How to Say Thanksgiving in Mandarin

Just in time for Thanksgiving, our oldest daughter’s U.S. passport arrived. The photo inside shows a saucy 6-year-old girl, smiling slyly because just below her shoulders she is wearing her ballerina-fairy-princess Halloween costume. It is a marked contrast to the shot of the wailing, red-faced baby, tears dappling her cheeks like fat jewels, which was in her Chinese passport when she arrived in the U.S.

In the Chicago immigration office five years ago, we sat proudly alongside families from Poland, Ethiopia, South Korea, Kenya and El Salvador, their sons and daughters dressed in pressed white shirts and dark suits. An official in a broad brown hat called out our name.

“Well, everything seems in order,” he said, and pointed to a place in the customs hall about 20 feet ahead. “When you cross that line, your little girl is a citizen of the United States.”

Then he put one of his huge hands gently under our daughter’s chin. “Welcome home, sweetheart,” he told her.

I am forever indebted to China for the gift of our daughters. But I do not forget that frightened Chinese mothers had to give up their babies because of government policies that lead to the abandonment—and worse—of little girls. I was in tears as we carried Elise over that line and into America. I may never be able to do anything else as important for her.

We have come to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday for families like us: Those who know that America, whatever its sins, is a refuge in the world.

When my parents—a Jewish man and an Irish woman—married in the 1950s, they were warned, as transracial adoption families often are, that their children would face bigotry and hostility. But today, our 6-year-old niece Juliette, a California blond, slips her arm around the shoulders of our daughters and says, “We’re cousins for life, right?”

Our Chinese children sit at the Passover table and scrounge for Easter eggs. They wear “South Side Irish” green scarves around their necks on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s all in the family.

My wife came home one day from our daughters’ Chinese culture class to announce there would be no class next week. “Because of the Jewish holidays,” she explained, straight-faced. Only in America. Our girls speak French, like their mother. My wife and I join our girls to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Mandarin. We’ve learned that families mixed by marriage or adoption don’t shrink or starve a heritage. They nourish it with newcomers.

Our older daughter goes to first grade with Calix, Yoni, Sophia, Joel, two Zoes, Samir and Jade. You may think you can infer ethnicities from those names. But a few weeks ago, when I picked up Elise at the playground, she clambered across the monkey bars with a pal who is Asian.

The boy’s father asked, “Your daughter is Chinese?”

“Yes,” I told him. “Her name is Elise Jia-Mei. Excellent-Beautiful in Mandarin, as I’m sure you know. And what’s your little boy’s name?”

The Chinese father patted his son’s head. “Dylan.”

There are people who believe I am a little starry-eyed about the multicultural society that North America and a few other places have become. Perhaps. I have two daughters I want to grow up free from hurt. But I think my critics may forget the larger world in which we live.

Had our daughters stayed in China, they would face discrimination for being Hui, Miao, Mongol or any of the other of China’s minority nationalities that they might be. Children adopted from Ethiopia might have grown up having to face the prejudice that Oromo, Sidamo or Gurage people contend with there.

I don’t believe that having an African-American president, and Hispanic, Jewish and Asian judges, Nobel laureates, cabinet secretaries, movie stars and CEOs magically dispatches all bigotry and its bitter legacy. But someone of Luo descent has been elected president of the U.S. when ethnic strife seems to make a Luo president unfathomable in Kenya.

Race is singular and immutable. But Thanksgiving is a time to mark that in cities, towns and families across the country, people have grown to see ethnicity as merely one feature of our human makeup. To some, race will always overwhelm all other traits. But to millions more, it’s just the way that small minds keep score.

When it comes to living with the risk of bigotry, I feel blessed to be able to take my chances—and more importantly, my children’s chances—in America.

Mr. Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, is author of the novel “Windy City” (Random House, 2008) and the forthcoming nonfiction book about adoption, “Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other,” which will be published next year by Random House.


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