Standing on the second floor of an orphanage in Gaoming City, China, Sarah Li Xiang West, 18, resembled more the matrons of the orphanage than her own family.
This wasn’t the floor she’d lived on for 11 months and the name had even changed since 17 years ago, but Sarah and her family could still pick out remembrances from when she was adopted. From the bus-station that she was found at to the woman who handed her to her new family for the first time, these weren’t just landscapes or people, they were testaments to her story.
Although there were teary eyes from family members, Sarah explained that she was taking it all in as a souvenir of her “finding location,” the place where her life began 18 years ago, but not a place of loss or sadness.
Only a few weeks since having graduated from Fayetteville High School, and Sarah was for the first time revisiting a place that had been only a memory to her, but also a huge part of her identity. Amidst the tour of her past, she was also preparing for the uncertainty and change of a move across borders to discover more about not only herself and Christ, but also her birth mother.
At 11 months old, she was plopped up on a red velvet couch —a monumental seat at the White Swan Hotel, where many other children had been cradled and admired for the first time by their new families. Posed for her first family photo, Sarah was graduating from her orphanage in Gaoming City, China.
She was found at a bus stop, and, after being rescued, Sarah grew up among 70 other orphaned children on the fourth floor of Gaoming Social Welfare Services during her first months of life.
“I never knew my birth family, if I had any siblings, if I was an accidental birth, or if they were just like, ‘oh it’s a girl and we need a boy’-type-thing,” Sarah said.
All that was left in the box that she was found in was a red envelope typically gifted during Chinese New Year. Inside the envelope, where one would normally find Chinese coins, was written characters, which translated to “this child was born June 2.”
At the time of her adoption, her future parents had just resigned from their positions at Procter & Gamble. Kim and Rick West were in their hotel room May 9, 2000 when they got the call that they were matched with Sarah.
“We said, ‘oh welcome to our family little one. We love you, your dad doesn’t have a job and neither does your mom and we’re moving to a place called Arkansas that I’ve never been to, but trust me it all works out,” Kim said.
Growing up in North West Arkansas, Sarah said she’s never felt like she was a minority. She’d gone through the same school systems through elementary to high school, and, after all those years of being with familiar faces, people got to know her story and never needed explanations of her family tree.
Although her parents attempted to keep her in touch with her Asian culture, Sarah grew into the life that she had in Fayetteville, Ark. without any pressure to conform to the expectations of Asian families.
“One time, Sarah said to me, ‘mom, you need to understand I’m not a super Asian,’ and I asked what she meant by that, and she said that super Asians gets grades like a 101 or are overachievers, and I said, ‘oh so you’re just a run-of-the-mill-Asian?’”
Her mother knew that Sarah had the skill set and self-motivation to succeed in school and in life, and any added pressure or expectation was unnecessary.
The 2017 school year hit, and starting her senior year meant college applications and decisions had pending due dates. Sarah noticed she lacked the enthusiasm for college that most of her peers had.
Sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table, Kim had proposed a question to her kids, “what’s something you learned last year, and what’s something you want to learn this year?” When it got to Sarah, she leaned back, crossed her arms and said, “I learned that I don’t want to go to college.”
Despite having been accepted with scholarships to universities like Belmont, John Brown, and the University of Arkansas, she didn’t know what she was supposed to do, but she knew it wasn’t college, at least not yet.
A Facebook page for the incoming freshmen at Belmont University gave Sarah some clarity, when one of its members introduced herself and how she spent the last year abroad with the World Race. Sarah began looking into this as an alternate option to her freshman year.
The World Race is an organization for young adults who set out to do Christian mission work abroad. There are a wide range of destinations offered in different programs during nine or 11-month missions.
“I felt called by God to do this,” Sarah said.
When she posed the idea to her parents, there wasn’t a negative reaction from the two. Since they had raised their children with hopes of them being happy and proud of their futures, it was never a thought to veto Sarah’s desire to defer her college enrollment and seek this plan.
“I did look at her and I said, ‘are you serious? Is this really what you want to do?’ and she said ‘I really am,’ and I said, ‘okay, well let’s look into it. what do you know about it?’ and she’d already done some homework and started to pursue it.”
After getting approval from her parents, Sarah raised the money herself and began preparing.
A mentor and friend to Sarah, Harper Whaley, was a sophomore at Shiloh Christian School when she made her decision to take a gap year and travel with the World Race after graduation.
Whaley explained that while on the World Race, it is not only important to disciple the community and create outreach programs for the local teenagers, but also being hands-on with the schools is very effective for growing their mission work. At the age of 19, Harper was teaching math to Cambodian second graders.
“It’s funny because I don’t have a degree in elementary education or anything… I hadn’t even been to college, yet I was a teaching math,” Whaley said.
Sarah departed for her journey September 12 and will travel to four countries within her nine-month schedule. She began in Swaziland and will move to Nepal, India and Guatemala after, and she plans to return to the U.S. in June and start school at JBU in the fall of 2019.
She records her travels and mission work on a journal-style blog. Her weekly entries keep her family and other followers up-to-date on the progress of her journey and whatever revelations may come.
One of those discoveries was the pain she felt when saying goodbye to her parents. Although she’d spent the summer preparing for this and hard goodbyes were expected, she continued to pray to God that he would use this pain in some way to help her in these next months.
“Of course she’s had lots of tears since she’s left and the pain of separation of family and all to do [the World Race],” Kim said. “We face-timed with her our first night without her home, and she said to me, ‘you know Mom, I think I’m feeling the same pain that my mom must’ve felt from being separated from me.”
One of Sarah’s newly found purposes on this trip is to seek answer to how her current pain echoes the what her mom experienced 18 years ago.
Since their trip to China and her decision to be apart of the World Race, her mother also realized something special about Sarah’s story. “Sarah’s birthday is June 2, and her nine-month mission, the World Race, ends on June 2. She is on a nine-month journey the exact same days, weeks, and months that her mother was pregnant with her from conception to end,” Kim said. “So, it’s like a parallel growth. I get chills thinking about it.”
So have I mentioned I’m a journalism student? I honestly can’t remember, but in case not, now you know.
My professor assigned us to seek out an interesting person in the community of our college town to write a profile feature story about, and I chose Sarah West.
Final edits have not been made by my professor, but he did edit it prior to me posting this so I don’t feel like it totally sucks.
Hopefully, you all like the story and can ignore the fact that I totally just posted this for its convenience and to make up for my lack of presence on here. Do the two go hand-in-hand? yes.