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.
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.
With their 3-month-old new daughter in tow, my parents came back America in early 1993. My younger sister was born before the year was through. My parents liked to joke that the whole family went to China on that first trip, causing Sarah and I to cringe and plead for them to stop talking.
When I was 5 years old, a family friend told my parents that it would take upwards of 50 years to find my birth parents because genetic testing in China was heavily regulated. After that conversation, I lost all desire to find my birthparents and embraced my American-ness. I pushed my Chinese heritage as far away as I far as I could, and I dug in my heels whenever my parents mentioned any Chinese cultural event, or even dinner in Chinatown.
I also didn’t have Judaism to provide a cultural outlet outside of mainstream American culture. I grew up without religion, partially because of my father’s indifference to his Jewish background. I enjoyed Passover and Christmas because it was a time to see either side of my extended family. My parents offered me the choice to have a bat mitzvah, but I refused, self-righteously deciding that it was wrong to engage in a sacred rite of passage and receive thousands of dollars when I didn’t really believe in the religion.
I was American, even though I didn’t look like my parents, or my sister. It sort of hurt that I would never have the knowledge of where my appearance came from or what I would look like when I got older, so I tried not to think about it.
But then my beloved little sister started taking Mandarin when she was 12. She has never told me where her interest in China came from, but my mother has always been quick to point out how much Sarah admired me when we were younger. Around that time, my parents divorced, and Sarah and I became much closer as a result.
Five years later, she demanded that we go to China the summer before I went off to college to commemorate my high school graduation. She promised to translate for me, and had already done the research for a whole trip, complete with volunteer work and a host family to stay with.
After months of wheedling, I gave in, and she all but dragged me back to China.
We didn’t have the traditional trip back that most adopted girls plan. We didn’t see my orphanage. We didn’t visit the region where I was born. Instead, Sarah introduced me to the Chinese culture far away from the complicated feelings associated with adoption.
We spent a month working in Xi’an, volunteering in a center for people of all ages with special needs. On the weekends, we explored our surroundings. We saw the ancient Terracotta Army, which is located a half-hour car drive outside the city limits and consists of thousands of soldiers, archers and other life-size figurines meant to accompany Emperor Qin Shi Huang into the afterlife. We embarked on a 20-hour train ride to Shanghai, and explored the aquarium and the streets of the French Concession. We climbed Mount Hua in the rain and struggled up the steep steps with guardrails that only reached mid-calf.
When people asked my why I had refused to go back to China for so long, I usually told them that I hadn’t considered the trip to be worthwhile. I had spent so long pushing everything Chinese far away from me that my studies had naturally gravitated toward other areas. I hadn’t been interested because I hadn’t learned anything about China, and I hadn’t learned anything because I hadn’t been interested; it was a vicious cycle.
But the main reason I didn’t want to go back to China was because I was afraid that people would think I was stupid.
Let me explain: I had always taken great pride in my good grades and had considered myself relatively smart. I worked hard to please my teachers and my parents. But whenever I interacted with any Chinese person who wanted to address me in Mandarin, I was rendered mute and dumb. Even worse, I couldn’t adequately explain why I didn’t speak their language or understand their customs. This feeling of helplessness was the absolute worst.
But then I got to China. One of the first new words I learned to say was “adopted,” and people would nod understandingly before eagerly asking more questions about my life in America. It helped that my sister always stood next to me and added,
“Wŏ de jiě jiě,”
or “My older sister.” And I learned that people didn’t care that I didn’t speak Mandarin and that I had no idea what bāo
— steamed buns — were.
I became increasingly less bothered by people who mistook me for someone I wasn’t. So when the taxi addressed me in Mandarin that night after karaoke, I merely rolled my eyes. Instead of worrying what he might think of me, I thought about the cool breeze from the fans in my bedroom, and the comfort of my shockingly hard bed, which I eventually found out was the norm in China.
When I arrived at the University of Chicago two months later, I began to understand how fundamentally my trip back to China had affected me. In the midst of the teeming crowd of freshmen, I introduced myself as “Rachel Landes, Asian Jew” to get others to remember my name and face. For the first time, I found myself comfortable around Asians. I made friends with predominantly Chinese girls that came from immigrant parents or grandparents. Whereas before I felt like an outsider because I had a Chinese face but hadn’t participated in the shared experiences of Chinese-Americans, now I could say that I had.
Two years later, when I thought I had finally settled with my identity, my sister’s travel plans intervened once again. In 2013, Sarah went on a Birthright trip to Israel. She was always the first to say “Next year in Jerusalem!” during every Passover Seder, but I never really thought she was serious. She wasn’t particularly religious, and hadn’t had a bat mitzvah. The only word in Hebrew that she knew was “shalom.” Still, she didn’t want to pass up a free trip to Israel.
The whole process was starting over it seemed, complete with the wheedling. For months after she came back, I was bombarded with, “Don’t you want to go to Israel for free?” and “If you went, I would love to go to Israel again!” And then she’d brandish her brand new silver Star of David necklace, bought in Jerusalem, in my face. Who knows, with her dedicated reminders and my work at the Forward, she might just convince me.
I wouldn’t have her any other way — my bossy, persistent little sister, who always knows what’s best for someone even if they don’t know it themselves. She taught me that identity and family has little to do with genetics. Rather, they come from the people and experiences you open yourself up to.
Rachel X. Landes is a senior at UChicago pursuing an undergraduate degree in history. Contact her at email@example.com