they can no longer rely on us either to fuel their growth -- or provide a secure place to invest their savings. China is forging its own way and looking to decrease its reliance on the US. According to Ferguson, "The frictions are building and will lead to divorce, conflict, and potential catastrophe..." Worse, "Chinese nationalism is also on the rise... The Chinese are acquiring resources all around the world and with them, willy-nilly, an overseas empire that threatens US interests... "

Ferguson compares China to Kaiser Wilhem's Germany in the years preceding World War I: "a growing, aggressive, nationalistic power whose ambitions will tear through pre-existing commercial ties and historic friendships." The US, on the other hand, appears unable to change and rein in its profligate ways. (Think: Rome its waning days.)

It's a frightening scenario. Certainly, there are others (Brooks writes about them too) who expect and paint a more positive picture. But it's the first one that haunts me. In the past year alone, China has clearly been flexing its muscle with a brutal crackdown against the Tibetans, an aggressive media black-out on the 20th anniversary of Tiananman Square or, just today, with another violent crackdown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

If our two countries are on a collision course, where will this leave America's Chinese born daughters?

Adolescence, it seems, may be the least of my worries.

Pickle, anyone?


patti said...


It seems inevitable to me too, that at some point in our kids lives, the US will clash with China in a major way. I hope by making diverse and deep friendships, that more people would be willing to stand up for my kids than say, stood up for the Japanese during WWII.
Kinda makes you want to build a self-sustaining place out in the wilderness somewhere.

Lisa said...

Hi Patti,

Thanks for stopping by. I think you're right both about the possibilities for a clash, and hopefully, the protective shield of deep, diverse, loving friendships. I only hope it proves to be enough. Fear can be so corrosive...

Let me know if you have a good place in the wilderness to recommend. :)

With best wishes,

johnsonweider said...

We face similar issues in explaining the historical Russia-US relationship to our Russian-born kids and I feel the same way when I read about tensions between our 2 countries. I wonder if your daughter has had the "Presidency" realization yet. It hit us hard when we watched President Obama's inauguration. My kids were quite upset that they can't become President and it was something I actually had a hard time trying to explain to them. My son decided that he would become president of Russia instead, but my husband pointed out that was rather unlikely given that he is an American citizen who no longer speaks any Russian. I think they were feeling quite "in between" that day.

Lisa said...

Hey Michelle!

So nice to hear from you again! Welcome back.

That's so interesting about your sons. I'm embarrassed to admit I'd completely forgotten about the foreign-born requirement for presidential candidates. For us, the fall was thrilling as we watched the first serious female contender (who was my daughter's first choice) and a man of color (who was my first choice) compete capably and intelligently for the top spot. The message it sent about what's possible for women, and minorities (not to mention campaign dialect) in this country gave me renewed hope after what felt like a very dark 8 years.

Hope you're enjoying summer. We've been so much on the run I've had very little time for the blog. (Its killing me!) (I hope to get back to it soon...)


The Women's Colony said...

If you have not yet read the book, "Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Tatum, I highly recommend it. Her discussion of how identity forms in adolescents is so insightful.

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

Hi Jenn,

Thanks so much for writing and for the recommendation. I'd heard of the book but hadn't read it. So I jumped on Amazon and, between your recommendation, the subject matter, and reviewers' comments, I bought it. It looks wonderful. Thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing.

With best wishes,

wmiller said...

I just discovered your wonderful blog. A dear friend has been *on the list* to adopt a baby from China for five years now. Your observations helped me understand why things have slowed down. My cousin has four children adopted from orphanages in Russia who are all teenagers now ages 15 to 17. I'm sure the conversations you and your daughter have would be very familiar to her. I hope you keep blogging!

Lisa said...

To wmiller:
Thank you for your comment and also your encouragement. Its very kind of you. The summer schedule is always challenging but I'm hoping to get back to blogging with the start of the school year.

I can't imagine what it must be like to wait 5 years for a child! Your friend must have the patience of Job! I hope all goes well for her / them. And hats off to your cousin with four!

With best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Have you explored Asian-American studies? While your daughter is not strictly speaking diasporic Chinese, she might find that she will be able to relate to a lot of the identity struggles that children of diasporic Chinese have.

Lisa @ Pack of Three said...

Great question. I've explored a number of books on the topic, though I have to confess many highlight the same questions and issues -- and even offer some pretty disturbing examples of how Euro Americans have viewed Asian Americans as "other." Helen Zia's powerful book, "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People" highlights the various troubles Asians have confronted throughout American history. One of the saddest examples I discovered was the lynching of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was out celebrating his pending marriage with male friends. It was the summer of 1982 and Detroit was struggling (unsuccessfully) to compete with Japanese automakers. Unemployment -- and the misery index -- were high. So was anti-Japanese sentiment. Chin ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and was beaten to death by a bunch of angry unemployed autoworkers. Scary.

On a more positive note, I have a friend who has written a wonderful teen novel about one girl's identity struggles of being mixed (half Asian, half white.) Justina Chen Headley's book "Nothing But the Truth -- (and a few white lies)" is a beautiful story about a girl wrestling with identity and family issues who ultimately learns how important it is to love herself first and foremost. A nice message delivered in a voice teens can relate to. My daughter is still a little young for it -- but I've got a copy saved for her.