Sipping Hangzhou’s famous Dragon Well tea from a small plastic cup, I hear the company representative through our translator, who talks of the tea’s color, texture, temperature… I turn my gaze from the soft tendrils of steam drifting upwards from my tea, to outside the window onto the hills where the tea is grown. The thick green lines of tea plants are dotted with yellow, and I know that farmers are hard at work, backs bent double to pick the valuable leaves. I could easily be one of them. Or maybe they’re my mom or dad. Maybe.
I was adopted from Hangzhou, China, when I was an infant. Since then, I’ve lived my whole life in the Midwest. I have been very fortunate, and have been able to go back twice to Hangzhou. The first time was in 2005 with my family. I was eleven, and besides the thrill of drinking tea from a fancy cup and riding a big boat, Hangzhou had no particular significance to me. Even though I visited the spot where I was found as an infant, went to my orphanage, and saw the actual note my birth mother left in my clothes, I didn’t realize the enormity of returning.
It was only during the spring of last year that it really struck me. I was seventeen, and travelled with a group of American high school students through the US State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program to Hangzhou as a break from our studies in a Beijing high school. This time, I didn’t visit my orphanage or go to my finding spot. But I was in the city of my birth. In those few days, every person I saw made me think, “They could be my family.” This shopkeeper charging me ten kuai for a mango could be my father. Instead of bargaining down from that exorbitant rate, I rooted in my wallet and fished out a ten yuan bill.
My second trip to Hangzhou pulled up many emotions whirling together to leave me feeling numb and removed from my surroundings. I found it difficult to process that I was there, that my unknown parents and family were so close. And so far. Every time I looked at the man selling mangoes, I wondered – could he be my father? Would fate bring us so close that we brush hands as I give him money? I was unable to handle so many emotions, and relegated them to a small box where they stayed for my time in Hangzhou. I only pulled it out this past fall. I blew the fine layer of dust from the top, tried to sort through the jumble of emotions, and almost gave up. But in the process, I made the realization that there really is no way to sort through everything you feel from such a complicated experience as going back. Sometimes you just have to love the mess of contradictions and emotions you will never completely understand or quantify.
At the tea place, my mind wanders to the recent memories of the day. We rode in a boat over the glassy surface of the West Lake. We walked around the lake’s edge. I admired the lush greenery all around me as I bent and sniffed a blooming flower on the path that shared its fragrance with every passer-by. Maybe, before going to work selling mangoes in the morning, my dad had taken a walk, and had stopped to sniff the same little flower. Maybe.
My tea is cool now, and I am once again in the tea place, sipping absentmindedly, looking out the window.
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