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There are thirteen words I know in Chinese before I know them in English. Shu niu hu tu long she ma yang hou ji gou zhu — middle school races to say them as fast as possible. No tones because they slow you down. Middle school Chinese was always in portable classrooms. Only in retrospect comes the othering, and I can already hear accusations of overthinking.
The thirteenth I see in my mind’s eye before I hear. No tones because I never learned them. It is written vertically on a sign near the 福利中心门, it is written on the line for my finding site, 福利院附近. I do not know why I knew it when I saw it.
The red thread ties together souls who are destined to be together. The story goes that 月下老人， the old man under the moon, ties these threads.
In one story, a boy meets月下老人 on a path and is shown who he is destined to marry. He is young and uninterested, so he throws a rock at her to chase her away. Many years later, when his parents arrange his marriage, he is delighted at his wife’s beauty but curious at the adornment over her eyebrow. She reveals the scar underneath, and tells him that when she was young, a boy threw a rock at her and left a scar on her eyebrow that she self-consciously covers up. You know how this story ends.
In another story, 韋固met an old man on his way to 宋城. The old man was reading from a book, which he told 韋固 contained marriage listings. The old man pointed to a woman carrying a little girl and told 韋固 that the little girl would be his wife. Disturbed, 韋固 ordered his servant to stab the girl with a knife. Fourteen years later, the governor gave 韋固 his daughter in marriage. Though she was beautiful, she walked with difficulty and had a scar on her lower back. You have heard this story before.
Early 1990s: Chinese-American adoption begins.
Mid- to late-1990s: White parents in Washington, D.C., suburbs roll around Chinese babies in strollers.
1997: My mother gives birth. Time, location, weight at birth: unknown.
1998: I am given to new parents in the lobby of a hotel. The VHS recording of the event sits in the chest at the foot of those parents’ bed.
2007: The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairy Tale, by Grace Lin, is published. It is about a white king and queen who feel a tugging on their heart that leads them to adopt a Chinese daughter.
2009: I begin taking Chinese in middle school. My tongue remembers it more than I do.
2010: The Red Thread: A Novel, by Ann Hood, is published, and is about a Chinese-American adoption agency and the American parents who want children and the Chinese parents who must give them up.
2013: I stop taking Chinese in high school.
2017: I regret my decision.
2c. Red Thread
In another story, an American couple feels a great yearning tugging within them. There is an incompleteness that they must fill, and they travel across an ocean to sate it. They take another couple’s daughter and cut the red thread around her ankle and tie the frayed end around theirs. They say, even if it is tangled, it was never broken. I do not know how this story ends.
In Chinese, the same word means house and family. Home is a place is a people is a measure word. Family is a place is a legacy is a lineage. 家 is a line is a connection is a thread.
I once wrote that my parents left me no legacy. I wanted to write about the negative space that adoption carves. My fiction writing professor didn’t understand, but he was glad I wrote it. Later that month, I stopped writing for white men. I do not know when I realized that I had stopped writing for my American father.
I do not know if there is a red thread connecting me back to 高邮. If there is, I do not know what fibers are spun into the thread. Must a legacy know what preceded it?
一．Chinese doctors’ use of the smallpox vaccination in the 1990s.
二．The last American-born baby to receive the smallpox vaccination.
三．I have the vaccination scar. Another girl from the same welfare center has it, too. Another girl does not.
四．In my dreams, I have a brother. He is younger but taller.
Always in a white T-shirt. Always running down a hallway with an older man and woman. Sometimes carrying a baby in his arms.
We are in a hotel, running past the same doors, around the same corners. Sometimes I run with them, other times I chase.
If there is a difference between escaping and leaving behind, I do not know it.
I learned young that four is unlucky. I learned later it is a close homophone for death.
In another story, a Chinese couple gave birth to a healthy girl, over quota, and they kept her long enough to name her. Government officials took her from them, and she grew up in an American home. The Chinese couple hopes that she knows how much they love her, how they named her for victory, for surpassing a gentleman, how they would have kept her if they could. I have trouble telling this story.
In another story, a Chinese couple discovered they were expecting a baby girl. They traveled to高邮, where there was a welfare center with good practices, where their daughter might have a better life. They left her near the welfare center for the staff to find, and when the staff found her, they guessed her birthday to be the day before. When the girl left China with an American couple a year and five months later, her thread had been cut. I do not yet know how this story ends.
I started learning Chinese again in 2017, first as review in preparation for my trip to Shanghai, then during daily 8 a.m. classes after which I got a vegetarian bun and two hard-boiled eggs from the cafeteria, then on the 27th floor of Pitt’s Cathedral. Two summers in a row, I tried to organize a Fulbright application to return to my hometown, to meditate and write on what makes a home. I couldn’t either time. I am still coming up with reasons why.
