Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Week My Daughter Become Chinese

Over the years, I had tried everything. I had enrolled her in language classes. I had bought her books. I had chaired committees, attended culture camps and written articles. In the course of fifteen years, none of those things had encouraged Emma’s slightest interest in the country, language or customs of China. But after nine days with a 16-year-old from Nanjing, she was practically a native.

Perhaps the timing was right. Perhaps the teenagers in the visiting group were welcoming. It helped that the girl we hosted at our house was pretty, smart and sweet. It especially helped that she was willing to serve as Emma’s model for hair curling and nail polishing, things that are forbidden (along with pierced ear and sandals) at her school back home.

Whatever the unique convergence of factors, Emma suddenly woke up one day last week, looked in a mirror, and decided that not only was she Chinese, but she loved everything about China.

This was the last thing I would have expected, based on her attitude before the group’s arrival. She had wondered how anyone who didn't use Facebook could be any fun at all.  She was shocked when I told her that all the kids who arrived would think that their country was actually better than ours.  Huh?
Then the group arrived. In some ways, they were so different from the U.S. kids. Even the thinnest of our children seemed to carry a layer of something extra on their frames – maybe fat, or muscle, or just a thick coating of Dorito dust. In any event, these Chinese kids looked skinny enough to be clearly not American. In other ways, though, they were just a bunch of tech-savvy teenagers. The first tentative signs of friendship involved the sharing of small technical devices. Soon, everyone was taking pictures on everyone else’s cell and camera, the lens just inches from their faces, peace signs being made all around.

Emma loved our student and she loved the group. As the days of the visit went by, she slowly changed from a USA-firster to a willing disciple of all things Chinese. She asked a lot of questions. She signed onto RenRen, the Chinese version of Facebook, and friended all the kids from the group. Her big eye opener was a trip to the Mall of America, when she tagged along on the group’s outing and saw her country from someone else’s eyes. They stopped at the Cold Stone Creamery and ordered ice cream cones. The gargantuan portions boggled their minds. “This would be four portions in China!” they marveled. Emma’s response was to immediately ask them how to say “fat” in Chinese, an insult she stockpiled along with “ugly, fat, mouselike, dirty pervert,” “strange,” and two different ways to say “ugly.”

I heard from the group’s leaders that, while many of the other U.S. kids were clearly uncomfortable at the disadvantage of being in a language minority, Emma just plunged in and tried to figure it out for herself. When things got quiet, she could always pull out her camera and take a few hundred more close-ups.

I have no idea what the impact of this past week will be, but I imagine it’s significant for her. She wants us to host more students. She wants to spend junior year of high schoool in China. She wants a friend in every country, she says, “So that if the United States disappears, I’ll have a place to stay.” She’s updated her passport and declared her intention to fill every page.

As she waved goodbye to the group as their bus pulled away toward the airport, she had a couple regrets, she told me. First, she wished she were on the bus with her new friends. And second, she wished she had learned how to say “fart” in Chinese.

Here is the letter I wrote to the parents of our host student:

Dear Du Ping and Hou Xiangdong,

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful daughter with us for the week. She was a respectful, obedient and charming houseguest. She must study very hard, because she is an excellent English speaker. We enjoyed her company very much. She shared many stories of her happy home life and told us interesting things about China. We tried to make her feel comfortable, and she did very well in adapting to such a different place, with its endless parade of fat people and large servings of bad food. To make matters even more challenging, the weather was very hot when she was here, but she was very good natured about that. I made her some pork and cabbage dumplings, and she politely told me they were tasty, but I am sure that they were not at all as good as those she shares with her family at New Year. When she told me about celebrating that holiday, and about hiding a coin in the one of the dumplings, I could tell that it is a very happy time for her.

Most especially, I must thank you for the way your daughter completed a very important job, that of ambassador from China to a citizen who left its borders more than fifteen years ago. Thanks to her patience, kindness and good example, I believe that she helped our oldest daughter, Emma, make a strong reconnection to her native land. Emma was abandoned as an infant, and was adopted by us from the Wuhan Foundling Hospital when she was four months old. She is a strong and intelligent girl, and we love her very much. We have always tried to create in her a love for China, and we have taken her to classes, events and culture camps to help her understand the importance of her heritage. But always, she seemed more interested in sports or friends or schools, and not so much in being Chinese-American.

When she met Hou Yunan, she encountered someone who was beautiful and smart and strong, and it was clear that she had begun to think more favorably of the Chinese people. She spent a great deal of time with the students in the group: playing mah johng, visiting the Mall of America, going on a riverboat ride and attending a women’s basketball game. She began to see what a great thing it is to be Chinese. She loved just being around the students, she told me, even though she could not understand what they were saying. I believe that she felt at home with them, in a way she has never been before.

What a gift to start this spark of interest in someone. Who knows where it will lead? Emma is a different and more complete person because of what your daughter has shared this week. Hou Yunan  is a wonderful girl. Again, thank you.

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