A Stranger at Home


Written by Kim Rooney (University of Pittsburgh) Student Correspondent CET Shanghai, Summer 2017

When I first arrived in Shanghai, I received an email from a friend offering to continue correspondence while I was abroad to alleviate some of the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land. My first thought was that, as strange as the land might be, how could I be a stranger when it’s supposed to be my home?

Before I left, many of my friends and family were excited for me to return home. Most of them didn’t have lofty expectations of me finding fulfilment or an epiphany, but they still identified China as, if not my definitive home, at least my first home, and they wanted me to experience all that it had to offer. At times, it seemed that their reasons for wanting me to study abroad were better defined than my own.

Meeting one of the ayi who took care of me as a baby

For me, deciding to study abroad was an amalgamation of wanting to improve my Chinese, needing something to do for the summer, and wanting to confront the anxieties I’d had about returning to China head on. For years, I’d distanced myself from being Chinese, and even more so from being a Chinese American adoptee, mostly to give myself an excuse not to face myself. It was easier to focus on other things, to prioritize cultivating myself academically and professionally rather than personally. It was easier because if I failed, it would hurt, but I could keep trying, or I could turn my attention to another task or skill to compensate. But if I failed at being Chinese, there wasn’t anywhere I could turn for consolation.

Of course, the premise itself is questionable—as slippery as definitions of race are, it’s difficult to dispute that I’m Chinese just by virtue of existing as I am. But I didn’t know—and still don’t know—much of the language, culture, or history of China. Even as a Chinese American, I don’t have many of the experiences as my friends do because I wasn’t raised with Chinese parents. Mannerisms, expectations, habits—they may not be the entirety of a cultural identity, but when you have so little of each, it begins to feel as though you may not truly be able to claim that identity as your own.

Coming back to China hasn’t resolved any of those complexities. I don’t think anything can. But it’s given me a new set of experiences to process as I move forward. For the first time, I blended in with the crowds on the street. No one stared at me because I was Chinese, no one looked at me suspiciously or leered at me because I was “exotic”—for once, I could be a person when I was a stranger rather than a caricature or stereotype. Then someone would say something to me, and I’d have to respond. Except I couldn’t. Not really, at least, or not in any meaningful way except to apologize for my inability to respond.

Outside of the welfare center with Ni Wencai, a former Gaoyou official

I’ve gotten better in the past two months, but I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be. I know how to explain that I was adopted, which I prefer telling people rather than telling them that I’m American. Not that the latter is entirely false, but it feels like I’m voluntarily giving up the Chinese part of me that I already cling to with little reassurance. But beyond my introductory spiel, there’s not much in my lexicon. I can stumble through ordering food and interacting with cab drivers, and I can usually follow conversations about transportation and travel, but I’m still far from anything resembling fluency.

Despite what my friends have told me, I still feel disappointed in myself. It doesn’t quite feel like failure, but I’m far from content with my current ability or knowledge. However, being in China and facing that discontent has helped motivate me to study more and has strengthened my conviction to continue learning once I return to the United States.

It still feels wrong calling China home when I can barely hold a conversation here. But when I went back to my hometown, Gaoyou, I visited the welfare center where I spent the first year and a half of my life. The staff there, as well as the former party secretary of Gaoyou, took me to dinner afterwards, and they toasted my return home and welcomed me to come back again. Their toasts felt discordant with my inability to hold a conversation with them, but I’m more hopeful than I was before that the language and knowledge barriers can be breached. I don’t think I’ll magically acquire some sense of home once I do, but hopefully I’ll feel less like a stranger the next time I return.