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Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge
A Journey to My Daughter's Birthplace in China
By Nancy McCabe
University of Missouri Press
Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ten Days Earlier
* * *
When we board a plane for China carrying that picture of the Man, I know it's unlikely that we'll unearth much information about my daughter's past. In fact, by the time we finally hand our boarding passes over to the agent and head down the tunnel, I've almost forgotten why it seemed so important to go back to China, why I saved and prepared for this trip for years.
Events have ganged up over the last few months to suggest that perhaps this isn't the best time for a homeland tour. My mother died, the economy tanked, prices soared in Beijing during the Olympics, and no one else signed up for the tour. Sophie has been mercurial and volatile the last few weeks, excited but easily frustrated, happy one moment, irrationally angry the next. My credit card was refused at Dulles, and I spent a four-hour layover on the phone straightening things out with the bank, who'd put a hold on the card after I'd used it in Buffalo this morning to buy food and magazines. I'd often used a credit card in Buffalo, but at 6:00 A.M.? Unheard of. I have to admire the alertness of the credit card company, even while I feel a weird dread that this whole trip might be a bad idea, even while I feel unmoored as I always do the first few days away from the house that anchors me.
And now there is another problem: we have been ticketed to sit five seats apart, which might as well be on opposite sides of the moon, the jetliner is so vast, and Sophie has no intention of sitting down until we are given seats together. She fiercely clutches my jacket sleeve, both of us standing jammed behind the last row in the first-class cabin. Others pass in an orderly shuffle: a British guy in black dress shoes with no socks, cell phone glued to his ear; an Asian student turtled by a bulging backpack; white businessmen swinging weathered leather briefcases. They all stare straight ahead, flinching at the sobbing ten-year-old. They heave luggage into overhead bins and slide into seats.
"Mommy!" Sophie cries, her voice ragged, edging toward hysteria.
"Just ask someone to switch with you," the ticket agent had told us earlier. But when I did, the elderly woman in the seat next to mine set her jaw and stared straight ahead, unbudging, not to be guilted from her aisle seat. I was equally reluctant to give up my window seat. It seemed important for Sophie and me to be able to look out together to see China come into focus.
"Just sit down," a flight attendant yelled at us. Sophie refused. I saw her point. Sitting down would be akin to giving in. We remained in the aisle. "Excuse me," other passengers said politely, at first. "Get out of the way," they finally started hissing.
Which is how we've ended up the recipients of the glares of first-class passengers, reclining with their martinis while my child fists her hand around my wrist like a shackle and implores me not to leave her. Here we are, on the brink of our long-awaited, long-saved-for trip to my daughter's birthplace, with no place to sit.
At ten, Sophie has started sneaking eyeliner and polishing her nails black. She normally hides under skater caps and hoodies with grinning rows of toothless skulls. Strangers flinch at this child who labels herself like a box of poison, and I wish they would look closer at the skulls, some with hearts for eyes, some with bunny ears. I wish they would look closer, period.
Even while I defend her, my daughter often peers at me through smoky eyes, cap pulled low, looking defiantly, prematurely adolescent. She is unpredictable, slipping in moments from argument to hug, cuddle to bristle, independent sophisticate to needy small child.
Like now. Makeup free, skulls left at home lest the images be even more misunderstood in the culture of her birth, she resembles the sharp-eyed, chubby-cheeked baby I met in China almost ten years ago. All morning, I've been remembering that angry, cranky baby who never slept and dissolved abruptly into wails or giggles. All morning, since she rose at 4:30, Sophie has been chattery and ebullient, preoccupied with thoughts of the birthparents she might never know and places she can't remember. "I'm going home!" she has said again and again.
It jars me to hear her say that, especially so close on the heels of my mother's death. I still don't quite believe that my mother is gone. Oh, yeah, I'll think. She died. The words seem so stark, the fact of them raw, startling. That loss is too close. How can I possibly give any part of my daughter back to China right now? Is it really the best time to encourage the part of her identity that is rooted in a whole different culture and country?
From the time I met her, she has had difficulty handling separation from me, her one and only parent, her only family in a thousand miles. And though I fought the total loss of independence that single parenthood necessitated, I gradually came to accept that I don't like to be apart from her either, that professional goals and other personal relationships have to go on the back burner for now. "Are there many other single faculty?" a new colleague recently asked me, and for a second I was confused. Other besides who? I wondered, then realized she meant me.
Though I'm unmarried, I exist in the plural. Even more so than divorced parents or families with helpful relatives living nearby, I always come with an attachment. And my life is so full and busy, sometimes it feels like there is more than one of me. There has to be to maintain two jobs, raise a child, and take care of a house. I've been known to refer to myself as "We," as in "We're trying to decide when to go back to China." Then I think, who is we? Did I just turn royal? Am I really including a child in such a big decision? But the fact is, I have to do so much, decide so much, I sometimes forget that I am, in fact, doing this alone.
