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Finding Roots in China
Finding Roots in China

"I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes." –Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

If you were asked to write a nonfiction memoir of your family history, what story would you tell? And perhaps the more interesting question—whose perspective would you choose to tell it from?

These are the questions SYA China students were asked to grapple with in their first month of English class. The questions stem from their critical analysis of the memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. This poetically written book traces the life and experience of a first-generation Chinese-American woman, and weaves in stories and perspectives from other women in her family.

SYA China's English teacher, Laima Vince, selected The Woman Warrior as the first assignment of the year, because it serves as a powerful springboard for conversations that will continue throughout the entire SYA China experience.

"Our learning units are tailored in an interdisciplinary way," explains Vince. "They're getting Chinese history, Chinese culture, and they're making connections between what they're reading and the environment that they are living in now, as well as the environments that they came from in the United States."

To cultivate a deeper understanding of the unique writing style employed in The Woman Warrior, and to provide an opportunity for students to reflect on their own heritage and family history, Vince asked students to write a memoir in the voice of a relative. "I wanted the students to tap into a relative's voice, and to tell their family story."

The writing assignment challenged students in multiple ways. First, students reflected on their family history and selected the perspective and story they wanted to write about. Next, they reached out to family members across the globe, and gathered any additional information they needed to write the memoir. Finally, they wove the story into a narrative demonstrating sound knowledge of the writing styles and techniques that Maxine Hong Kingston employed with deft skill and attention. And they were doing all of this while being immersed in a new culture, surrounded by new peers and teachers, and learning a new language and a new place.

The class rose to the challenge. As the stories began to take shape, students worked together in peer-review workshops for two weeks of English class periods, reading each other's essays and providing edits and feedback. The process of writing and editing the memoirs began to build connections to each other and to their new home.

One student wrote about how his father was a teenager during the Vietnam War, and his family was killed during an American raid. He escaped on a boat to Malaysia and ended up in a refugee camp, and then managed to immigrate to the United States. One student wrote about her mother who came across the border from Mexico at the age of 14, stuffed in the trunk of a car with other people. She then crossed the desert on foot, and began her life in America as a field worker. Another student wrote about her grandma who survived the bombings of WWII, and yet another student told the story of her family's emigration from the Philippines.

"We began to see first-hand how America has a significant immigrant culture, with so many stories of displacement, fleeing war, migration for economic reasons—just in one classroom," Vince explained. "We connected those personal family stories back to The Woman Warrior, in which Hong Kingston is analyzing her family and her family stories. It was a powerful and meaningful exercise."

Wen Armstrong, SYA China 2018, shared her family memoir, American Born in China, published below. Like her classmate's memoirs, Armstrong's story is written in the style of The Woman Warrior, tying together stories, perspectives, and moments in her family history, all while discovering her own sense of belonging and understanding of the world.

Laima Sruoginis joined SYA from the University of Southern Maine (ME) where she has served as professor of English, creative writing and Faculty Director of the Stonecoast Summer Writers Conference. She brings deep experience of teaching English to international high schools having spent three years as head of English at the American International School of Hong Kong and as an English teacher at the American International School of Vilnius in Lithuania. Prior to this she accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research and teach at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Sruoginis received a BA from Rutgers University (NJ) and her MA from both the University of New Hampshire (NH) and Columbia University (NY).

American Born in China

By Wen Armstrong, SYA China 2018

Ever since I could remember, I knew my birthplace was Guilin, China; I was fifteen months old on September 8, 2002 when my parents retrieved me from the adoption agency. Despite not remembering the most important time in my life, I have heard this story countless times. With each telling, I silently thank my parents for the decision they made.

The bus is sweltering in the Nanning heat; many families, who came to adopt, are crammed inside, listening intently to a woman giving a speech about Chinese culture and teaching a handful of useful phrases. Craig and Sheryl Armstrong sit in their bus seats trying to hear what the woman is saying, but the sound of their hearts beating with excitement drown out the noise around them. Their minds are filled with thoughts of their soon-to-be daughter and impatience runs through them. The only part they catch is when their child, known as the "Armstrong baby," is singled out for being the easiest to feed. Later on, they would learn that she eats watermelon and cantaloupe like a fiend.

Ever since they got married, they have always wanted to have a child and adopt one from China and give that child a future filled with endless opportunities to explore the world. They have only seen a few pictures of their baby, and apparently their child does not like to drink warm milk as the other children do, she is not potty trained, and is just starting to walk. As they mull over these facts and look at photographs, they silently will the bus to drive faster.


