I didn't know what form these "scribblings," (as I call them) would take, but shortly after we returned home from the long journey (and by "we" here, I mean me, and my then-wife, and our new daughter--a family) I sat down and tried to make sense of what I had seen, and what I had done, and what I had felt.
And this essay is the result.
A lot has happened over the 15 years since I first wrote this piece--a lot has happened to the world at large and to my own little piece of it:
- Although still maintaining its staunch and severe mask of Communism, the People's Republic of China has seen itself rather quickly (and rather inexorably) slip ever closer to the western world--economically, politically, and socially. As I write this at the end of 2015, China, as a world power, has seen itself grow wealthier (at least on paper), and its shamefully sad decades-long grip on the most profoundly harsh "social planning" experiment in the history of the 20th- and early-21st centuries--the infamous One-Child Policy--has finally loosened and seen repeal (again, at least on paper).
- On a more personal level of change, once we returned home in September, 2000 (a journey which this essay attempts to detail), my wife and I soon set in motion the paperwork to repeat the process: We wanted another daughter from China. We wanted to do it all over again. And so, in 2003, we got our wish--traveling once again to that faraway eastern land, this time to the province of Hunan, and to the city of Changsha, where we were united with our lovely younger daughter.
- One year later, in 2004, things fell apart rather dramatically (though, like everything--again, as this essay can attest--it was a process; it didn't just happen overnight). My wife and I would end our marriage, and our children, who spent the first years of their lives parentless and alone in orphanages so far away, would now be confronted with that all-American phenomena of divorce.
Again, though this essay was originally written upon the return of my first trip to China--and written to detail some of the specifics of that particular journey and of that particular adoption experience in 2000--after revisiting it and revising it (somewhat) I see it now as also speaking in general terms of the adoption of my younger daughter three years later. This essay, in a rather unique way, presages and echoes the spirit of that second adoption adventure, as well, capturing its essence and its soul in ways I never could have predicted.
I see this piece now as speaking to and for both of my daughters. I see this essay of mine as a testament to nothing else than of how they (because of reasons well beyond their control) spent the early months of their lives in state-run orphanages in a distant, communist country, and of how they lived an unintended bravery, and strength, and will to endure which I will never know.
Fifteen years later, this essay speaks to and for my daughters--both of them. In some ways, maybe, it also speaks to and for all the children around the world, parentless and alone, who are in need of rescue.
[Aside: Admittedly, this term "rescue" is a slippery creature, for in this case it would imply that I did something as noble as rescue or "save" those two precious girls stuck in Chinese orphanages. I don't look at it that way, and I never have. Instead, I've made a nuisance of myself over the years (since returning home from my adoption-journeys in both 2000 and in 2003) by humbly and honestly proclaiming that in no way did I "rescue" my daughters. The opposite, in fact, is true and has always been true. They rescued me.]
I never gave much thought to the picture, until the end of our stay in China. The real meaning of it was lost on me up to that point. Maybe I had simply given up thinking about it or had grown so frustrated that I no longer cared whether I thought about it or not. I don't know. I just know that I didn't think much about the picture until the very end, which--in its own way, of course--was actually the beginning. But I wouldn't see that until later, either. I wouldn't see anything until later.
Which is the way most true stories happen.
My wife and I were at the Motorola Campus in Schaumburg, Illinois, filling in yet another piece of the complex adoption puzzle. It was the latest stage of our long, seemingly unending journey toward parenthood. According to state requirements, adoptive parents-in-waiting must fulfill a certain number of credit hours, taking part in classes and seminars (much like the one we were attending this day) aimed at providing the latest information on adoption and preparing us to be, at least in the eyes of the ever-watchful state, "fit parents." (Whatever that phrase might mean.)
It goes without saying, of course, that all of this--as well-intentioned as it might sound--is spectacularly unfair. As one who has gone through the adoption obstacle course, it is my observation that "the system" is grossly unbalanced, discriminatory in favor of natural parenting. Adoptive parents find themselves (either by choice or by virtue of "the luck of the draw," I guess) placed under a microscope, with every detail of their lives exposed and analyzed, held up to the bright light of scrutiny in ways that natural parents will never have to know.
And of course that's just the way it is. Fair or not. Sour grapes or not. That's just the way it is.
But it's never easy having children, no matter what approach one might take to have them. You do what you must do. You take the steps, one at a time, and you jump through the necessary hoops, and you clear the hurdles, and you clamber over the walls. Because that's the way it's done. This is true whether you find yourself having children the natural way--the old-fashioned way--or the adopted way. It doesn't matter. In that sense, it's all the same. And so, as adoptive parents-in-waiting, this is what my wife and I were doing that particular day in November, 1999. We were doing what we had been doing and what we would need to do for another nine months, still, until our time would finally come to travel overseas--in other words, we were doing what needed to be done.
