Authors: Kathryn Ma
“Chinatown?” I asked. I knew how to walk there because every year the Whackadoodles met at the Grant Avenue gate to watch lion dancers or eat special cakes or buy willow or forsythia or flowering quince branches for Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival and Qingming and the Moon Festival too. None of which, Les pointed out to Charlie, they had ever bothered to celebrate growing up in Palos Verdes.
“Oh, it's so dirty there,” Gran said. “Isn't there somewhere better?” She marched into a fancy hotel, talked to a man, and came out. We went for
at a white-tablecloth restaurant.
“We are not Chinatown Chinese,” Gran told me over lunch. “We come from Hangzhou, a beautiful city, and we speak Mandarin, not Cantonese. The people who live in Chinatown came from mostly one part of China. Through no fault of their own”âshe speared a piece of meatâ“their ancestors were uneducated, and they speak a different language.” I already knew the difference. A Mandarin tutor came weekly to Whackadoodles to teach us driblets of vocabulary and once in a while a song. Only the girls who went to the private Chinese American school or had after-school immersion could write characters and say whole sentences. One girl attended a public elementary school with a Cantonese-language program, but none of the rest of us did. Adoption was one thing; class was another. We might visit Chinatown, but we weren't
Chinatown. Cultural heritage had its limits, and that, too, obstructed me. Here I lived in a city full of Chinese, but I was still an outsider, set apart from most.
“My father belonged to the intelligentsia,” Gran continued. “He was a very important doctor who owned a hospital in Shanghai. He was rich for a while, and he took care of the wives of all the important officials.”
I worked on my steak and fries. Each time I had met her on her annual visits, Gran had told me about her father, ob-gyn to the stars, whom everyone in Shanghai in the 1930s and '40s knew as Dr. W. W. Wu, the world's most charming man. She went on boasting while I waited for my chance. If I didn't speak up soon, she'd be on to Bryn Mawr College, and how Charlie and Les had refused to go there, but how I, her only granddaughter, would make the better choice because Bryn Mawr would be perfect for me: it was filled with brilliant women.
“My father made sure that Rose and I had the best education,” Gran said. She paused to spit out a piece of gristle and then move it, unembarrassed, to the edge of her plate.
“I wonder who my father is,” I said.
“Ha,” Gran said. “Wouldn't we all like to know.” She looked at me across the table, the first time she had studied me all morning. I was wearing a dress that I hated, scoop-necked and pretty, but I was too small to fit into the teenage clothes I was dying to wear.
“Well,” Gran said, “in asking that question, I see you're finally old enough to engage in a real conversation.”
I nodded, thrilled that Gran could see past my peach-colored dress.
wasn't going to nervously change the subject.
“I guess my parents abandoned me,” I said. The A word in my mouth felt dangerous and thrilling.
“They did indeed,” Gran said, “and a very wicked thing it was, too. They had their reasons, as I'm sure people have insisted, but as far as I'm concerned, no reason is good enough. I was a nurse, you know.” I was surprised; I hadn't known that, either. “I saw a lot of babies being born, some good and some damaged. You do what you can for the damaged ones, and you don't throw away the good. It's a human duty to raise and educate your children, or if you can't do it, you ask your family to step in. Your parents should have known that. No matter how poor they were, they should have found a way. My father did, even in wartime. When the Japanese invaded and bombs were falling and China was in chaos, my father took care of us and made sure we got schooling, with tutors during the war, and then on to college. So no, I don't excuse your parents.”
I nodded, dumbly. It was and it wasn't exactly what I'd wanted to hear.
“Nor will I excuse you if you don't make something of yourself. Look at you. I never saw a brighter button. You're smart as a whip and full of fire. Never mind about that mother who abandoned you or that father who didn't provide. You belong to the Kong family now. You're
Chinese; your ancestral home is Hangzhou. You've got a huge advantage over all those other girls adopted by Americans”âby “Americans,” she meant white people, I guessed. “Your mother is Chinese. Nobody has to know you're adopted.”
