My Wuhan friend applies lotion to my knuckles and slides a tight jade bangle onto my wrist. I call her jiejie—older sister. Jiejie whispers in Chinese, “I once heard the story of a young Chinese prince. As a boy, he was taken as a political prisoner to a faraway country, never to return. In the foreign land, the boy grew up to be an artist, and every day he painted exquisite meihua (a special Chinese flower). Yet he always painted them without stems and roots. ‘Why?’ the people asked him, and he always replied, ‘Because I am a person without roots.’” Outside, the summer cicadas hum in the night, as jiejie rolls the jade around my wrist, checking the fit. “Sisi.” She calls me by my child name. “Sisi, we pass jade bracelets down the mother line… from grandmother, to mother, to daughter, and then to her daughter. But you can’t find your Chinese mother here, so I am giving you this one.” The jade feels cool and smooth in the humid, stagnant air. I do not know my age. I do not know if my family gave me a name. I do not know what it might feel like to look into another’s face and see my own. The jade weighs heavy on my wrist and heavy on my heart because in some ways I, too, am a person without roots.
…I have searched for my birth parents in the past and have not found them. After 50 sets of DNA tests came back negative, I have accepted the possibility that I may never find my biological parents in China’s sea of 1.35 billion. Yet I do not feel all hope is lost: Through living in Wuhan, I can become closer to my birth family every day. When I stand in line for hours to board the public bus, when I squat to use the toilet in my high heels, when I eat extra spicy noodles without breaking a sweat, I am becoming a part of my family. Even though I may never be able to hold them, I can understand a part of who they are—a part of who I am—through living the way they live. In this way, having the opportunity to live long-term in China will empower me to begin to paint my own roots.
The decision to temporarily relocate to a birth country after college is not a new phenomenon amongst adoptees. In particular, older Korean adoptee friends and role models who have returned to Korea for extended periods of time post-college have influenced and inspired me. Korean adoptees have returned to Seoul to conduct research (many on Fulbright), to teach English, to work as translators, to study in Korean universities, or to pursue activism. Some chose to settle in Korea permanently, while others returned to North America or Europe for work, graduate study, or to raise families. I often wonder: In 5-10 years, will there be certain bars and restaurants in Beijing, like in Seoul, that become designated “adoptee hangouts?” Will China someday have a KoRoot Guest House or a KUMFA, a special adoption law or dual citizenship for adoptees?
…Regardless of exactly what I will discover in the next 18 months, it is empowering to have some sense of reclaiming the agency that I lost 20 years ago. The next time I fly on a plane from China to America, I will have booked the ticket myself. Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be? Now it’s my turn to decide.