Happy Chinese-ish New Year!

February 12, 2014

We just celebrated Chinese New Year over here. Another family with an adopted Chinese daughter joined us and we called it a party. I bought some food from a local Chinese restaurant, bought some stuff from World Market and did a little bit of decorating.

It looked a little something like this over here in our zhùchù:

Chinese New Year

You can see what a culturally rad parent I am. I mean, check out that photo, I put the lilies INSIDE TAKEOUT BOXES! Plus, twinkly lights on the counter, random Asian-inspired envelopes with lucky coins, and a paper ornament I got in the mail from a non-profit that I hung from a cabinet.

I was killing it over here for Chinese New Year.

An interesting tidbit – before you travel to adopt your child, you agree to incorporate their heritage into their upbringing. As part of the adoption process, I was asked to write an essay on the specifics of how I planned to incorporate Chinese culture into my son’s American life.

This just sounded great. It really did, I’m being serious. Of course I wanted my son to know where he was from and be proud of his Chinese heritage. I practically became a Chinese ambassador. I bought Chinese cookbooks and art and, for like 15 minutes in the car one day, I actually tried to learn some Mandarin. I spent a lot of time googling “Arizona Chinese ______ (insert the daily thought of what I felt my soon-to-be son should do – Dance? Language School? Martial Arts?).”  I made big plans. Big plans to teach my son awesome things about China to make him proud.

And then I saw the orphanage.

My plans to make my son proud of his heritage dissolved with each crib I walked by, with every glimpse of a dirty, hollow-eyed child hiding in the shadows, and with each one of my son’s screams as I held him tightly in my arms for the entire tour. There is nothing for him to be proud of here, I thought. Nothing.

Therein lies the dilemma. Somehow, I must separate the wonders of China and its rich history from the China that abandoned, devalued and neglected my son. Surprisingly, the adoption paperwork didn’t offer any guidance on how to educate your child about the glories of his birth country when that birth country is directly responsible for his PTSD.

The flowers in takeout containers, the chocolate coins, the twinkly lanterns – it would be easy to look at my Chinese New Year and say that I am not sincerely trying to teach my son about his heritage. It would be easy to say that, but it would be wrong. I keep things culturally superficial around here, with an eye admittedly to the kitschy because it keeps the trauma at bay. Sit my son down and open a book with pictures of China and you will see anxiety that a seven year old should not experience. But mingle Chinese New Year traditions with chocolate coins and twinkly lights? There ya go. Now we’re getting somewhere.

My goals have shifted, as goals tend to do when reality makes its entrance. I no longer have any intention of staging activities for my son that offer generic sentiments about how wonderful China was for him. My son knows better. I know better. My plan is now a little vaguer, less specific. If I had that essay to write today, I would say that I plan to teach my son that good lies right next to bad, that gratitude often hides behind immense struggle, and that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. My son’s heritage will always be a bag of mixed emotions for him, and I hope that this will be enough.

I have a lot of twinkly lights to help him find his way.



  1. Mary

    I am certain you will find a way to authentically and honestly help him come to terms with his past as you help him become his present and future self.

    • ElleJay

      I am so, SO glad you posted this. As someone considering … Let’s be real, determined to adopt some day and is particularly drawn toward China, I’ve had these thoughts. It’s good to know that I’m not alone, and not crazy for thinking that while I’d always respect and celebrate my Child’s heritage and birth family and the cultural beauty that is involved with the place they come from, there is also a not so bright and sunny side. That can be said about a lot of places. And it’s not to say that China isn’t amazing in its own right. It’s just good to know that mixed feelings regarding the specifics are valid, are sane, and can be a mixed hard and wonderful part of a hard and wonderful journey.

  2. Mary

    I am certain you will find a way to authentically and honestly help him come to terms with his past as you help him become his present and future self.


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