Featured story from the
July/August 2012 issue
see the illustrations for this story
Sorry, sweetie, but this is the adult section.” The librarian peered down at Mei. “Children are not permitted to be here without a parent.”
Mei pointed to the blond woman behind her. “My mom’s right here.”
“Don’t play games,” the librarian snapped. “Please go find …”
The woman Mei had pointed to looked up. “Do you need something from my daughter?” She smiled sweetly at the librarian, who arched one gray eyebrow.
“Excuse me,” she said, curtly. She turned on her heel and strode away.
Mei wrinkled her nose in the librarian’s direction while her mother turned back to the shelf. Mei leaned against her and ran an idle finger across a row of books. Her golden skin met her mother’s fair hand for a moment and contrasted interestingly.
“Most people don’t just hang around by themselves near strangers,” Mei grumbled. “Why didn’t she believe me?”
Her mother shrugged. “Some people are just ignorant.” She pulled out a faded blue book. “At last! Let’s go.” She slung her purse over her shoulder and they left the library. On the way out, Mei saw the librarian they had talked to. They locked eyes for a moment before the woman looked away.
Mei climbed into her bed that night, the day’s mix-up playing in her mind. Was it just her, or was this happening more and more often? People never seemed to even have the slightest thought that maybe, maybe an Asian girl could have parents who were white. It happened all the time. Are you looking for your parents? Where’s your mom? Are you here alone? And her parents were usually not ten feet away. Mei pulled the comforter closer around her. She tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. But it was so hard when this happened on almost a daily basis.
Mei turned off her lamp and groped around in the dark for answers to her questions. First of all, about her past. She knew she was adopted from China as a baby by Mr. and Mrs. Portman of New Jersey and from then on was raised as Mei Portman. But what was her original last name? Was she an orphan? She didn’t really know anything about herself.
And she stood out too much. At home with Mommy and Dad, she felt just like them. She was an American, and the Portmans were her true family. But outside of home—in school, the grocery store, the library—her inky hair and almond-shaped eyes seemed to throw an unwanted spotlight over her. Everything about her seemed to scream out, Look, I’m Chinese! She didn’t feel ashamed of being Chinese. She wasn’t sure if she really wanted to be “just American” or not. She just didn’t want to be different.
So which am I? Chinese or American? She asked herself that question all the time but never came up with an answer. I wonder if I’d be better off in China where I’d fit right in …
What about your family? a nagging voice persisted. Can you really imagine a better one? Mei had to admit that she couldn’t. And she didn’t want to ask her parents about her adoption, lest they think she was discontented. Because she wasn’t. Just confused.
Chinese or American? The question echoed once more through her head before she fell asleep. And once more, she was without an answer.
“Happy birthday, Mei!” Mei appeared downstairs to a chorus of cheers. The kitchen was bright and warm, and the lilacs outside seemed to smell even better now that she was ten instead of nine. Mrs. Portman bade Mei sit down and set a package in front of her.
“We hope you’ll get a lot out of this,” she said smilingly.
Mei carefully opened the package and found a book inside. Lakes and Rivers of China. She grinned up at her parents. “You know I’m collecting this series! Thanks!”
Careful not to bend the spine, Mei opened the glossy book, and a small bundle fell out. She looked up at her parents. They nodded eagerly. Mei picked up the bundle and gasped.
Airplane tickets to China.
“I’m going to pick up our luggage!” Mr. Portman bellowed above the bustle of the airport terminal. “Meet me back here in fifteen minutes, then we’ll find a place to eat!” He walked off, whistling.
Mei looked around her, eyes wide. I’m in China, she thought. I’m actually in China. She edged closer to her mother, feeling lost and small.
The family was to stay in Shanghai for a week, led by a guide. After that, Mei knew they were going somewhere else, but she didn’t know where.
