On a bus in China, a man once told me that my son wasn’t really my son. My son is black. I am white. We did not go unnoticed in China, where we lived for two years. People took pictures of us without asking. They put their hands on my son’s curly hair. He did not like being pet by strangers.
I took Chinese lessons from my upstairs neighbor and while I was terrible at it I managed to pick up a few phrases and I passed some along to my three-year old son. I taught him to say bu yao when someone touched his hair.This man on the bus was with a group of students wearing matching white tracksuits; he was their coach.
My son and I were on our way home from the grocery store, the shopping bags by my feet. He asked me, in decent English, if the boy on my lap was my son. I said yes, he was. And then I said it again, in Chinese: ta shi wo de haizi.
This man asked me if I was from South Africa. I told him I was American. He translated it for the kids in tracksuits. Their faces lit up and they shouted: America! He asked me if my husband was South African. I said he was American, like me. He asked me if my husband was black and I shook my head no.
This man furrowed his brow. He looked from me to my son and back again. He pantomimed a pregnant belly with his hands and asked me again if the boy was my son. I told him that my son was adopted. I told him that my son was from Africa. I told him that my son was an orphan, even though that wasn’t a word we used in our family. I wanted to stop talking to him. I wanted to get away from him and his prying questions.
Why couldn’t he see that my son and I belonged together?
On our first day together, when we became a family of three, my son would not be put down. He was fourteen months old and I held him that entire day, through lunch and dinner, naps, and walks up and down the dirt road where we stayed at a guest house for a week, waiting for our Embassy appointment. We didn’t know if he could walk yet. I thought of babies in Bali, whose feet don’t touch the ground for the first six months. We had only one day though. On our second day together, he was waddling in the grass, his stance wide and bull-legged. He was already pulling away, asserting his independence, as toddlers do.
When this man finally understood how my family became a family he nodded his head in recognition. I don’t think he is your son, he said.
He is! He is! I insisted. He is my son.
He mimicked dribbling a basketball and threw the imaginary ball into an imaginary hoop. He said something in Chinese to the boys. Kobe Bryant, they shouted. The man pointed to my son and asked if he knew Kobe Bryant.
Later, my husband asked me why I bothered talking to this man at all. I don’t know why; maybe if I said enough, he would understand. He would believe that my son was really my son. I needed him to acknowledge that. After the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia had inspected and approved all our paperwork, we flew home. My son entered America on an Ethiopian passport that would later be swapped for an American one. In America, when people see us, they know our story, more or less. How we became a family is understood without explanation. In China, people stared, trying to ascertain our relationship. We are together. Yiqi.
My son is in first grade now and our days are spent apart from each other. We no longer ride the bus together in the middle of the day. He has friendships and conversations, entire days, that are unknown to me. After school, we walk back to our apartment and I ask him how his day was and he usually says “good” and little else. Sometimes, if he gets too far ahead or behind me, as we walk along the sidewalk, I worry that people won’t know he is mine, that I am his. If there is too much space between us, I worry people won’t know we belong together.
That day on the bus in China, there were two stops we could get off to go home. The first took us for a scenic walk around a man-made lake; the second dropped us closer to our apartment. When the bus pulled up to the first stop, I pushed past the coach and the kids in matching white tracksuits. I would not answer anymore of his questions. On the sidewalk, I bent down to look at my son. I told him what that man said wasn’t true. I repeated what I had said to the man. You are my son. He smiled, showing me his perfect little teeth. I held my shopping bags with one hand and my son’s chubby hand with the other. Partway around the lake, he tried to tug away from me. I hesitated, wanting to keep him close, then let go of his hand and watched him run.
SHASTA GRANT holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She was a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook in 2007 and is an editor for Storyscape. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared inCorium, WhiskeyPaper, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Freight Stories and elsewhere. She grew up in New Hampshire and currently divides her time between Singapore and Indianapolis. She moved to Asia in 2010 and likes living there, except for her Barbie-sized refrigerator.