I have to admit that I am drawn to the question of nature versus nurture. Are we Inherently who we are because of where we come from, or the environment in which we are raised? How do the two intertwine to form the people we become? Which side has more dominance and how do we ever Really know?
So, when author Patti Waldmeir’s book Chinese Lessons: An American Mother Teaches her Children how to be Chinese in China came past me, I was intrigued to read about the experiences of a mother living with these questions on a daily basis. Having moved to Shanghai from the US with her two daughters, who she had adopted from China years earlier, her story will resonate with other families who have come together in a similar way, or readers like myself who can appreciate the journey she has undertaken, doing what she felt was needed for her children.
As Waldmeir tells her personal story, I felt like I was reading through her diary. Her experience in Shanghai gave me an insight into the complexities of a culturally mixed adoption and her burning desire to teach her daughters about where they came from. Waldmeir was a single mother working fulltime in Washington DC when an opportunity arose to move to Shanghai with the Financial Times, so she packed up their life and set out on a journey to give her daughters (then 7 and 8 years old) a deeper understanding of the life they were born into and then adopted out of.
While living in China, her experience as a white American was profoundly different from her two daughters who looked Chinese, but had existed up until that time as Americans in Washington DC. They didn’t understand the language or cultural nuances enough to feel like they belonged. Waldmeir tells of the harsh realities that many expats face when living in China, and after eight years of mishaps, adventures and touching moments, an appreciation of her daughters’ birthplace emerged.
Their China adventure had them on a rollercoaster of mixed feelings about life in Shanghai. The years passed with a nurturing Ayi who enriched their lives, a pilgrimage back to the orphanages they were adopted from, dealing with questions around the makeup of their family and delving into what it would mean to find their biological parents. And for the two girls, the acknowledgement that they were living a life far away from the only home that made sense.
On these topics, I particularly liked this quote by Waldmeir: “We have collectively thought it’s amusing that the rest of the world thinks adoption matters to how we feel about one another.”
As an award-winning journalist, Patti Waldmeir really does have a way with words and her ‘warts and all’ story is a compelling one; an insight into her life in Shanghai, questions around identity and most importantly the love that binds a mother to her children. It’s the story of an incredibly strong woman who spent her life wanting to become a mother, battled her way through adopting two daughters from China and then went to great lengths to ensure they understood what it meant to be Chinese.
After reading this book I may still have my own lingering questions about nature versus nurture. However, I know one thing for sure; the only life a child knows is the one in which they are raised by the people they call family, and maybe that’s enough to underpin who we become.
Available on Amazon.com
Patti Waldmeir is an award-winning author and journalist. Raised in Detroit, Waldmeir graduated with honors from the University of Michigan and went on to win a Marshall Scholarship to earn her master's degree at Cambridge University. She has spent nearly forty years working as a reporter and columnist for the Financial Times, reporting from Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, London, South Africa, Washington, DC, Shanghai, and now Chicago.