I think about alternate universes a lot. I find the idea of a place that could be just like our universe, but different because of a small history-changing moment, so fascinating.
I think about what an alternate version of myself would look like. I wonder how different I would be if I made a different decision at a crucial turning point. Would such a decision take me to a different branch from where I am now? If I met that other version of myself, would we agree on the same things? I wonder how much of my personality is predetermined, and how much effect external influences have had on the person I am now.
Recently I watched a video that made me again think about this. The video is about a girl named Kati Pohler. She was born in China, and was later adopted by an American family. Her biological parents gave her up when she was only three days old, leaving her at a market in China. They did this because of one of the same reasons my parents left China: the one-child policy.
My parents came to New Zealand in the hope of a better life for our family, and so they could have me too. And I am very close to them for it. Watching the video of Kati's life was like watching one of those alternate universes I wondered about play out. The possibility being, if my parents hadn’t managed to find a way out of the one-child policy.
Kati was her parents’ second child, and so they could not have her under this rule. Kati’s parents, although they had to give her up, talk about their daughter with so much love. It is a love that reminds me of my own parents’ love for me. Kati’s parents state again and again that they wouldn’t have given up Kati if there was no policy. They left a note with Kati when they gave her up as well. This note said that they would wait for her at the same location on the same day of every year, if she ever wanted to meet again.
What got me about Kati’s story is the scene where she reunites with her parents. The first words her parents speak are in Mandarin. I recognise the words, but Kati doesn’t. Her adoptive upbringing means that she never learnt how to speak Mandarin. I start feeling teary watching the mother’s realisation that her daughter cannot understand their mother tongue. The mother starts crying, telling Kati that she is so sorry. Kati looks on with a lost look on her face. And I think about how lucky I am.
A poem written by my friend Nina Mingya Powles also explores another alternate self. It is a poem called Mother Tongue / 母语. I highly recommend you read the poem before you keep reading this post, because the poem is so beautiful. Nina is half Malaysian-Chinese, and in the poem, she wonders what she would be like if she had grown up in her mother’s home country: “I would have different-coloured hair / and different-coloured eyes”. She calls this wondering a “dream / where I am not trapped / in any language”.
And I understand these last lines so well. Because even though I am fluent in English, people look at my face and see me as just Chinese. They ask me where I’m from, expecting an answer that isn’t New Zealand. But my Mandarin is shaky, and when I speak it, I have to concentrate really hard to understand and be understood. I don’t fit in completely when speaking either English or Mandarin. If I grew up in my mother’s home country, like in Nina’s dream, maybe I would feel more at home.
But there is a danger in wondering so deeply about the possibilities of an alternate world. Because I am not living in that alternate world, I am living in this one. And it’s a world where I got to grow up with my parents in New Zealand, sheltered from many of the dangers that my parents went through. Things could be much more painful. Although I am not perfect, I can still grasp some of my language. And I can still become better at it. I’ve talked to Chinese tourists who are so grateful for my help, even if I’m slower to respond and not so eloquent. Hearing their thank yous in Mandarin makes me feel a little more comfortable in the language.
Ultimately, thinking about those alternate universes makes me think about how lucky I am.