It was a typical dark winter morning. The sky was still inky and yet to morph into grey.
I checked my emails, and in my inbox sat my daily Sanctus mental health journal asking the question, “where do you feel you belong?”
It’s a simple question, but my mind raced through the different methods humans use as metrics for belonging: location, heritage, job, school, religion etc.
This year, I have been reflecting. Unpicking memories and making peace with the past versions of myself and the people I encountered.
I was clearing out my emails when I found an email I wrote to myself five years ago. It was the summer of 2015. I had left the University of South Wales to study at Coventry University. I was held in suspension working as a waitress in a café at Rhossili beach.
It was a busy summer, very early bus rides where I’d either nap or watch the Graham Norton show. The bus home would be spent wondering what the Autumn would be like for myself. In the quiet hours before or after working I’d write. I’d sit in a dip in grass with gorse bush behind and beside me, the sea stretching before me, the beach, and green hills rolling into the distance. An iconic white house a dot against the green.
The email I wrote goes like this.
What does it mean to be Chinese?
“I’m now in a grey space in my life regarding my identity. People either regard me as foreign or completely British with no trace of my Chinese heritage. Given that my face is classically Chinese and my mindset British I am confused. I find it odd how people think they can identify what constitutes my identity. I don’t even know. So how could they?
I am neither here nor there regarding my identity. I mean, how can I say I feel Chinese because like every Chinese girl I was rejected for not having a certain body part. That my worth was ordained before I could even plead my case; but rather, I was left on a doorstep the day I was born by my birth mother who did the kindest thing she could? How can I explain that to a simplified mind?
I can’t. And maybe it is that complexity that makes me Chinese. That I am from a rich culture of both beauty and ugliness that is very much trying to figure itself out. So in that way, maybe China and I are more alike than I thought.”
Many years since that email and today I wrestled with this dilemma. Some days it felt like I was in a vortex with no escape.
I remember the summer of 2017, I was in the midst of this vacuum, drowning in the events of my birth and unsure of whether to sink or join the world of that moment. My partner panicked, his large brown eyes worried for me and sad that he couldn’t help. This was not a problem he could answer, he could only wait for me to return.
Eventually I decided to say goodbye to China. I gave up the idea of DNA tests and trying to track my birth parents. I chose to face the present and future. Deciding that looking back would only bring more sadness. I haven’t regretted the choice I made.
Writing my story for She Rose Revolution and connecting with more adopted Asians, engaging in a Facebook group for Asians who have lived similar experiences to me has been extremely validating.
I am not in pain anymore.
So, where do I belong?
Do I belong to Wales? The country I grew up in and where a piece of my heart most surely lives in my Childhood home and Rhossili beach. My dreams alternating between the two, for me to wake up feeling nostalgic and bittersweet. Some of the dearest people to me living there.
Do I belong to my places of education? Very precious school friends, people I met during both universities and continue to hold close to my heart.
Do I belong to my former religion and habits of Catholicism? The incense filled church with lit candles and routines as old as time. Hymns sung against an organ and the light of stain glass windows filling the space.
Do I belong to Birmingham now? The cafes I love, my favourite eating haunts and the many pathways I walk. The smell of traffic, cigarette smoke or food permeating the air. The air is always filled with noise.
Or do I belong to my Greek family? My fiancé, his brother, parents, and cousins. The streets of Thessaloniki and the taste of Greek food, the sound of the sea a sweet lullaby…
Belonging is an interesting idea. We have qualities that we share and that creates a community. A sense of validation, solidarity. But so quickly can this turn into tribalism. Meghan Markle’s most recent essay, a beautifully eloquent warning that we can’t be divided. That we are all inter-connected by experiences and that we need to ask, “are you okay?”
I am a firm believer that there is more that unites than divides us. Our unspoken wishes probably more similar than we realise.
There was a TEDTalk about a black woman’s experience of being asked “where are you from?” The racist undertones never too far away. Reading the comments, I couldn’t help but find my feelings being written. In the mix were people who couldn’t understand.
I find the “where are you from?” question ironic. Knowing that any answer I give will be met with a “huh” and “where are you really from?”
I am not going to justify my place. I will not acquiesce or explain my right to be here.
At this moment in time, my story takes place in the UK, and so I suppose I belong here. But in the back of my mind, I find location fluid since it’s up to chance to find somewhere to settle down.
The events of my childhood bind me to China. My appearance a constant reminder. But I’ve found that this bind is no longer suffocating. By making peace with it, it is less painful, and one day my kids will have the cultural abundance of my birthplace to call theirs. I find this makes me happy; the sadness of my origin will be, and is, a cause of celebration.
I think I no longer believe in the idea of belonging. I have a wary relationship with it.
Because I don’t want to give my power away to other people. I don’t want their words to define me. To dissect my life to their understanding, or lack of.
So, I’d rather belong to myself. Take ownership for myself, my happiness, and my wellbeing. That I am my own person, that my story is mine alone and I do it a disservice by hiding parts of myself to fit a narrative.
Each chapter of my story making a silent but visible mark on me. Most notably, the mark is the people I love from each chapter. My sister, my friends, some so close we are sisters in all but name.
If I do belong somewhere, it is to the people who love me and accept me. They hold my hopes and fears, silence is never awkward and most usually laughter and chatter can be heard for hours.
I answered that prompt and I felt at peace writing it. I had respected my journey, the joy and sorrow of being alive. The wonder that the future waits for us, time propelling me forward.
And each step forward I am slowly becoming a better version of myself.
The question of “where do you belong?” will have a new layer to it as time goes by.