Recently, I was asked about how I experienced diversity in American public schools. The question elicited so much passion and emotion, I was almost taken aback. Being “different” is all that I know. I’ve had to experience the less glamorous side of being different all my life.
I am Chinese, but my classmates and friends were generally white. I went to school in a Quaker city where my adoptive dad is Caucasian. The students at my university in Oregon were mostly white. Oregon has a white population of nearly 90 percent and an Asian population a mere 4.4 percent.
Even with this lack of racial diversity though, it’s my disability that has shaped me the most, even though it’s hard to admit. I’ve always emphasized my disability is only one part of me, when, in fact, it has seeped into all aspects of my life. When people see me, they see my disability first.
I was adopted in late May at the age of 11 and a half to a wonderful family in Oregon. A few months after I arrived, I was enrolled into the local elementary school. Fifth grade was my first formal year in school, and it was an amazing experience. I had a new family, a new language and a new country. In China I didn’t even know there were other races. My Caucasian classmates, with their yellow hair and foreign tongue, propelled me through this year of new beginnings. These classmates became my friends.
I remember one day during recess when a group of classmates gathered around me in the playground and curiously asked me questions. Their specific questions have blurred over the years, but I will never forget the feeling that moment gave me: I felt wanted, important, and part of a group because of the constant flow of questions ranging from my ethnicity to my disability. As a person with a disability, I rarely feel wanted, important or part of a group. From what I’ve been told, my birth family discarded me as soon as I was diagnosed with polio as a toddler.
My adoptive parents are amazingly accepting of me. They love me more than I will ever know or deserve. There were still many days I felt I was a burden to them. Every morning and evening, my dad had to assemble and disassemble my wheelchair before and after school and put it in the car for our daily commute. He often would have to do this in the cold and rain. Sometimes my small framed mother would have to drive me. Her arms did not have enough strength to lift up my chair, so she would use her knees to propel the wheelchair into the trunk, covering her knees with purple and red bruises.
There have been times I’ve wished I could go back to the moment before contracting polio and change everything. What would life have been like had I stayed with my biological parents and my older sister? What would life have been like if I grew up in China as a daughter of a poor rural family? Would my life be better today? Would I be happier? Would I feel less alone? Those are questions I will never be able to answer. Those are family members I will never get to know. That is a life I will never live.
Because this family abandoned me, I always have felt a hole inside me. I always have felt a need to prove to others that I am worthy. In the orphanage, I did this by making sure the caretakers liked me. In school, by getting good grades. At home, it was this unquenchable thirst for attention. Sometimes I may not even want the attention, but the fact that someone else got it, made me want it.
Why am I writing this? I am writing this article to convey to you that having a disability can sometimes suck – a lot – but it also allows us to experience life from a unique angle and bring a fresh angle to the message of hope.
I try to live towards my full potential and say yes to every new experience that comes my way.This mentality has taken me to Africa, nearly 10 countries in Europe, the top 15 cities in China, to Canada, Mexico, South America, and major cities on both the east and west coasts of the United States. And, in fact, this thirst for new experiences actually took me to Oregon. The orphanage director barely finished asking if I wanted to go to America, before I vehemently said yes.
If you feel the need to go back to being a victim, go back. I have been there but please don’t stay there! I can tell you from my personal experience that staying there is neither a pleasant nor an enjoyable experience. Life can be hard, but we all must have the courage to live as best as we can and help others do the same. Just because someone does not have a disability does not mean they do not have their own set of worries, disappointments, and fears about the future.
Life is yours. Relish in the abilities that you do have and make the most of life from your unique angle. I have no idea what my life would have been like had my parents kept me in China, but I will tell you that I feel thankful for the family I do have now and the opportunities that are in front of me.