I always remember the first time I met An. She was a young, bright and energetic lady who seemed like both an experienced barista and a perfectionist – always put together, and does things effortlessly.
“When you steam milk,” An patiently explained, “make sure you lower the pitcher to 1/4 of the wand, aerate it for 2-3 seconds, then lift it up and let it steam until a layer of very small milk bubbles forms on the surface. The end result should look shiny and silky.”
However, An is not any ordinary barista that you can think of.
As a Chinese-Canadian girl, An is fluent in French, English and Mandarin. At the age of 20, she has already landed an internship with the UN and is currently working for the Chilliwack Bowls of Hope, which is a non-profit organization that aims to provide nutritious food to schools within the Chilliwack School District. Her co-workers would describe her as a problem-solver.
In short, she is down right like that righteous Asian girl that every Asian family would expect their kids to bring home. Looking at her, you can’t help but thinking that she must have been walking on an aisle of flowers even since she was born. Yet only a few know that the flowers in her life were grown from mud and dust, and they didn’t start to bloom until she was adopted at the age of 6.
I was sexually abused at the age of 4 in an orphanage in China, and that’s not the darkest part about it.
When people think about orphanages, they often think about a place where abandoned kids are taken care of and given another opportunity to life. However, that is not quite the case for An Carson, who was abandoned when she was 3 months old.
“My orphanage was very poor, back in the day. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have hot water and all that fun stuff”, she remembers vividly. “During my first few years, I was tied to the bed because I wasn’t fully developed so I could neither move my neck nor walk.”
“Honestly, 90% of the kids would just die in there, which is very devastating.”
An remembers being crammed into a cradle with three other children, whose faces she never got to see due to lack of lighting. “They would put a bucket under our bed for us to urinate and vomit,” she said. There is a huge social stigma of orphans particularly in developing countries, and China is no exception. In fact, anyone growing up in the orphanage with similar conditions to An’s would have minimal chance of survival. The kids are often treated poorly and neglected. This is not to mention the fact that most of the workers in the orphanage were often soldiers who were dismissed from the military due to misconducts or violation of the laws. What follows after is a long list of history of substantial abuse, physical abuse, mental illness and alcoholism, and they take them all out on the innocent children in the most devilish way; they take away their purest innocence.
But is it even possible for orphan kids to ever know of innocence, when childhood is already taken away from them the moment they were abandoned?
There is mounting evidence that the practice of letting unwanted children die of starvation and neglect is not limited to An’s orphanage, but is found in orphanages nationwide, which the government of China excessively denies.
An was one of millions of kids who were left in the dying room as they believed she would not make it. “Since I had visible disability per se, they didn’t even bother touching someone like that,” An said. “I had a big white mark on my cheek, which you probably can’t tell, because I’ve been doing treatment, but the Chinese deem it the mark of death, and so [the people at the orphanage] didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I was considered the devil child”.
But fate does smile on those who untiringly grapple with stark realities of life.
Yulin, a social worker from Canada who devoted her life to helping orphans in China and created a China-Canada adoption program, paid a visit to the orphanage that An was in. When she saw An for the first time in the dying room, she felt something special about her right away. This child was still mentally there, and it wasn’t time for this flower to wither. Without hesitation, she picked her up and took her to the hospital for recovery. Yulin originally did not plan to pair An with the Carsons – An’s current
family, but she had a feeling that they were a great fit for An. As soon as she showed Mr. and Mrs. Carson a photo of her, the couple knew that the girl was perfect for them. Without delay, Yulin flew the couple to China, and after hearing the 6-year-old’s horrible experience in the orphanage, they both had a positive feeling about An. The couple genuinely felt that they want to give this kid a better life. So they spent 2 weeks getting to know each other and bonding before leaving together to Canada.
An’s first destination in Canada was London, Ontario, where she spent her next 2 years learning French and English, as well as adapting to Canadian culture. In fact, An is not the only kid rescued from the orphanage by her adoptive parents.
“I feel blessed to grow up in a multicultural household. Even though my parents are white, I have 11 other siblings from China, Korea, Tanzania and Canada”, An said. “My parents are open to learning about our culture because they want us to never forget our root.”
An’s parents did everything they could to build a welcoming home and environment for their children to grow. As soon as they realized the lack of diversity and multiracial engagement in London, they packed their house and moved across the country to Chilliwack, a city in the green British Columbia. Along with attending francophone school in Surrey, An maintained Mandarin, her mother-tongue by going to the Chinese Saturday school.
Research has shown that being bi-cultural is a tremendously beneficial trait, because it makes us more flexible and creative in our thinking. But bi-cultural people may experience their upbringing as a collision of multiple worlds. Being a person of both cultures – the East and the West – has presented An moments where she finds herself belong to neither. The experience of rejection from one’s heritage culture is referred to as “intragroup marginalization”. People experience this when they adapt to a new culture in ways that are deemed to be a threat to their cultural origins.
“Even though I speak fluent Mandarin, people in China can still tell that I am not from there because I have a lot of personality traits that would be considered Western. So even though I look Chinese, I don’t exactly fit in there. That’s the same with the way people see me in Canada.”
After all, An is glad that her family made the decision to move to British Columbia – the most ethnically diverse province in Canada. Almost 30 percent of British Columbia residents immigrated to BC from other countries. You can just drive to Vancouver or Richmond to feel like you are in Asia, with T&T and H-Mart being the most popular supermarkets for all the authentic Asian cuisine and snacks.
“What do you consider yourself?” I asked.
“I am a Chinese-Canadian,” An said in response. “Definitely Chinese in my blood, and China will always have a special place in my heart. But for now, Canada is home. It is where my family is and where I feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Despite everything, from physical disadvantages to a tragic past, An takes pride in her multicultural background and hardly lets them hold her back from doing what she wants most in life.
When An was 13, she went to Haiti for the first time, where she witnessed extreme poverty and started to realize that she could make a difference. A year later, her heart was yearning for a trip back to China.
“In Chinese culture, there is a thing called red thread that connects each of us to our root,” An said. “If your story starts there you’re going to come back there eventually. I’ve been going to different orphanages in China every summer. I want to provide hope, love and opportunity that the children deserve. It is true that you can’t change the world, but you can change one child’s life.”
Looking at her, I suddenly recall a story about dandelion – those vivid yellow flowers that bloom in the crack of sidewalk or abandoned lots. Anything that thrives in such strange, broken places holds a special kind of magic. It shines bright and golden for a moment before it withers, but then – when most have given it up for dead – it explodes into an elaborate globe of spiderweb seedling so fragile that a wind or a wish sends it to pieces.
But the scattering part isn’t the end. Its fragility lets it be carried to new places, to paint more gold in the cracks. Such flowers turn their misery into a field of hope and dreams, just like what An has done.
“Before we conclude this interview, may I know the meaning of your name?” I asked.
“My name is An Carson,” a bright smile sparked, “An is short for An Qian Li, which means beautiful, beautiful and colorful.”
Visual design by Vy Le.