Sea of Familiar Strangers

I was lost in the Forbidden City in a sea of familiar strangers. Beijing’s vibrant reds and yellows assaulted my eyes. Under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao, whose portrait hovers over the entrance, I traveled to another world. 

I had never seen such ornately decorated buildings as those at the Forbidden City.  Fantastic stone carvings created bridges spanning man-made moats. Gardens blossomed with a kaleidoscope of colors and defied the notion that things fade with time. I was awed by golden statues and relics so enriched with a culture I only had been able to grasp secondhand. I entered a world in which any peasant in Imperial China would have been killed for getting within 100 feet. I went with the flow of the crowds through the 961-meter-long palace, feeling oddly at home. It was only after passing through the third inner gate that I realized I had lost my family in the crowds. 

 My family should have stuck out like a sore thumb. The entire tour group should have been easily found, composed as it was of average, middle-aged, white American couples with children who, unlike them, were Chinese. I am, along with all of the girls on this trip, the byproduct of China’s infamous One Child Policy. 

I was adopted by a middle-class American couple after enduring roughly a year of my life in an overcrowded orphanage in southeast China. My parents tried their best to instill in me a cultural identity that they just didn’t have. They enlisted me in Chinese heritage programs with Central Ohio Families with Children from China. Six-year-old me didn’t appreciate the effort. Instead of paying attention and trying to learn Chinese, the Zhuang culture (my ethnic heritage), or oriental dance, I played in the gym. Now I wished I had learned Chinese.

For the first time in my life, within the walls of China, I was surrounded by people who look like me. I was no longer the easily identifiable Asian girl surrounded by white faces. Lost in the sea of familiar strangers in the Forbidden City I was free: No one attributed my intellect to my ethnicity. No one assumed I knew karate.  No one told me I didn’t really look Chinese. I was lost in the comfort of being “normal.” However, while trying to ask for help, the realization hit me like a wave: I wasn’t really their normal. I could pass as “one of them” until I had to speak. I’m like a copy of a book with the same cover but translated in a completely different language.

I’m stuck in some liminal ground between Chinese and American culture. 

My family and tour group, with valiant efforts to find me, ran throughout the Forbidden City hollering my name in what must have seemed the stereotypically loud American way. “Mia, girl from America” blared on the loud speakers but fell deaf on my ears as I was caught up in the turbulence of the crowds. I wandered through the last gate of the city and looked outwards – gray cityscape framed by gold and red gates fit for an emperor.

The waves of people broke and my tearful tour group of relieved parents engulfed me. I was hauled out from the sea of familiar strangers and into my mother’s arms. One of their own was found in a great expanse of lookalikes. 

Being Chinese alters my perspective on the world, and how the world sees me, but I’m so much more – an artist, an academic – not just an Asian. I want people to acknowledge the privilege provided by my white parents and the social obstacles faithfully shackled to me by my Chinese birth. I want people to see me for my vibrant reds and yellows.

Mia Cai Cariello (she/her/hers) is a Chinese transracial, transnational adoptee from Guangxi province. She is a third-year Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major with minors in Studio Art, Human Rights, and Asian-American Studies at The Ohio State University. Mia is a Morrill Scholar and is currently the President of two organizations on The Ohio State University’s campus – Transracial Adoptees at Ohio State and Take Back the Night at The Ohio State University. 

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