Author Archives: Hannah Joy Sachs

Origins: A Study Abroad Homecoming

I did not study abroad to “have the time of my life” or “take it easy for a semester”. Don’t get me wrong—I love adventure. When I fall into a routine for too long, I often crave it. I have spent the past six summers traveling in some of the most remote areas of the world. Last winter, I took a Birthright trip to Israel and embraced my Jewish identity. So traveling to China should not have been a big deal—it should have been just another adventure. Another opportunity to learn about local culture while reflecting on my own privilege. But to me, studying abroad in China for four months was daunting. By returning to my birth country, I was committing myself to the unknown and opening myself up to heartbreak.

I have always been sensitive. Even in safe situations growing up, I often felt vulnerable and insecure. It is a miracle, really, that I have traveled so much, as new situations and environments often give me days-long stomachaches and have me calling home in an emotional upheaval. More surprising still is on every adventure, I opt to travel with all strangers instead of childhood friends, relatives, or classmates from home. But maybe I thrive on that very uneasiness. Maybe my restless side thrives on facing challenges and exploring new places, cultures, and people without a familiar face by my side. Even more accurate, though, is me pushing myself to explore my own identity.

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Identity is a loaded word. It has a different meaning in various contexts. Identity can encompass perceptions of self as well as others people’s perceptions of you. It can include religion, socioeconomic status, intellectual point of view, political stance. Identity can be defined in the context of one’s community, geographic location, educational institution. And that is just the brink of the layered, multi-dimensional term.

​The eve of October 24, 2014, I boarded a flight from my study abroad program in Kunming to Nanjing, China. It is no metaphor when I say my whole body was shaking in fear, anticipation, excitement, and angst. Truthfully, as I write this three months later, my body is still tense, my fingers trembling. It has taken me months to process, truly, those three days. I think I am still processing my experience—I don’t know if the processing will ever stop. Identity is tricky that way: it always changes. Identity can contradict itself while making all the sense in the world. My identity can restrict me and liberate me.

​That weekend, I returned to my birthplace, Yangzhou. At least we think it is my hometown. When I was three days old, the Yangzhou Social Welfare Institute (both an orphanage and a home for the elderly) states that its workers found me outside the gates. There were no traces of my birth parents. But I am nearly five-foot-nine and my city is known for its tall women. I take pride in that shared trait.

​Returning to Yangzhou was my top priority when I decided to study abroad in China. Initially, the program interested me because of its focus on regional development in Southeast Asia, the place I truly feel at home. Having dabbled in Chinese culture and Mandarin for years, I kept forcing myself to become interested in China. Yet those moments of interest never lasted. I easily could have studied in Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia. But that would have been the safe route. Conquering my fear of China and all its unknowns reminded me that I could be strong and face the world bravely. Coming “home” to Yangzhou seemed to be the natural test of my courage.

​This wasn’t my first trip back. In 2005, I returned to China with my family and one other family of three. The girl was my crib mate in 1994 and miraculously, our parents had connected through Families with Children from China, an organization dedicated to giving adoptive families support pre- and post- adoption. It is common for families to bring their adopted children back to their birth countries when they turn 10 years old. We traveled for three weeks, mixing heritage and cultural “homeland” experiences with the more touristy excursions. While in Yangzhou, we visited my orphanage; I met one of my caretakers. Since my parents adopted me at five months old, I have no recollection of China. But I created memories during my first return. I distinctly remember one boy who gripped onto my finger and refused to let go. I recall an infant in a neon-pink fleece crying and throwing her bottle across the nursery. I still feel the pang in my chest as it hit me for the first time: that was once me. I was once in a crib, wanting to be held, nurtured, cherished as someone’s own loved one. During that visit, I presented the orphanage director with a scrapbook of my life in New York. I included a page that said, “I am a Jew, and Proud, Too” as well as photos of my dear grandparents meeting me for the first time at JFK Airport.

​Now, nearly ten years later, I had the opportunity to “come home” to my orphanage again. If you could still call it that. A decade ago, there was a master blueprint for reconstruction. Now, the upgrades have been completed. The new and grand center replaces the old one. Wooden floors and smoothed-cement walls replace the linoleum and dilapidated cinderblock. The former cracked marble sign at the entrance has been replaced with a sleek glass panel. The first floor of the center has been converted to a museum that celebrates successful adoption stories, including a photo of John Huntsman and his family.

Entrance to the Yangzhou Social Welfare Institute

​I did not recognize this place. Maybe that was good, as it meant the needs of the new children were being met. The demographics of children have shifted: it went from, in 1994, being mostly abandoned infant girls to, in 2014, being a majority of mentally and physically disabled boys who span from infancy to middle-school age. I recognize that state-of-the-art physical therapy equipment and play areas are rare in Chinese orphanages. Yangzhou is a welcomed, successful anomaly. But a selfish little part of me wishes there was some memory of the old building, whether it be a metal crib, the dim lighting, or the familiar smell of hot powered milk.

