“China Dolls” by Ryanne Kap15 min read

30 April, 2019 0 comment

Illustration by Christine Wei

A man spots a small bundle on the steps of a warehouse that’s been abandoned for years. The bundle moves as he approaches.

According to the note, she’s not even a month old.

The man goes to the police and they place the child in the care of strangers. She is placed in a roomful of orphans, all born within days of each other. Their feet are tied to the cribs so they won’t fall onto the concrete floor.

There’s a Chinese legend about the invisible red thread of fate, tied around the ankles of those destined to meet. Though the thread may stretch or tangle, it will never break.

That night, as the twelve girls sleep, a tapestry begins to form.

***

It has been three years since our last reunion and I’ve been wondering how the girls have changed. Talia Boulard hasn’t. At 9:01 p.m., she’s just gotten home from work, but her cheerfulness radiates even over video-chat.

She mentions several times how “cool” it is that we’ve all stayed in touch. We were the first group of adoptees to live in the same country and we took advantage of it. As the sixty-second group to be adopted through the Children’s Bridge, an international adoption agency, we made matching T-shirts with “Group 62” printed on the back. I remember trips to the Toronto Zoo, a weekend in Niagara Falls, visiting a pet store with tiny sharks and octopi. This is the first one-on-one conversation I can remember having with Talia.

In her profile picture she wears a prom dress and makeup, but tonight she’s dressed simply in a grey T-shirt and leggings, her dark hair pulled into a braid. There doesn’t seem to be any sharp edges to her. Her eyes are warm, her smile wide.

As we talk, I get the sense she’s great in job interviews. She’s already prepared when I ask her to describe herself in three words: “daughter,” “dancer,” and “unknown,” the last of which is “due to identity.”

“To me, it’s family first. All the time,” Talia says. She has an older sister, Dani, adopted a couple years before her. They share an apartment near the University of Ottawa, which they both attend. As for her parents, her mother gave her a love for the arts while her father taught her to enjoy manual labour. It’s an odd combination, but Talia is nothing if not well-rounded. During her fourteen years of dance, she’s studied everything from ballet to musical theatre to lyrical/contemporary.

Talia was told early on she was adopted, but says that if she hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have questioned her parentage. “As a kid, you don’t really see differences in ethnicity, you just don’t,” she says. That naiveté lasted until middle school, when she discovered she’d been left on the street as a baby. Realizing she’d “started off unwanted” led her into one of the darkest times in her life.

“I resented—like loathed—the person who gave birth to me,” she says. “When I first learned about abortion, I was like ‘wow, you could’ve just aborted me.’ I was just so mad at that point.”

Despite the subject matter, Talia maintains a level, almost upbeat tone. She could just as easily be talking about her favourite kinds of music. I don’t doubt her struggles, but I’m surprised at how neatly she wraps them up.

“Someone told me, ‘oh, you’re lucky you’re adopted because someone really, really wanted you.’ A few years after, when I was sad about it, that voice popped right back into my mind and everything just stopped and I was like, I should be so much more grateful than I am, honestly.”

I ask if she’d still want to meet her birth parents. She says she’d consider it, but it’s not a top priority.

“I don’t feel like I’m missing anything in my life right now. But yeah, there are some questions that are unanswered. I would like to know my roots,” she says. “But the way I see myself is 0.1% the whole biological thing, 99.9% just how I was raised. I don’t see myself as the adopted kid in my family. I’m just part of my family.”

Later, Talia shares a story about waiting for the bus last winter. She watched dozens of buses pass by in the opposite direction. It was bitterly cold, and she was tired of waiting. But when someone started singing Christmas carols in French, she joined in.

That’s Talia. A daughter of two French-Canadians—one with Indigenous ancestry—who’s adopted her family’s rich cultural background while recognizing her own. A dancer who ironically can’t keep a beat, but will always try.

And the rest?

Unknown.

***

A young woman rides a bus full of tourists. Through the window, a faceless city rushes past. It’s a swell of bikes and buses, stained grey buildings, the nonstop shouts of car horns. Traffic follows one rule: whoever honks the loudest wins.

At the front of the bus, the tour guide describes China’s infamous “family-planning” policy.

“In big cities, this policy is very strict. If you have one more child, and you already have one… you will probably be severely punished,” she says. “No job, basically nothing. Baby cannot get registered and cannot get ID card. I think when you see all this crowd in the streets, you understand that policy.” A long pause. “I like that policy.”

The silence that follows is almost heavier than the heat. The woman on the bus—and every other tourist along with her—has spent thousands of dollars to be here. They all plan to return home with perfect little China dolls. But when the tour guide talks about the girls, it’s as a horoscope reading. In the Chinese zodiac, 1998 is the year of the tiger.

