I’ve been planning to bring Jingju back to China to visit (provided she wanted to go) ever since we became a family in 2009. In talking with other families with children adopted from China, I have heard about the many different feelings our Chinese daughters have regarding their connection to China, their heritage, and the life they left behind. Some girls have embraced and blended their Chinese culture with american life, while others have been afraid to go back, thinking that they won’t be allowed to return home, and others have perhaps so assimilated to american life, they simply have no interest. The age of the child seems to be a factor in the level of interest they have in returning. Typically families returning to China choose to go on a heritage tour where it’s possible to visit many different regions with the help of a Chinese speaking guide. I chose the Legacy Tour through the Great Wall adoption Agency. The Chinese government pays the costs for adoptive children to return to their homeland, which certainly helps to make the trip more affordable. On our tour, each region we visited had a hometown guide who was knowledgeable about the area and educated us on local customs, history, and folklore. We have also chosen to visit the two orphanages that Jingju lived in at the end of the tour.
Overall, it’s a tremendous experience with a few drawbacks. I have always traveled independently and this was my first tour. I am used to exploring and taking my time, and tend to prefer the local every day life experiences of the country I am visiting over the greatest hits focus that tours seem to provide. In the case of bringing an adopted daughter back to China, there is an additional more complicated layer to the scenario. China is clearly showing us the China they want us to see, and when your herded from one attraction to another, rushed back on the bus to hear the tour guides lecture, there is little time to reflect and process and talk with our children about the other China that competes for our attention in the background. Very early on in the trip I noticed Jingju noticing the poverty and behaviors of the people around her. We were taking a break outside one of the pits of the terra-cotta warriors one afternoon when finally Jingju uttered what she had been thinking, “I’m not sure how I feel about being from this place.”
Jingju is almost 12 years old, which I think is about the right age to make this trip. At this age she is still very open and has endless energy and curiosity. I’ve noticed the older girls on our tour often seem bored and more interested in each other than the sights around them. But at 12 years of age, Jingju has her own firm sense of right and wrong, and developmentally, I think isn’t yet able to make sense of the staggering contrasts and dualities we see here in China; Beautiful landscapes under polluted skies, terraced farmlands with dingy high rises in the distance, fine shops and aggressive street hawkers, ancient history and modern life.
Then there is the issue of language. We are traveling with Tessa, one of Jingju’s “little sisters,” who she grew up with in the orphanage. Tessa and Jingju were adopted at the same age. Tessa was able to hold onto and develop her mastery of mandarin, while Jingju, in a matter of months lost all ability to speak her native language. I was a little worried about how Jingju would feel if approached by people assuming she spoke Chinese. I also recall her telling me two summers ago when she and I took Chinese lessons with a tutor, that she hoped to be able to learn enough to converse with her nanny when we someday returned to the orphanage. But summer ended and school started and homework became too challenging to keep our lessons going, and today Jingju and I can barely remember the names of the fruits and colors and animals we had worked so hard to learn. Tessa has been an absolute rock star on this trip, interpreting for us, bartering deals in the markets, getting directions, reading menus, and on and on. Today Jingju took it upon herself to learn to say “Wo bu zhi dao Zhongwen,” “I don’t speak Chinese.” She is coping, but feels a little sad. Tessa was one of only two children among 20 families on our tour to still speak Chinese. In the case of older adopted children, rapid language loss is common. Jingju still wants to regain command of her language, and I believe she will some day.