But right this minute? Right now—wedged behind a bunch of seats, unable to reassure Sophie or fix the problem—I am fully aware that I am the lone adult responsible for my daughter's welfare, and feel, irrationally, that I'm about to lose everything. Before the seating crisis, this day was Sophie's dream come true. She has yearned for as long as she can remember to see China. Some very young children returning to their homelands are afraid that their parents mean to leave them there. Sophie is old enough to understand that this is just a visit, that we are a family forever. I'm the one who's scared—scared that she won't want to come back. And now that she's upset at the idea of our being separated, my dread gives way to a touch of relief: she's not, after all, ready to do without me.
If your child is going to melt down while boarding a plane and no one will help you, the first-class cabin is a strategic choice of location. The overworked, seemingly indifferent flight attendant is coaxed to rescue us by the annoyance of those who've paid for comfort and quiet. She whisks us off the plane. Back at the ticket counter, everyone is eager to repair damage and offer reassurance. A few clicks on a computer keyboard, the whir of a printer, and we have new seats, by a window.
We retreat gratefully to our places, still a little shaken. Will we have to fight this whole trip to prove that we belong together? Earlier today, in the airport, someone asked me if Sophie's father was Chinese. The correct answer, of course, is yes; my favorite answer is, "I don't know. I never saw him." But I knew what the stranger was really asking, so I replied, "I adopted her from China." At the gate, an agent inquired if Sophie had a Chinese passport. Already this morning the bond we take for granted seems more precarious than usual in the eyes of others.
This kind of thing occurs far less frequently in the area where we live, where people know us. But every now and then it happens there, too, like once at the library we frequent in Olean, New York, when an Asian woman reported that she couldn't find her twelve-year-old daughter. At that moment, Sophie, then six, emerged from the picture book stacks, prompting employees to cry out, "Here she is!"
"This is my daughter." I hastened over. The other mother went off to search the carrels along the wall. But one employee narrowed her eyes at me and called in a triumphantly insistent tone to the other mother, "But we've found her! This is her!" She watched Sophie and me all the way out of the library, gaze darting to the phone as if she were considering calling the police to report me for kidnapping.
We laughed about this later. We've also laughed at restaurants with our Korean-American friend Ruth, Manjit from Malaysia, Flora from Taiwan, and Kyoko from Japan; waitstafF inevitably get annoyed when they ask if Sophie needs a kid's menu or what she wants to drink and I'm the one who answers. Last summer, when I was in Prince Edward Island, pretending that my companions Micquel, Mahita, and Sophie were all my daughters, a fellow tourist wrecked my fantasy by assuming that fifteen-year-old Mahita, whose parents are from India, was my ten-year-old daughter's mother.
Mostly we roll our eyes at the expectation that real families have to match, because whatever anyone else thinks, we know we are a real family. Sometimes I wear one white sock and one brown one, my little protest. But in China, our differences will be even more visible. I don't know whether that will affirm our connection or create a rift. Maybe a little of both.
Even settled in our seats, the backs so high it's like we're in our own little cell, Sophie keeps a bone-crushing grip on my hand, which is still partly numb and starting to tingle from our minor crisis. All morning she's held onto me, grasping at my sleeve, inadvertently pinching my arm instead, fisting out blindly like she did as a baby. Ten years ago on the plane home from China, she had to hang tightly to a wad of my sleeve before she could go to sleep, claiming me, converting me to a security object, like a blanket or a stuffed animal.
"Ow," I say now. "You're pinching me."
She briefly releases her hold but goes on chattering. As our plane takes off, unmooring us from time and our own familiar language, we pass gossip magazines back and forth. They report on Paul Newman's death, Heather Locklear's most recent breakdown, and Taylor Swift's wardrobe. Voices hum and buzz around us, languages indistinguishable over the plane's snoring machinery breath. A map on our TV screens shows us winging over the Queen Elizabeth Islands, North America below us, Alaska off to our right. We watch Baby Mama and eat the pretzel we bought at the airport. I write in my journal.
Ten years ago I was flying this same route to become the terrified new mother of an intense, noisy baby with quick eyes, alert and watchful, the eyes of an old soul. She screamed a lot. A rash blossomed across her cheeks when she got too hot. She guarded vigilantly against sleep, against missing anything. Her Chinese name, Ni Qiao Qin, means smart and musical.
