The idea of adoption as saving a child from a grim fate always rubbed me the wrong way. It bothered me when people found out we adopted our daughter, and their reaction was, “Oh, she’s so lucky!” Especially when they said it in front of her — adoptive parents are vigilant about protecting our children from any deficit view of adoption.
But a chance encounter in the summer of 2010 moved me, rather than upset me, even though at face value, it perpetuated that “saving the lucky adoptee” narrative.
That summer, we took 9-year-old AiZhen to China for the first time since she’d been adopted. One stop was climbing Yellow Mountain, an iconic destination of cloud-shrouded peaks in her birth province. Impatient Asian crowds waited in hours-long lines to take the cable cars to the picturesque top. Instead of enduring that kind of misery, we decided to endure another: hike five miles up to one of the hotels, our home base to explore the mountain range. Our family was conspicuous, mainly because AiZhen’s father is a da bi zi (big nose), an almost 6-foot-tall white man.
On a hot and humid day, we climbed the centuries-old trail of stone steps. We carried the bare minimum, but were still sticky and out of breath. Every few minutes, a different wiry, tanned man passed us. In contrast to us in our REI and North Face hiking gear, the men were shirtless, wearing baggy, ripped shorts and sneakers with worn-off treads. Over calloused shoulders, they balanced bamboo rods with heavy baskets hanging from each side, containing supplies for the hotels: Going up — water bottles, folded sheets, wilting “fresh” vegetables, eggs, toilet paper; going down — dirty linens and trash. In every sense of the word, they carried much heavier loads than we did, yet quietly and effortlessly sped past us.
“They are porters. They supply the hotels, because the cable cars can’t carry all of the goods that we tourists use,” we explained to AiZhen.
“Why would they want a job like that? It’s such hard work. They must make a lot of money,” she speculated.
At the end of each day’s exploration, we had a hot shower and a restaurant meal at the hotel, cognizant of how our towels and food arrived on the porters’ shoulders.
On the hike back down the mountain, while AiZhen and I quietly chatted in Mandarin, a porter overheard us, and he stopped to wipe his brow and ponder this transracial, bilingual American family. He looked me in the eye and asked in Mandarin, pointing at AiZhen, “Where is she from?”
In my rudimentary Mandarin, I replied, “She’s from an orphanage in Hefei, Anhui. We live in America.”
“Does she understand me?” he asked.
I nodded. He beckoned her over with his eyes. She glanced at me for permission, stepped closer to him, and they made eye contact. “Look at me. Look at my life. Study hard.” And then he maneuvered sideways to continue up the mountain with his load of supplies.
With few words and the meaning-laden glance, he had communicated wonder at the unexpected, unearned turns life sometimes takes. Perhaps he juxtaposed her privilege with his children’s limited opportunities as rural, working-class people. I contemplated the randomness of the Central China Adoption Agency clerk pairing my application to become a mom with AiZhen’s orphanage file.
What would AiZhen’s life have been like if our files had not been matched? As a newborn, she was found at the police station gates. Two policemen brought her to the local orphanage, where her basic needs were met until she was 20 months old. We don’t know why she was left to be found, except that China’s one-child policy likely played a role.
Even today, the porter’s genuine curiosity at our fortunate family still makes me stop and reflect. He had clearly chi ku (eaten bitterness) in his life, but he did not come across as bitter. He was living a life that could have been my daughter’s life. AiZhen at nine certainly thought so; she says that her first impression was that the porter was her birth father.
What would my life have been like if our files had not been matched? I would not have known that attachment meant my new daughter touching my wet leg through the shower curtain each time I bathed in those first two weeks home. I would not have learned humility from all my favorite board games gathering dust, unplayed by my artistic and kinesthetic child. I would not have laughed hysterically at the 18-year-old practicing her wrestling moves on her dad during their bedtime routine. I would not have desperately wanted to take her place when she told us of surviving her own high school #MeToo assault. If saving is part of the equation, she saved me from missing out on these precious experiences of motherhood.
Now, every time someone says, “Oh, she is so lucky that you adopted her!” rather than being irritated, I reply, “I am the lucky one to be her mother.”
Rosann Tung is a researcher in Boston focused on equity in public education. Her daughter is now a freshman in college. The Ideas section welcomes submissions of personal essays related to issues in the news. Please send essays of 600-800 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.