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A little more than 16 years ago, a newborn infant was left by the side of a Chinese road in winter, and thus began my love affair with her, and with her homeland. It hasn’t all been unadulterated bliss in either of my relationships — that with my adopted Chinese daughter Grace (and her Chinese sister Lucy), and with the country that could not keep them. But I am in this for the long haul: Grace and Lucy, now 16 and 15, are my forever children. And China will forever be their motherland.
However many times they may renew their American passports, however many US elections they vote in, however many US driver’s licences they will procure, a part of them will be forever China. And a part of me will be, too.
I moved our family to China in 2008 to honour that Chinese part of all of us. Lucky for me, the Financial Times had offered me a job in Shanghai that made this possible. And thus began the great Waldmeir Sinicisation project. My plan was to take two kids who became accidental Americans in the instant that I adopted them, and teach them how to be Chinese in China. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Now, eight years later, our family is heading back to America, each to a greater or lesser degree a Sinophile. After so many years in China, one of us has lost her taste for American food, distinctly preferring noodles to burgers; another loves speaking Mandarin and will really miss the chance to practise her tones back home, and the third says she “never really left America in the first place”. I will not reveal which of us is which. But I sometimes think the most Chinese person in our family is lily-white, Italo-German-Swiss-American me.
My kids might be Chinese by birth but by temperament they are 100 per cent American teen, by which I mean they think Mom is never right about anything. So they were never particularly onboard with us re-enacting the Chinese version of Roots. But when we arrived, they were only 7 and 8 — still young enough to drag around from the dog-eating provinces of the south to the ice castles of the north, hoping that a flavour of their homeland would sink deep into their bones, by osmosis.
With hindsight, it might have been better to skip the trip, when they were 10 and 11, to that town in Guizhou province where every restaurant serves only dog meat. Grace hid in the car the whole time and Lucy has never let me forget that the first thing she saw, upon entering Xiao Hong’s dog diner, was a wok full of simmering puppy paws. Sometimes I took the cultural authenticity thing a step too far, and few Chinese eat dog these days anyway.
I might have had more luck in teaching them to love China if I had stuck to bribing them with dumplings, bootleg DVDs and their own private stash of fireworks with which to risk blowing their arms off at lunar new year. That is something they wouldn’t get back home.
My goal was to give them access to the culture, the values, and most of all the language that goes along with the faces they were born with.
I think I have done that, but only time will tell whether doing so has bred in them an enduring love for their motherland — or put them off it forever.
But at 15 and 16, the choice is theirs now. I have finished trying to teach them how to be Chinese in China. Now it’s time for them to teach themselves to be Chinese in America. I am not sure I envy them that prospect, at a time when ethnicity is such a Trump-touchy subject but I am quite certain they don’t want my advice on how to manage it.
And then very soon they will be all grown up and living in a two-power world where they will have a foot in each camp. Maybe they will thank me for that; maybe they will hate me for it, or maybe they just plain won’t care. Perhaps I will be long gone by the time they even make up their minds about all this. Maybe these two lost daughters of China will only grow into their Chineseness over decades.
But it won’t take me that long: already there is a corner of my foreign heart that will be forever China. I only hope that I won’t always be the most Chinese member of the family.