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.
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.
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.
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.