MY ADOPTIVE MOM'S BEST FRIEND, Rachel, comes over to our house with her new Chinese baby. Her American name is Cynthia, she's eleven months old, and she's already a brat. People expect me to make a connection. They grin at me as if to say, "Look. One of your people."
But it's not Cynthia's overwhelming smell of baby powder that gets my attention. It's not her porcupine hair that sticks straight up, or her still malnourished body. It's the toy she was given at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, just before she and her adoptive mom got on the plane aimed toward the U.S.A.
It's called Going Home Barbie. I know this because it's still in the box and, from the way Rachel handles it as if it were rare art, it probably always will be. Inside are two dolls: Barbie, white, blond and dressed for what looks like divorcees-night-out at the Holiday Inn Lounge, and her small baby who appears more Aztec than Chinese. She's huge, this Barbie, actually dwarfing the cardboard house and picket fence that attempt to confine her. And she's too young — twenty, at most. Rather than an adoptive mom returning with a baby from China, she resembles a steroid-soaked Swedish nanny who's making off with a small, Mayan child.
Were this an accurate representation — were this to look more like the photograph of my mom and me as we left the Kennedy Airport terminal for the first time — it would appear this way: Barbie would be middle-aged, sleep-deprived and bloated. She would be pushing a stroller she'd purchased for fifteen bucks in Nanjing, and inside that stroller would be a screaming, frightened, uncooperative child. Barbie would be dressed in something oversized and wrinkled and, for the first and only time in my memory, would have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
I imagine the purpose of this plastic duo is honorable: to help the woman — the adoptive mom — explain the process to her adopted daughter. The abandonment, the discovery, the orphanage, the bureaucratic coupling, the endless trips to and from.
But I'm 13, too old for dolls, and I see something else. If there's no adoptive dad doll, I see a woman who will be referred to as "dyke" and "lesbo". "I guess no man wanted to get on her and complete the act," they'll laugh when they think no one can hear. And if there is an adoptive dad, people will wonder if he "wasn't up to the task." Or perhaps he just doesn't enjoy doing the things that real men do.
The adoptive mom will be asked questions in front of the child. Questions like, "Why didn't you adopt American?" or "How much did she cost?" or "Do you think you can love her as much as if she were your own?"
And kids like Cynthia? They'll go to middle-class schools where most of the kids are white and they're made to feel uncomfortably "special." The teachers will celebrate Chinese New Year with red money envelopes and moon cakes. Geography lessons will include the facts that the Chinese invented umbrellas to keep people dry, and gun powder to keep them away. On Thursday, the cafeteria will serve General Tso's Chicken, and be amazed should any Chinese kid request a hot dog instead. There may even be a small statue of the Buddha in the classroom, although it will be stressed that he was a man like Lincoln, not a god like Jesus.
I study the dolls and a final possibility strikes me. Perhaps the adoptive mother, finding she is finally pregnant, is returning the baby to the orphanage. Perhaps the baby, able to speak at a very young age, refuses to call this stranger "mommy," and instead refers to her by her first name. In that case, the punctuation on the box simply needs to be amended.
"Going Home, Barbie?" it should read.
Originally published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, November 2008.
THIS IS HER, I think to myself. A billion-to-one shot, a near impossibility, yet here she stands. In our kitchen. As if hell just froze over.
"This is Mrs. Lim," my adoptive mom says. "Mrs. Lim, my daughter Leah."
Mrs. Lim's is as razor thin as I am. Her hair, like mine, is very dark brown, black by most light. My 13-year-old nose, uncustomarily long for an Asian girl, seems to be reflected in her middle-aged face.
"Ni hao," she says without the trace of a smile.
"Hi," I say back.
My mom's talked about Mrs. Lim. About how her husband is totally opposed to her studying English with a literacy volunteer. About how little time she gets away from the ice cream franchise that she and her husband own.
But this is the first time I've ever seen her, and I have little doubt that the same blood runs through our veins.
"We're going to study in here today," my mother says. "So maybe you can wrap it up."
I've just made oatmeal cookies and I'm arranging them on a wire rack to cool.
