By Michael Briggs
I grew up in Northern Virginia with 3 brothers and 5 sisters. I was number 6 in my family. Life was crazy in our small house. I had to share a room with my two older brothers and my younger brother. We just had enough room for two bunk beds, two dressers, and a small pathway between them.
Dinner was an interesting time for our family. There was the paradox of the limited and overflowing food. You had to come to the table early and grab the food fast or you wouldn’t get anything. But at the same time, you always seemed to take a little too much food and not be able to finish it all. In an attempt to get us to eat our food, my mother would often tell us “There are starving kids in China!” I never understood how gorging myself could possibly help any kid in China, but I did feel sorry for them, so I stuffed my face anyway.
My second youngest sister, Beth, has Downs Syndrome. Downs Syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes developmental and intellectual delays. Beth would always keep us busy and on our toes. One time she wandered through our neighborhood alone and even walked into a neighbor’s house. While we were freaking out, wondering where Beth had gone, she was calmly eating cookies with Miss Dumphy. Though all my siblings have unique personalities and are a little strange, Beth was by far the most interesting. That is until Noah came...
Even though we came from very different backgrounds and had a language barrier between us, we were able to connect.
My parents decided to adopt Noah from China. This brought our family size to 12. Noah also had Downs Syndrome. He was full of energy and loved playing with guns, swords, but most importantly, animals. He had this amazing gift where he could change into any animal at will. We would be sitting at the dinner table and one moment Noah would be in human form and the next he would be a T-Rex trying to nibble my arm off. When Noah first came, he didn’t know any English and we didn’t know any Chinese, but we both learned the most important words fast. For us it was ‘bu yao’ and ‘guo lai’, for him it was ‘Brachiosaurus’ and ‘Siphonophora’.
Whenever my family went out to a restaurant together, we were quite a sight. Everyone seemed to be staring at us, especially Noah and Beth. I could tell that they pitied them. They simultaneously felt sorry and superior to them. I never understood why people thought this way. Yes, they had a disability. Yes, their intellectual and physical development was stunted, but most “normal” people are stressed all the time. Most normal people spend half their free time gossiping about people and the other half worrying what people are saying about them. Noah doesn’t have these problems. He does not hold grudges and he has pure joy over the simple things in life. Regardless, people kept their distance. Perhaps if they had actually talked with Noah and Beth, their misconceptions would not live for very long.
I was very close to Noah. When he first came, he could not pronounce my name well, so he called me “Mother”. The name stuck and till this day, he will often be found yelling “Mother!” whenever I come back from school.
As Noah’s ‘Mother’, I was determined to master the Chinese language and one day bring Noah back to his hometown to see his roots. I decided to study Chinese in college and enrolled in my first Chinese course as a freshman. I distinctly remember one of our first classes, the teacher was teaching us about tones and how one sound could have multiple meanings, depending on the tone used. We were given 4 ‘ma’s’ in 4 different tones. Our teacher asked us to read it and assured us that it made a sentence. What followed was a cacophony of young Americans yelling “ma!” at different times and in creative ways. Between tones and characters, I thought I would never be able to learn this language.
Despite my struggles, I pressed on. One day my Confucius Institute asked me to volunteer in the dragon dance for our school’s homecoming. I was stuck with the butt of the dragon and was tired from the running when it was all over. During this time I was given the opportunity to meet many Chinese students as well as the Chinese interns from the Confucius Institute. I became friends with the interns and was able to have conversation partners to improve my Chinese. This was the first step in overcoming the challenges of the Chinese language.
After increasing my connection with the Confucius Institute, by talking with the Chinese interns and attending events, I learned about the Chinese Bridge Speech Competition. I decided to apply and was accepted to give a speech and a cultural performance in Boston. The Confucius Institute paid for the trip and my hotel. This was my first time in Boston. After giving my speech and performing the song “Beijing huanying ni” I was offered a scholarship to study in Renmin University, a flight to China to attend a Social Work Conference at Beijing Normal University, and the opportunity to continue with the speech competition in China. Unfortunately, I could not do all three, so I decided to attend the conference and study for two months in China.
As I sat in the airplane waiting to take off and start my trip to China, I felt jittery. Whenever I fly, I am always amazed by the fact that a metal machine can float in the air and travel at such high speeds, but this time I had the added excitement of finally going to China. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew there were lots of starving kids who needed me to eat for them and that Chinese people made very good General Tso’s Chicken. I also knew that many older Chinese people were very traditional and not very accepting of foreigners. Besides those aspects, I didn’t know much else. When I arrived in China, I soon realized that what I “knew” about China was wrong.
I was met at the airport by a very bright graduate student from Beijing Normal University. She took me in a taxi to my dorm. On the way, I saw the huge skyscrapers and shopping malls. After arriving at the dorm, I was able to go shopping with some Chinese students. I saw tons of Chinese people not starving; in fact, they were buying designer clothing and famous brands, many of the same brands that I use. During lunch, I was amazed at what I could buy for just a few American dollars. I saw all the diversity in Chinese cuisine, none of which was what we typically see Chinese food as in America. I found out that most Chinese people don’t even know what General Tso’s Chicken is!
I like talking to people. I target the people that seem to have more time and aren’t running from one place to the next. I saw some older ladies playing cards in front of the apartment I was staying at. While I was nervous about joining a group of older women who were most likely more traditional, I decided to approach them and ask them how to play. Immediately, they asked me to sit down and attempted, as best they could, to explain the game to me. When they found out I was American, they mentioned Trump, and everyone laughed. Even though we came from very different backgrounds and had a language barrier between us, we were able to connect. Being able to connect and be accepted by these traditional, old grandmas made me change my views on traditional Chinese people. I saw them as loving and caring as opposed to hard and unaccepting of others.
While I was at Renmin University, I met an old grandpa who swept the streets of the University. It was hard for us to communicate because he spoke a dialect and was missing a few teeth. I felt sorry for him and would try to talk to him whenever I could. One day I was heading out of my dorm to grab lunch and he asked if I had eaten yet. I said no. He then, without hesitation, proceeded to take out all the money he had and extended it to me. This old man was watching out for me. He did not want a young student to go hungry in a faraway foreign land. I was touched by his gesture and instantly realized my fault. I was just like those people who stared at my family at the restaurants. I pitied him; I simultaneously felt sorry and superior to him. Sure, I had more teeth than him. Sure, I had more money than him. But did I have more love than him? Was I willing to offer all my money to make sure someone I barely knew would not go hungry?
I brought many misconceptions to China, but I did not bring them back.
I learned a lot while I was in China. I learned about the wide array of dishes and the diversity of people. I learned not to judge people groups by stereotypes and to experience cultures firsthand before making conclusions about them. I learned to not judge people by their outer condition but by their inner character. I brought many misconceptions to China, but I did not bring them back.
Near the end of my trip, I stood on the Great Wall. I looked across the mountains over China. My heart was filled with love for this country and its people. Just as when I came, I felt jittery with excitement about my future with China. I was not the same man as when I came to China. While most people treasure the Great Wall as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, I treasure the Great Wall as the place where my misconceptions are buried.