We gathered, she and I, with like-minded people, all of us slowly going through the adoption maze--some already with children at home and wanting to add to the family, and some couples childless and waiting, white-knuckled, for their first chance to become a family.
It goes without saying, almost, that a day like that is a bit surreal. There we all were, all of us feeling a little sorry for ourselves--but at least with some solidarity in that shared sense of self-pity. All of us tired, and anxious, and expectant, and hopeful. All of us doing what needed to be done. Maybe not liking it, but recognizing, after all, that this is how it's done, and so doing it all the same.
The day seemed especially surreal for the two of us, since at that point in our daughter's adoption we still knew nothing about our daughter. We knew she was from China, of course, but then China is a big place, and we didn't know any specifics regarding her home province, or her home city, or her home village. We didn't know how old she was right then, or if she had even been born yet.
[Aside: And as it would turn it, she had been born at that time--less than a month before our symposium in Schaumburg that day. A September birthday, like her adoptive mother. And, as it would coincidentally turn out three years later, also her younger sister. September birthdays, all. A houseful of Virgo. Help.]
We didn't have a picture of our daughter at the time, nor did we have a name picked out for her. Before deciding on something as important and permanent as a name, we were actually waiting for our first glimpse of her--what would eventually be a small, wallet-sized photo (a passport photo, basically) included in her dossier, mailed to us from the Chinese consulate just a matter of weeks before we would end up making our trip overseas.
And so we waited. And we filled our time. And we dreamed of our Chinese daughter, waiting for us so far away. And we did what needed to be done, which included, at least on this November day, an overfilled meeting-hall of breakout sessions and keynote speakers, all with the intended goal of making us more aware and more cognizant of just what it was we were getting ourselves into.
During one of the afternoon intermissions, my wife and I made a slow pass around the lobby of the convention-center, where various vendors (i.e. booksellers, organizations, and agencies all having something to do with adoption in some way) had set up tables in a half-moon shape across the floor--all of them loaded down with their specific material and literature, and "hawking their wares," so to speak.
We came across the picture almost by accident. It was at the last table, with very little to draw attention to it. There wasn't much to look at. It was a framed picture, a simple, elegant drawing of a full moon set against a clear, creamy-white background. The picture was zen-like, almost, in its starkness and in its sense of quiet. At the bottom of the framed picture was written an equally simple--albeit haunting and mysterious--verse (accredited to author/artist, Mary Ann Radmacher):
"I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world."
We fell in love with the picture instantly. And so we bought it. We took it home with us later that day, at the end of the long symposium in Schaumburg (the latest of several), and we wasted no time in hanging it on the hallway wall that night, just outside the door of what we knew would someday be our daughter's bedroom. We hung the new picture there in hopes that looking at it and reading it each day would fill us with expectant joy of the journey that awaited us. We hung the picture there in hopes that looking at it and reading it each day would fill us with pride that our daughter would be from a faraway land, and that someday she would be home with us and would grow up and would see the framed picture for herself, and that she would know inside, somehow, that the picture was for her, and about her, and about her birth parents (whoever they may be), and about her adoptive parents (whoever we are), and about love, and about family, and about "home."
All of these were grand and beautiful intentions, to be sure. Very poetic. Very noble sentiments. But as time wore on during our daughter's adoption, with one bureaucratic hurdle after another, and with no apparent endgame in sight, the simplicity and the beauty of that picture hanging on the wall outside her bedroom grew slowly dimmed beneath a thin, barely perceptible layer of dust. More and more, the picture's simple message--once so poetic and so meaningful--grew mysterious to me. I would see the picture as I passed it every time on my way down the hall (after all, where it was positioned so noticeably, I couldn't help but see it.) And I would read its words near the lower outline of the frame. And I would say to myself, "Yes, well someday. Someday..."
But I had no idea, then, what the words on the picture meant.
It's important to keep in mind, I think, that the root of the word, "adoption," is "option."
I suppose in many ways it was that very idea that kept us going through the whole ordeal, whether we could verbalize it in such simple terms or not. I believe with all my heart, though, that my wife and I were meant to adopt.
But I am not so naive.
I know this idea goes against the grain of what is generally held to be true. I know, undeniably, there is a social stigma associated with such a thing as adoption. As a society that prides itself on supposedly being advanced, and cultured, and taking on a worldly view, we may not like to talk about this stigma in America. We may not like to acknowledge it or admit to it, but the stigma is there. In its muted, whispered tones, and in its sidelong glances and double-takes, and in its oh-so-easy marginalization in mindless categorical terms such as "adopted-daughter," the stigma is most definitely there.
There is, perhaps, a belief in our culture that adoption is something parents-in-waiting are forced into after all other means of having children--of having family--fall through and come to naught. There is, perhaps, the general perception that adoption is enwrapped in the sad spectacle of desperate parents-in-waiting crawling on their hands and knees, begging for a chance--any chance--to complete their empty lives with the children they have always dreamed of someday having.
[Aside: "George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad..."]
