I can’t sleep, although I’m exhausted. It’s 2 a.m. in New York and 2 p.m. in Beijing. I sit in the darkness of the plane and listen to the white noise of the piped-in air, the occasional snore lifting above it. My husband sleeps next to me, his head pressed onto the edge of the window. When we land he will have an indentation on his temple that I will try to smooth out with my fingers. I look to my right, across the aisle. There is a young Asian couple, a man and a woman, with a little girl between them. The parents are asleep, but the girl, perhaps five years old, is playing with a doll in a blue dress. Both the girl and the doll have thick, straight black hair with bangs cut straight across the forehead. She is making sounds—boop a-boop—and bouncing the doll on her knees to make her dance. Suddenly she looks straight at me. I start forward awkwardly—I’d thought she wouldn’t notice me watching—and then smile. She looks at me with mild curiosity, not smiling, and then returns to her doll.
I sigh and turn to the front again. Our child’s hair is black, but not straight and thick; it’s wavy, with wisps on her forehead. “Our child:” still such a shocking phrase. I breathe deeply, counting: in, one, two, three, four, out, one, two, three, four. I smooth my shirt, a blue blouse with little yellow flowers that my husband tells me he loves. I look down at the picture in my hands, at her small round face, her pigtails, her wispy bangs. Her hair is fine, like mine, and maybe when she gets older she’ll struggle with it, and I can teach her to make it look thicker, as my mother did. I gaze at her dark eyes, the way she presses her lips together. She stares at the camera as if she doesn’t trust it, her forehead wrinkling. Her caretakers at the orphanage have described her as friendly, affectionate, and playful, but I can’t see that in this picture. I search her face again. Who are you? I think. A four-year-old is a little person, with likes and dislikes. A four-year-old will be distraught to leave the caretakers and children at the orphanage, the only family she’s ever known. I close my eyes and breathe again: in, one, two, three, four… I can handle this, I tell myself. If she can do this, I can do this. I open my eyes, unconvinced.
I peer at the picture again. She is four but looks two. She was found in front of a Buddhist temple, starving, screaming, and she is still underdeveloped. One little fist is raised to her chest as if holding on to something precious; the other is out of frame. I know this invisible hand is the one that is withered, and I try to imagine it: the little stump, the tiny thumb. My heart begins to race, and I feel I can’t bear the thought of all she will have to contend with. To be adopted, to be Chinese in a country full of ignorance, to be unhealthy, and to be visibly different, with her little hand? Already I love her too much for these thoughts to feel tolerable. But if I can’t handle this, how can I be strong for her? My eyes begin to burn and I shut them, hard, and breathe in, one, two, three, four.
The girl across the aisle laughs, loudly, and I turn back to watch her. Her mother smiles sleepily, playing with one of the girl’s pigtails. The girl chatters to her mother in Mandarin, and I try to understand, but all I can make out is tiaowu. Dancing. All those lessons with the private tutor, and I can understand one word from a five-year-old’s vocabulary! I give up listening and watch them. They won’t see me stare now: they are in their own little bubble.
Will that be us, someday? I turn back to the photograph. Will we cocoon ourselves in love, like them? Will she forgive me for my poor Mandarin?
I think of her night at the Buddhist temple, alone in the cold, helpless. She was found with a note that had only a name: Mae Lin. Even in thinking it, my lips press together for the m, and my tongue taps the roof of my mouth for the l and the n. Her name is so soft, so gentle. It reminds me of the flowers in our garden at home, the small, joyful, red blossoms that dance over the dark green leaves; if flowers had a sound, it would be Mae Lin. I think of her birth mother, who cared enough to leave her at a holy place, to insist on her beautiful name. She loved you, I think, gazing at her face. My breath catches, my cheek twitches, and the horror of my own act opens up again. My child’s mother must have been too poor to care for her. The money we spent on the adoption could have gone to this woman and enabled her to keep her baby. I am benefitting from my middle class-ness, my American-ness. I am selfish, I have used my privilege for my own pleasure. I’m a hypocrite… The thought of taking this woman’s child is a monster that waits outside my window, always. I blink hard, breathe in, one, two, three, four. I turn away from the monster, shutting the curtains.
Ding! The seatbelt sign is on. The intercom rumbles to life, and the captain makes his announcement, first in Mandarin, then English. My husband jerks awake and wipes his face sleepily. I reach out and try to smooth the indentation at his temple. He takes my hand and I smile at him. The plane begins its descent. I am not ready, but it’s time. We buckle up, tighten our seatbelts, and face forward.