​This new building felt sterile. The lack of crying children or chaos made me feel as if I were in an artificial environment. Most of all, though, I felt that with the tearing down of the old building, I was no longer part of this community. I was once again a perpetual outsider, someone looking into her past without a tangible connection. I was disconnected from one more part of my Chinese heritage. It hurt.

​Of course, this is false. The building I saw ten years ago was a remodeled version of what my parents had witnessed twenty years ago, in 1994, when they adopted me. Everything changes all the time. Nothing slows down just because you want to reminisce.

​But reminisce I did. A public relations worker pulled my file from the archives. Inside the cardboard box, carefully preserved, was my father’s business card, a copy of my Chinese birth certificate, my adoption records, and the scrapbook I had brought nearly ten years ago. Although the construction paper had faded, I was instantly comforted. Here, inside the new, smoothed walls of the orphanage, a part of me remained. I laughed as I saw the “I’m a Jew, and Proud, too” page, especially in the wake of my Rosh Hashanah encounter in Kunming. Being just five days before the two year anniversary of my grandpa’s death and the one year anniversary of my grandma’s, I gulped back the sobs as I flipped through pages of photos of me in their arms.

​It’s unnerving, this concept we call time. It distances us from pain, yet in one moment, one photo can trigger sorrow and joy simultaneously. Seeing those photos of my grandparents sparked emptiness in my heart that I hadn’t felt since their respective funerals. Yet at the same time, I was overcome with relief. Relief that I still remembered their comforting hugs. Reassured that they weren’t slipping from my memories or my grasp. Hopeful that they would be proud of my journey and the person I am becoming.

Skyline of Yangzhou, China.

Skyline of Yangzhou, China.

​Even Yangzhou the city was unrecognizable. Ten years ago, roads on the outskirts of the city were unpaved. The canals were beautiful but trash lined some of the older cobblestone streets. Rickshaws were the vehicle of choice. This time, electric motorbikes filled the paved streets. Trash bins and recycling cans sprinkled the sidewalks. There were Western toilets. It was unrecognizable, yet I felt at home. In the market, a woman asked me if I was a Yangzhou girl. Without hesitation, I answered “Yes” and she smiled. For once, I was a local, no questions asked. Unlike Kunming or other parts of China, where my native language does not match my face and my name does not complement my complexion, in Yangzhou, I did not feel like I was letting down others’ expectations of who I should be. Instead, I was candidly, unapologetically me. And no one countered this fact. Even when I fumbled my Mandarin, people smiled patiently. I explained to a shopkeeper that I was a Yangzhou girl but an American, too: I was returning home for a visit. She gave me a “welcome home” hug. I felt no resentment from her, unlike I have from other Chinese who discover I am internationally adopted.

​This is not to say that I fit in perfectly. I was still at the crossroads of my identity. But I felt accepted and I felt an inner calm. I have only felt this calm in Southeast Asia. Even in the United States, the land I call home, I feel out of place. Often, my inner anxiety exacerbates microaggressions, or non-conscious remarks others make about my identity. The expectations of others have become a burden to me. It is my nature to aim to please others; I hate letting people down, even if I have no control over the situation. My time in China has taught me that I have more grit than I give myself credit. It was four months of discomfort, yet I survived. No. I did more than survive; I grew up. I learned about myself. Sure, I learned that I do not want to live in China for the long-term. But I also learned that I am capable of it.

​Returning to China, overall, was not a homecoming for me. If anything, I felt alien. But going to Yangzhou gave me a new sense of what coming home could feel like. Home does not always have to be a place of comfort. It does not have to be familiar. Instead, it can be entering a new place and having a sense of calm wash over you at the same time new questions enter your mind. Coming home can feel like leaving home, and the familiar, simultaneously. I left New York and Southeast Asia, the places I feel safest, and traded them for China, my country of origin. But New York could be my nation of origin, as well. It was where I was given a family, and put down my first real roots. Even Southeast Asia could be my origin: it is the first region where I let go of every insecurity and allowed myself to live freely, unapologetically, and out of my comfort zone.

​My study abroad journey taught me about Southeast Asia, sure. Yes, I learned basic Mandarin. Of course I built up my spicy-food tolerance. But really, study abroad is not about the academics. I learned 5% about the country, but 500% more about myself than when I set off. Cliché as it sounds, the self-discovery process was difficult and rewarding. There is no tangible measure for understanding identity, yet I feel myself observing, questioning, learning, and adapting. My semester in China has taught me to cope with internal struggles and insecurities while exploring who I am—and testing my emotional strength—in a new society. I have lost count of how many times my sense of self has been turned around and twisted. And with every bend, my confidence has faltered. Yet coming to China has made me stronger and more independent. I have new survival tactics. I have learned to channel my vulnerabilities and emotions, turning it into productive and positive energy. I’ve encountered people of all backgrounds who have vastly different agendas and means of getting there. I have furthered my understanding of “informed global citizen” and have pushed myself to become a responsible rising one.

