Constellations and the Chinese Zodiac
When I was first out of college, BA in Theater in tow, I worked pretty much any job I could find. I was a pirate wench on a haunted hayride, I lived on an artist commune, I worked at Blockbuster Video (remember that place?) and I taught English. Mostly my clients worked for IKEA North America (which to this day still accounts for most of the bookshelves in my house) but one of my assignments was to teach a group of East German shipbuilders how to communicate with their American counterparts.
I was the third teacher to take on the East German shipbuilders and at twenty-three I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. I pulled open the door, my predecessors warnings echoing in my head, and prepared myself for the worst. But the moment I stepped into the classroom the shipbuilders’ gruff expressions gave way to hearty smiles. “Fraulein!” they shouted, “Bitte, bitte, kommen sie!” They fell over themselves helping me with my bags, pulling out my chair. When at last I regarded my eager group of pupils I was shocked to see a room full of Uncle Bobby’s and Grandpa Etnyre’s staring back at me. Until that moment, I had given little thought to my German heritage (beyond our family’s holiday traditions) but here sat 27 undeniable genetic connections eagerly awaiting their first lesson in English.
As a transracial adoptive mother, heritage and culture are two things I think a lot about. I’m with my son, Jack, at our community indoor pool. We’re working on “Tickle, T, Touch” and Jack floats and kicks his way up one lane of the pool and down the other. A group of elderly women doing water aerobics watch our every move. I smile and wave hello.
In the changing room later these women coo and try to chat with my son. Jack looks at me curiously, “Mama, why are these ladies talking to me?” I lean down and whisper, “Because you have something in common. Something that is unique to both of you.” Jack smiles. “We both like swimming!” I laugh. “Well, that’s true honey, and you’re both Chinese. These ladies are from China, like you.” The elderly ladies vigorously shake their heads and coo at Jack some more. His beaming face falls and he hides behind my legs, “But I’m Jack, Mama, just Jack.”
He has a point.
Over the last few weeks we have spent hours talking about ways he would like to decorate his new big boy room. We talk about the things he likes: Dragons, trucks, trains, constellations, and the solar system. We go online and look at decals of stars. I suggest finding ways to incorporate Chinese zodiac signs. “No Mama,” he insists, “I said constellations and planets!” When we decorate his room we carefully place the solar system on his wall and outline the night sky above his bed. Despite his instructions, I hang the zodiacs in a corner, right next to the paintings we bought for him from China.
For now, constellations and planets are who Jack is. True, he is Chinese, but he is also Jack. As we navigate this journey together I will take my cues from him. Is it a truck day or a dim sum day? Should we go to the Chinese Heritage Museum or the Air and Space Museum? There may be months or years when he is more one than the other, but that’s his decision to make. My job is to make sure the door to both those worlds remain open for him. Wherever they may lead.
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