The girl next to me still hates to sleep. She practices handstands against the bathroom mirror, handsprings onto the couch, front tucks onto the guest room bed, beam dismounts into swimming pools. She wiggles and jiggles even while lying down. She spikes a fever in hot, crowded places. She yells at me from upstairs when I'm downstairs and downstairs when I'm upstairs and gets mad when I don't turn off the water, lower my book, pause the exercise bike, or set down pots and pans and wait in perfect stillness to absorb her words.
But even when I'm irritable and impatient, I feel lucky to be the mother of this smart and musical daughter who can beat anyone at Mancala, charm all the world's dogs, explain my cell phone and camera to me, and reflect with a combination of ancient wisdom and child logic on race, religion, and culture. She has read all about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, the Little Rock Nine, and Martin Luther King Jr. She reads books about the Holocaust and has declared herself Jewish, except she is also drawn to African American spirituals.
And she can dance. I was shocked to discover this. After all, the first time she was in a dance recital, she just stood under bright lights in a fluffy pink tutu, sucking her finger. Fast forward two years. The music struck up—"Man, I Feel Like a Woman." Six-year-olds in peach leggings and fancy updos flounced out, swaying their hips self-consciously, glancing at one another for cues about what to do next, each movement a confused afterthought. They cut their eyes toward their neighbors, then lifted their hands and feet with careful puzzlement, as if their body parts were breakable souvenirs from distant lands.
All but the girl in the middle, whose arms and hips swung, whose feet were quick and sure. She stared into bright lights and flicked her leg back, confident and sassy, turned sideways and cast a glance over her shoulder, defiant and self-possessed. This was my daughter? I dropped my magazine. I bolted up in my seat. This was my daughter.
I'd been taking tap classes for years, dragging Sophie along to color or do homework in the hall. Up until I saw her perform at that dress rehearsal, I had thought of dancing as my interest. And then, there was my daughter, so beyond me, so fully her own person, not always sure how she fit into the world but clearly at home in her own body, dancing.
Since then, for months following each recital, others ask me, "Where does she train?" "I couldn't take my eyes off her," they say. We routinely praise one another's children; it's a pleasant communal way that we reinforce our pride in them, not to be blown out of proportion. But I really believed these compliments, at least until my half-Korean friend Ruth told me that Sophie's dance performances most likely attracted attention because she looked different. It wasn't her exceptional talent, Ruth said.
How do you know? I wanted to demand. You haven't seen her dance.
Someone behind me has thumped the back of my seat every ten seconds for the last seven hours. I'm used to the jolting the way I'm used to the turbulence as we rock and bump through space. A snack arrives: Chinese noodles with dried carrots, onions, and fish. Alaska is below us, the international date line ahead. I page through the SkyMall studying the unimaginable array of luggage, the '40s Marshmallow Bazooka, the Animatronic Singing and Talking Elvis, and the Gravity Defying Boots.
Sophie is too wired to read a book. She keeps flipping channels on her TV. If I ever doubted the importance of taking her to China, I see now how right the decision was, how much it means to her to be going. "She's American now," people often say, puzzled, when I talk about her need to connect to her roots. Most parents have been influenced by the cultural checklist of duties that comes with having children, the injunctions we've absorbed about how to promote our children's healthy development. But interracial and inter-country adoption comes with even more obligations.
Most of us stick safety plugs in electrical sockets and gate off the stairs when our babies become mobile. We tick off developmental milestones during the first few years, eventually sign up our children for swimming lessons and summer soccer, help with homework, attend recitals, concerts, performances, games, and meets, volunteer at the schools. If cultural pressure regarding parental vigilance and involvement isn't stressful enough, adoption-related listservs brim with zealous parents who take it as a given that all of us who adopt from China must enroll our children in Mandarin classes, maybe even Chinese art and dance. At the very least we must find some way to celebrate the Moon Festival and Lunar New Year, seek out lion dances and acrobatic shows and cultural festivals and culture camps. Then there are those overachievers who hire Chinese babysitters, send their children to language-immersion schools, and make repeated return visits to China. Sophie found a story in a magazine about a fourteen-year-old girl who had traveled to China fourteen times. "Fourteen times!" Sophie says periodically. "She gets to go every year. How come she gets to go every year?"
On the flip side are comments I've heard from people I know of Chinese descent. "Why are American parents so concerned about teaching Chinese culture?" they ask, bewildered. After all, as Karin Evans points out in a book I read soon after I brought Sophie home, The Lost Daughters of China, children growing up in urban areas of China are often more familiar with American culture than they are traditional Chinese ways, wearing Mickey Mouse watches, eating at Pizza Hut, watching Big Bird on TV, and being introduced to the Chinese folktale "Fu Mulan" through the Disney animated movie.
Excerpted from Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge by Nancy McCabe Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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