“But that's all we talk about in Whackadoodles,” I said. “They want us to say how we feel about being adopted.” Just that week, I'd been encouraged in playgroup to write a letter to my birth parents. While the other girls were writing, I'd escaped to the bathroom.
Gran's jade bracelet clinked against her plate. I thought of the sound that Charlie's heavy key ring made when she tossed it every evening into the cloisonnÃ© bowl on the altar table in the hallway. Sometimes our house seemed to me like a kind of jail that I needed to escape from.
“In China,” Gran said, “adoption is no big deal. Children are passed from family to family according to supply and demand. If one man has three daughters and his cousin has none, the first man will send one of his daughters to help take care of the cousin. Or if the parents can't take care of all of their childrenâmaybe the mother is sick or the father hasn't got enough to provide for everyoneâanother family member offers to take an extra one or two in. Everybody did it, whether rich or poor. That's how it used to be, and it made a lot of sense. What's the expression?”âshe laughedâ“a win-win situation.”
I remember how she looked in our booth in that grand restaurant. Her face wasn't old but soft and mobile, her mouth moving pleasantly and her eyes bright and inviting. Her voice was low and forceful, and the way she spoke to me without apologizing for causing me pain or recasting the dire circumstances of my birth into a feel-good children's story fell as warmly on me as the square of sunlight that moved across our table. She held my gaze steadily as we talked and ate.
“Can you think of yourself that way?” she said. “Simply transferred from one family branch to another?”
“Is that how it worked in your family?” I wanted confirmation that what she described was real. But Gran frowned and didn't answer. Had I asked the wrong question? I didn't want her to clam up the way other adults did, so I hurried on to reassure her. “I don't mind being adopted,” I said. “I like the way you describe it. It's very Chinese, switching parents.”
“Good,” she said. I saw gold at the back of her mouth when she rewarded me with a smile. “It wasn't only the Chinese. In the old days, everyone made adjustments. You'll read about it soon enough in Austen.
. You have such pleasures ahead.”
“I like Greek myths. You picked out really good books for me,” I added.
She waved away my manners. “The daughters got such ill treatment by the gods,” she said. “Abandoned, raped, blamed, punished. Always some drama and always the victim.” She leaned across the table. “Father taught me: don't feel sorry for yourself. You have advantages. Thank God you turned out as smart as my daughters. At least there's that. When a child can't keep upâ What's the matter? You look like one of Rose's boys who's lost again at tennis.”
“I don't like it when people tell me I'm lucky.”
Gran hooted. “I'd hardly say that,” she declared.
e stopped at a gas station on our way back to Les's. Gran taught me how to pump the gas and how to check the oil. I didn't think that filling the tank to exactly where it was when we started out that morning would fool Les, but Gran assured me that Les wouldn't notice that her car was clean and her odometer higher. Her daughters, she said with annoyance, thought more about other people than they did about themselves. Grandpa George Kong had been like that, and to what end? All his do-gooding wore him right out.
We made ourselves a pot of tea and called Charlie to come pick me up. While we were waiting, Gran let me rummage through her handbag. I didn't scrabble right away for the mechanical pencil. I thought if I didn't show too much interest, Gran might let me have it. I had noticed that the things I wanted mostâcooler clothes, harsher music, better answers to my unanswerable questionsâadults tended to withhold for my own good. I took out a handkerchief that Gran said Rose had embroidered and a thick book and a pair of Chinese scissors, the kind with short, sharp blades like a mouse pirate's dagger and big, looped handles like the ears on Mickey Mouse. We didn't own anything like them, and they looked playfully harmless; but when I stuck the point into my open palm, I could tell that if I pushed harder, I would puncture a hole in my hand.
“Can I have these?” I asked. In my art box at home, I had only safety scissors.
“You may not,” Gran said. “I need those.”
