Submission by Maya Xia Ludtke
The first nine months of my life are a mystery.
A tiny jade bracelet and a photograph of an inexplicably circular face on top of a torn red sweater make up my memory album. A few stapled pages of ambiguous papers constitute my birth record. I do know that I was found in Xia Xi, a farming town of flowers and trees. Though I was nervous about shattering the stable but fragile image I had created in my mind about those nine months, this past August I went to Xia Xi and began to crack through that tableau and experience what my life could have been.
There, I met the girls I could have grown up with, and with them visited the places where I would have spent each day. I was overwhelmed by simultaneous feelings of deep connection and unbridgeable distance. As we struggled to narrow the chasms created by language and culture, I found familiarity in their faces and the trees enveloping us.
“So, what are you?” the girls asked me. “ You look Chinese on the outside but you are American on the inside.” At first, I detested this description. If the substance of my being is not Chinese, I might as well be white. Once content with describing myself as “Chinese American,” now I was hit with its vagueness. Where do I belong between being Chinese and becoming American? In some ways my new friends were right; our many fragmented conversations during the three weeks we were together affirmed the differences in how our minds had developed to perceive the world.
“You are so lucky, you have no discipline, easy school, and freedom,” the Xia Xi girls would say with certainty and envy. “All we get to do is study.”
I felt guilty about my “luck” and the truth in their words. Still, their idealistic views about America and the ease of my life perplexed me. They had quickly dismissed my out-of-school activities and community service as lacking real learning. Yet, soon I realized how their understanding of “smart” contrasts with mine. Being smart is the high ranking a teacher gives them; studying is their only way of getting there. These tight borders command their childhood.
I permeated those borders as we talked about growing up, gender roles, equality, and relationships. No one before me had given them the space to talk about such topics. As a girl born in Xia Xi and living in America, I was the most foreign person the girls had ever met. They had never come in contact with anyone who looked different than they do. When I told them about the many friends I have who look different than I do, they were astonished. Being with them gave me deeper appreciation for the diversity that my life in America gives me.
For those I met in Xia Xi, family is blood and ancestry. “You do not know your real parents?” strangers would ask me soon after we met, sympathetic and eager to help me find mine. “When is your birthday? What orphanage were you from?” To me, their words “real mother” sit heavy in my mind. Even if I’d spoken their dialect fluently, I am not sure I could have explained. I have a real mother, who raised me and loves me. My biological family might not be whom I romanticized them to be and finding such strangers would not instantly conjure love. Instead, it was in the welcoming care that countless strangers showed me - in placing watermelon slices in both of my hands, pulling a comb through my hair, and attempting to cool me in 110-degree heat - that I found home in Xia Xi, and that was enough.