This story is by JD Edwin and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I first learned about china dolls in 1996.
This was the year that brought me a certain movie. In it was a scene where a woman reminisced about an old doll she had as a child with “a beautiful china face”. I was bewildered. What is a “China face”? Was the doll made with black hair and eyes? Was it made to look like a Chinese person, like me?
Some time passed before I found out that a china doll was actually a doll with a face made from a breakable material (the word porcelain wasn’t in my vocabulary yet). Somehow, as I stood in a second-hand store examining a ratty antique doll, I felt offended. How dare this fragile doll call itself “China”? What about it made it “China”? It wasn’t even pretty. It wasn’t even special. It wore fussy laces and had yellow hair like straw. Its eyes were not black and its “skin” was a creepy white. I remember going home that day and digging out an old plastic doll from my drawers, one of the only toys I was able to bring with me from Beijing, the place I still considered to be my “home” after over a year in the U.S. of A.. This, I thought to myself as I set her proudly on a tall shelf, is a China doll.
As an eleven-year-old immigrant from an old, proud country, I had brought with me a strong, unwavering sense of cultural pride. The kind of bullheaded, chest-puffing pride only a preteen could manage. This doll that I carried from my homeland in an old suitcase was more China to me, more “home”, than anything else around me. And so this doll sat on my shelf. I never told anyone why this doll had such a prominent place in my room. She was a secret pride, one that I felt was a piece of my heritage.
This doll watched me as I spent my sixth grade summer memorizing English words out of children’s books. She watched me read ABCs, picture books, Babe, then Baby-Sitter’s Club, Goosebumps, and Animorphs. From the shelf she saw me slowly leaf through magazines that came free in the mail, learning about the idols and music that appealed to my peers. By 1997, the walls next to her were covered with Spice Girls posters. The shelf below her soon held a CD player and CDs filled with music that I didn’t quite understand but somehow spoke to my teenage heart – Backstreet Boys, Dixie Chicks, B-Witched. These names began to roll off my tongue, along with a growing list of English words, words that became conversations on the phone with friends who looked nothing like me. Friends with brown and blond hair. Friends without accents. Friends who only spoke the language of this new country that still didn’t quite feel like home.
Like many, I spent my teen years defining and re-defining myself. When my bookshelf cleared itself of Goosebumps to make way for Stephen King, my China doll found her spot usurped, along with many blond, blue-eyed Barbie dolls. Setting her beside the other dolls, I realized for the first time how poorly made she was, how flawed and cheap. Her hair was permanently matted and the plastic on her legs were soft and sunk to the touch. I laughed a little, wondering why I bothered holding onto a toy of such poor quality. And so, like many relics of childhood, she went into a box.
After three years in this “new” country”, I entered high school. I grew taller and my shape changed. I was no longer mistaken for a boy by my classmates. My English was fluent and I listened to pop music. I wore my hair long and imagined I was hot. I dressed in black and pretended I was cool. I followed the latest trends and acted like I was hip. My Chinese began to break. I couldn’t remember everyday words and began to replace them with English. My speech became a mixture of the two. I could no longer remember how to write the descriptive essays that earned me good grades in elementary school. But at fourteen these were things I did not mourn. Out with the old, in with the new, I told myself. Old habits and skills were packed away alongside old toys.
But as with all things, the only constant is change. As I departed my teen years, high school, and my parents’ house, I also stepped back from myself and took a good look. I was older, calmer, and a little wiser as the foolish passions of youth began to burn out. For the first time in many years, as I began a new career and prepared to marry my long-time boyfriend shortly after college, I found my “China doll” again. This time while sorting through belongings in preparation to move to a new apartment. I looked at her face as if seeing it for the first time. There was nothing “China” about her. Her hair was curly and brown, her eyes blue, and her skin white. She was made to imitate the dolls who look like Caucasian girls, made for Caucasian girls. She was an imitation of the things I had been pretending to be.
And yet, when I saw her, my first thoughts were memories of China. Images of the little toy hawker stands outside my elementary school – one of which was where I bought her for the equivalent of fifty cents – came swimming back to my mind. The games I played in the dirt-covered schoolyard, the peach blossoms on the trees lining the streets, little childhood songs sang on the way to school, and steam rising off roasted sweet potatoes, sold in the snowy winters of Beijing… Those memories that I thought were long gone in truth never left. I brought them, and her, here to this new country. She may look like a white girl, but where she came from made her no less my China doll.
Reuniting with her did not give me some moving, heartfelt breakdown over my own blindness at having spent so many years pretending to be what I’m not. Nor did it initiate some great change to “embrace my roots”. Rather, she gave me something to think about and chew on for the years that followed. I realized many things, the chief of which being that the face of a person is not like that of a porcelain doll – it is one that changes, shifts with time and experience. It is not merely broken and replaced with a new one. A person is also not exclusively one thing or another. I am of two countries, two languages, and two cultures. My mixed speech, multicultural tastes, and Caucasian husband do not take away the part of me that was and always will be “China”.
My adult life saw the return of Chinese pop music, traditional home cooking learned from my mother, and a collection of Chinese language textbooks that matched those I used in elementary school, found in an old bookstore in Los Angeles. I learned to dress in a way that suited me, my career, and family, away from trends and fads. I grew up, and I learned lessons about life. A doll was just a doll, and I am who I am. I am not either, but both.
This China doll now sits once again on a high shelf, in my parents’ den where my two-year-old daughter frequently plays. She looks like a doll herself, with brown hair and dark round eyes. Her skin is tan like mine, and though she was born here with a father of Caucasian descent, I can see my homeland in her. She is not two halves, but rather two wholes weaved together in perfect harmony. A China doll like me.