One in 1.3 Billion
By Chris Huntington
Our family endures a weird celebrity. It doesn’t come from being unusually good-looking or accomplished, but just from being odd to look at. My wife, Shasta, has eyes the color of faded denim. She’s four foot ten and only weighs about a hundred pounds. Her tiny hands are pale as eggshells; sunlight is something she likes to read about. On the other hand, because my maternal grandparents emigrated from Guangzhou and my paternal grandparents were Hoosiers, I have a thin, vaguely mongrel appearance one might associate with the Tajik people or the Uzbeks. Shasta’s grandmother, a true New Englander, once asked her why I was so swarthy. Our son, on the other hand, is the color of milk chocolate. He was born outside Addis Ababa and is one member of a new generation of Ethiopians raised abroad. Together, we are an odd trio.
Dagim is a happy human cannonball, a three-year-old lion with a tiny Afro. He spins like a dervish with his fingers fluttering to music only he hears. Some days, he says he’s going to stay little like his mommy. Some days he wants to get big like me. A month ago, we were walking to a hill we could see in the distance, and he wanted to know if I could carry it home for him. He seemed surprised when I said no. He climbs me like a tree; this morning he declared he was cold and tunneled his forehead into my neck. He let me carry him to our back door. His eyes were closed against my chest, and I felt fragile with happiness.
Yesterday, one of my new co-workers came by the apartment. His wife, who is expecting, rubbed her waist and told Dag she had a baby inside. “We’re going to give our son a baby sister,” she said.
Dag repeated this story five times after the couple and their boy left. He also told one of his stuffed animals, “I don’t have sisters. I just have friends.” I could see Dag’s brain considering the new possibilities. He wanted to know if he had ever been behind his mommy’s belly button. He was wondering if he was going to get a baby sister. The words for the questions were lining up to come out, though they never quite made it. I could see Shasta doing calculations of her own. She was preparing her voice, her sad eyes rehearsing; she doesn’t want to sound sad when she answers. I want to interrupt them both, stop the conversation. I want to tell a different story of our family. One that doesn’t start with the word “No.”
One time in the airport, we passed a husband and wife and their four kids, all of whom had beautiful teeth and golden Viking hair. Shasta said, “That family looks like a chess set designed by Abercrombie and Fitch.”
“What are we?” I said.
“We’re not a chess set,” she said. “We’re action figures.”
I was forty years old when I became a father. Shasta was thirty-two. We had tried for years to make a baby the old-fashioned way. High school guidance counselors always warn that it’s horribly easy to get pregnant. But it wasn’t easy for us. We discovered that, unlike the rest of our species, our particular DNA was completely uninterested in preserving itself. We applied to adopt from China. Half my family came from there; I felt a kind of invisible connection—a red thread around the world—but then, that didn’t work, either. We were put on a list that was at least five years long. I borrowed money from my parents, and we saw a fertility expert, a skinny man who once walked past me without a glance as if I were an empty armchair in his waiting room. And then we found this little boy living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. He didn’t have anyone. He needed us. We needed him.
Until recently, we lived in Indianapolis, and we stood out a bit there. We now live four hundred miles north of Hong Kong where we stand out even more. I took a job teaching in Xiamen, one of the fifty or so Chinese cities with more than two million people. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “You know that guy who’s one in a million? Well, there are a thousand guys like him in China.”) We moved to Xiamen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I was suddenly unemployed in a recession. My wife and I also thought that maybe it would be good for Dag if he weren’t the only one who felt different when we walked down the street. If all three of us were equally unlike our neighbors, our three-year-old wouldn’t have to bear the weight of it all by himself. In retrospect, we might have misjudged what it would mean to stand out in a place where the buses are filled window to window with shiny, straight black hair.
We’ve had strangers here step forward to ask if Dagim is our son. If Shasta’s alone, the stranger will ask, “But his father is black, right?”
Shasta always smiles, “No, not really,” or, “Well, he likes Sade.” Then she continues grocery shopping or whatever she’s doing.
I hesitate when I’m asked if Dagim’s mother is black, not wanting to disrespect either my wife or Dagim’s birth parents. But I usually say no, his mother is white. After all, we’re a family, and Shasta is his mother. But sometimes people follow up with the comment, “But his face is not like yours” and wait for an explanation.
I’m not sure what kind of explanation they expect. Do they expect me to act surprised? To say my wife has cheated on me? To announce that Dagim is an experiment? I stare back, and people smile and blink. Without guile. They’re not trying to hurt my feelings. These are old women who sweep the street with tree branch brooms. Or they’re young people who have no idea that their T-shirts are nonsense (“Bad Groundwater” or “Big Onion Boy”). Or they’re men who lived through the Cultural Revolution only to turn fifty and find the NBA logo on their Tsingtao beer. I think we get asked questions because people are honestly perplexed. One person told me that because many Chinese have heard that Barack Obama had a white mother, the idea has spread that black people can be born to white people. From their perspective, they are suddenly standing on the bus next to a thirty-five-pound Kobe Bryant. Can I explain it?
We hardly know how to explain it to ourselves. We’ve told Dagim the simplest version of the story. Adoption experts have told us that when Dagim asks about his birth family, we should tell him how his birth mother loved him so much, she gave him up. She wanted to keep him, but she was too poor, in one of the poorest countries on earth. There just wasn’t enough money or food to go around. But it seems to us that someday Dag is going to say, “People don’t give up things they love. You love me, and you’re not giving me up,” or he’s going to look at Time magazine and see pictures of poor people clutching babies in floods or wars and instead of feeling compassion, he’ll feel hurt that someone who looks like him let him go.