I never understood why people were so tired of orphans as protagonists. There are 153 million orphans in the world. 153,000,000 has more zeros in it than the populations of most countries. If orphans were their own country, we would be the ninth most populous country in the world. It seems like a great many people to exclude from being protagonists.
A friend once responded, I assume in good faith, to my complaints, and told me that I’m not an orphan. To which I pointed out, well, I spent time in an orphanage, before I knew that in China they are more directly translated as welfare centers.
An orphan is a child who is deprived by death of their parents. I am not an orphan. I am no longer a child, and I was deprived by abandonment.
An orphan is a young animal that has lost its mother. I am an orphan.
An orphan is one deprived of some protection or advantage. Am I an orphan?
An orphan is a single word separated from the rest of its related text appearing at the bottom of a printed page or column. I am not an orphan.
Children in orphanages who are not orphans are ____. Orphans who grow up are ____, people who were but no longer are. If I was an orphan and no longer am, does the deprivation and loss remain in the past, locked behind the gates of a birthday that the welfare center staff decided?
The first musical I saw in a theatre was Annie. I went with my mother and one of her friends, and one of the orphans was played by an Asian child. On our way out of the theatre, walking carefully around slicks of black ice in the parking lot, my mother’s friend asked me who my favorite character was, and I told her I liked the Asian girl. She replied, full of delight and insight, oh, because she’s just like you!
I do not know where I first heard the term “red thread,” or when it first gave me an uneasy feeling about the person who used it. The stories of red threads connect violence back to their perpetrators. A boy to his rock, a man to his knife, a child to a parent who has taken them from their home, a child to a parent who has given them up.
I did not return to China for nineteen years, time enough to no longer be an orphan, time enough to miss something but not know what it was. When I was in middle school, I bought a necklace during a trip to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. A small, pale oval on a black string, with a Chinese character on the front, and the translation, “destiny,” printed slightly off center on the back.
Notes for 2011: Wear the necklace until the ink smudges off the back, until you know destiny without proof, without need for translation, until the two lines sweeping down and away from one another, the horizontal line underneath, the box and hook below are seared into your sternum. Wear it until you are convinced that you are the girl with destiny around her neck, in her skin, in her bones. Wear it until you know there’s no need to wear it anymore.
When I was 19, I received a necklace as a present. A metal circle with a long, thick chain looping through the hole in the center. On it, hiraeth, a homesickness for a home that no longer exists.
Notes for 2017: Wear your homesickness close to your heart when you return to the welfare center. Hold it in your fist afterwards as you lie on the comforter and the room darkens with the setting sun. Let it chill your skin as you sit on the ledge of the window and look over the city where you might have grown up, the city that was a town when you last left it, that was a village when your American parents told you about it.
Is it worse to be taken from a home or to have a home taken from you? This question was posed to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at a writing conference in 2017. I watched them try to explain the loss that comes from each, the separation and violence that are prerequisites for each. Their eloquence lapped against my eardrums, two sides of the same ocean, until the loss of being taken prevailed.
I wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie later that year to thank her for allowing me to feel that ache. I wrote to tell her that I had turned over the question in my mind ever since, that I will for the rest of my life. When they break my skull open after death, they will find it carved into the folds of my brain.
When I write about returning to China, I refrain from writing about the man I kissed, touched, fucked while I was there. I do not want to write about him because he is also the man who raped me in a hotel room in Shanghai, who would, many months later in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, grab me with enough force that the bruises of his fingertips would remain on my forearm for a week.
It is its own story. It is necessarily part of this story. I am scared I will confuse the reader with too many traumas, too many sources of pain, all emanating from the same place, from multiple places. I do not know how to write about this because I do not want him to be there. I do not want to write about this because writing about it places him there.
I don’t remember what I used to wish for when I blew out the candles of my childhood birthday cakes. I don’t think I wished for anything. I was too focused on making sure each flame whispered out, that the glowing dot at the end of each blackened wicker would fade.
In elementary school, I once told a family friend that I didn’t really feel like part of my family. I didn’t think I meant it at the time. I just wanted to try the words out, to see what it might be like if it were true. My parents’ solution was to give me chores around the house.
Permit me, please, to tell another story. A couple wanted a child but could not have one on their own. They tried desperately for many years, and it caused both parents great pain. They had heard of another means of having a child, and they traveled across an ocean to pursue it. They found themselves in a land inhabited by people with black hair, who spoke in a foreign tongue they could not understand. They waited at a hotel as a van, white like a stork, carried a child to them, and they took her gladly. They returned home with the child and raised her the best they could. They raised her the way they knew how. This story does not belong to me, but I’m afraid I must borrow it, as we all borrow stories in our lifetimes.
For when I begin again.