She was a little too brazen for my liking. “If you’re going to go the special-needs route, you will need a sense of humor,” she said. “This process is awkward, and people say stupid things. Laughter is one of the best ways to fight that.”
“We’re funny people!” I said, trying to thinking of something to prove it. She didn’t give me time.
“For instance, my middle daughter is missing a leg,” she said, “When we go to the pool and rude people stare, she points to the deep end and warns them about the sharks. When we go to the grocery and strangers ask her what happened, she’ll pretend like she had no idea that leg was missing and start looking all over the place for it in a panic.”
“O.K., she is hilarious,” I conceded.
“Hilarious, yes. But it’s also an issue of power. These kids are likely to look and feel different all their lives. One of the best things we can do as their parents is give them the option of laughter to face down a gaping world. Of course there’s a place to let your guard down and hurt honestly, but that doesn’t have to happen at the beck and call of anyone who approaches with a question or comment. Our kids can say no. They can walk away. They can deflect with a joke. They need many different tools at their disposal.”
I realized she was right. Being Asian in a white family wasn’t going to be easy no matter how any of us felt about it.
(In fact, before I continue this post, I feel the need for a disclaimer. Race can be a sensitive topic, and as I write this I wonder if it’s possible to discuss the subject in a way that isn’t offensive somehow to someone somewhere. Since most of you don’t know me, all I can offer you is the simple truth of my journey along with a request that you might believe the best in me as I give it to you. Deal?)
I have always thought Asians were particularly beautiful. Since God knew I was going to mother an Asian child, perhaps He put that love in there as preparation. I grew up learning little bits of Eastern language and culture from family friends. Then, as I became a portrait artist, the details of our physical differences became enchanting to me. The undertones in coppery skin are glorious, I loved the contrast of black, resonant eyes and the way dark hair catches in the wind. I was drawn to the way laughter dances in a Chinese face. I loved the calligraphic nature of Mandarin. I admired the innovation, music, and artistry that have emerged from thousands of years of Chinese culture. All of that has felt like home to me for a very long time.
By the time we began considering adoption, we already had two birth children. We adored them and the connection we shared, yet it began to seem like our next child was Asian. We did a lot of reading before we launched, considering pointed accusations about inter-racial adoption. However, the longing that grew inside us wasn’t condescending. It wasn’t a messiah complex. It was more like feeling the need for a daughter after you already have a son you enjoy. It felt like someone was missing who would make our family whole.
I knew we would love our son and that he would love us. I knew race wouldn’t lessen our bond in the least. However, none of us could escape the fact that inter-racial adoption, and particularly special-needs, inter-racial, inter-cultural adoption added new factors to the mix. If humor was a tool that could help, we would give it to him.
Our first few months together were perfectly awkward. However, love and delight were also present instantly. We connected in a way that was surprising to nearly everyone who saw us. We snuggled, explored, read, tried new foods, and played games. Through the looks in our eyes and through the flow of our presence we exchanged the same underlying language.
Still, Mosie was three and knew no English. The fumbling Mandarin we had tried to learn made him laugh like crazy. (Apparently, we were saying everything wrong.) So, like all parents and like all children, we messed up together. We misunderstood together. We grew and giggled together.
Over time, my pseudo-Mandarin became a regular joke to our son. He began to mock the way Mom spoke Chinese, “Mom says, ‘Ting tang, ching chong, bing bang.'”
“That’s NOT how I sound!” I said.
“Yes it is!” he would giggle.
I can’t tell you how funny it was to listen to a five-year-old with a growing Appalachian accent trying to imitate me, trying to imitate him.
We are a story-sort-of-family, so I guess it’s natural that a tall tale has emerged from all of this. It evolved as Moses and I tried to explain the first stage of our journey together. As we have told and retold it, it has become Moses’s very favorite story, and he asks me to tell it to him almost every day. For Christmas, he wants me to put it in a book so he can hold it and look at the pictures. I’m going to give it a shot.
For now, though, I will give you the simple version of a mother and son learning one another’s words. It’s a silly tale, and I suppose someone who hasn’t walked through this with us could find things to critique about it. Yet, it is as dear to us as an awkward family snapshot, because it captures the convergence of lives that God brought together, and the grace work of a love that transcends obstacles.
I’m so proud of my beautiful boy. He is brave, and smart, and strong. Beyond this, he has learned to laugh in the face of a challenge. We all have. I am so grateful for everything he has given to us. I am so grateful for our shared words.
– – – – –
Once upon a time, I had a little baby from China. He talked like this, “Chong chongy, bong bong bongy, chong chong.”
One day I said, “Hey, little baby. What do you want for dinner?”
And he said, “Tong tongy wong dong.”
So I said, “Um… I don’t have any idea what you just said. Tong tongy wong dong? Is that like a hot doggy dog dog dog?”
And he said, “Nooooo!” and he shook his finger at me and said, “Fing fang song song!”
The next day I said, “Hey, little baby. Do you want to go to the playground?”
And he said, “Ting, tingy, bing bing, zing.”
So I said, “Um… I don’t have any idea what you just said. Ting, tingy, bing bing, zing? Is that like a zoundy-woundy merry-go-roundy?”
And he said, “Nooooo!” and he shook his finger at me and said, ” Tang tong, ring bing, ta-ding, wong, bong!”
Later that night, I said, “Hey, little baby. Do you want to sit in that big chair and read with me?”
And he said, “Fang tang, ling ring, ping ping, pong.”
So I said, “Um… I don’t have any idea what you just said. Fang tang, ling ring, ping ping pong? Is that like a looky wooky story booky?”
And he said, “Nooooo!” and he shook his finger at me and said, “Zingy dingy bing bang!”
So, I thought about it, and I thought about it, and finally I said, “Hey, little baby. I don’t have any idea what you are saying! Are those even words? I don’t know those words! Wait a minute… are you speaking…. CHINESE? I can’t speak Chinese! Why are you talking like that?”
Then the baby laughed, and he said, “Fing wing, ding ding, wongy tong tong!”
So I stared at that baby, and that baby stared at me. And finally, I said, “Hey, kid. One of us is going to have to learn a new language.”
And the baby realized the truth of the matter, so he said, “OK, I will.” (Because he was a very smart baby, and he understood that his mom was kind of slow.)
So that baby learned English. He learned to ask for chocolate milk, and french fries, and kisses, and noodles, and tickles, and playgrounds, and drinks of water, and stickers, and Band-Aids, and balloons (the red one, please), and help with puzzles, and help wiping his bottom (shew!), and piggy back rides, and bedtime stories, and trips to the ocean, and little plastic buckets with yellow shovels, and his froggy, and his ‘nother froggy, and the striped blanket with puppy dogs on it, and all sorts of millions of things.
And his mom kept trying to learn Chinese, too, but that language was very hard, and she was very old and stuck in her ways, so sometimes she just did her best and made things up. When she did, she talked like, “Wongy, bong, bong, ting tong, zip zap, moddly poddly, fing fangy ding dong.”
It wasn’t very good Chinese, but the little baby loved her anyway, because he was not only smart, but also kind.
He loved her, and she loved him. She loved him more than the moon, and the stars, and the wiggly fish in the deep blue seas, and they went on many adventures together until they grew old, and wise, and familiar. In fact, they lived quite happily ever after.