Diaper Diplomacy

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Before my husband and I went to China to adopt our baby daughter, the agency gave us some lessons. One of them was that, as a Caucasian couple with an Asian child, we would frequently be questioned-and advised-by strangers. This didn't worry us. My husband is English, and in delicatessens, when ordering "a ham sandwich with butter," he is often cross-examined. "You wanna ham samwich with what? Oh, you mean budder. Where you from, anyway?" I'm also accustomed to being questioned, and even openly jeered, partly because every day when I walk our two Chinese Cresteds-a breed of dog that is supposed to be hairless, except that ours grew some hair, so that instead of being hairless they are merely partially bald-someone invariably shouts at me, "What's wrong with your dogs?" Once, a woman followed me for blocks, yelling, "I've raised dogs for 35 years, and I'm telling you, those dogs are sick!"

So we were prepared for questioning-which never came. Perhaps because living in New York City, the sight of our family-my husband, tall and blond, me, Jewish, with too much dark hair, our Asian baby (I like to dress her all in black) with her imperious expression, and the two partially bald dogs-is nothing special. Hasidic Jews in clothing styles dating back hundreds of years, Indian women in saris, derelicts wheeling shopping carts full of cans and moldy stuffed animals-New York is, after all, not exactly like the rest of the United States. In Brooklyn, where we now live, there is a Russian enclave, a Haitian neighborhood, a Little Poland, a Middle Eastern area, a Chinatown, several Italian sections-it's an amazing mix of people. And then there are the upscale neighborhoods, like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, where it's impossible not to see dozens of couples and single men and women wheeling, carrying, and dragging kids who are obviously of a different ethnic mix or background than their parents.

In fact, the rest of the country is becoming a lot more like New York. There have been nearly 100,000 international adoptions since 1988 in places like Seattle and San Francisco and Minnesota-about 50 percent from Asia. And by the year 2025, the entire country will only be 62 percent Caucasian. So families like ours will be a lot less noticeable.

Still, I wonder what will happen when my daughter reaches college age, around the year 2012. A few years back a cover photo in The New York Times Sunday Magazine showed five adolescents-black, white, Asian, and so forth-with the query, "Which one was admitted to Harvard?" I don't remember which one was accepted, but it wasn't the Chinese one, and it wasn't the Caucasian girl who, impressively, had learned to speak Mandarin. Mandarin is already the number-one language on the planet (English is second), but apparently speaking Mandarin as well as English is in no way considered an edge in qualifying for admission to the country's top-rated universities.

I imagine my daughter's application, her essay stating, "I was found in a park in an industrial city in China when I was two days old." This would seem a touching shoo-in for admission, except that the same year there will probably be 3,000 similar applications, all from Chinese girls adopted in 1996 whose parents want them to go to Harvard or Yale. At least I won't have to feel guilty if my child doesn't speak Chinese. But I'm wondering if I should get her started on learning Farsi-or Native American Muskogee. She's expressed an interest in learning to tap-dance, which I think is very impressive, since she's only three-and-a-half, but will tap-dancing and speaking Farsi really be enough to give her a superior edge in the years to come?

I know I should be worrying about that, and about who she will find to marry, although to be perfectly honest, I don't really care if she marries or not. But it would be terrible if she was desperate to get married and then found out that no nice Jewish boy wanted to marry her because she hadn't been brought up to keep kosher, and no nice Chinese boy wanted to marry her because she hadn't been brought up in the Chinese traditions, and no nice English boy wanted to marry her because she was Chinese. The reason I'm not too worried about this is: a) my single friends in New York can't find any guy to marry, let alone men they even want to date; and b) I know Jewish guys married to Asian women and English men married to black women and Chinese men married to Caucasian women, and all the other possible combinations. That's just the way it is here. But not everywhere. Not yet.

I know this because when I travel in the United States, people become very defensive-even hostile-when they find out I'm a New Yorker. "Nobody is a New Yorker!" I always yell. "Ninety-nine percent of New Yorkers came from somewhere else. I've never even met anybody born in New York who lives there. If they were born in New York, they moved away!" The person I'm trying to explain this to-in Park City, Utah, or McCall, Idaho-never pays me any attention, though. Maybe it's because I'm wearing Day-Glo high-heeled shoes in six feet of snow.

I don't know what it would be like to take my Asian child to a small town in the United States; anyway, I haven't tried it so far.

THE RIGHT FIT I'm sure there are other things I should be concerned about for my daughter's future. Where will she fit in? Where will she feel comfortable? She won't fit in with Chinese people. On the other hand, she won't fit in with English people, since she'll have been raised here. And on the third hand, though I'm Jewish, I don't practice my religion. So maybe she won't fit in anywhere.

Then again, I didn't fit in anywhere growing up in a small town in Massachusetts. My parents were among the first to divorce in New England, a fact I believe true because at the time (I was ten) I called my friend Nancy, who said her mother would no longer allow her to play with me, because I came from a broken home.

Is there anyone left who does fit in? If you're gay, you don't fit in. If you're Hindu and your dad wants you to marry some guy you've never met, you don't fit in. If you're poor and uneducated you probably feel you fit in only with other poor people. If you're poor and educated, you still don't feel you want to hang out with rich people. If you're rich you feel, to a certain extent, disenfranchised. Society despises you; that's why you're forced to isolate yourself in expensive restaurants, even though the rest of the world simply doesn't understand how tough this is. I have a rich friend who has never taken the subway-sometimes he wonders about it, longingly. Even white supremacists don't feel like they fit in-why else would they have to go and live in the remote wilderness and stock up on weapons if they felt like they belonged?

Fortunately my child, age three-and-a-half, is already a whiz on the computer; she'll be online in no time. And on the Internet, not only does no one see anyone else, everyone is pretending to be someone else. I mean, the son of a Ku Klux Klan member could be on the Net right now, in a chat room, posing as an elderly black woman and making new friends.

If we all stay home, we can all get along.

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