We’ve been told that if he ever wishes he could have been a baby inside my wife or wishes he was the same color as us, we should say something along the lines of, “We don’t wish that because then you wouldn’t be you, and we love you the way you are—which is perfect.” But the fact is, sometimes I look at him sleeping and I wish my skin were the same beautiful brown. I don’t like being different from him. I wish he could look up and see his face in mine. I wish that we could walk into an Indiana Denny’s together and he would not be the only person of color outside of the kitchen. Sometimes I feel as if this hurt, this longing, is something we need to share. Other times, I think I should just keep it to myself. But why do Chinese people on the bus think I want to talk to them about it?
When we were preparing to move to China, family and friends constantly joked about how we were sure to come home with a little girl, as if Chinese babies were stacked like bags of rice in giant warehouses. Americans associate China with adoption, but Chinese people themselves don’t. In a country of 1.3 billion people, the loss of some six thousand orphans a year is not immediately visible. My Chinese teacher, who has worked in the expat community for years, was ready to argue when I said that a lot of Chinese girls were adopted into American families. When I opened a website, she pulled the laptop from my hands. “Lucky girls,” she said finally, handing it back. It was a ridiculous thing to say about abandoned children, but to be fair: My teacher was taken by surprise. In China, grandparents may raise grandkids while parents work in factories, but adoption, especially from Africa, is not something normal people do. They’re not allowed. There wasn’t even a legal statute for domestic adoption until 1992, and this required that the adopting parents be over thirty-five years old and have no other children. The common observation is that the Chinese government has suppressed its domestic adoption because it believes if couples are allowed to give up girls for adoption (in order to try again for a boy), this will undermine the population control policy. My wife and I struggled to expand our family, but for over a billion people living around us, it’s apparently so easy that the government made one child the legal limit for each couple. Childless families here struggle in their own ways, but they do not turn to adoption the way Americans do.
Adoption here is essentially impossible except perhaps in a paperless way by extended family. Our Chinese neighbors must know or suspect Dagim is adopted, but the knowledge is uncertain and mysterious because a Chinese version of our family could not exist. I don’t think there is a single Chinese family who has adopted from Ethiopia. We’re treated at times as though we came from another world, but I suppose we did.
After moving from our house in Indiana to an apartment in Xiamen, Dagim struck up a friendship with the neighbor’s blackbird. The bird greets anyone on our porch with either dead-on mimicry of the neighbor clearing his throat or the words “Ni Hao!” That’s about all the Chinese Dagim knows; it means “hello.” Dagim thinks of China as “where pandas live” and “the Great Wall.” He sees China as endless bowls of noodles and busy chopsticks and rice. Some days, Dagim likes kung pao chicken. Some days, he doesn’t. For Dagim, China is also a place where strangers approach him on the bus to pinch his kinky hair. Ever since we got here, Shasta and I have promised ourselves that we would show Dagim a China that he can love.?A colleague told me that he was going to take some people to see panda bears. “Take us,” I said.
I’m not a naturalist at heart. I love the world, but I haven’t slept outdoors much since I became an adult. I knew, however, that there were fewer than a thousand panda bears left in the world. I wanted to show Dagim some pandas from a few feet away. A part of me felt that if I could do that, then maybe someday Dagim’s children would look at him like he’d touched a dinosaur. I wanted to give him that, just in case everything else about moving to China turned out to have been a mistake.
When we arrived at the preserve, the Chinese officials in charge insisted we watch a documentary about the animals we were about to see. We learned that pandas are solitary, spending most of the year without even seeing another panda, and when they come together to mate, they are spectacularly unsuccessful, even in the wild. The documentary went into great detail about the artificial insemination that scientists used to keep the species alive in captivity. “Hmm,” my wife said. “I like pandas. They’re a lot like us. They’re ridiculous.”
“Well, they make easy things hard for themselves, but they don’t bother anybody.”
“The easy way,” I said, and I rolled my eyes. “Who would want to do things the easy way?”
“Right,” my wife said. We watched some more of the video. The pandas, unlike every other bear, limit their diet to bamboo, which means they need to eat about forty-five pounds of the plant every day. Shasta laughed. “Oh, come on. They’re impossible!”
“They’re beautiful. They’re black and white and live in China,” I said. “They’re absolutely us.”
This is what I want to tell Dagim when he asks about a pregnant woman’s waist. “Anyone can make a family that way,” I want to tell him. “Anybody. Except us. And panda bears. And stars. Stars just appear. Sometimes they fall to earth. That’s our family, Dagim. That’s absolutely us.”
Author’s Note: After I wrote this essay, my family, by chance, shared a Chinese taxi with a woman of color from South Africa. She asked Dagim about himself, and he spontaneously told her he was born in Ethiopia and that we’d adopted him when he was little. I’d never heard him tell the story before; he was leaning off his seat, overflowing with happiness. As we said goodbye, Dagim raised his fist and said, “AMANDLA!” just like Nelson Mandela, and the woman rushed forward to kiss him. “How did you learn that?” she repeated, and I was blind with pride.
Brain, Child (Summer 2011)
Chris Huntington taught in the American prison system for ten years before moving to China with his family. His is the author of the novel, Mike Tyson Slept Here. His essays about family and adoption have been anthologized in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. His website is chrishuntingtononline.com.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.