Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods is a transmedia iBook in the making. When published in September 2015, a mesh of video and interactive maps, photo galleries and informational graphics and narrative text will tell its first-of-its kind story. It’s about teen adoptees from America going back to their rural “home” towns and hanging out with girls their age who grew up there. Those girls guided the Americans in their search for clues about what growing up a daughter in 21st century rural China is like.
Melissa Ludtke, the author of this iBook and the mother of one of these teen adoptees, gives us a glimpse of how earlier moments with her daughter in China pertain to her journey “home” as an adolescent.
My daughter was three days old, a healthy baby, when police officers in China’s rural Xiaxi Town found her. During their 25-kilometer drive to Changzhou’s orphanage, a female officer cradled her, a comforting detail that my daughter Maya learned seven years later when she and I drove out of Changzhou bringing with us the only clue we had to her beginnings. She’d been “… taken to the Changzhou Children’s Welfare Institute by the Police Substation of Xiaxi,” her adoption papers said.
No officer at the substation had been on this police force in September 1996, when Maya was abandoned due to China’s coercive one-child policy. The seven officers there formed a circle with us, and we listened as the story spilled out of what they do when babies like Maya are found. Deep in the narrative, the policeman revealed the detail about a woman holding my daughter that day since the woman officer always played that role. Maya’s smile broke through as rainbows sometime do after the intense storm has passed.
“She’s the first to come back to see us,” this policeman said, alluding to Xiaxi babies they’d found through the years. “Happy and healthy,” he declared, his eyes fixed on Maya. As I said to Maya on our way into Xiaxi, while it was tough for her to hear the story, she’d given them a special gift that day; an ending that the story they’d told had never had.
Down a tiny alley off Xiaxi’s narrow main street we could see the outdoor market. We started there. I wanted Maya to leave China with a sense of the place she’d come from. As we walked the wide aisle, merchants’ eyes tracked us, staring at my blond hair, white skin and odd features, sights many had never seen. People approached Maya, touching her and talking at her in a language she didn’t know. Bemused and upset, they turned away when she didn’t respond. Why was this girl, who looked like they do, clinging to this strange woman? Grasping my hand, we circled the concrete stalls of vegetables, meat and fish, then hurried into our car. “Back to Changzhou,” I asked our driver. Our visit to Xiaxi was over. Two days later we were at our home, in America.
Now, a decade later, I’m writing the pilot chapter of “Touching Home in China” and as I recollect my thoughts on that day’s drive back to Changzhou, I am grateful my daughter decided to go back to Xiaxi as a teen.
‘Someday, I hoped Maya would return to Xiaxi on her own — and feel less of an outsider when she did. Now 16-years-old, Maya is going to Xiaxi where she will hang out with girls her age, and I am staying in Changzhou. This is Maya’s journey to make, not ours.’
So each morning, Maya and Jennie, her orphanage crib neighbor and lifelong friend, set out for the towns where each had been abandoned.
As their moms we stayed in Changzhou. A bilingual video crew went with the girls to record the rare cross-cultural encounters of these girls whose lives started in the same place but then diverged dramatically. What they shared with each other and learned from each other, and how friendships blossomed, lives at the core of our transmedia story. In these girls’ experiences resides the universal story of what going “home” to a place one has no memory of being can reveal to us about ourselves.
“I felt at home,” Jennie wrote in her college application essay, “because even though I had no memories of Xixiashu, I finally fit in with the majority. After years of being surrounded by people who do not look like me, I was able to recognize physical features that were similar to mine.” For Maya, her time with Chinese friends helped her to frame questions about her identity given the duality of her life. She wrote: “’So, what are you?’ the girls asked me. ‘You look Chinese on the outside but you are American on the inside.’ At first, I detested this description. If the substance of my being is not Chinese, I might as well be white. Once content with describing myself as ‘Chinese American,’ now I was hit with its vagueness. Where do I belong between being Chinese and becoming American?”
Melissa Ludtke has launched a 30-day Indiegogo campaign on September 22 to raise money to complete the remaining six chapters of the iBook and partner with educators to develop curricula to take it into classrooms. She’s published a free download of the pilot chapter of “Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods.”
Image via Melissa Ludtke