“Can I have this then?” I drew out the leather case and sniffed it deeply. It smelled not of leather but of Gran's complicated scentâdeep, rich, and potent. Its fold-over flap was imprinted with faded initials; I picked out a
. My hand closed around the case. I told myself that I deserved a reward for spending all morning with an old person.
Gran held out her hand, and I reluctantly gave it to her.
“George Kong, your grandfather, was a very precise man. He always had the instruments he needed. I was never in the operating room with him, but the nurses told me they never saw such elegant work. Of course, Father was better. He had the touch. His father and all his uncles were Hangzhou tailors, and he learned to sew when he was a little boy. Look at my hands.” She held up her hands for my admiration. I had my eyes on that caseâI had to make it mine. “Big enough to catch a baby, but they didn't let the nurses do that. You may look again,” she said, handing it to me.
I drew out the precious contents and tucked the case into my lap. My hand had turned into a magnetâfirst I tried the pen and then the pencil, which fitted my hand neatly and lodged along the raised bump on my middle finger. Gran handed me a notepad, and I wrote my name over and over with lead so fine it might have been made of rabbit whiskerâat Whackadoodles that week, our Chinese-brush-painting teacher had passed around a brush with just one delicate whisker.
If she gives them to me
, I thought,
I won't tell Charlie because she might want them as badly as I do.
She missed her fatherâshe kept his hat in her closet; I had tried it on during one of my long snoopsâand I worried that if I showed his things to her, Charlie might suggest that we split them between us. She was always going on about the virtues of sharing. I hated sharing, unless it was with A.J., who liked the pencils I collected and who shared her stuff freelyâher hair clips and her gum and her father.
Gran leaned across the love seat toward me. The powder she used made her face look very white. Scooped flesh pouched under her appraising eyes. I wasn't afraid of her, and I could see that my boldness pleased her.
“In wartime,” she said, “Father taught us: âAsk for what you want but take what you need.' ” She sat back. “Rose never understood the distinction.”
I hesitated. Was I supposed to ask or take? It was a test. Gran waited. I put the pen and pencil back in their case and set it on the coffee table.
“I'd like to have something of Grandpa George's,” I said. “Can I have that?”
“Quite right,” Gran said. “As badly as you wanted it, you didn't need it, did you? Need is when your life depends on it. When you think you might die or lose everything you've worked for. Need means
there are no other options
. Yes, you can have it.” She watched me snatch it up again. I didn't want her noticing that it wasn't exactly wartime, so her rules didn't apply. I wrapped the case inside my wadded-up jacket and went home with Charlie. Within a week, I'd given the pen to A.J. The pencil I treasured, never telling Charlie where I'd got it. It used lead as fine as capillaries that I bought with money I took from Charlie's wallet. I couldn't bear down hard, but it served its purpose well. Whatever story I wrote with that pencil, I could rub out completely and start all over again.
.J. flew home and came straight over, grabbed my hand, and inspected the bandaged finger.
“I've been worried. Does it hurt? Is it healing?”
I had readied myself for her visit with a morning cigarette and a pull of vodka and by dressing in boots and a man's sweater, heavy as chain mail, in black from head to toe; but for all my armoring, I felt twin constrictions in my throat and my belly. “It's nothing,” I said, and pushed up my sleeves to show her my forearms, untouched by cigarette or razor. An odd gesture, I could tell by the look on her face. I didn't know why I showed her. I'd never cut or burned myself. I didn't purge or binge or pull out my hair, though there were times I wished I did. We knew two dozen girls between us who had fallen sick and dragged themselves, step by baby step, down those elegantly prescribed, formal pathways of destruction, but I was the only one who had used a butcher knife.
