Lydia Nasser celebrated her 19th birthday on July 17, but she doesn’t actually know when she was born.
“I could’ve been born anywhere between the 15th and like the 20th," Nasser explained. “Sometimes it’s funny thinking about that. It never affects me in a bad way, it’s just a question mark in my life.”
Nasser doesn’t know her birth date because when she was 2, her parents adopted her from China and brought her back to Washington state, where she has lived ever since.
Nasser was part of a wave of Chinese girls who were adopted by American families starting in the 1990s. Now the first of those girls are becoming young adults. Some are turning to their parents to answer questions about where they came from, but Nasser wanted to find answers on her own.
Nasser always knew she was adopted and she never had any qualms with it, but she was still curious about her heritage.
Her parents exposed her to Chinese culture when she was growing up. The family celebrated Chinese holidays and had other Chinese adoptees over for play dates. They took a family trip to China when she was 13. But Lydia never learned Chinese.
“I know nǐ hǎo, which is hello, and I know zài jiàn, which is goodbye. That’s it.”
In 2014 Nasser got the chance to go with her school on a service and study tour to China. She would work in orphanages and study Chinese culture and history. It was the perfect opportunity.
“I think I wanted to see if I connected with China,” she said. Nasser was ready to seek out her Chinese identity and see if something clicked, and she was excited to travel without her parents.
“This was just me standing alone, Lydia and China.”
After months of fundraising and getting ready, Lydia and her classmates arrived. They spent the first week and a half of the trip in an orphanage outside of Beijing.
After a few days of working and doing art projects with the kids, Lydia had an epiphany.
“No, not an epiphany,” she said. “It was just this one moment.”
OK, she had a moment – but was a big one for her.
“I was handed this little baby, and she just started crying and crying and crying.” A nearby nurse started speaking to Nasser in Chinese.
“I couldn’t understand her,” Nasser recalled. The baby was still crying. “I was trying to answer her and she wasn’t understanding what I was saying.”
It was at this moment that Lydia understood something.
“I don’t speak the language. I can't communicate with the people of China, so how can I identify with them?"
She called it the “ultimate realization,” that “the things I value, communication and socializing, just don’t work for me in China. I realized my identity lies more in the people I surround myself by, not in a country, not in a race.”
Nasser didn’t find the connection to China that she was looking for, but she’s OK with that, and that surprised her.
“The realization that I couldn’t identify as Chinese in the way that I had expected and hoped allowed me to move past that desire,” she explained. The experience helped her get to a point “where I don’t think about my adoption as much anymore.”
Lydia began her studies at Barnard College in New York City this fall. She plans on studying architecture, but after her trip to China she’s keeping an open mind.
Things change – and she’s excited.