I am driving north toward Seattle with my 14-year-old daughter to a weekend softball tournament. The news is on low, and we dip in and out of conversation. We wonder whether it is painful to have your teeth whitened, and whether the pain—if it were there—would be worth it. We discuss pickup trucks as the perfect combination of useful and cool, as long as the cab isn’t too boxy. We wonder whether Romeo was kind of a loser and Juliet could have done better.
Then, a story on the radio about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans: an elderly Japanese American man had been pushed to the ground, a young Chinese American woman followed to her car by men shouting slurs.
I glance over at my daughter, “Have you experienced anything like that? At school, or with friends?”
Mei Mei has been staring out the window at the road, but at my question, she looks at me with raised eyebrows and a you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me smile. Then, “Yeah, Mom. And I told you about it.”
I scour my mind for some shadow of the memory and find only a vague recollection of a conversation in the kitchen, my daughter maybe mentioning an incident while eating a snack.
“Will you tell me again?” I ask.
“A white boy was blaming an Asian girl for COVID. I told him to shut the fuck up and leave her alone, and he did.” Then, again, “I’ve told you all of this before.”
There are so many things I don’t understand about my daughter’s life. I don’t understand what it is like to be a teen in the land of TikTok, or how she can text so quickly, using just her thumbs. I don’t understand what it feels like to be a racial minority, even in her own home.
We’ve reached the Interstate bridge connecting Oregon and Washington, and she is staring out the window again, watching I don’t know what, as our car rumbles across the divide.
My husband Pete and I were living in New Orleans when I learned I couldn’t get pregnant again. We’d moved from Oregon to Louisiana for my first job after completing a medical residency. I would be working in the charity system in New Orleans, in the downtown free clinic.
Our son Sam had just turned two, and he was perfect, with two cowlicks and a laugh that burbled up from deep in his belly. But I am one of five children, and I understood families to be big, loud, and messy. Passels, tangles, tribes. Our family of three was just a beginning, and incomplete.
I’d been off birth control for six months at the time of our move, and during the first several weeks in our new home, if I woke up feeling more tired than usual, if I seemed particularly hungry, or if I had a bit of indigestion, I wondered: maybe now? My mind would sprint ahead, counting the months forward to a summer baby, an autumn baby, a baby born on a crisp winter night. And each time, when no line appeared on the plastic test strip in the bathroom, no baby at all.
Pete, an only child of only children, was baffled by my fertility concerns. Three was a good number for a family, he said. Plus, I had a new job. Why complicate it all with a pregnancy?
Mei Mei and I are silent as we drive under an overpass where a group of men and women wave a few American flags, alongside other flags suggesting that we make America great again. I glance over at her again. She is picking her nails.
The flag wavers are now just specks in my rearview mirror. “Mei,” I say, “I’m so sorry I didn’t remember.”
She offers only a verbal shrug, “Hmm.” Maybe forgiving me, maybe not caring, maybe giving up.
Pete hated the South: the oppressive heat, the more oppressive humidity, the bugs. Sam was devoured by mosquitoes at night and developed a heat rash in the day. And as Christmas approached, I was still not pregnant.
I found a fertility guy on the outskirts of New Orleans, a doctor in his mid-fifties: big voice, big belly, brief visits. He injected dye into my fallopian tubes, prescribed ovary plumping shots to my belly, analyzed semen, and seemed oblivious to my cycles of hope and grief, all the way up to the final, fast, and devastating appointment, when he reported, as if telling me he wouldn’t be able to fix our dishwasher after all, “Well, this won’t work then. Sorry about that.”
We pass the exit to Longview, the winter light begins to fade, and it starts to rain. Because it is February in the Pacific Northwest, the softball tournament will be indoors, in a cavernous building smelling of sweat and mildew. Mei Mei asks whether I think it will be harder for her to steal bases on the smaller indoor field. “Focus on the play,” I tell her, “and don’t worry about the rest.” The advice is self-serving. I love it when she goes all in, fast and aggressive, leaping and diving head-first into home. I’m a quiet person, but I scream and whoop with every sprint and tumble.
Between trips to disappointing fertility appointments, I learned that I was able to provide my own patients free care in the charity clinic because the care was terrible. Tired patients waited for hours, crowded on plastic chairs in our dim lobby, without even old magazines or a TV on the wall to keep them company, only to learn the clinic had lost their appointments, or canceled them, or were closing early for Mardi Gras. Or to learn that we provided medical care for free but could not provide the medications necessary to treat the conditions that ailed them.
When I was offered a job at a hospital back in Oregon, Pete and I didn’t hesitate. Our place in New Orleans was full of secondhand furniture we’d found at estate sales and thrift stores. We each decided separately that we wanted none of it. We would leave every piece behind.
The world outside the car has smeared into a dark wetness, and I hunch my shoulders, lean forward, and slow the car, peering ahead. Mei Mei knows I hate being on the freeway in these conditions. She looks over at me and says quietly, “Thanks for driving, Mom.” Then she assures me she will get her license the minute she turns sixteen and will take me wherever I need to go. The semi-truck in front of us soaks our windshield with the splash from its tires, and I am momentarily blinded. I slow the car even further and agree that I very much look forward to having her as my chauffeur.
In Portland, we searched for a preschool by leafing through the Yellow Pages. Between ads for preschools held entirely outdoors, preschools for vegetarians, and preschools for Christians, nestled an ad for a school where children would be immersed in Chinese language all day. Bonus: it was near the hospital. I could drive Sam on my way to work, and he would become bilingual and rule the world.