“Let me look,” A.J. said. I waggled the finger at her, then flapped my whole hand like a bird around her head looking for a place to alight on her messy topknot of hair. The bun made her taller than me, but we were the same size and had the same urchin build, with hips as straight as a drain pipe. We swapped clothes easily, and people had often asked when we were little if we were twins, until they looked again and saw that A.J. had a white mother, and I a Chinese one. When David took us to Cal women's basketball games and then to Top Dog for kosher dogs with an extra bun, A.J. and I had faked being sistersâ“You're the freak of the family” and “I'll race you home!” The charade meant that I could get away with calling David “Dad.” He didn't mind. He didn't pay it any attention, but when Robyn came with us, she crouched and corrected me, each time giving me a long hug and a longer explanation of how she knew it was hard for me, but it wasn't fair to let me delude myself. Maybe not “delude.” Maybe not “You know damn well he's not really your father.” I'm not crediting her kindness, her carefully chosen words, her hugs of some real comfort, but her basic message stung. Each time she made me take back the “Dad” for a “David,” she drew the line darker between the other Whacks and me. I wanted A.J. and me to be different in the same way, but I was way out to sea with a Chinese surname and a single mother. I know that's crazy, that a Chinese girl adopted into a Chinese family would be more unnatural than one with white parents, but that's how it feltâas if I were on a leaky boat chugging in the wrong direction, looking back at the other girls firmly anchored along the shore. I finally cut out the “Dad” stuff. I cut out “Mom,” too, and took up “Charlie.”
“I'm fine,” I repeated. I retreated to the kitchen to have a drink of water. My mouth felt ashy, the water body-warm, like a sip of blood in my throat. A.J. followed. I could feel her concern like a needle in my neck. “I look like shit because I lost my tan,” I said. “I hide all day in the P and P stockroom waiting for Niall and Katie to get off work.”
“Are you guys back together?”
“God, no. I'm so over Niall. What about Jamie?”
“He left for school already. We're definitely taking a break.” A.J. found the bread and put two pieces in the toaster. She took out the honey and put the water on to boil.
“Uhh,” she said, stretching. “Let's go out and do something. I want to
. I sat on that plane for
.” She was always happier outside, moving, and I guessed that she didn't want to run into Charlie, who might start interrogating her about the accident.
“Why do you hide in the stockroom?” A.J. asked. “Don't they still love you at P and P?”
I tried to face her. She wore a coral-and-silver pendant on a black cord around her neck and a new white blouse I'd never seen beforeâsummery, billowy, gauzier than the bandage I had to change every night. That was good: she was not the old A.J. Not the A.J. who'd been with me when I fissured apart in Kunming. That A.J. lived in a Cal T-shirt and canvas flats and pinched her bottom lip when she was thinking about a boy, and if she weren't here, I wouldn't have to dwell on the last time we'd been together. I watched her glance again at the big red wall clock and reach up to her heavy bun. She pulled out the fastener and quickly retwisted her hair into a rope, then wound it and secured it, a sailor tying off a line. Seeing her sweep through the familiar gestureâelbows in the air, hands flyingâopened a door in me; the cold flooded through.
She froze, her hands above her head. “What's wrong? Are you okay? Does it still hurt? Can you take something for it?”
I let her lead me to my bedroom, where she mounded up clothes, books, crumpled wrappers to make room for me on my bed. I lay down, fetal, the mattress like a dog's bed hollowed out for my curl, the pillow already dented by my oily head. For two weeks, I had faked my way with Charlie, making her miserable with my glowering resentment that she and Les had ordered me home from Beijing. With Niall and Katie, I'd lived each day for six o'clock, and in between those bouts of bravado, I'd huddled in my bed, too heavy to eat or shower. The room had gone suddenly black. I kept my eyes squeezed shut and pinned myself to the feel of the pillowcase against my face.
Bed, bed, bed
, my heart was drumming, saying the word, a child's word, a fairy-tale incantation to tell myself that I was here, now, where I could manage in the safest, most known-to-me existence. I wasn't in Beijing, that teeming city, staring at the faces of strangers who might be kin, or at the orphanage with A.J., or in the hotel bathroom in Kunming with the kitchen knife in my hand.