Walking through the streets of Shanghai, crowded with more people than she had ever seen in her life, Mei felt flip-flopped. Back home, she seemed to stand out because she was Chinese. Here, where everyone looked like her and the rest of her family looked different, she still felt like she was in the spotlight. She felt too American to truly fit in. She couldn’t speak Chinese past the few words the whole family had learned via flashcards on the plane. She fumbled with her chopsticks in restaurants. She got bored of rice after the first day of meals. She despised tea. Try as she might, she just couldn’t get around the facts—if she was in America, she was too Chinese. If she was in China, she was too American. Maybe she just fit in nowhere.
Back at the hotel, Mrs. Portman presented Mei with the second part of her gift: more tickets. Mei read aloud, “Children’s ticket to the Changing Yang-tze Cruise, Three Gorges Area.”
“It’s a river cruise, Mei,” explained Mrs. Portman. “We’re flying to Yichang day after tomorrow to board the boat. We’ll cruise down the Yangtze, and even see the Three Gorges Dam. You’ll love it!”
Mei slowly nodded and thanked her parents. Three Gorges Dam … haven’t I heard that name before?
Changing Yangtze. The words on the banner seemed to pierce through the air. After gazing at meaningless characters for days, a sign with English on it seemed almost foreign to Mei. The boat loomed above her, the banner mounted proudly on its bow. As the family went to their room on the ship, they were greeted with “Hello’s” and “How are you’s” from all directions. Seeing Mei’s shocked face, Mr. Portman explained that this cruise was specifically for Americans, though the crew was all Chinese. The captain and waiters spoke English. Mei grinned. This would be fun. She could be in the company of other Chinese and speak to them, too. Maybe she could piece together some of her history. Regardless, she knew she would have a good time.
“Dad. Dad!” Mei tapped his sleep- ing figure on the shoulder. “Can you come?”“Uuuh …” Mr. Portman moaned, covering his head with his sheets.
“Mommy did it last time, Dad, so it’s your turn. Please? I won’t ask for anything ever again …” Mei paced in a circle and fiddled with the drawstrings on her sweatshirt.
“What time is it?” Mr. Portman sat up and pushed his glasses on.
“Um, let me check.” Mei scampered over to the bedside table. “Five.”
“Mei, this is really too early …”
“I know, I know, but it’s just for this once!” Mei headed to the door. Seeing that she would not give in, Mr. Portman forced himself to roll out of bed and follow her, still in his pajamas.
Mei and her father tiptoed up to the empty deck. A light breeze blew Mei’s hair off her face as she ran over to the guardrail, and her father sat down on a deck chair and opened a book in an attempt to keep his eyes open. Attempt failed.
Mei leaned against the rail, her eyes glowing in anticipation. She always did this. She woke up at dawn once every time she traveled to see the sun rise in different places. Now she had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness dawn on the Yangtze River.
It was not yet light, but not quite dark, either. The sky was a subtle gray-blue, and Mei took in her surroundings as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. She was afloat in a reasonably narrow section of the river, fenced in on either side by rocky slopes. On the horizon, where the mountains almost met, there was the faintest glimmer of sunlight. The water mirrored the color of the sky, with extra bits of green and muddy brown. Mist shrouded the mountainsides in a veil of ethereal white, and the boat, anchored in the depths of the riverbed, rolled serenely on the waves.
A blanket of mist swept its way across the boat, and Mei found herself submerged in a whitish haze. When the fog cleared, she looked around again. Startled, she found that a woman was approaching her.
As she neared, Mei was able to make out her features. She was rather tall and eccentric, with gray hair pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She had high cheekbones and deep, black eyes with a certain warmth to them. She looked aged, and very wise. A red silk gown was tied tightly about her waist, and she seemed like she belonged in a fairy tale. She glided silently up to Mei and stood beside her.
“Is this your first time in China?” The woman’s voice was rich, like the sound of a cello.
Mei was taken aback. First, because of her forwardness, and second, how could she tell? “Y- yes,” Mei stammered. “Well, I was born here, but I’ve lived in America since I was a baby.”
The woman nodded, then spoke suddenly. “Do you like this place?”
