Pearl told me not to burst her bubble but gave me a hundred chances to err. I spent the day with her and four other teenagers, careful not to breach their boundaries.
I was spending the day with them as part of an event — the Chinese Adopted Siblings Program for Youth — that brought together Yale students and adopted children from China now living nearby in the region. When we were sitting in Sudler Hall after registration, our conversations began with a Taylor Swift song playing over the speakers. I didn’t really like the song, but I had heard it before and could talk about it with my teens. From there, we talked about horses, Rubik’s Cubes and our favorite classes.
But I did not and still do not know where in China they were born. I didn’t ask. I know some of them were from Connecticut, others from New York, but I know next to nothing about their past except what I gleaned from pleasant but brief encounters with their parents. In the span of a day, I had no way of piecing together who Pearl or the others were, or the long tales of family and place and emotion that must have been their lives. I wonder how much they grasp of their own pasts.
In the afternoon after a lunch that was neither Chinese or American — but a fusion we know know as Chinese takeout — my group had the chance to either decorate lanterns or discuss their identity as adopted children from China. The previous night, I had received a handout of questions that I could use to facilitate discussion, such as how often the teenagers talked about adoption with friends and how interested they were in visiting China. I knew that such a conversation would be difficult and uncomfortable, not least because I myself was not adopted. But I thought it was an important conversation to have.
My group did not agree. They chose instead to make lanterns. Ella, the youngest of the girls, told me outright that she would rather do anything other than engage in a conversation. She shook her head adamantly when asked for a reason.
I was at a loss. My teens left the room to go make lanterns, and I followed in disbelief. Although I could not know for certain why they shied away from past events, I had a feeling they did not want to confront hard questions about their personal history, some of which they may not even be able to answer. As someone who had only known them for a few hours, I decided not to push their personal space.
I had initially assumed that a pointed discussion would have benefited my teens by encouraging them to think about their identities and share their experiences with others. But how much good would it have brought them if I had forced it upon them? If someone dragged me to a concert against my will, I would probably be more focused on my own vexation than on the cultural benefits I would reap from the experience. Hard discussions — about culture, identity and family — are necessary and worthwhile, but they should arise from natural inclinations to discuss rather than from contrived situations.
No one is made in a day. It is difficult to reduce someone’s experience to a single group discussion. Pearl, Ella and the other members of my group are the products of years of conversation and silence, love and sorrow, migration and home. Perhaps their 11 or 12 years have brought changes most of us cannot fathom, but we all know what it is like to carry the weight of years. Unpacking the load of personal history and talking it through with other people takes more than a single opportunity to share. It takes patience, willingness and, above all, time.
At the end of the day, Pearl and I sat back down in the auditorium for the final talent show. A number of acts went by in an energetic and endearing, but ultimately unimpressive, fashion.
And then a little girl came onstage with a guitar and a soft smile. She started singing a Taylor Swift song in a wistful voice, and Pearl leaned her head slowly onto my shoulder. I thought of all the times I had listened to the same song in middle school, and then I imagined Pearl thinking about the events of her past. In that moment I felt closer to Pearl than I had before, even though we barely spoke.
Amanda Mei is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com.