Introducing Natalie Pappas
Reposted from Tiger Lily Stories
I was raised with the understanding that I was lucky to have parents who loved me enough to let me go. To allow me the opportunity for a better life. It was preferable to think in terms of what I had gained rather than what I had lost. But loss implicates something that I had recognized as mine.
I once had a dream that was almost like a memory. I was sitting on a metal staircase outside of a grey building, the tips of my fingers smudged with black rust. It was cold yet I was only wearing a pale pink shirt with a faded daisy right in the middle. This girl that was me, and yet not me, was 2 years old and alone. The grey building was my orphanage. The surrounding area was blurred, almost as if that building existed outside of any city, any country, any sense of reality. In the years of telling my adoptive parents about this “memory,” I would recall how there was a part of me that knew they were coming. Though I sat unattended on those stairs and unconnected to anyone in China, there was a certainty in me that my state of solitude was only temporary. That I would soon belong somewhere. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I was not remembering, but dreaming. Internalizing and reproducing what my parents would come to tell me over the years. That I was always meant to be found by them. That I was always meant to be a part of this family.
I was born in the Hunan Province of China in 1997. The year of the Fire Ox. Seventeen years after the One Child Policy was first introduced by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Wrapped in a blanket outside of a post office with only Youlan, February 11, 1997 written on a piece of paper. At 3 months old, those few characters were my only possession. One strong breath of wind and my sole piece of identity could have easily peeled away, the paper holding the history of my life in a few thin strokes travelling without me. This is the story that was told to me about how my life began. I still do not know if it is true.
China’s One Child Policy was an attempt at reducing population growth. A chain reaction from years of population control, one catalyst being Mao Zedong’s initial encouragement to increase China’s populace in the '60s. More people meant a stronger country. This ideology led to propaganda that denounced contraceptives and the population grew at an unsupportable rate. The economy and living standards were threatened and reverse actions took effect. Forced sterilization. Fines. Abortion. Women had no more say in the way their country handled their bodies than a flower petal has in the direction the wind blows it.
I remember learning about China’s history from its dynasties to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in high school. Big events. China’s strong leaders and notable laws written in bold in my textbooks. I never thought about it on a microscopic scale. Never considered how these events would lead to the policy that ultimately determined the beginning of my life. We weren’t tested on the mothers who were taken from their homes and forced to abort their children. Never considered the cultural preference for boys and the subsequent acts of infanticide and abandonement when families had one girl too many. Never understood the hand that supposedly wrote my name.
As much as my adoptive parents wanted to fill me with love, I couldn’t shake the belief that I started my life unwanted. Perhaps not unwanted in the personal sense of being uncared for or unloved. I will never know if I was given up because of a preference for a brother, because of poverty, because I was too sick. But I believed I was unwanted in some way and at times it used to make me feel quite alone. I was raised with the understanding that I was lucky to have parents who loved me enough to let me go. To allow me the opportunity for a better life. It was preferable to think in terms of what I had gained rather than what I had lost. But loss implicates something that I had recognized as mine.
From the very beginning, I cannot even claim if the city I was found in is the city I am from. I cannot claim if my name was truly my name. If I had one living parent or two. A brother. A sister. Growing up, I didn’t know about the politics in China or the reasons why my birth parents could leave no information for me. All I knew was that I had been left with nothing but a name and a birth date.
I recently learned that the story my parents were given about how I was found could have been a lie. In the early '90s, China began allowing international adoption and so there were more people eligible to adopt. There were people who initially wanted to help abandoned children that became traffickers, bringing them to orphanages for a price. Some families that violated the One Child Policy and hid their children were fined and government officials would abduct the child. When people from other countries came to China, the orphanages would often fabricate how the children were found. They would say, "she was found in a box at a park. A school. A police station." And so, the time before I was brought to my orphanage was as blank as a watered down stone. The little information my family was given about me was perhaps no information at all.
When I was younger, sometimes not knowing didn’t concern me. I didn’t think of myself in terms of being Chinese or even American. I was just a girl learning fractions, going on playdates, and living with my family. Yet every time someone pointed out a small difference between my parents and me, I felt a tangible divide. It is easy to forget there is any difference at all until it is noticed by others.
One summer when I was six years old, my camp counselor asked me if I was Asian. I knew I was Chinese, but I had never heard of this blanket term. It did not occur to me that if I was from China, I could also be considered to be part of a larger racial category. I did not associate with being labeled as anything, so I told him I wasn’t.
