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On Grief (Part I)

My experience as a Chinese American has been marked with memories that are not entirely mine. Historical trauma can feel so personal and personal trauma can be historical. In these unprecedented times when there is so much social, political, environmental upheaval and turmoil, I felt it was necessary to look inwards and to address some of the feelings that had been bubbling inside of me but are not unique to me. This piece has been cathartic, and felt almost like metaphorical bloodletting – with my keyboard being the leech. Hopefully, it can be the same for others.

Part I

I’m 7 when I see my grandmother for the last time. She wraps her thick, wizened fingers around my little hands. I don’t remember what she says, my ears blocked by the flurry of thoughts in my head. I’m adamant that I’ll see her again. I tell her that I’ll come back for sure. I’ll go to college, I pledge. I’ll get rich and buy you a BIG house. Just you see. She nods. I’m not sure if she’s sad, looking down at me without smile or frown. I’m not even sure if I’m sad, sweat dripping down my neck in the heat of all that is a Hoisan summer, wanting to go back to America where my head doesn’t have to steam with heat.

She waves when I get into my uncle’s truck. I watch her grow smaller until I can no longer see her. I whip my head back around to the front and look forward.

I feel a tiny pang in my chest that I don’t understand.

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I’m 8 and we have the same conversation over the phone over and over again for a year. She says are you doing good, Little Puppy? I’m good, Popo. I’m being good. I miss you. Do you want to talk to mom? 

The phone calls are less frequent. Mom says Popo is busy, and I find that it’s okay. Because it scares me. Popo scares me. Chee ngoy. Alzheimer’s. I don’t get really get it. I’ve only ever seen it on TVB. Old people just forget. right?

////////////////////////////////////////

Popo stars brightly in the first chapter of my life. I’m her youngest grandchild, and she moves to America to look after me. She takes me everywhere.  She teaches me how to count, first in Hoisan-wa, then in Cantonese. Out of all her grandchildren, I know she loves me best. I’m her Little Puppy.

I used to have nine children she says sometimes. Now I have six.

I wonder if she can see any of them in me.  

My father yells at her all the time. Probably too much. She asks me why he does that. I hear the pain in her voice, and it fills me with rage. I tell her not to listen to him.

 ////////////////////////////////////////

My mother doesn’t tell me my grandmother dies until years after it happens.

I only figure it out when I see her grave for myself and do the math. I’m 24. I don’t confront my mom. It occurs to me that I had stopped hearing from Popo gradually until I don’t hear from her at all.

 ////////////////////////////////////////

I remember Popo turning on the faucet in our house.  The water in the tub rises, billows over the rim. Aiya, I forgot. She says. 

Everyone gets upset at Popo. They yell, and I don’t want them to. I don’t get it. It’s okay, everyone forgets sometimes. Shouldn’t we respect our elders?

Melissa Chen really is like any other ABC who grew up with a bowl cut and can’t swim. On occasion, she writes.

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A Story of Intersection

One of our former YIP interns, Christy, reflects on her Chinese American identity and the importance of each culture coexisting within her when society will only focus on each culture as separate aspects.

On the first day of my 11th grade English class, we were asked to share one aspect about ourselves that we thought was important for our peers to know. By then, I had enough experience in predominantly white spaces to know that my ethnicity would always be of speculation. I look Asian, with my straight black hair, “eyes that kiss in the corners,”  and lack of a nose bridge to hold my sunglasses, but what type of Asian? Where are my ancestors from? Am I Korean? Japanese? Filipino? All of which I’ve been ignorantly asked and all of which I’ve laughed off and said “no” to. I wanted to eliminate this confusion that somehow always arose as people took it upon themselves to try and guess my ethnicity, almost always complete strangers or people I barely spoke to. So, to get rid of all the speculation and apparent curiosity of my ethnicity, I stood up knowing exactly what I would share that day. 

I felt very lucky to be in one of the few English classes that was mostly people of color. Had I been in a predominantly white classroom (like most of my other classes) I would have felt very different, less understood, sharing my ethnicity to my classmates. I turned to my first partner and said, “I am Chinese American.” As another woman of color, she empathetically nodded and snapped in agreement as I explained how many times people had questioned my ethnicity and how uncomfortable it made me feel. Then, I turned to my next partner and explained the same thing, but as a white man who could not empathize with my experience, I got a slow head nod and a single “right.”

To my first partner, I felt understood and empowered sharing this aspect of my identity, but to my second partner, I felt heard, but perhaps not fully understood. I had proclaimed my Chinese American identity to these two classmates so that they would know how I identify, but what does being Chinese American actually mean for me?

