Rising to the Challenge of Raising Chinese Children in a Small Community, by Kyle Messner

Bringing your child up with a sense of her Chinese culture and heritage while living in a small rural town may be difficult, but it's not impossible. Read about this adoptive single-parent's wonderful experiences raising a daughter and creating a Chinese-learning community in Boone, North Carolina

When I first adopted my daughter Mei Ling in Oct. 1996, I knew it was going to be a challenge to help her develop a positive cultural identity as a Chinese-American girl in a small town located in the mountains of North Carolina.  Boone is not only one of the “whitest” places I have ever lived, it is also one of the most geographically-isolated places I have lived. The nearest interstate highway is an hour away and to get to it, you have to drive “over the river and through the woods” and up and down a few mountains.  Boone also is located almost equidistant from 3 airports.  There is no public transportation to the town from any other place.  However, it has a wonderful small town personality.  People wave as they walk downtown or pass you in the car.  Old-fashioned parades are scheduled several times a year and children scramble to get the candy tossed to the crowds… and it is actually safe to eat.  It is relatively safe and people aren’t paranoid about the need to lock everything.  Also there is a small university of 13,000 named Appalachian State University in Boone, which adds to town’s culture.  It is said that it is a great place to raise children.  But what about children of different subcultures?

Well, I can tell you from experience that Boone is a great place to raise children…. especially Chinese-American children. However it takes some effort on the part of the parents and the community to make that happen.

First, you need to know that Mei Ling is not the only child adopted from China in Boone.  She is one of almost a dozen.  How this happened is up for conjecture.  None of those who adopted knew each other before we made the decision to adopt.  We found each other once the decisions were individually made and helped each other. Even though I was not the first one to start the process, Mei Ling was the first to arrive in Boone.   Within 6 months, 3 others arrived and within 3 years we have developed a nice little community.  Most girls were babies when they were adopted however we have a girl who blind.

One and a half years ago we decided we had reached a critical mass and we formed a FCC and called it the High Country FCC.  We decided to have 3 official gatherings a year, so that we would be more apt to not skip the occasions.  We celebrate Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and hold an annual summer picnic. How do we do it with any authenticity up here in the mountains?  We have connected with the small Chinese community here in Boone and at the university.   There are 4 Chinese restaurants in this small town and one in particular has become a tremendous ally to us as a group.  Cindy the owner is known as ayi to all of our girls.  From the beginning she has cooed at and pinched (not hard!) our daughters.  It is almost like rite of passage taking our newly adopted daughters to her.  As time has gone on, Cindy has supplied our moon cakes for our Mid-Autumn festivals and has helped us prepare our New Year banquets.  She even happily allowed us to light the candles in the girls’ lanterns this year and allowed them to parade through the restaurant on the night of the Lantern Festival.  She and her staff teach the girls some Chinese and she gives them love and hugs.

The Chinese students and professors at the university have also been a tremendous resource to our little community.  We have developed some deep friendships over the years.  With the help of graduate students at the university, we have started a little Chinese school here.  We meet for an hour on Saturday morning in 2 rooms a local church donated.  The girls have a small play group and learn with one teacher as the adults meet in another room to learn Chinese.  At the end of the class we come together as a big group and sing together and share what we have learned.  Sometimes we play games like the Chicken and the Eagle or Little Friend.  Our daughters age 2-4 can sing approx. 6 songs and know basic greetings.  It may be very watered down compared to what goes on in Chinese schools in New York and San Francisco, but for here in Boone that is not bad!  This year we plan to do more serious study in both classes, however we feel that play is very important for our daughters at this age.  Our daughters enjoy going to Chinese class.

Individually and as a group we socialize with the Chinese students.  We have had some great parties!  We also try to reach out to the newly arrived students to help them get out of the university and see and experience American culture.  They, in turn teach us more about Chinese culture.  We have been included in the annual jiaoze-making party at New Year and this year the children made a dragon head and led everyone outside (in 16 degree temperatures!) to the bigger celebration. The students had prepared a bigger dragon for a dance and we had firecrackers and sparklers.  Our daughters were spellbound!

Up until a few years ago, living in an area such as Boone would have limited your abilities to buy many things.  To find books, clothing, toys, and foods from cultures other than the mainstream would have meant a trip of at least 2 hours or  more. Now thanks to the Internet, we have access to everything from rookie chopsticks, to Spring couplets and bilingual books.  Thanks to the resources on the web, our daughters have videos to help them learn Chinese and cassettes of children’s music.

So how has Boone become a good place to raise our daughters?  It took effort.  Individually we approached people and people approached us.  Relationships developed.  Many of us stayed open to developing opportunities that arose.  We also bonded as a group.  We have our differences but we work through them. Not all parents in the group support the Chinese school.  It has been a big time and financial commitment and not everyone is able to or wants to make the commitment.  We work at accepting each other’s decisions and not allowing it to divide us. 

Frequently we read in the literature that it is important for our children that we live in mixed communitites.  That is not always possible. Sometimes our jobs and commitments to families do not allow it.  We have found however that it is the quality of relationships and not so much as quantity of relationships that is important.  Our Chinese-American and Chinese population is small here, but it is dynamic.  We interact with our friends on a regular basis.  We help them with their English and understanding our culture and they help us with our Chinese and understanding Chinese culture.  Our friendships go beyond focusing on culture however and we do things together as friends.  We are not only helping our daughters to develop Chinese-American identities but we are working on developing our families’ cultural identity.  We are in the process of being as transformed by the cross-cultural adoption experience as our daughters are… and in the process, we are transforming our communities.