My 'Birthright' Trip to China

Understanding My Chinese, Jewish and American Heritage

Supersisters: Rachel Landes (left) and her sister Sarah volunteered at a center for people with special needs in Xi’an, a city in northwest China.
Courtesy of Rachel X. Landes
Supersisters: Rachel Landes (left) and her sister Sarah volunteered at a center for people with special needs in Xi’an, a city in northwest China.

By Rachel X. Landes

Published August 09, 2014.

After a 20-minute wait, the cab finally arrived. My sister, Sarah, and I hustled into the car, grateful to be off our feet and away from the dimly lit, humid streets of Xi’an, a city in northwest China. It was nearly midnight, and the karaoke hall we had just exited had already blocked off the elevators because it was closing soon. All of our friends had already gone home to their hostel, and my younger sister and I were destined for our host family’s compound.

Once we were situated in the car, the driver turned to us in the backseat, zeroed in on my dark hair and Asian features, and asked me something in Mandarin.

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Unfazed, Sarah rattled off what I presumed to be our address in the same language.

The cab driver’s expression turned to one of confusion. His gaze settled on Sarah, taking in her bright green eyes, Caucasian skin tone, and rich brown hair, before he turned back to me and asked another question. I rolled my eyes and muttered in heavily accented Mandarin, “Wŏ bù dŏng,” or “I don’t understand.”

Sarah huffed in annoyance and rummaged around in her wallet for where she kept a written version of our address. She handed it over to the taxi driver, and pointedly said, “Zhè gè,” or “this one.” Without another word, he started the car.

For most of my life until this night in the summer of 2011, a scenario like this one would have been the very definition of uncomfortable. When I was 3 weeks old, I was adopted into a half-Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. I was the result of a decade of fertility tests, my grandfather’s wartime experiences in China, and two parents who desperately wanted a child of their own. I had steadfastly maintained that I was 100% American growing up, and that none of this Chinese (or Jewish) business mattered — at least, until after I graduated high school in 2011.

My grandfather’s experiences heavily influenced my parents’ decision to adopt from China. My grandfather, Jack Landes, was a pilot with the Flying Tigers, a division of the U.S. military during World War II. He flew supplies from Burma to Chongqing, a city in southwest China. Although he disliked the anti-Semitism of the army (Jack’s captain once told him he “wasn’t so bad for a Jew,” before Jack punched him in the mouth), he loved China. After the war, he incorporated Chinese markets into his silver business, and frequently travelled back and forth with my grandmother from their home in Larchmont, New York to Hong Kong.

Ever since 1979, when China instituted the one-child policy, numbers of abandoned girls has increased. Boys are favored in most Chinese households, as custom and tradition dictates that a wife move in with her husband and leave her parents’ household. As a result, parents prefer boys so that they will have someone to take care of them in their old age.

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