Chinese American. 

Not just Chinese and not only American, but Chinese American. 

This distinction is important. 

I grew up immersed in my Chinese heritage. Everyday, for eight years, I sat in a classroom surrounded by posters filled with bright bubbly cartoons and Chinese poems we learned to recite. I (mostly) spoke to my classmates in only Cantonese, otherwise we wouldn’t get a gold star for the day. And practiced brush strokes and sentence structures that we used in our own short stories. In middle school, Mandarin classes were tacked on to our schedule where we read, wrote, and recited common phrases we may need in conversation. All of this was to prepare for our class trip to China where we would stay with a host family for four days. 

When we arrived in mainland China, I quickly felt out of place. Having to use a translator to speak to my host family, feeling accomplished when I could order my own meal, being too afraid to bargain at the market, I had never felt further from home in a country where I claim parts of my identity originate from. I thought that my Chinese heritage, and maybe my eight years of Chinese immersion, would be enough for me to blend in with the locals. But when I confidently replied to a question that my host father asked, he was shocked that I answered in Mandarin. Granted, my Mandarin is far from perfect, but it was clear to me that my host family only saw me as American. In China, my Chinese identity felt invisible, and my identity felt stripped to just American, but I know this wasn’t true.

When I take walks to stretch my legs during this pandemic, I can’t help but worry that I’ll be spat on again or be blamed for bringing in COVID-19, even though I’ve only been to China once. It’s obvious to people here that I’m not “American” enough to be treated with the dignity and respect all people deserve, no matter their nationality, citizenship, language, sexuality, etc. As I saw in my trip to China, it was clear to everyone else that being American is part of my identity, just like being Chinese is. What’s more important is how this intersectional aspect of my identity has shaped me. 

When I go to order a drink with my mom and the non-Chinese barista musters a 谢谢 as we pay or when my brother and I are taking the elevator up to our hotel room and complete strangers strike up a conversation about the best Chinese restaurant around, it becomes clear to me how obvious it is to people here that I must be more than American. 

And, well, I am more than American. 

I can’t help but see eight as a lucky number and four as its forbidden counterpart. I crave mooncake all year round, but I don’t like the egg yolk like the rest of my family. We eat our dim sum while we watch Jeopardy, celebrate Lunar New Year with red envelopes and Mitchell’s ice cream, and even drink the 7-up and Coca Cola set at our favorite Chinese restaurants’ tables. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t learn how to count in Chinese before I did in English (always using Chinese to count in fives even to this day) or if I didn’t learn the correct strokes of my Chinese name while I ate my chicken nuggets. Being Chinese American is a part of who I am and it’s a piece of my identity that I’m proud of. 

After finally realizing that there isn’t only one narrative to follow as a Chinese American, I began to claim the title Chinese American because I get to create my own narrative of what that’s “supposed” to look like. I now know it is valid for my Chinese and American identities to coexist within me. There are certainly times when holding this identity brings hardships. Especially during this pandemic with the increase in anti-Asian American crimes, but it pushes me to seek communities that advocate for positive change and growth. 

As I navigate the world as a young adult, I am learning about the vast and loving broader Asian American community that constantly breaks stereotypes about us in the fight for change. I am constantly inspired by this community to be my authentic self because that is exactly what being Chinese American means to me.

Christy is a Chinese American San Francisco native who loves to read, bake, and draw.

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A Piece of My Puzzle, A Love for My Heart

My life, as everyone’s life, is like a puzzle, full of wonder, challenges, beauty, and a work in progress. 

Growing up in a transracial family from the age of 3 months in a predominately white town, I became accustomed to not looking like my parents and people being naïve enough to think my sister, who was also adopted from China though two years prior, and I were biologically related, even though we don’t look alike at all. As the youngest, I always felt like I needed to try harder, do better to be as good, smart, beautiful, athletic as my older sister. Our different body builds (she’s tall and thin, and I am short and stocky) and her natural talent at school and sports, in addition to already feeling like an imposter, living in a predominantly white community, being one of just a handful of people of color led me to a perpetual feeling of being an outsider and “not enough” growing up. 

At a young age, I did not want too much to do with my culture. Sure the food and the traditions around the Lunar New Year were great, but I did not want to learn what would have been my native tongue if I were not adopted, and I did not want to partake in Chinese traditional dance. My sister, on the other hand, loved Chinese School and Chinese dance. As a result, I always felt like the rebellious child, the child who did not partake in what her parents expected of her and wanted from her. 

