I walked off the plane, into the humid, muggy airport to find a young, chubby Chinese man getting ready to escort me to my luggage. He started to speak to me in Mandarin. “Say what?,” I was thinking. Instead I just said politely, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese.” “Oh, okay,” he said in his strongly accented English, looking confused and somewhat embarrassed. I was probably more embarrassed than he was. As I walked off the plane, into Shanghai, China I realized I believe in the feeling of belonging.
I had been adopted when I was six months old in a small city in China, and this would be the first time I had ever gone back to see where and what I had left. As I was walking through the city which I was so closely connected to, I marveled at the number of people, the heat, and how people stared at my dad and me until a bicycle nearly ran both of us over. When people stared, they weren’t staring at me who looked “the same” as they did, they were mainly noticing my dad, marveling at how extremely American he looked and how he didn’t belong. Rewind for a minute, shouldn’t I be happy about this? Usually I am the one who is different at home and who is stared at. Even so, it was strange to be in a place where it was so different, although the people were the same and had the same feelings, hobbies, desires. I almost felt uncomfortable walking in a place where I could so easily fit in, although I didn’t. Because in spite of the fact that I had the same thick black hair and slender body of any other person who walked down the street, these people and I didn’t speak the same language, didn’t have the same understanding about some things, and were just different.
Keeping this in mind, I tried to fit in as much as I could. I tried new, strange looking food that ended up being delicious. I watched the waitress hand my dad a fork and knife and take his chopsticks away, even though he was much better at using them than I was. I noticed when people talked to my dad’s co-workers in Mandarin and wished I understood what they had said. As I was dwelling on how different we were, and how I didn’t “fit in”, I realized that no matter where we go, people are people; we have the same feelings and goals. Everyone wants to belong somewhere; we are the same.
My dad and I were walking in the city, “the lights” as my dad called it. It reminded me of New York City with all of the bright lights at night. Even though the place I was walking in wasn’t my home, it was still special and I had a connection to it that no one in my family had. By the time the sixth day arrived, I was desperate to go back home and sleep in my bed, and go to a restaurant where I would speak, and they would understand. It wasn’t until a few days after I had gotten home, I realized how badly I wanted to go back to Shanghai and relive the vacation I had not taken advantage of. Soon after though, the 2008 Beijing Olympics would be on television, and I would relive the experience and connect all over again, with the place I call my second home.
I believe in the feeling of belonging, even if it is only for one week. I do not need to worry because that feeling will live on for more than those seven days that I spent with my dad and friends, in China.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.