“It’s very beautiful.”
“Not long ago, this place held a different kind of beauty,” the woman said. “Now, you see a stretch of river, sometimes sparkling blue, other times muddy brown. A few years ago, you would have seen small houses dotting the banks of the Yangtze, grassy rice stalks swaying in the breeze, farmers out in wide hats digging in the mud.”
Mei puzzled that over. “Farmers?”
“Yes,” the woman said quietly. “The current riverbed—it was a valley. The Yangtze River snaked its way through, and this valley was a good place for farmers to raise crops, for the soil was wet and fertile.
“But there were floods. Every year, long, deep floods wiped away fields, cities, houses, people. Deaths numbered in the thousands. Despite the floods, people wanted to live here. Their history lay in this place. But death is too high a price to pay for the sake of the land.”
Mei was silent. The woman went on.
“A few years ago, everyone in the valley was told to pack up their belongings and move. The valley became vacant and crops withered while workers built a dam. It was like closing a door on the valley of the Three Gorges. And behind the door, the water rose.”
“So …” Mei gulped, her throat dry, “so they flooded the whole valley?”
“Yes,” the woman whispered. “Underneath us are houses where people—where I—once lived. We sail over the graves of my ancestors, over cities silenced forever.”
Mei was horrified. “But—but that’s terrible! You can’t just let go of all that! What about the history?”
The woman looked grim. “You have to let go of things. You can’t have people die in floodwaters every year just so you can have the same roof over your head for your whole life. The dam flooded one place permanently, so the recurrent floods could be stopped.” She patted Mei’s head. “I know it’s hard to understand. But time changes places anyway. Even if I could go back to my childhood home, it would be different. I can’t go back to my childhood, and it was the life, not the place, that made my home what it was to me.
“The dam destroyed a place, not the past. A person keeps their memories with them wherever they go, and sacrifices like the evacuation pay off later in life. Before the dam, people died in the floods, and no good came out of it. The floods went on. But now, the people of this valley sacrificed their land—something they can do without—and now, life is better. Anyway,” she added, “we’re here right now, aren’t we? The place is still here, if in a different way.”
The sky had been growing steadily brighter as they were talking. Then, in one burst, the sun sprang up, spreading its beams over the river. The sky broke into an ovation of color, streaking pink, purple, blue, and gold across the clouds. Mei’s breath caught in her throat. This was by far the most spectacular sunrise she had ever seen.
“Look at that sunrise,” the woman breathed. “The water catches the light and the colors, making the beauty almost double. Dawn wasn’t as spectacular in the valley, without the water being up so high. Like this dawn, beauty can come as a result of hardship. You just need to be willing to embrace the change.” She glided away on a wisp of wind before Mei could even say goodbye.
Embrace the change … This could apply to any change in life, Mei thought. Changes in her life, like …
Mei felt like she was unearthing something. I’ve been adopted my whole life; I can’t remember any other home than the one I have now. But I did have another home. It could have been right here. She looked into the darkness of the water and shuddered. I’m given all my opportunities by Mommy and Dad … but I was given life by someone over here. She put her fingers on the tip of her nose, feeling the little, rounded shape. I got this from parents I never knew. She certainly owed a lot to her Chinese family. Didn’t they give her her current family, so to speak?
Chinese or American? I guess I am Chinese. This is where I’m from. China is why I look like I do. My Chinese parents are why I have an American family now. American … But I am American … I’m an American girl with American customs, American tastes …
Mei snapped her fingers. She had it! She wasn’t Chinese or American. She was Chinese and American. Her Chinese and American halves were equally important in her character. Embrace the change …
This was her change. She was going to stop dwelling on her past. Of course, there was a lot she still didn’t know. She didn’t know where exactly she came from, who her birth parents were, her original last name. But she knew all that didn’t really matter. What mattered was where she was now. She was done with the questions, the worrying. Maybe she used to be Mei Lin. Zhang. Yi. But that was behind her. Now she was Mei Portman, and she’d build a future from there.