I came back from teaching abroad at the end of the summer. While I had been lodged, and fed, and respected as a “foreign expert” at the Chinese university, back in Oregon I found a part-time job slicing meats in a grocery store deli. It felt fair. It felt like a rectification actually, the universe restoring balance. The rhythmic pushing and pulling of the slicer was even somewhat satisfying, meditative. Maybe this humble life as a deli clerk was my calling. I was like a monk turning her prayer wheel, a nun thumbing a rosary, a pilgrim prostrating herself in full-body prayer—except for the fact that I was slicing through fatty, greasy slabs of processed animal flesh. That felt a little less sacred.
It also wasn’t sustainable. With student loans and an interest in moving out of my mom’s home, I needed a little extra cash. So, by the end of autumn, the deli gig turned into a nine-to-five insurance job correcting invoices for all the Susans, Barbaras, and Pams in HR across America. It was not the glamorous career path I secretly fantasized in college. I felt sheepish to admit my occupation to hipster, liberal arts classmates. I felt even more ashamed proving to my academic advisors that I had not headed their advice; I had not devised a post graduation plan. But how can you plan if you don’t know who the hell you are? At 22, I still was clueless about myself.
Nights came on faster. Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry jelly were digested. The stores prepared us all for Christmas cheer. As it was the first holiday I had a good wage to spend on, I whiled away the dark evenings after work milling about shopping centers. In window displays and shelves of merchandise, I sought warmth and intimacy through the accumulation of colorful, useless, doodahs. That is how I found myself at a Pier 1 Imports, a treasure trove of frivolous pretty stuff. I waded through cozy textiles, bead encrusted pillows, and spicy holiday candles. Lumpy ornaments of santas and squirrels reminded me of a fictional good-ol’-days. There was a sort of chic Little Women quality to the seasonal decor, and I wanted that sort of Christmas.
I choose one of the lumpy ornaments: a bird wearing a scarf. As I waited to checkout, I heard a man speaking Mandarin through the mounds of tinsel. A large white man was rambling off quick, fluent Chinese to an Asian woman of modest height, probably equal to my own. I switched to my China-mode, because I would never have reacted in such a way before living abroad, “Wah, your Chinese is so good!” I exclaimed, as my students would when white people mumbled out the clunkiest Chinese. He paused from the conversation with the woman, who seemed to be his wife. No one probably compliments her English, I guiltily thought as we sized up each other’s Asian-ness. Both man and woman looked to be in their forties, with brown and black hair just beginning to grey. Beyond that, my memory of their appearance is vague and even warped. For instance, I can only visualize the man in a tailored suit, though I know he was not wearing one that day.
Now, non-Chinese people who have anything to do with China find each other. We converge, as if pulled by the magnetic force of all being a little off-beat. We are a less sparkly type of weaboo, us China watchers. We gather at language exchange tables and Asian super markets. There we swap travel tales to reminisce as one. The man was kind to me, but he seemed overly familiar with this line of dialogue. He politely inquired about my connection to China, and I blurted, “I was adopted from there.” At this, his posture changed. He leaned into the conversation like it had just begun. “You don’t say! When were you adopted?” I was slightly taken aback by his keen interest, since it was not at my being an adopted person (which was typical) but the specifics of my adoption, like he knew something. “Uh, 1993,” I said while handing the cashier the chicken-nugget shaped bird ornament.
“Wow!” He shifted his weight, “That's amazing! I was there. Back then, I worked at the White Swan Hotel.” He gave me a date range that began in the 80’s and went into the 90’s. “Everyone who adopted from China stayed at the White Swan Hotel.” He was looking back and forth between his wife and I, eagerly sharing this bit of first hand history. “I saw so many families with baby girls come and go through that hotel.” He paused in recollection. I was left to imagine what I had seen from pictures my parents took.
The White Swan was a grand, luxury, hotel in Guangdong, China. It opened in 1983, a twenty-eight story building overlooking the Pearl river. Over the years, it housed numerous high-up political leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II as their website boasts. I inserted the man there, in the hotel, in a suit, standing in the center of an ornate atrium decorated with burgeoning tropical plants. He stands there, watching the families, the babies, go by.
Regretfully, I did not ask for the man’s contact information that night. I was in fact in a stupor. The whimsical fairytale land of Pier 1 at Christmas had bequeathed me with a lost memory. It wasn't exactly mine per se, but it encompassed some part of my story--a story which had so many gaps and unknowns. Indeed, the man felt like a ghost from the past, or in that moment, he was like some long lost relative emerging from the shelves of home decor. He too seemed to see me in some fond light. Perhaps he had wondered, as a young man in his twenties, in his suit, where all these infants were going. What lives would they lead scattered across the world? And though he did not know me deeply, it was enough to see I was well. And though I did not know him, it was enough to know he had been there.