What now remains from my own and societal preconceived notions, is that as an adult and a Chinese adoptee, not only do I feel the societal pressures of being an Asian American woman, but I also feel that at times I must work harder to prove myself to myself, my family, both my adoptive and unknown biological families, and the world. 

However, I can fully express and work through these notions, in part because of a big piece of my life story puzzle: Chinese Heritage Camp, one of now 9 camps from Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families. 

I do not remember the first time I went to camp as I was only three. However, what I do remember is that from a young age once I could remember what camp was and what it meant to myself and my family is this: every year when it was time to register for camp, it was pre-internet days at first, my sister and I would make sure my mom was able to fax in our registration first thing so there was no chance of being put on the waitlist. 

I also remember driving up to camp in the mountains each year after school on a Friday, as Chinese Heritage Camp is over Labor Day weekend, and that feeling of excitement, happiness, and eagerness creeping into my belly as we passed landmarks along the way: the mountain pass, that Starbucks in a mountain town, the A frame sign on the side of the road, and finally the sign that read “Snow Mountain Ranch”, with each one telling me we were getting closer to our friends, community, and annual home over Labor Day weekend. 

I remember stepping out of the car into the smell of fresh mountain air feeling embraced by love standing in the cool, crisp air and feeling excited as a little kid feels on Christmas morning. 

I remember stepping into the Kiva (the main meeting place for camp) each year for the first time smiling ear to ear and looking around for the directors, the other campers, and most importantly the counselors (who were teens and young adult racial mirrors) some of whom would be assigned to my group for the weekend. 

As time went by, I remember seeing the faces of dear friends and a community, stepping into the Kiva felt like stepping into a warm hug, both literally and figuratively, as many warm hugs usually presented themselves over the years. 

I remember sitting on a big wall that separated the gym space and roller rink space with my friends just chatting, giggling, and feeling at peace in a place where we all felt like we belonged, because our families all were built the same way.  

It was here, at Chinese Heritage camp that I was met with racial mirrors and role models, many of whom have become family to me. 

It was here that I found out more about my heritage, the complexities of adoption, the importance of post-adoption services/ resources, and how important it is to recognize, celebrate, and look introspectively at these intersecting areas and aspects of my life. 

 Camp was full of other kids and families that looked like me and my own family from all over. There were so many Asians, mostly Chinese and Tawainese faces there. Throughout the weekend, I loved walking with my peers and counselors to workshops full of arts and crafts, food to cook, talks of adoption, and presenters who looked like me and knew about my own culture full of happiness to share their own experiences with us campers so that we could know and learn more about our own heritage. One of my favorite workshops, even to this day as my role at camp has come full circle with me being the counselor/ role model, is titled HeART Talks. In this workshop we always did some form of art that was about self expression, emotions, and/ or adoption. We always read a story together about adoption, and we always discussed what adoption meant to us and any feelings we had about adoption. HeART Talks has always been one of my favorites, because I always felt seen and like I belonged here, and as someone who tends to be more on the emotional side, I loved being able to express myself and share my emotions and story with others. I truly, and strongly, believe to this day that this workshop really helped lay the foundation for me understanding my own adoption story more and being able to cope and adjust into this strange, sometimes lonely world that we live in, especially during transition periods in my life, like going to college. 

As I grew older, camp not only continued to feel like home for me, continuing to grow with excitement as we approached camp, but it became a place I realized I could also have an impact and be there for other adoptees. From evolving from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator, I have truly become a part of camp, and camp has become a part of me in so many ways. I’ve seen how my own experience and bringing what I loved doing as a camper and child growing up in camp can be brought back and enjoyed by the next generation. I learned how important it is to have racial mirrors and people you can relate to with similar upbringings. 

Growing up with this special place and community each year has allowed me to be innovative at different stages of my life. For example, when beginning college, camp allowed me to realize how passionate I felt about connecting with other adoptees and bringing awareness about adoption to others, and with my knowledge and experience at camp, I was able to create a student organization on campus so that adoptees in my new community, and others who wanted to be allies for adoptees or had connection to adoption, could have a safe place to go. 

Furthermore, in my young adult years as a new professional, I was able to tap into my passion again for adoptees and those who have been separated from biological family by working on a project on children in the Foster Care System (Out-of-Home care) and how as healthcare providers we can do better for this community. If it weren’t for camp and the acceptance and vulnerability it has allowed me to express and experience regarding my own adoption journey, I am not sure I would have been so open or innovative in my later years. If it weren’t for camp, I don’t think I would be as passionate about finding and connecting to other adoptees or sharing my own story, because who knows how my processing about my own story would have changed. Lastly, through my own knowledge and experiences with camp, I have been able to serve as a role model for younger adoptees and be there for them, not only as an adoptee, but also as a person of color who grew up in a predominantly white community, went to a predominantly white college, and now works in a predominately white profession. Camp has allowed me to be there as a resource for other adoptees and also adoptive parents who are looking for more answers and connections for their own children. 