Over the next few weeks, at drop-off and pick-up, I learned that most of the children in Sam’s class were adopted from China. With time, I saw the possibility. I floated the idea of adoption to Pete one Saturday morning as we stood in the kitchen negotiating who would go to Costco. It was an egg of an idea, barely formed. But I wanted him to look at it and give it a little love, if only because he understood the yearning that had shaped it. Instead, he spit out his coffee, brown spray shooting back into his cup. “Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t know what kind of kid we’d get. He could be a fucking nightmare.” We had so little time for each other as it was, he reminded me. Adoption was expensive, and we were still paying my student loans. Plus, we had a mortgage now. How could I possibly think adopting a child would be a good idea?
I won’t go into my reply, and then his, and then the increasingly terrible things we said to each other that I wish we could take back. Still, my want grew, nourished in equal parts by tenderness toward the unknown child I was desperate to meet and rage toward the man who stood in our way. Eventually, Pete’s defenses couldn’t withstand my grinding need, my angry tears, my frozen silence.
I got my way and both of us still bear scars.
The first time I saw her, I was clicking through a website from an agency that specialized in adoptions from China. Click, click, and, suddenly, there she was, not quite a year old, wearing a white blouse with red stitching, looking straight at the camera.
I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that sometimes you just know, and that when I saw her, I just did, and she was mine.
She was two by the time we finally met her. Pete, Sam, and I sat in our hotel room in Nanchang, China waiting for the orphanage staff to bring her to us. I had a list of questions prepared and translated into Chinese: “How often does she nap? What are her favorite foods? Does she still need diapers?”
But when we opened the door to two caregivers from the orphanage, the women barely looked at us, and they didn’t linger for my planned Q and A. Without a word, they pushed her gently into the room and shut the door behind her. All of us—me, my husband, our son, and this longed-for child with perfect rosebud lips and tiny pigtails—were surprised into inaction. Mei Mei finally took charge, turning back to the door, wailing—“Ayi! Ayi!”—and pounding to get out.
I slipped cross-legged down to the rough hotel carpet, damp armpits, sprinting heart, and lured her to my lap with a pink yogurt drink and a cartoon picture of a gorilla. Sam leaned against me and told me Ayi meant “auntie,” and I wondered at the aunties’ callousness; they’d left her so fast, and so easily.
Later, I would wonder how they’d left her at all. She had been with them her whole life. They had changed her diapers, seen her first smile, then her first steps. They must have been delighted by her cleverness and likely treasured the silky softness of her hair on their lips when they kissed the top of her head at night.
Then they had to leave her. They must have wondered and worried. How painful to know that she would not remember—at least not in a fully conscious way—their love. And I am sure they loved her. She is too happy, too sure of herself, to have been without love so early on.
It must have been too much. So, they fled.
They fled, and we gained a child with scarecrow limbs and an iron will who, once her rage abated, wouldn’t let me out of her sight. After the first forty-eight hours with her on my lap, in my arms, climbing my back, then my front, I told Pete, “You take her, just for a few minutes, just while I shower.” As I began to relax into the hot water and silence, a tiny leg poked over the side of the tub and suddenly there she was, fully clothed and soaked beside me.
Most evenings, we took the kids to the hotel pool. The first night we went, I slipped into the shallow end, intending to turn and pluck Mei Mei from the side. Instead, she ran straight for me, jumping into the water, though she couldn’t swim. Leaping. Flying. Confident I would catch her.
The lights are coming at me, and the lines are blurry on both sides. It is quiet except for the rapid flip flap of wipers. I can’t let the topic go. “Do you feel safe? Have there been any more comments?”
She sighs, a little impatient now. “Mom, it’s fine.” She tells me support for the Asian community is all over Instagram, and it is really not cool to act racist right now.
But Instagram isn’t life, and none of this is fine, and she is a target. I should have paid close, uncomfortable attention to what my daughter told me. It is the minimum required: to bear unrelenting and angry witness to injustice, even when full understanding is impossible.
But I also know that she has the right to choose her own story, and it seems that hers does not include a spotlight on the incident, or on my need to remember it. It also does not include her as someone who needs rescuing, at least not by me, at least not right now. That matters, too.
About a year after we brought her home, Pete called me from work, sobbing. He said he’d been telling a colleague about his children and as he spoke, it hit him. “We might have missed her. We could have lost her. I didn’t know.”
They love the same foods and sneak away to restaurants, just the two of them, ordering platters of barbeque, sushi, mac and cheese with bacon. I often go upstairs to kiss her goodnight and find him lying on his back on her carpet as she sits on the rolling chair by her desk, talking.
Sam is in college now. Some mornings, I hear him on speaker, talking with Mei Mei across time zones as she eats her cereal. She asks his advice about friends, and dating, and whether she’d look good with a tattoo. He tells her she needs to hang out with smarter people, that she should date widely, and that a tattoo is an excellent idea. Sometimes they argue, but they usually do that in Chinese—so they can say mean things to each other without me intervening.
And I wonder: maybe the aunties weren’t overwhelmed at all. Maybe they left so quickly because they had performed some version of that leaving a hundred times before, with other children, and they knew that the least confusing good-bye would be the good-bye that never happened. Instead, a little push, a closed door, and one version of my daughter’s life ended as another began. With that push: she is yours. You are hers. Create your future.
And she has. So much so that I often struggle to keep up.
Nearing our exit, we pass a billboard on private land telling the Chinese to get their money out of America.
“What a racist asshole,” I say, listening hard for her response.
“Yeah,” she replies. Then, spying a pickup going the other direction, “I like that truck. Good color. Not too boxy.”
It is an old Ford, deep red, and she is right, not boxy at all.