The following is an excerpt from the memoir, The Bastard of Beverly Hills.
A few months after almost drowning in Marina del Rey, Mom signed the family up for another dangerous adventure. This time she wanted to visit a pair of communist regimes, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. It was always a dream of hers to see the Bolshoi Ballet and bring back real China— from China. Shit is heavy too.
It wasn’t easy for a kid from America to relate to hardships men, women, and children living under autocratic rulers endured. As an eleven-year-old, Macau, Moscow, Hong Kong, and St. Petersburg were exotic faraway destinations, torn from the pages of history books, folded up like origami, and stuffed into my purple Jansport backpack. Sitting in the airline terminal, I imagined our journey taking us to museums packed with pilfered remnants of conquered kingdoms and forbidden temples gilded in gold leaf. But what I’d discover was that traveling had as much to do with meeting new people as touring old empires.
We flew Pan-Am to Hong Kong in ‘84 when only two flights were scheduled per day. Since Nixon, relations between our countries had improved, and Chinese travel excursions were offered to foster goodwill. One of them took vetted tourists like us deep into the countryside to visit orphanages. My mother, the most adventurous of our troupe, seized the opportunity. With permission from the US consulate, she signed us up for a day trip to a rural area outside Macau. Originally a Portuguese colony, it was the one city where you could gamble, the “Las Vegas of Asia.”
Our transportation, first by a ferry, then a noisy beat-up school bus, barreled down an unpaved road into a desolate wasteland toward an endless horizon. It was a muggy and humid ride with no air conditioning or radio, just an occasional gust of hot wind to lessen the discomfort. My mother didn’t vocalize her displeasure. Having been a disadvantaged little Jewish girl in depression-era Los Angles, she understood the importance of her kids seeing how the other side lived.
After driving three hours in the sweltering heat, the bus pulled up a hundred yards from the Shenwan orphanage. It was one story, built from adobe brick, with a broken tile roof and nothing surrounding it, not even shrubs. It must have been the length of a football field with blacked-out windows and three locked, arched entrances at its center.
We stepped off the bus and were told to stand close together. Our guide and interpreter said few words the entire trip as if he were sworn to secrecy. We weren’t sure if we were being prepared for execution or what. Then two loud bells rang out, followed by a murmur.
The doors burst open, and throngs of brown-corduroy-clad schoolchildren came racing over. There must have been a thousand of them. They ran toward us with liberated joy.
“Nǐ hǎo, nǐ hǎo!” they chanted, waving hats and taking their jackets off as they approached, swinging them over their heads like helicopter propellers.
Our guide uncrossed his arms and moved to cut them off at the pass before they got too close.
“No worry. They happy. Special day for them,” he assured as he stretched his arms in vain to block their charge.
His defense was futile and unwarranted. They encircled the lot of us, jumping all about, tugging at our clothing, shouting questions in Chinese and their best English. They had never seen blond hair and rubbed my locks with excitement. And from the beginning of the experience right to the end, they asked nothing of us. We were there as their guests to tour the orphanage and break bread.
Sitting on wooden lunch tables in their cafeteria, we exchanged funny stories about California and Macau. Children really are the same everywhere you go. I sat next to a boy about my age, and Mom ran her fingers through my hair.
“They’re all orphans, Rafie,” she explained.
“I know, Mom.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“They don’t have a Mommy or Daddy,” I responded.
She kissed the side of my head and held me tight as I drank my chocolate milk. I still remember how that kiss felt. I was just like those poor kids whose blood relatives had abandoned them, but I was also wanted— by Eleanor. I didn’t know yet that I was adopted, but I had been taught the real meaning of family, about bonds more vital than what ran through our veins.