“Tigers are natural leaders; they should rise to the top of their professions,” the guide says. “Also they are honest, open, and hate hypocrisy, so they can be rebellious at times, which can lead them into conflict”—someone says “we already know that” to mild laughter—“but they can lead full and satisfying lives as long as they can curb their wild excesses.”

            Later, when the parents have met their children, they sit in a hotel room swapping stories and clothes (no one correctly predicted their baby’s measurements). They watch their girls closely, making careful observations like “she looks like Yoda,” trying to see now what they’ll grow up to be.

***

When I ask Lisa Mazza to sum herself up in three words, a sizable silence passes before she answers.

“Indecisive, I suppose, is a good one. In life. Every day.” Another pause. “Empathetic? Maybe almost to a fault. And, uh…”

We agree to move on.

Lisa has a round face framed by chin-length black hair; her gaze is assessing and her manner straightforward. She’s a psych student at Laurentian, but when I ask what the plan is after she graduates, she says, “It’s so far up in the air I’m afraid it’s never coming down.”

When I ask about the most important people in her life, her delivery is just as deadpan.

“My dog. Not quite a person, but she may as well be one,” she says. “My girlfriend. I guess I should say that, that’s probably the nice thing to say. My sister. And my parents are somewhere there, but, you know.”

When she talks about her girlfriend, she starts to smile.

“We’ve been dating just over a year. We met in high school,” she says. “Yeah, I went to an all-girls school. So, uh, you know, that worked out the way it did. Didn’t think I liked girls. Turns out I also like girls.”

She doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously, especially not her adoption.

“I don’t think I ever needed to be told about it,” she says. “You know, it’s not hard to look up and realize you don’t really look like your parents. It’s always just been a fact.”

The most she’s ever struggled with being adopted is when checking off her ethnicity on surveys. “I always think I’m circling the wrong thing because I choose Asian, and everyone else chooses Caucasian,” she says. “I feel like that’s the only time I get real confused.”

We joke about identifying as basic white girls. We’re not as Asian as people think we are. Lisa tells me about a man asking her how to say “hello” in Chinese and how she had to explain she doesn’t speak the language.

“I was like, ‘I was born here!’” Lisa says.

It’s technically not true. But as Lisa says, “I feel like I’ve been here my whole life.”

When I ask if she’d want to meet her birth parents, she doesn’t take much time to think about it.

“I don’t think I would. It’s like…why? Why bother? I’m thinking, if it happened, maybe. But I don’t think I need to. I’m happy with where I am right now.”

For Lisa, her adoption is just a fact. What’s more significant is the impact others have had. “Everyone influences you, everyone you meet, in little, little ways. So I feel like a lot of who I am came from a lot of people in my life,” she says.

We briefly discuss the inherent strangeness of adoption and how it shapes who we are. The pain of something we can’t remember is weird enough; it’s weirder still to think we’re in any way defined by it. But aren’t there so many other markers just like that? The situations we’re born into, or the traits we inherit—aren’t they similarly significant to our sense of self?

Twenty minutes after I first asked, Lisa completes her three words.

“Oh, word for that thing!” she says. “Over-thinker.”

***

Twenty-three prospective parents wait in a hotel lobby. They shift anxiously, make jokes and small talk. When the elevator doors slide open, they all grow quiet and lean forward in anticipation. But it’s not who they’re expecting. They recede, trying to laugh off their disappointment.

After several false starts, the orphanage director and the nannies step off the elevator, each holding one or two black-haired baby girls. The babies are set on the beds and couch of a hotel room. One of the girls begins to cry, loudly enough to set the others off. When another topples off the bed and hits the floor, the room is filled with sound and fury.

The single woman’s name is the first to be called. When she takes her child into her arms, the cries shift to screams. But she doesn’t flinch, not even as the tiny arms try to push her away. There will always be this sense of separation. She holds her daughter close.

Minutes later, all twelve girls have been delivered to their families. Some are still crying, as if being born again. Most don’t resemble the placid, doll-like figures in the photographs.

Soon enough, they’ll be renamed, sent off to different homes, and the threads connecting them to each other, and to the place they once belonged, will tug and pull but refuse to break.

But for now, they’re blank slates. There’s no telling what they’ll be.

***

Savannah Quinn looks precise.

Her thin-framed glasses enhance the symmetry of her face. Her hair’s the darkest brown, fading to blonde near the ends; it falls neatly past her shoulders. Her eyeliner is perfectly applied. She wears an over-sized plaid shirt and a pair of black headphones around her neck, but they hang at just the right angle.

When I ask for her three words, she grimaces.

“Oh God,” she says. “I should probably get this down for job interviews.” She considers for a moment. “I try to be pretty independent. I’m kind of introverted. I think for the most part, I’m kind of a perfectionist.”

With Savannah, this is just the beginning.

She recalls that in grade one, she suddenly went silent. “One of my teachers legitimately asked, ‘Is she mute? Does she have a tongue?’ I didn’t speak. I was super shy. Since then, it’s kind of carried on.”

