I might have spent each day. I was overwhelmed by simultaneous feelings of deep
connection and unbridgeable distance. As
we struggled to narrow the chasms created
by language and culture, I found familiarity
in their faces and the trees enveloping us.
“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? In some ways my
new friends were right; our many fragmented
conversations during the three weeks we were
together affirmed the differences in how our
minds had developed to perceive the world.
“You are so lucky, you have no discipline,
easy school, and freedom,” the Xiaxi girls
would say with certainty and envy. “All we
get to do is study.”
I felt guilty about my “luck” and the truth in
their words. Still, their idealistic views about
America and the ease of my life perplexed
me. They had quickly dismissed my out-of-
school activities and community service as
lacking real learning. Yet, soon I realized how
their understanding of “smart” contrasts with
mine. Being smart
is the high ranking a
teacher gives them;
studying is their only
way of getting there.
These tight bor-
ders command their
I permeated those
borders as we talked
about growing up,
gender roles, equality, and relationships.
No one before me
had given them the
space to talk about
such topics. As a girl
born in Xiaxi and living in America, I was the most foreign person these girls had ever met. They had never
come in contact with anyone who looked
different from them. When I told them about
the many friends I have who look different
than I do, they were astonished. Being with
them gave me deeper appreciation for the
diversity that my life in America affords me.
For those I met in Xiaxi, family is blood
and ancestry. “You do not know your real
parents?” strangers would ask me soon after
we met, sympathetic and eager to help me
find mine. “When is your birthday? What orphanage were you from?” Their words “real
mother” sat heavily in my mind. Even if I’d
spoken their dialect fluently, I am not sure I
could have explained. I have a real mother,
the woman who raised me and loves me.
My biological family might not be whom I
romanticized them to be, and finding such
strangers would not instantly conjure love.
Instead, it was in the welcoming care that
countless strangers showed me—in placing
watermelon slices in both of my hands, pulling a comb through my hair, and attempting
to cool me in 110-degree heat—that I found
home in Xiaxi, and that was enough.
MAYA LUDTKE is a first-year student at Wellesley College after
taking a “gap” year to serve with City Year Boston, an AmeriCorps
Maya (center) with
her Xiaxi friends Chen
Chen (left) and Yuan