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When I was younger, I believed in fairy tales, those old European ones that sometimes scare the living daylights out of you and sometimes make you dream. I suppose that everyone feels that way when they’re a child wondering if they are really a prince or a princess, and maybe there’s a dryad living in the maple tree, and the specks buzzing around the lupines are fairies too small to see. There could be anything out there, fairy godmothers and true love, dwarves and elves and shape-shifters, Santa with his reindeer. The only downside of living in a magical world is that the witches and big bad wolves are very real and out there too. Sometimes the heroes end up dying, and sometimes they’re put under a spell that changes them into something like a plant for the rest of their life. But there are more positives to living in a fairytale. Despite all the dungeons and torture, it’s better to believe that there is a world out there beside the grey one we see with our own eyes.
My birth mom left me at an airport in China when I was about 1 week old; the police who found me couldn’t tell exactly how old I was, I was just a baby bawling my head off. I don’t remember any of it. The only family I remember is the one I have here, Mom and Dad and Will. When I was little, my parents told me I was adopted, and later they told me about how I had been abandoned by my mom with nothing but a note in Mandarin scribbled on a notebook paper attached to my diaper. They showed it to me, it was in a scrapbook, but I couldn’t read it. The writing looked like funny pictures but apparently it said “I cannot shame the family. Someday you will understand, my little daughter.” Not even an “I love you” in there. I decided then that my birth mom was a jerk and that if she didn’t want me than I didn’t want her, but how can you forget your mother?
There was no mention of my father on that letter, and I wondered if he had been a king, or a magician. I used to pretend I was a princess in a puffy pink dress with a tiara on her head, with blonde hair and a perfect nose. I’ve loved fairy tales all my life, and they were always my favourite stories to read at night time. The best one was always Cinderella, because she became a princess, and in our picture book she was the prettiest and wore the prettiest dress. When I went to 2nd grade, we learned about Chinese New Year. I was enthralled by the lions, and money, and pictures to ward away bad spirits. I now wondered if I was an emperor’s child, the child of dragons. That would make more sense, I realized, because I could never be blonde and blue-eyed. Some of the girls in my class could be fairy-tale princesses, but not me. I was the only Asian person in my class except for a set of twins that were Korean. I did get sick of being called Julie or Grace- those were their names- all the time, but I felt American, even if I was a Chinese princess. I decided I could fit in well anyway.
4th grade was the worst year. I was as insecure as most 9 year olds are, and it was then that racism began to hit me. Before that, sure, there had been stupid kids who made idiotic comments, but I didn’t take much notice. In 4th grade I started to notice everything. I noticed who were the cute boys in our class, who didn’t like me- before I had assumed everyone did-, what were the clothes to wear to fit in, that looking for naiads in streams was definitely unacceptable, and mostly I noticed that I was different and I was adopted. 4th grade was also the year when we learned about “growing up” and when my parents showed me my mother’s letter. None of these things really helped, and to make matters worse there were those bullying jerks that are in every elementary school, the ones that go around saying things just to hurt people. Like “You look like an elephant”, which I never had trouble with, but my best friend Emily did, and anything they could say to tear down a person. I felt like I was the punch line of most of their jokes, whether I was or not those boys killed whatever self-esteem I had left. Every day I would walk to school with my head held high, like a dragon princess, while I heard the comments “Hey! Did your mom not love you, is that why she ditched you?” or “Why didn’t you just stay back in China, you know we don’t want you around here!” and having people come up to me with awful imitations of Chinese eyes and accents “Ah, do you eat dog?” I had always been social, and I had lots of friends, but I slowly became introverted, and I sometimes shut out everyone. Some kids talk to their stuffed animals, but I still looked futilely for magic.