“It's okay,” said A.J., rubbing circles on my back. She started talking a steady stream, telling me little stories, the beat of her voice calming me the way it had in high school when I'd drunk too much or fought with a boy or argued with Charlie about why I hadn't come home. There'd been two more tour groups after I'd left, she said, and Willow had dropped out of the final tour to take care of her father, who'd been injured at the bus station where he worked. Robyn said that A.J. could go in Willow's place, and so she did it all over again, the exact same trip we'd made in JulyâBeijing; Xi'an; Chengdu to see the giant pandas, those big, spoiled babies. We had a joke between us that with their specially trained nursemaids and white-coated doctors and government-sponsored habitat re-creators, the baby pandas had a sweet life compared to a million orphans. A.J. said she enjoyed redoing the trip; she could take in more history and her Mandarin was getting better. A cute little girl named Stacey had tripped on the Great Wall and cut her lip; she had needed stitches. I didn't move when she said that, but I could tell by the way A.J.'s hand stopped its circles that she was thinking, as I was, of the emergency room in Kunming.
“I went back to Beijing from Chengdu,” she said. “I didn't go on any of the orphanage visits.”
“But you did the final dinner,” I said into my pillow. I rolled over and found I could meet her worried gaze. “Didn't want to miss that extravaganza.”
“There was one girl, I felt so sorry for her. She was fourteen and really big. I gave her the biggest outfit we broughtâX-X-X-Lâand it didn't fit her. She had huge boobsâremember Bree's sister?” Bree was a Whackadoodle girl whose older sister, Ireland, had a pair so big that I told Bree they could have their own reality-TV show, and when her mother found out, I was banned from her house until Ireland left for college.
“This poor girl could barely squeeze into the top, and the pants didn't fit her at all. You should see the group photo. It looks like an angry giant stomped in to terrorize the village.”
The final dinner, a banquet with live entertainment, was a tour highlight. It was held the night before the group split up to go on their homecoming visits to their individual orphanages. Before dinner, the guides handed out red pajamas for the girls to wearâtourist clothes, not worn by anyone in China except for visitors pretending to go native. You might as well put on a coolie hat and a pigtail if you thought that red pajamas made you authentic, but when I was little, I desperately wanted a pair of those pajamas. The Whackadoodle girls gathered for the Lantern Festival every yearâMonkeys and Sheep and Rabbits and Roosters, all of us carrying glowing lanterns into the wintry dark. We wore our hair in pigtails twined with white blossoms. Robyn got the idea that we should dress alike, so she sent all the parents a link to a Web site where they could buy red pajamas.
“What do you think?” Charlie asked Les. We were in our kitchen, where Charlie was making lunch.
“I'll pay with my own money,” I said. I was maybe seven. I didn't have any money, but I thought that might persuade her.
“I think it's bizarre that all these white families celebrate Chinese holidays that hardly any Chinese Americans pay attention to.”
“We didn'tâwe were supposed to blend in. But isn't it better now, with people embracing Chinese culture? Adoptive families are part of that; they want their daughters to know those traditions.”
Les snorted. “Merchants figured out it's good for business and got everybody excited. I'm glad we grew up without it. Remember Christmas? Christmas was the best. Dad dressed up like Santa Clausâ”
“âand Ma cooked a goose and made stuffing with chestnuts. We should make that this year.” Charlie smiled wistfully at me. “I wish you were old enough to still hang a stocking.”
“Ma kept the Santa thing going forever for us,” Les said. “Why did you have to ruin it so early for Ari?” I was four when Charlie sat me down and told me. I wasn't supposed to tell A.J.âmy first official secret. Les was more mad about it than I was. She loved the sneaking around. She spent weeks choosing things for my stocking and wrapped my big presents in special Santa paper. Charlie told me that it didn't matter that Santa didn't exist because the important thing was that the spirit of Christmas was realâanother myth, another likely storyâbut Les insisted on putting out milk and cookies and carrots. She nibbled the carrots before I came downstairs in the morning. If she couldn't have Santa, she still wanted the reindeer.