"No problem," I say.
"I just have to run out to the car and get our books," my mom says. "I might check the mail, so give me a minute."
I know her by now. Give me a minute means she'll be smoking her daily cigarette—the one she doesn't think I know about—inside the garage.
When the front door closes, Mrs. Lim sits at the kitchen table while I load the dishwasher.
"Do you speak Chinese?" Mrs. Lim finally asks.
"A little," I tell her, which is pretty close to a lie. I'm strictly hello-goodbye-thank-you when it comes to my native language.
"We have much in common," she says.
A glass measuring cup falls from my hand and breaks on the ceramic tile floor. "Shit," I say out loud.
Mrs. Lim keeps her seat as I go for the broom by the side of the refrigerator. "Careful to not cut yourself," she says.
"What do you mean we have much in common?" I ask.
She finally shows her smile, but keeps her teeth hidden. "You speak little Chinese, I speak little English." After I find the dustpan, she says, "So where in China?"
"Taizhou," I say.
"Ah," she says. "In Jiangsu." She pauses a second, then adds, "You lucky to be here. In Jiangsu maybe you be stuck in factory already."
"I was abandoned," I say.
I dump the broken glass into the trash under the sink. "Do you have any kids?" I ask.
"Two sons," Mrs. Lim says. "One in MIT, one in high school."
"Do you wish you did?" I ask.
"I try not to wish," she says. "'Wish' just another word for disappointment."
I think about this a second before I say, "You want a cookie?"
"If you have cookie, I have cookie."
I bring over a few still warm cookies on a plate. "They're oatmeal," I say as I take the chair across from her.
Mrs. Lim reaches for a napkin in the holder on the table, unfolds it, and puts a cookie on the center. She breaks off a tiny piece and puts it in her mouth.
"Is good," she says.
"The black is raisins," I tell her, "not burned."
She gives a little laugh at this and we eat in silence a moment or two before she says, "So what you study in school?"
"Regular stuff," I tell her. "Math, social studies, English..."
"Again like me," she smiles.
"Kinda," I say.
I nod. "Right now we're learning about the Gold Rush."
"What is Gold Rush?" Mrs. Lim asks.
"1849," I say. "In California. People came from all over the world trying to get rich."
"Ah," she says.
"My teacher thinks it's where the phrase ‘not a Chinaman's chance’ comes from."
"What means that?" she asks.
I lean forward on the table between us. "Well," I start, "the Chinese— since they were from so far away—were the last ones to get there. Nobody though they had much of a chance to find anything."
"But they did, right?"
"They did because they banded together and worked as a team."
"Chinaman's chance," she repeats.
"You good teacher," she says.
I hear my mom on the front porch and I know my time with Mrs. Lim is almost through. My adoptive dad, were he here to give me advice in this situation, would probably say, "Go for it," or "Swing for the fences." So I do.
"Are you my mother?" I ask.
Mrs. Lim stares at me for a few long seconds, and I'm afraid at first that she doesn't understand. I'm sorry, I'm about to say. Stupid question. But she interrupts my thoughts as the front door opens.
"Your mother," she says, "just came in."
A second later my mom steps into the kitchen. She smells like nicotine and Tic Tacs, and I find the odor pleasing. She puts the English grammar books on an empty kitchen chair.
"Ready to begin?" she asks Mrs. Lim.
"Yes. Ready," Mrs. Lim answers.
"Would you put the teapot on?" my mother asks me, her way of telling me it's time to leave.
"I broke the measuring cup," I tell her.
"But look how good she clean it up," Mrs. Lim says.
FROM the living room where I slump on the sofa and page through Great Expectations, I can hear them. My adoptive mom and this woman I share a country with.
"Yesterday I would have arrived if I'd have known," my adoptive mom says.
Mrs. Lim repeats the phrase almost perfectly.
"He would have arrived on time if his train had not been late."
I put Dickens aside and sit up straight. My lips begin to move, but I am as silent as smoke, and Mrs. Lim's voice seems to come from somewhere deep inside of me.
"They would have arrived together if circumstances had been different."
Originally published in Verbsap, August 2010.