When I was six, my camp counselor asked if I was Asian / I said no and could not understand why he started laughing / Wanting to appear grown up, as if I too was in on the joke, I laughed with him / Each hiccup a breath closer to this word I did not recognize / He ruffled his hand through my hair, the way my dad would to our neighbor’s dog / you’re Asian / I asked him how he knew and / because your face looks Asian / His chest swelled / melon sized / when he said this, as if proud / For the rest of that summer I told people / I’m Asian / before I said my own name.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my mom how much I looked like her. Even then I knew how ridiculous that sounded as my mom is an Irish American redhead and I am anything but. It was almost as if she was trying to compensate for any difference by asserting we were the same. On the opposite end, there were those who assumed no correlation. In middle school, I worked at an equestrian camp with a friend who had red hair and freckled skin, akin to my mom. Once when my mom was picking us up, a counselor nudged my friend and told her her mom was here to get her. Notably confused, we looked around and saw my mom waving at us from her car. It was an understandable mistake and amused us at the time, but I always remembered the quick assumption. I felt a twinge of isolation in the way she had paired us in her head, how she cut off the possibility that I was in fact my mother’s daughter.
In my freshman year of high school, I had made friends with two girls from China. When I transitioned from a day student to a boarding student, I started to spend more time with them. They tried to include me with their group of friends, but in some ways I would feel like an intruder when I was with them. My friends would constantly have to remind the group to speak English when I was around and I could tell it was a source of annoyance for some of them. I couldn’t relate to the way they were raised, the food they preferred, or even the language spoken. Eventually I phased myself out of the group and lost touch with the two girls I had befriended. I felt ashamed that I had not taken Chinese classes when I was younger when my parents offered to enroll me, that I didn’t take more interest in Chinese culture, that I always stayed in my bubble of American friends. I convinced myself that I wasn’t “Asian” enough to connect with the Chinese students at my school and so I joined my friends in viewing them as inherently “other.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I started to reflect on my own internalized racism. I never believed my friends were maliciously racist or actively excluded the Asian students at my school. It was just “normal” that the Asian kids usually socialized with the other Asian kids. Some of my peers referred to the boys’ dorm where most of the Asian students lived as “Chinatown.” We would joke about how they would always have bulk packs of ramen stacked in their rooms or how I was so bad at math unlike the other Chinese students. I didn’t understand that these stereotypes, as “harmless” as they seemed, were a form of microaggressive racism. It never meant much to me because I didn’t necessarily identify with the things we joked about. It was easier to convince myself that I didn’t belong with that group of Chinese girls if I disassociated with everything that might have connected me to them. If I told myself that their culture, their history, their lives were not relevant to mine and my group of friends.
With virtually no connection to my culture or definite information about where I came from, I transitioned from resenting my biological parents to feeling nothing towards them. They were as abstract a concept to me as a distant relative who passed before I was born. Any curiosity I had about my parents or what it meant to be Chinese disappeared throughout high school and most of college. Replaced by worries about drama between friends, how I would do on my next test, where I should go to school, and finding a part time job. Up until I was about 20, I hardly knew myself or what my real interests were, never mind having the capacity to truly understand or reflect on my adoption or the history that led to it. I had no desire to learn and was not mature enough to introspect on the components of my life that made me me.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much I’ve grown (not physically unfortunately, I’m still the same 5' 0" I was in seventh grade) and will continue to grow. My interests have expanded; I still love to write, but I find fulfillment in anything that will allow me to be creative or evolve. Photography. Shooting and editing videos. Fashion. Sewing. Learning. Without school, I must now take the initiative to educate myself in other ways. Reading. Watching documentaries. Going to poetry slams or listening to panel discussions. And with this growth, I’ve had to return to the beginning. To where I was born. To where I spent the first few years of my life where I was nobody’s daughter.
I still struggle to find my place within the “transracial adoptee” and “Asian American” identities. It would be easy to resent my adoptive parents for not providing me with Asian role models or trying to actively immerse me in un-whitewashed aspects of Chinese culture when I was growing up, but I just didn’t want to explore my Chinese identity. For a long time, I rejected anything that would associate me with being “typically” Asian. My face already made me different enough and equated me with negative microaggressions I wanted to distance myself from. I didn’t think there was room for me to be both Asian and American. It seemed to me that identifying with one would conflict with the other. As I try to become more involved in Asian communities and connect with other adoptees, I’m starting to learn that one can be both.
Natalie Pappas graduated from The New School in 2019 with a degree in Literary Studies and is currently living in New York City. She was adopted from the Hunan Province of China when she was 2 years old and continues to explore her adoptee and Asian American identity. She’s passionate about fashion, photography, and writing and hopes to pursue these interests in her creative and professional work.