Sipping Hangzhou’s famous Dragon Well tea from a small plastic cup, I hear the company representative through our translator, who talks of the the tea’s color, texture, temperature, taste... I turn my gaze from the soft tendrils of steam drifting upwards from my tea,and look out the window onto the hills where all the tea is grown, my view obscured slightly by the mist that cloaks the area in a light silk veil. The thick green horizontal lines of tea plants are dotted with the occasional bobbing yellow dot, and I know that farmers are hard at work, backs bent double as they pick the valuable leaves. I could just as easily be one of them. Or maybe they’re my mom or dad. Maybe.
I was adopted from Hangzhou, China, when I was an infant. Since then, I’ve lived my whole life in the American Midwest. I have been very fortunate in my opportunities, and have been able to go back twice to Hangzhou. The first time I went back was in 2005, with my family. I was eleven at the time, and besides the thrill of bargaining, drinking tea from a fancy cup, and riding a big boat on the West Lake, Hangzhou really had no particular significance to me. Even though I visited the spot where I was found as an infant, went to my orphanage, and saw the actual note my birth mother left in my clothes, the thing I most remember about that day was going to a small store close to the orphanage and buying out their entire stock of baby diapers! (We gave the diapers to the orphanage, which was much in need of them).
It was only this most recent time, the spring of last year, that it really struck me. I was seventeen, and travelled with a group of American high school students to Hangzhou and Shanghai as a break from our studies in a Beijing high school. This time, I didn’t visit my orphanage, or go to my finding spot. But I was there. I was in the city of my birth, and even though we didn’t spend much time there, every shopkeeper I talked with, every street cleaner I saw, every tour guide whose grainy voice amplified over her little speaker attached on the belt, I thought, “That could be my family.” This shopkeeper charging me ten kuai for a mango - this could be my uncle. And instead of bargaining down from such an exorbitant rate, I would fish in my wallet and pull out a ten yuan bill.
My experience in Hangzhou last year was one that pulled up many complex emotions all whirling together to leave me feeling almost numb and removed from my surroundings. I found it altogether difficult to process that I was there, that my unknown parents and family were so close. And so far. Every time I looked up at the man selling mangoes, I wondered - could he be my father? What if he was? Would fate bring us so close together that we brush hands a little as I give him my money? Or was the woman who I saw riding an electric scooter, could she be my mom? I found myself unable to handle so many emotions, and relegated them all to a small box, where they stayed for the few days we were in Hangzhou. It was only after we left the city that I began tentatively poking and sorting through the big jumble. I tried, and gave up. So the little box got put back in the corner, neglected until this past fall. I pulled it out once again, blew a fine layer of dust from the top, and tried again - I almost gave up. But I realized that there really is no way to sort through everything that you feel from an experience so complicated as going back. Sometimes you just have to love the mess of contradictions and emotions you will never completely understand or quantify.
At the tea place, my mind wanders from the pickers to the recent memories of the day just passed. We rode in a boat over the glassy surface of the West Lake. We walked around the edge, and looked up at statues of figures long deceased. I admired the lush greenery all around me as I bent over and sniffed a blooming flower on the path, sharing a beautiful fragrance with every passer by. Maybe my dad had stopped earlier in the day to sniff the same little flower on a morning walk. Maybe. My tea is cool now, and I am once again in the tea place, sipping absentmindedly, looking out the window.