Last night I had a nightmare. It didn’t wake me up in a cold sweat, yelling at something unseen. And it wasn’t the cute, funny, kind of nightmare in which I find myself at work wearing only boxers while a dwarf talks to me in backward audio clips.
No, this was the kind of nightmare that made disturbing because it had to do with something I think about in my waking life. It’s going to have me thinking for days about what it means and what I should do about it. To understand the nightmare, you have to understand something about my children.
I have four great kids: three girls and a boy. My youngest daughter was born in China. When she was one year old my then-wife and I flew to China to meet her and complete the in-country portion of the adoption.
It was love at first sight on our parts, of course. She was so small, weighing only fourteen pounds. Qian (pronounced “chen”) was watchful but appeared willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. She didn’t cry when the orphanage staff gave her to my ex-wife to hold. She didn’t cry, poop or pee the whole first afternoon and night we had her. But she did cry when we tried to give her a bath the next morning. Such a skinny kitten! She had so little fat on her stomach that it was almost flat—not rounded at all. It was only later that our guide told us that in the orphanages, the children are given sponge baths and so had never seen a bathtub full of water.
For the next fourteen days, I carried Qian in a Snuggli carrier in front of me as we went through the official hoops set up by the Chinese and American governments to complete the adoption proceedings. And so she was always lying against my stomach and chest. She may not have known where she was going, but she always knew where I was.
Even now, at four years old, she wants me to carry her everywhere. Much of this is likely due to the fact that I see her one day a week and every other weekend. I can’t help but think that she remembers a little of my carrying her in China, though.
All of these things are wonderful memories of real events. But it’s the recent nightmare that prompted me to write this post. I dreamed that I was at a local, independent CD store. This is a place I would usually go to buy a CD. The salespeople were in the dream along with a number of Asian people (in the dream I knew that they were Chinese). And I’m not there alone. I’m carrying Qian on my back. Only she’s eighteen years old now and weighs about 110 pounds.
When I set her down on the ground to get a CD it appears as though she will stay there and I have no worries about this. However, as soon as I walk away from her, Qian begins talking in Chinese to the Asian people walking past her. She is swearing in Chinese. She is yelling at all the Asian people in the store how much she hates them for being Asian, for being Chinese, for speaking Chinese, trying to look older than they are, wearing bad fashions—whatever she can think of.
All the people who aren’t being yelled at by Qian are looking at me with the saddest, most disappointed look they can give. It’s the look that your parents gave you when you really did something rotten as a kid. And the look is so damning you wish your parents would give you a thrashing rather than continuing to look at you in that way. I walk back to where I’ve left Qian and put her on my back again and carry her out the door as she continues verbally abusing the Chinese people in my dream.
Why isn’t this something I can shake off and laugh about? Because as much as she is loved by her mom and dad and as much as she gets along with her sisters and brother, the fact remains that she is the only one in our family with Asian features or who left behind a literal empire of culture and language in exchange for family membership.
I know that when she goes to school or goes out for a sport or wants to be in a play or—name the situation—someone is going to use her looks to separate her from the crowd and say she’s not good enough or “not right” in some way. And she’ll be hurt.
There are people who will read this and ask, “Then why did you ever take her out of China?” When we wanted to adopt another child, my ex-wife and I agreed that we couldn’t take the heartache of an open adoption that went bad or a young father who changed his mind late in the process and wanted the child to be in his life. These things are neither good nor bad, but you have to know how much crap you can take. We knew our limits.
China has a reputation of being very orderly and straightforward in their international adoption process. We brought gifts for officials, which is considered polite, but the value of the gifts (a carton of cigarettes, a baseball cap, a bottle of liquor not available in China, etc.) is far from being what could be mistaken as a “sale price” for a child.
For now, I’m letting her know how much we love all things Chinese. We go to a family-owned restaurant a few times a month and she’s learning to say “Ni hao” and “Xiexie” when she talks to the woman at the cash register. (I promise I will learn more Chinese than just this, Truly. Wo shi baba).
I cling to a folk belief from China as part of my explanation for why Qian is part of my family now: “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.” A lot of adoptive parents have heard this, I think.
It’s one thing to remember the first day I saw the “referral picture” of Qian and felt that this had become a new reason for living. It’s another to feel that the hard work has only just begun to help her decide who she is: Lin’An’s missing princess.