Despite her reserved nature, Savannah was fairly active growing up. At one point, she was involved with soccer, ballet, figure skating, tap dancing, and Mandarin classes. Her parents enrolled her in the latter so she could learn about her culture, but unlike most of the students coming from Chinese families, she was at a disadvantage.

“They would learn stuff at home that I wouldn’t, so they would excel a lot faster.” With the added pressure of juggling school and her other extra-curriculars, she dropped after half a year. In high school, she tried to keep in touch with her heritage by making friends with students from Asian families, as well as—she admits this with a sheepish laugh—watching anime.

“I want to identify as Chinese,” she explains. “But for the most part, I’m Canadian.” She describes most of her interests—and even her way of thinking—as reflective of Asian culture, but there’s still a constant tension between her heritage and her upbringing.

As she got older, Savannah’s research began to include orphanages and the one-child policy, especially during a difficult period of questioning her background and birth parents.

“I would just question, why wasn’t I just aborted, or why couldn’t they keep me? Even if we were suffering, we would at least suffer as a family,” she says. “I would get really depressed about it, to the point where I would break down crying at night.”

Savannah has also struggled with intense guilt over where her questioning has led her.

“I feel bad for thinking I’d rather be with my biological family sometimes,” she says. Most adopted children are told they should just be grateful. Savannah experienced this first-hand after explaining her struggles to a friend.

“Her relationship with her parents is really bad, which mine was at the time too,” she says. “She was also trans and in an Asian family, so it was really hard for her. She wasn’t wanted when they gave birth to her, whereas I was adopted, so these two people did want me. So she was frustrated in that way.”

I’d like to think it’s never that simple, but there’s a comfort in feeling chosen. Regardless of what it says about the family we were born into.

But when I ask Savannah if she’d want to meet hers, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes. Hands down yes,” she says. “But I’m getting less and less hopeful that one day if I go and visit, they would have any records. I don’t even know if the orphanage is still standing.”

I’ve done my own research. I’ve found the website, seen a few pictures. I’ve even heard one of the other girls visited last summer.

I tell her it’s still standing.

I tell her that when we’re ready, it’ll be there waiting.

***

My family sits in a waiting room. On the small table, there’s a bounty of freshly-baked buns, cold cuts, chips, and soft drinks. My Opa, dressed up in a hospital gown, eats a turkey sandwich. His surgery was a couple days ago, but you can’t tell if he doesn’t move.

The two of us have always been close. Along with my aunt, he came with my mom to China to take me home. There’s a picture of him holding me on the Great Wall. Growing up, I spent nearly every Friday night at his house. Saturday mornings, he and my mom worked at the farmer’s market in Sarnia. When I was old enough, I joined them.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. One Saturday, after market, I broke down crying in front of him and my Oma. He said he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I’ll make it till your graduation, okay?” he said. We were all in tears by that point.

Now I’m in my second year of university, and he’s in remission. The surgery, a side effect of the cancer, was the last step in his recovery. Those who could visited for lunch, either bringing or buying food to avoid the cafeteria. We’re noisy, the nine of us, laughing and talking; I hold my breath every time a worker walks by, convinced we must be breaking some rule. But nobody stops us.

Later that night, my mom pulls out the scrapbooks. She shows me old videos and paperwork, tells me details I’ve never heard before. Like how my first piece of government ID was a library card, and that I loved books at the age of two.

They’re footnotes to the story I know so well. But when I see the other girls, when I hear their stories, I’m overwhelmed by all the details I can’t possibly discover.

And I get it, the instinct for neatly-wrapped endings. You have to stop somewhere.

So I watch the old footage of the twelve of us—the tigers, the dolls, the girls of Group 62—and I think about how we’ve chosen to define ourselves, eighteen years later. How we’ll never find the right answers, or even ask the right questions. How our stories weave together, thread by thread.

My mom watches me as I type. I show her all my drafts.

“You’re going to have to stop at some point,” she says.

“I know,” I say, and keep typing.


Ryanne Kap is a Chinese-Canadian writer currently studying English and creative writing at the University of Toronto. Her work has been published most recently in Scarborough Fair and The Unpublished City Volume II, a nonfiction anthology edited by Phoebe Wang, Canisia Lubrin, and Dionne Brand. Ryanne grew up in Strathroy, Ontario and currently resides in Scarborough.

Born in Taiwan and currently living in Vancouver, Christine Wei is presently completing her BFA at Emily Carr University. Inspired by the sometimes difficult but often wonderful everyday journeys through life, Christine enjoys creating illustrations that are simultaneously whimsical and searching, contemplative and sentimental. She illustrates with the hope that her work can free people from the confinement of their own realities, and inspire people to view their lives through their own creative lens. ➤ christinewei.me / @christinewsart

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