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Beyond the Lion Dance

"Sometimes I wonder whether teaching my daughters about the animals of the Chinese Zodiac will help them thrive as Asian girls living in 21st-century America."

by Jeff Gammage

Jin Yu is seven now, and lately she's been telling me she wants to go and visit her nannies, the women who cared for her at the orphanage in China. Not so much for herself, she says, but for them. Because she is sure they must miss her and wonder how she's doing. I promise we will try to go. "They are going to be so surprised!" she tells me.

I hope so. But the turnover in Chinese orphanages can be steep. Low pay and 24-hour shifts are not strong inducements for tenure. A friend recently sent photos from the orphanage in Xiangtan, where my daughter spent her first two years, and I didn’t see one nanny I recognized. There’s every chance that by the time Jin Yu returns, everyone who might remember her will be gone.

I wonder if my child is hoping to visit people as much as a time and place, to somehow grab hold of a life that fell away when she was a toddler. If, in wanting to visit her nannies, she is seeking to regain part of what she surrendered in coming to this country. But I can’t give my daughter China. I can only give her Chinatown.

Every Saturday morning, my wife and I take Jin Yu to Lion Dance class, watching as she and the other children practice their steps under the critical eye of their sifu. The troupe’s public performances dictate the schedule of our lives the way those of other families are organized around soccer games. On Tuesday nights, Jin Yu and her four-year-old sister, Zhao Gu, attend a Chinese culture class near our home, learning the Mandarin words for vegetables and fruits, dancing with long blue-and-yellow ribbons, and helping to make dumplings and wontons.

My daughters are two of the nearly 62,000 Chinese children who have been adopted into new homes in this country during the past 15 years. Almost all are girls, abandoned by Chinese parents barred from having "extra" children and pressured to raise sons. For these kids, a new family comes at high cost: their language, their food, the sights and smells of their homeland, the faces of their countrymen.

My wife and I try to mend that severed connection by making China an integral part of our lives, expressed in everything from the music we play to the art we hang on the walls. But culture is a tricky thing. And in me, my daughters have a poor teacher. I have no experience at being Chinese.

I worry I’m succeeding only at forging my children’s links to a vanished, historical China. That knowing the starting and ending points of the Great Wall, the home city of the famous Terra Cotta warriors, or the animals of the Chinese Zodiac will do little to help them thrive as Asian girls living in 21st-century America.

A Chinese friend who visited from Beijing thinks I’m daft, lugging my girls to New Year’s banquets and dragon-boat races. "They are not Chinese. They are American," she told me. She meant American in more than address, American in a way that’s obvious to anyone who is not from America. It’s the way they stand, the way they carry themselves, the cut of their hair, the things they find funny or sad. The irony is that, in this country, my daughters are seen as wholly, fully Chinese. Indeed, it is Chinese blood that runs in their veins.

Like every father and mother, I know that later on, it will be all my fault—as it has been the fault of parents through millennia. So when that time comes, when Jin Yu is a teenager, full of the certainty of her years, which blame can I live with? For having dragged her to National Day parades and Moon Festivals? Or for not having done so, for having let the tie to her past slip away like the string of a wind-tossed kite? At least I get to pick.

I hope someday my daughter will see that her mom and dad made an effort, however flawed and imperfect, to restore part of what was taken from her. I hope, if we do return to China, that some of what Jin Yu learns in this country will help her make sense of that one. That if we can visit the orphanage, she will feel at ease, even if she doesn’t feel at home.

Jin Yu asks me if her nannies loved her, and I tell her I am sure that they did. I ask what she plans to say to them. "I’ll say, Ni hao," she answers. "I still speak a little Chinese."

Jeff Gammage is the author of China Ghosts: My Daughter’s Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood (William Morrow), which will be released in paperback June 24. He lives with his family in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. A longer version of this article previously appeared in The New York Times.

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