Sheryl sits in front of a sheet of paper that is asking her to write a name for their child. Two names immediately came to mind: Noel and Haven. She glances at her watch. A decision has to be made. She looks back at the page. The blank space is daunting. She wipes her sweaty palms on her shorts and takes a deep breath. Pencil scratches across the paper. The sound of the chair scraping resonates in the quiet room as she stands up. A woman immediately comes to take the paper, smiling sweetly and congratulating her. She smiles back, heart still pounding in her ears.

Shortly after the naming process, the couple finally meet the child they have only seen in pictures. Her name is Haven Elizabeth Wen Armstrong, originally Jiang Wen Wen. Her cheeks are chubby and red like ripe apples and in the midst of the crying babies, she is calm. However, when she sees the other children around her upset, she refuses to be left out. In minutes, she starts wailing profusely. A river of tears pour from her eyes, her cries like a siren. Her parents are at a loss and try to calm her down, but to no avail.

Returning to the hotel, they plop their baby in the a bathtub filled with warm water. The crying has stopped, and she is as happy as a clam in mud. Afterwards she is waddling around the room and can only say two words, which were "shoe" and "sock," in an aggressive manner. Her parents are delighted that she is picking up a few words in a short amount of time.

As they walk the streets of China, many Chinese women stopped to approach them and marvel at their adorable child.

They pinch the baby's cheeks and say, " 她很可爱! (She is very cute!)"

The baby's laugh bubbles over and it is as if the sun is radiating from the child's face.

Though the couple doesn't know what the women say, they know their baby girl is being showered with love.

Upon their arrival in Denver, Colorado, Sheryl's family greets them with celebratory balloons and a massive sign that says "Welcome back!" Amidst the adults, the couple's four year old daughter Kelsey shoves her way through the long legs and sprints to her parents to get a better look at her new sister. Kelsey gazes upon the sleeping baby.

"She'll be my new sister?" she asks her mom, face aglow with excitement.

Sheryl smiles back and merely nods. On that day, the whole family is abuzz with laughter and happiness.

Whenever the topic of my adoption is mentioned in casual conversation, a solemn mood falls over the group. They promptly apologize for bringing it up, but I assure them I am not offended. I have always found it interesting how the topic of adoption can be serious, even though it has given children wonderful opportunities, like the one my parents gave me. Over the past few years, I have had experiences I would not trade for the world and it was all because of my parent's decision.

Being adopted has given me a different perspective of the world than how most see it. As a result of being a minority where I live, I have been stereotyped and made fun of for what I look like. Middle school was particularly rough because I was expected to have perfect grades, become valedictorian in high school, be a piano and violin master, be fluent in Chinese, and become a doctor or lawyer. If I did not cram myself into all these boxes, then I definitely was not a real Chinese girl. Instead I was apparently just an American parading a foreign face and claiming a history that wasn't mine.

I underwent identity issues from these social pressures. I felt like I had to meet everyone's expectations to validate myself as a Chinese. Only toward the tail end of my middle school experience did I become comfortable in my own skin.

For a long time though, I was faced with one question: What does it mean to be "Chinese?" How was I less Chinese than the Chinese boy that taunted me for having low grades in math class? What made him a better Chinese than me? Is it because he had Chinese parents and knew Mandarin? Is it because he looked more Han Chinese than I did?

The simple answer to these questions is, I am Chinese.

I know my grades are average, and I definitely will not become valedictorian of my high school. Though I can read music, I cannot play Beethoven's ninth symphony. Being studious like a stereotypical Chinese is mind bogglingly boring and a pain, so I prefer to spend my time drawing flower boys and watching Rick and Morty illegally through YouTube. I certainly don't fit into any of the stereotypes placed upon me, but I am still Chinese.

Although middle school was a rough part of my life, the adversity I faced has taught me to see the world through a different lens. I know what it feels like to be alienated by a massive society, and I learned to strip others of personal narratives and stereotypes told through American culture as I grew up.

On the surface, I am an adoptee from Guilin, China, and that sets me apart from everyone else. I love to embrace my heritage, learn my birth country's extensive history, including the dynasties and their rulers, language development, and how many of their inventions have contributed to the progress of the modern world. Coming to China has stretched that knowledge from knowing this country's history to how people act in this modern world and why. However, to my core, I am an American born in China.

Click here to watch a video produced by SYA China 2018 students, and hear what they have to say about their immersion experience abroad.