“I had to tell Ari,” Charlie said. “It's kind of a balancing act. You want them to have the fun of it, but you don't want them to lose trust in you when they find out that Santa is all a big lie.”
“Do you have to do everything the books tell you? Where does common sense come into it? Why not let kids be kids?”
“Like you have so much experience in the field,” Charlie retorted, and they were off again on one of their squabbles. As little earthquakes are said to let off pressure so the Big One never comes, their grumbling at each other staved off a real fight, though it's not true that small tremors guarantee safety. That's another myth.
I'm sure I begged and pleaded, but Charlie and Les ruled against the pajamas. No doubt they used words like
, words I heard later and for years to follow. “You don't need a costume to prove you're Chinese,” Les said. The other girls avoided me in my limp skirt and red sweater, except for A.J., who stuck loyally by my side. The group looked unforgivably adorable, forty-some girls lined up like matching dolls, while I was the troll who ruined the photo, scowling into the camera, my mouth a dangerous fault line. If WeiWei had been there, she would have taught me a new swear word. Instead, I stomped on Becca's paper lantern and tore mine to shreds and broke the stick in two.
“I felt sorry for that girl,” A.J. said, “too big for her red pajamas. She hated the whole thing. She refused to go to dinner.”
“She's a lucky girl,” I said. “Didn't anybody tell her?”
“Ha. You're feeling better.”
I sat up and nodded.
“Let's go then. Up! We're doing Steep Ravine.” A.J. hauled me from my bed.
e raided the kitchen for cheese and crackers and stuck a couple of water bottles into a backpack. A.J. bought apples on our way to the bus stop. Steep Ravine was a trail we knew well from hiking excursions with David and Robyn. We caught a bus that took us across the Golden Gate Bridge, and a second bus to the Pantoll parking lot on Mount Tamalpais. From there, we would hike down to Stinson Beach.
We started walking. A.J. reported on her familyâher brother, Brent, David's son by his first marriage, working his first real job at a start-up in Boulder, and her crazy uncle Saul, who was off looking at rocks in Ecuador and Honduras. A.J. wanted to visit him next summer, though she said she'd be glad to work with orphanage groups again. The trail left the road and sloped down through dense forest of pine and redwood, which blotted out the weak midday light. A.J. trudged happily; this was the very best cure for jet lag. She wouldn't go to bed until the sun went down, she said, so she wouldn't wake at three in the morning, worrying about how, as a lowly freshman, she would get the classes she wanted. She was a gnat on the undergraduate food chain, a lower-than-a-gnat, a larva. I breathed in moist air, smelled the loam of the forest floor. Every few steps, my sneakers slipped on wet leaves and tree roots. The thick, yellow bodies of banana slugs stapled the path. The wind high above us made a rushing noise through the trees.
“My dad saw WeiWei on TV,” A.J. said. “Getting some kind of award for East-West relations.”
WeiWei on TV again. I was glad I'd missed it. For more than a year, we had heard her on the radio, seen her on the news. Bought
magazine and pored over the pictures. WeiWei had a sister. The Whackadoodles were abuzz. A Swedish couple who had adopted a Chinese daughter had learned about WeiWei from her TV show. It wasn't on in the U.S. anymore, but old episodes were still playing in other countries. They had contacted the producers to say that their fifteen-year-old daughter looked a lot like WeiWei. They sent photographs to prove it. The girl, Anna, was much younger than WeiWei, but she had come from the same orphanage. Was it possible they were related? It wouldn't be the first time that a countryside family gave away more than one daughter. WeiWei was in Guangzhou, filming a documentary about her orphanage and her journey. She invited Anna and her parents to join her. Together, they arranged for a Chinese lab to test their DNA. The lab confirmed that the girls were full sisters. WeiWei had written a memoir. A movie was in the works.