Someone, perhaps her mother, left her on a bench near a bus stop in Beijing.
Because she had no identification records of any kind, doctors estimated she was about 3 years old based on weight and height.
A woman found her and took her to a welfare institute — an orphanage — where she lived until an American family adopted her and brought her into their home.
She was 4 1/2.
Today, Wenxia Sweeney is 16.
Straight, glossy hair the color of dark chocolate frames, a face with brown eyes that express emotion with transparent honesty, and a wide, easy smile that conveys contentment.
But it hasn’t always been this way. And she knows, without a doubt, there will be times when it won’t always stay that way.
Because judgment may leave, but it inevitably returns. For a person defined by two worlds — one clearly visible — it arrives in unexpected moments.
“What kind of Asian are you?”
The sudden question, blurted recently in a school hallway, came from a girl who didn’t know her.
“OK,” the girl said.
Wenxia watched her walk away and thought: Ignorance, not meanness.
But that’s the predicament.
“I’m in some ways homeless,” she says. “On the outside, I’m not accepted here, but I’m accepted on the inside. In China, I’d be accepted on the outside — I’d look like an insider — but as soon as I opened my mouth, you could tell I’m not from there.”
As soon as Wenxia begins to talk, you can tell she’s from here, an average American teenager who, as she puts it, goes to school, eats, sleeps and occasionally gets bad grades.
At the same time, “everything else in my life is not average,” she says. “I am adopted — that’s not average … When I celebrate my birthday — that could be my actual birthday, but I don’t know. When I tell people my name, it’s kind of bittersweet because I don’t know my actual name that I was given at birth.”
But she is certain about her family.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind — these are my parents,” she says. “They’ve always been Mom and Dad.”
Sharon Sweeney remembers the first time she and her husband, Tim, saw Wenxia. They were in the waiting room at the welfare institute, placing fingerprints onto paperwork, when Tim looked up and said, “There she is.”
“She was so little — we didn’t expect her to be so little,” Sharon says. “And she was so frightened. It just kind of broke your heart.”
She came home to a sister, Tim’s and Sharon’s biological child, who was one year older and fair-haired and fair-skinned like her parents. Children at school soon pointed out that Wenxia wasn’t.
“I’ve never known what it’s like to live with a family that looks like me,” she says. But “it’s never really bugged me that I look different than my parents. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.”
Throughout elementary and middle school, however, the way she looked generated other gestures and comments: Students who pulled their eyes back. Assumptions she was automatically smarter because she was Asian. Questions about whether she ate rice every day.
“I felt bad because it was just my physical appearance,” Wenxia says. “They were judging me because of something I can’t change before they ever get to know me.”
She didn’t understand prejudice.
But the transition to high school was the most difficult.
The words, uttered by a handful of students, wounded deeply.
“Immigrant,” with the F-word attached.
She didn’t say anything at first, she says, because she didn’t recognize it as bullying or racism. “Since I didn’t recognize the situation for what it was, I didn’t know how to protect or defend myself.”
But she learned, with the support of her family and longtime counselor.
“We’ve always tried to instill confidence in her as a person,” Sharon says. “She’s just great at internalizing the positive things that you say and the positive things you put out there for her.”
Through all this and through her history classes, Wenxia has discovered she’s not been alone in her experience.
Humanity’s flaw, she says, is we judge as soon as we see.
“It’s not just Asian. It’s African-American. It’s Hispanic. It’s all different races. ... It’s always been a problem in this country,” dating back through the ages and various immigrant populations.
And even though she’s never been prone to stereotyping or making jokes about a person’s ethnicity, “it makes me really think twice before I speak,” Wenxia says. “I have before thought things that were judgmental … so now I think twice about what I’m saying. I’m also more aware when other people are doing this kind of stuff verbally and I can tell them to knock it off.”
Her message is simple: Learn acceptance.
Wenxia is in a good place.
She is more confident at a different high school this year. She has challenging academic classes. She has goals. She has a good group of friends on whom she can depend. And as always, she has her family.
“I know who I am and if someone wants to judge me for that … it’s not right, but it’s not on me.”
She is learning Chinese. She wants to travel everywhere. But one day, she’d like to return to China, to discover the piece of her left behind, and possibly search for her parents, find the answer to why they gave her up.
She wants to change the world, help people see their worth.
Her voice trembles just a bit. “Even if that means one person, even if I just change one person, that would mean the world to me.”
Sharon often thinks about Wenxia’s mother in China.
“I don’t know why her mom had to lose her in order for us to get her.” Emotion clouds her voice. “What a brave woman she was to let that child go. Taking your 3-year-old by the hand and leading her someplace and knowing you’ll probably never see her again. … That shows how much she loved her.”
The details of that day are fuzzy in Wenxia’s mind.
She remembers only she was never alone at the bus stop and someone’s hand held hers the entire time.
That day, the day she was found, became her birthday.
That’s not your average birthday.
It’s a particularly special day, a day worthy of great celebration for a little girl who would get that chance to change the world by standing up to intolerance and teaching us what she had learned.