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Rosh Hashana in Kunming

During my first year of college, I was asked to draw and divide a pie chart into five sections. From there, I was to label each section with an adjective or characteristic that I felt strongly defined me (and with which I voluntarily identified).

Immediately, I filled in four sections: Jewish, Asian American (born in China), adoptee, and traveler. Then I paused, contemplating what the last slice of my identity pie would be. Finally, I settled on cultural bridge builder.

I chose this last identifier for multiple reasons. First, it is everything I aspire to be. I aim to work in a field where I can help diverse communities connect. Second, all the activities and clubs I belonged to in high school and in which I participate at Davidson College revolve around initiatives for diversity, inclusiveness, and religious dialogue. Finally, in my view, my four other identifiers mark me as an individual who has been socialized and challenged to show the world that unique or unconventional backgrounds can lead to new perspectives.

I am not just an “other” in society that belongs nowhere. I refuse to accept such a label passively, yet it is a label so many try to pin on me when they do not understand my background. My Jewish and Asian American identities are not mutually exclusive. Rather, my understanding and connection to each group enriches my outlook on the world.

This semester, I challenged myself to study abroad in Kunming, China. Yunnan Province is known for its ethnic diversity. China has worked to incorporate these diverse minority groups into greater Chinese society, but there are still stark disparities. If anyone were to understand my struggles with fitting into Chinese society, would it not be these people?

Though Chinese by birth, I have identified myself as Jewish first for as long as I can remember. Judaism is the culture in which I was raised. Most of my role models, including close family friends and relatives, are Jewish. I never had Chinese American or Asian role models who taught me how to navigate society, deal with prejudice and discrimination, and assert myself as an Asian American woman. Rather, I consider myself a cultural and religious Jew because of the community of which I am a part and the relationships I’ve fostered since childhood. I practice certain holidays and ceremonies but also closely identify with the historic struggles of the Jewish people.

Yet the average person meets me and first identifies me as Asian, often distinguishing me as Chinese right away. He or she never assumes I am Jewish. This is a consequence of the way our society views identity—one’s race or ethnicity is defined by the viewer without ever conversing with the individual in question. Ethnicity and race become primary markers in categorizing people and subsequently applying stereotypes to that individual.

I had hoped that coming to China would help enhance my lifelong journey to define myself within a greater, international society. When I was eight years old, I remember a Hebrew school classmate asking me if it was even legal to be both Asian and Jewish. Though I’ve grown to understand that he meant no harm, these comments were painful and I reflect on them often, especially when I feel vulnerable or insecure about my identity in the context of a new place.

I have been fortunate to have spent the past three summers in Southeast Asia, engaged in both voluntary and paid experiences. As a result, I am fairly confident in my place there. To Southeast Asians I have met, I am American by culture and Asian by heritage and birth. They are curious yet respectful; no one in Southeast Asia has ever challenged my self identity or tried to suggest that how I view myself is incorrect.

I’ve had many long discussions with locals in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia about adoption—a foreign concept to many—and Abrahamic religions. I take pride in teaching these people about my identity and culture while learning about theirs. It is truly an educational dialogue. But in no way do I, or my views, represent an entire population.

In China, on the other hand, I feel out of my element completely. I have felt more insecure here in the past six weeks than I have in any other country I have ever visited. Being surrounded by native, authentic Chinese has made me struggle internally about my place in this society. While my face to them is authentically Chinese, the way in which my parents raised me is not. Since I do not consider my biological parents my family, my family is not Chinese. Yet explaining this is complex and often causes more pain than just nodding along with Chinese who inquire about my heritage and assume I am mixed race or just the child of Chinese immigrants.

Sure, on the outside I am Chinese. But, often, my clothes mark me as a Westerner. My lack of language and cultural skills also betray my physical characteristics and mark me as alien. When I explain that I was adopted, I get a multitude of reactions. Some turn to my Caucasian friends (who have better Mandarin skills than mine) and question, ”Really?” Others look at me like I am a spectacle but nod and resume the conversation. Others still just grunt and end the discussion.

Transnational, transracial adoption and the one child policy can be touchy subjects in China. Sometimes I feel that people resent the opportunities my family has given me outside of China. Many Chinese students my age aspire to learn English and subsequently work abroad, and see my situation as ideal. I believe others fear me and are worried about resentments I may hold against China. A few cannot hold a straight face when talking to me: they cannot believe that I am not Chinese. To them, I am simply one of them with a funny accent. It isn’t possible, in their minds, that I reject my Chinese facet of identity. Herein lies the gap in my and their understanding.