For over 20 years now, Chinese Heritage Camp has been a part of me. It has watched me grow up into a confident, inspired, empowered young woman; it has watched me transition from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator. Camp has given me opportunities to lead, reflect, and share with others. Camp has given me a place, both in the tangible and intangible sense, where my adoption story is just one of many, where I cannot only learn from others but teach others, a place where I can build upon life bonds and make new connections, a place where I will always feel comfortable crying to “Happy Adoption Day” and feel nostalgic for all the memories I had there growing up. Chinese Heritage Camp knows so much about me, more than I likely even realize. 

Chinese Heritage Camp has given me life, love, happiness, and a place to soul search and discover myself and where I can help the next generation do the same. Chinese Heritage Camp is, and always will be, a piece of my puzzle and heart, and without it in my life all these years, I would not feel complete.

Emily Quinn (she/her/hers)  is a transracial, Chinese adoptee who was adopted at 3 months of age from Zhejiang Province and identifies as pansexual/queer. Emily grew up in Colorado, and she currently works as a pediatric physical therapist. Emily is passionate about connecting with other adoptees of all ages, and her own journey as a transracial adoptee has made her passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, including fighting for social justice for all people. She continues to volunteer with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, especially the Chinese Heritage Camp, and she enjoys rock climbing, being outdoors, spending time with family,  and working on acts of self-care and self-kindness in her free time. 

Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families serves as a post-​adoption resource and advocate for children, adults, and families with diverse heritages. They focus on supporting international and domestic adoptive families, including adopted children, parents, non-adopted siblings, and extended family. Learn more about their work at https://www.heritagecamps.org/

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T-2

By: Karen Zheng

The current COVID-19 pandemic and my family’s situation in it has inspired me to write this piece. Ever since the pandemic began in China, my family was already very cautious and nervous around the virus, collecting masks and information on testing. When it came here, my parents and I got laid off our restaurant jobs because the restaurants closed. That was March. After almost four months in quarantine, my parents are going back to work as part of the reopening process. In this piece, I hope to share with the Asian American community a little part of the lives of Asian Americans who is working at a Chinese restaurant, where I fear for their lives.

T-2 days. Mother is scheduled to go back to work July 1st, in two days. Mother works in a Chinese buffet restaurant. A few days ago, she went in to do some deep cleaning before the official reopening. When she came home with a huge yellow stain on her black work shirt, I glimpse her face. She looked different. Tired. Old. I never realized Mother had wrinkles around her eyes. That moment, I knew Mother is not superman. I always thought she was, working all day and everyday and never complaining about it. She said money is worth more than life. She still says it, and it infuriates me to hear it. I am mad at myself because I don’t have the ability to give her what she wants right now. Money. 

There is another woman who is important in my life. I will call her D. She will also be starting work. I am not sure what the reopening of a buffet restaurant entails, but I know they will come in contact with lots of different people throughout the day. Close one-on-one sessions. Like therapy. I will a certain future into existence, but there is no answer. Every morning, I still hear the cheerful chirping of birds. Does my will even mean anything when so many people are dying? I’m sure those people’s families willed them to live too. Why should god, if there is one, listen to mine?

This is the first time in my life that I have become afraid. Truly afraid. Afraid of losing. Mother. D. There’s this saying in Chinese. 失去才懂得珍惜. This roughly translates to: when things are lost, they are cherished. For me, there is a possibility of losing Mother and/or D, and I am panicking. I am regretting. I want to cherish them, but I do not know how much time I have. It’s funny because both of them will die one day, but when death nears or the potential of death nears, I want to be good to them. More and more. 

I wish so many things right now. Things that I haven’t done.

I’d been a better child to Mother. 

I’d given Mother my money when she asked. 

I’d treated D better. 

I’d grown up faster because growing up means I can somehow protect them?

I’d earn so much money for them. 

I could support them. 

I’d hugged D and kissed her and spent all my money on a trip with her. 

I’d propose or something. 

I’d 

I don’t know. 

How does one enter a gamble with a loved one’s life?

I want to be good is what I’m saying. How?

Karen is a queer, first-generation Chinese-American undergraduate student studying English and Creative Writing. She writes poetry and occasionally creative nonfiction. In this piece, she explores her anxiety around the perhaps too-rapid reopening of restaurants that impacts her family’s livelihood.