My six-year-old, Luca, is at the age where he is starting to understand complicated concepts in the world around him. He listens to National Public Radio (NPR) with me in the car and asks thoughtful questions about the content, sometimes at the moment and sometimes a couple of days later, when I can barely remember the broadcast that is still so clear in his mind.
He is also developing his own identity, based on his observations of his relationships with people close to him, what he learns at school, and our stories about ourselves and our families. His Chinese heritage is a huge part of that identity. Since he could talk, he was very clear that he was “English AND Chinese.” Really, he is American (from me) and Chinese (from his father), but at that point his identity was tied to the languages he spoke and heard at home.
But it is difficult for a six-year-old to understand that his father cannot travel home to China because the government does not allow him to enter the country. A political activist for many years, my husband lives in exile, not able to freely return to his homeland. And this now complicates our children’s relationship with China as well.
Before Luca and his younger sister were born in California, I worried that their Chinese identity might get lost in the juggernaut of American culture. My husband and I have worked hard to ensure that they learn the Chinese language, culture and traditions, and remain close to their Chinese grandparents. They are now beautifully bilingual, attend Mandarin immersion schools, eagerly await Lunar New Year and are intimately familiar with the intricacies of the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.
Interspersed with the language and culture, my husband and I have, without even trying, passed on a love for China that is part of my husband’s DNA and an important part of my life since I started studying the language at age 14. We show him that this love of China does not change, even when we disagree vehemently with the group of powerful people in charge of the country. And we hope, as he makes his own way in the world, that he will take this important lesson with him.
A recent news broadcast about the detention of Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist, said, “The Chinese government is moving to …” Luca’s ears perked up. “The Chinese government is moving?” he asked. I explained that they meant something else. “Oh,” he replied, crestfallen. “I thought the bad government might be moving so a good government could come in, and then Baba could go back to China.”
I’ve been longing to take Luca on a trip to China, where I spent three happy years. Beijing, my husband’s hometown, is one of my favorite cities. I imagine taking Luca to climb on the Great Wall, run around the Forbidden City, and eat plates and plates of dumplings, his favorite food. When I mention this to him, he is excited, but hesitant. And I understand how he feels. China is a part of him, but it is also a place that doesn’t welcome his own father. His grandparents live there, as do his uncle, cousins and assorted extended family. But we can’t make family trips to visit them. And Luca knows this. He wants to go to China, but he wants his Baba to go with him.
I sometimes think about how much fun it would be to live in Beijing with our two small children. I enviously follow a number of expatriate parents on Twitter who write about their adventures and daily lives, like one Canadian woman, Karen Patterson, who lives in Beijing with her Chinese husband and their six-year-old daughter. When her husband, an artist and activist, was detained for almost a year on trumped up charges, she wrote movingly about trying to explain daddy’s absence to their daughter. Reading about her experience made me grateful for the security of our life in the U.S., without the daily threat of Baba being taken away.
My husband will only return to China when he is able to go to Tiananmen Square and lay flowers to commemorate the lives lost on June 4, 1989. It is also my dream to accompany him home to Beijing, with our two bright, beautiful children, flowers in our hands.
© 2011 – 2013, Sophie Beach. All rights reserved.