Why Doesn’t China Let Baba Go Home?

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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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. This was written so beautifully. I can feel the pain of not being able to take your children to China with Baba. But it sounds like you are doing a wonderful job helping them love their culture even living in the United States. I loved the part where you said “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.” What a great life lesson that can apply in so many other areas of life.

  2. I was very taken by your story. I am raising a family myself outside my husband’s country of origin, although in our case it is out of choice, it is always challenging to balance the culture the children are growing up with their heritage. It seems to me you are doing a wonderful job. You have been brave with your ideals and sacrificed an awful lot, but at the end of the day kids need their mum and dad more than anything else. They also need to have a sense of identity and you are providing this too. Hopefully winds of change are ahead. Regards from Spain

  3. I didn’t know this about your family. How difficult it must be for your husband to be politically barred from his home country, especially when it means that your children also can’t go there. Good for you for all your efforts at keeping the Chinese culture alive for your family.

  4. Loved your post. I live in Beijing and am married to a Chinese man and we’re expecting our first. I’m Canadian, though, and I know Karen Patterson!! She’s been here many years and has lots to say, especially related to the arts community here. My husband and I are both musicians and have, so far, not met with any censorship regarding our work, recorded or live, but there is the looming presence of a government that “could just do anything, anytime” here. However, it’s getting more and more loose every year and I do feel there’s much more in the way of vocalization and true expression among artists and activists here than ever before. We have the Internet to thank for that! Thanks for the inspiration!! I’m so excited to be about to have our first child and to know that he or she will be bilingual (if not trilingual, as I also speak French!). All the best to you and yours.

  5. Thanks everyone for the kind words.
    @ Ember, I just came across your blog last week and enjoyed reading about your life in Beijing. Thanks for your comments. And best wishes to you and your family as you welcome your little one. What a lucky baby!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. Last week my daughter, an almost eight-year-old Chinese adoptee, asked me if China “wanted her.” She wondered why she couldn’t stay in China, adopted by a Chinese family, rather than traveling half-way across the world to live with an American family. I attempted to explain, but it’s so… complicated. We’ve tried so hard to incorporate all of the things you talked about into our lives (a love for China, it’s culture, traditions and people), but what can two white people who’ve never fully experienced the culture truly do?

  7. I stumbled onto your website as I was looking for lion dance costume for next chinese new year. I was very moved by your blog, and I can’t even begin to imagine the difficulty in explaining to the kids about why their Daddy can’t go home. China had changed a lot in the last 10 years, but not enough yet. Hopefully, one day, you and your family and go home and not worry about prosecution. Keep up the good fight.

  8. I say go anyway. Let your children get to know their paternal grandparents and all the nice things in Beijing. I know it may not be complete without dad but at least they start getting a more positive notion of a culture(not necessarily the country) that is part of them.

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