We had a big yard, which was perfect for fairy tales. I would look in the strip of woods around our yard for the big bad wolf, and snuck around as if he were coming. I stopped doing that when I was older, but sometimes I still stole a glance through the trees and stood poised to run, as if he really were coming. Sometimes I would hear a rustle of dry leaves and see something sprinting across our yard out of the corner of my eye, but it was usually only a squirrel. Our pond only ever held turtles and frogs and tadpoles. They were good, and I used to talk to them, but I found myself wishing for merpeople to chat with, that might really respond. I imagined our yard was an enchanted garden, like where the 12 dancing princesses came to dance. There were wildflowers, violets and daisies and baby’s breath and dandelions and hyacinths and irises, and my favourite were the lady’s slippers with their delicate pink buds that convinced me that maybe the dancing princesses did come, sometimes.
And then there was the sky. I always wanted to see a dragon. I honestly did not care what kind, the scary, fire-breathing ones of English legend, or the honourable benevolent ones of Chinese tales that would give good luck to whoever saw them. I stared at the clouds for hours on end, looking at the shapes and the plane trails across the sky, and hoping against hope to see a flicker of red, or green. Will liked looking at the clouds too, and he would lie beside me on his blanket and gurgle as I stared until my eyes hurt looking for dragons or spirits. Will was adorable when he was a baby. We adopted him from Ethiopia when he was 3 months old. His mother had left him to die, too. She hadn’t even left a note.
My 7th grade year, I hit rock bottom. Not even Christmas celebrations could bring me back to the real world. I would never fit in anywhere, no matter how much I tried to be white, no matter how Chinese I looked. I was not the daughter of a king or emperor. That day, I sat in the snow and I lay down in the snow, feeling miserable. I was so mad at my birth parents for leaving me and my fairytales for not coming true. All I was was a stupid adopted girl. The snow fell on me, and now it stuck to my scarf in different patterns of fluff, and melted on my face as I lay there. I wanted to stay out there long enough for the snow to make a freezing white blanket across my face, to totally cover me and swallow me whole. Then maybe I would find a dragon, or a fairy. Maybe I would die, and see if anyone would miss me.
“Are you there?” Asked a voice. Shocked, I looked up at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. My birth mother? I thought for a second, for the eyes were a rich brown, almond-shaped, like mine but without the ugliness. It was a strange greeting. But as I looked closer, I saw the face could not be described as one definite race, but more as a mixture of all. I wondered and decided that it didn’t matter. She was wearing a red and gold gown that was elegant and antique looking, yet fashionable at the same time. Red, the color of luck. Her hair hung straight below her waist, with not a strand out of place. She could have been my mother, was old enough to be anyone’s mother or ancestor, but also younger than me. A princess, she could have been.
“Are you?” I blurted out, hoping more than a 13-year old should that she was, that all my waiting by the pond and watching the flowers for years had not been for nothing.
“A princess?” She smiled “No.” I had not asked if she was a princess, but that did not matter. The air around her had an almost indefinable luminescence, glowing and warmth that melted the snowflakes off my face.
She laughed, a sound like bluebells in the snow. “Merry Christmas.” She said.
“Um, yeah. Merry Christmas.” All that was going on in my life. My mother, abandoning me as a baby. My parents, loving but clueless about everything. My friends, who put up with me because I had to. This lady had beauty, joy. She could have a Merry Christmas.
“How?” I asked her, just how do I have a Merry Christmas? How do I have a good life? Those were the questions she heard, the questions that I left unspoken.
A voice as clear as water on a calm day.
“Hark the herald Angels sing, glory to the new born king…”
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild” I chimed in with my quiet voice, words that I had not spoken since I was a very young child.
“God and sinners, reconciled.”
Our voices seemed to grow, to fly over the snow-covered treetops, the houses, the church steeples and the mountains, over the sea to China and into heaven. The woman left, but I did not see her departure. She disappeared without a physical trace, but had left something with me. I ran back through the crunching snow and up the walkway, back to face my family and my past, maybe with a new perspective. I could leave fairy-tales now, not totally, but I had had my time. I tramped snow into the house, the tree lights glowing and turning the world gold.
“Hark the herald Angels sing…”