In other parts of the world when I struggle with identity, I resort to the local Jewish community for support and a sense of extended family and belonging. While fitting into Judaism has also been a lifelong challenge, my adoptive family raised me in that culture and I understand those nuances more than Chinese cultural traditions. My grandfather in particular took great pride in belonging to a temple and volunteering through that network, and I hope to carry on his legacy. He and the rest of my family never made me doubt being Jewish. I find more commonalities with Jews around the world than with the pan-Asian American community.

Coming to China, I hoped to find at least a small Jewish community. Usually Jewish communities become more outwardly present during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I sought assistance from my program directors and RA, hoping they could steer me in the direction of a service or gathering for Rosh Hashanah. One told me of services on Rosh Hashanah that were open to Jews all over Kunming. Many, she said, belonged to the Israeli or American ex-pat communities.

Excited, I set out on the morning of the New Year. When the cab driver didn’t know the address I showed him, I walked. I was proud that I navigated the city by myself. Despite being anxious about meeting a new group of people (I am extremely shy around strangers, especially when there is a potential language barrier), I hoped that this service would lead to the opening of a new community and relationships. Obviously I wouldn’t be engaged in the same way as in New York where I grew up, or North Carolina where I go to school, or Europe where I’ve visited various synagogues. But a new service would be part of the adventure. Going beyond my comfort zone would not kill me.

To my surprise, the address was a Chinese language school in which ex-pats in Kunming came to study Mandarin intensively. Furthermore, none of the staff knew of the Rosh Hashanah programming. Hmmm. I looked at the company’s logo: it had two Stars of David. Why? One staff member explained that Chinese people like to do business with Jews and see many similarities between the groups. I chuckled, recalling New York Times articles that discussed Chinese peoples’ fascination with Jews.

I was about to leave, admitting defeat in my quest for a service, when another woman from the language school asked me to wait. Apparently, there was a man praying upstairs and I could speak to him when he finished. Hope inside me sparked anew. I’d come all this way—why not try talking with him? I returned to my seat.

An hour later, he emerged from upstairs and I introduced myself. He did the same. He had come from Singapore and had converted to Orthodox Judaism. He prided himself on being a practicing Jew and spoke of his leadership roles in Kunming. He said the Rabbi sometimes asked him to organize gatherings or lead prayers. This all sounded along the lines of what I wanted.

Then the man asked me about my affiliation to Judaism. This is never an easy question for me to answer. Not because I am uncomfortable, but the intricacies of my background sometimes lose people. I told him that I was born in Yangzhou and adopted at five months of age. I explained that my parents subsequently had a mikvah (conversion ceremony) for me. I said that I was a Reform Jew, and told him that while it is unique to the United States, our customs follow cultural and religious Judaism.

He then asked me how I was raised. I replied that I had a bat mitzvah, had attended religious school, and was even the president of Hillel (the Jewish student organization) at Davidson College. He frowned, and I felt myself recoiling. Why were we still talking about my background? Why was he not nodding or even smiling?

Then came the question: did I have proof of my conversion? Had I stood before rabbis and sworn my allegiance to Judaism? Sure, this man was strictly Orthodox, but did he not realize that there are different types of Judaism and that I was no less Jewish than he? While he did not distinguish between religious and cultural Judaism, I got the distinct impression that he was trying to prove he was more Jewish and more devoted.

Again and again, he told me I could not truly be Jewish because my birth mother was not. He said I would have to stand in front of Rabbis before I could be a real Jew. Wasn’t this hypocritical? Didn’t he understand that an infant who was immersed in a mikvah and experienced the ritual cleansing it provides was as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish woman? His conversion, as an adult, required study and supervision. Mine did not.

As I kept trying to explain my background and why I was Jewish, I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be about a sweet new year and the idea of a Jewish community or family. From my past experience, Orthodox Jews have always wanted to draw me into their stricter traditions and show me the way. Why was he excluding me?

Judaism had been the backbone of my upbringing and identity. Being told, bluntly, that I was not Jewish hurt me deeply. I was once again being excluded from a community. This time, though, it was a community in which I usually sought comfort after being detached from my Asian identity. If I am shut out of both my Asian and Jewish communities, to whom could I turn?

As a member of the Better Together interfaith movement, I had to remind myself that not everyone sees difference within and between religions as an asset. I call myself a cultural bridge builder, but not everyone supports my efforts. Some prefer to remain on islands, disconnected from those around them.

Living in China this semester has been difficult thus far. I look like an insider and feel like an outsider. I’ve been told again and again that I have an advantage because I look like the majority here, but if I don’t feel like the majority on the inside, does the color of my skin or my complexion matter? I know in a few years, I’ll value these experiences as important learning experiences. But now, the pain overrides the growth that I know will come from this.

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