There is often a quick assumption by the general public that adoption is considered by such parents-in-waiting if and only if something is biologically "wrong," and that adoption is a last-ditch effort, a last grasp at lineage, a last attempt at happiness, and a last resort.
While in some rare and extreme instances this may be the case, in most instances such stereotyped assumptions and stigmas couldn't be further from the truth.
While it is true that as a couple, my wife and I fell into that small minority of married men and women who have difficulty conceiving, we decided rather quickly, after dipping our toes gently into the confused and swirling pool of fertility testing, that we would look for another way to go.
[Aside: Actually, there is a bit more to it than simply brushing off the experience with a cute, euphemistic "dipping of the toes." We tried the fertility route (the drugs, in-vitro, the whole works) for about one year, to be honest--the consultations with doctors in immaculate offices, the quiet room (by myself), an over-sized envelope filled with pornographic magazines that spilled atop the thin white sterilized tissue stretched like an accusing finger down the padded table in the secluded VIP-wing at the clinic, the plastic cup ("Good to the last drop!"), the liquid soap at the sink to wash one's hands before and after, the awkward exit back into the waiting room, downcast eyes, the uncertain hug, the murmured, "How did that go?" from her, a smile at her lips, the whispered, "I feel like a cigarette for some reason," from me, clumsy attempts at humor, followed (almost weirdly) by my once-in-a-lifetime chance to look through the eyes of the microscope in the lab at my "boys" swimming with great health and vigor, and pirouetting, and bouncing into one another like a drunken bacchanal...and then it's her turn, later on, with the prescribed drugs and the shots and the taking-of-temperatures and the quick and frenzied "romantic" tussle when the time is right followed by the elevation-of-hips with carefully situated pillows and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting...followed by the inevitable blood at the end of the month, and the tears, and the look of determined love in one another's eyes: "This only means we'll try again." Followed by consultations with doctors in immaculate offices, the prescribed drugs, the shots, the taking-of-temperatures, the quick and frenzied "romantic" tussle when the time is right, and the waiting, the waiting, always the waiting...]
Once we made peace with the idea that having children the old-fashioned way just wasn't in the cards for us (and, to be brutally honest, once we saw another young couple "hit the jackpot," so to speak--friends of ours, actually, who were coincidentally going through the whole fertility ordeal with us and who suddenly turned up pregnant with triplets, of all things, and who now, overnight, saw themselves staring down the barrel of a world filled with multi-seated strollers and minivans and the like) my wife and I took a good, hard look at one another, and we knew: The "other way to go" presented itself immediately. There really was no hard decision to be made.
We chose the path of adoption, we like to think, she and I. (And I really do believe it's true.) Adoption did not choose us.
Once we decided, as a couple, on the idea of adoption, we were then faced with choosing just what kind of adoption we wanted. Did we want to go the more socially acceptable route of domestic adoption and wait our turn for a clean, healthy, white baby--a baby who would, to the best of our ability, look something like us? In many ways, this certainly would have made the most sense, at least in society's eyes. (Although the wait for such a child, because of that very reason, can be interminable.) Or did we want to look into foster-care? Or did we want to take our chances looking elsewhere to the countless number of children lying in cribs and in beds in orphanages around the world?
It was time to do some research.
Obviously, we decided on international adoption. But simply stating it like that--so cavalier, so matter-of-fact--feels funny now. It feels funny and strange and somehow dishonest.
Of course, our decision wasn't simply a matter of waking up one day and magically intuiting the answer we so desperately sought. Such an attitude would have been irresponsible. But then again I can't say that our decision was one of unbearable angst and hand-wringing, either. It wasn't like that at all.
Our decision to pursue international adoption was something we took very seriously, for we knew our decision would have a ripple effect in the lives of not only the two of us but also in the lives of our extended families, our friends, and our children. If we were to adopt from another country, then we knew there was a very good possibility our children would have different skin-color from us, and different hair-color, and different eye-color, and different features altogether.
Our children would not look like us, in all probability.
[Aside: And the more we thought of this likelihood, the more the two of us--my wife and I--agreed that such a scenario might just be the best "gift" we could ever bestow on any future children of ours.]
But also this undeniably opens up a whole new set of issues for a child as she grows older and comes to the very concrete conclusion: "Hey, I don't look Mom or Dad, and I don't look like Grandma or Grandpa, and I don't look like my friends at school, and I don't look like anyone else I know!"
How would we deal with this as parents, my wife and I wondered? How would our daughters deal with this, growing up in America? How would we deal with the stares while out in public together, the double-takes, the questions--innocent in nature and well-meaning though they may be, but still sometimes unavoidably prejudiced and hurtful? How were we going to deal with all of this as parents of a little girl from another part of the world? These are serious questions to ask, and we took them very seriously before deciding that, despite the obvious challenges, international adoption was for us.
"But why China, of all places?"
We got asked that a lot, in the beginning. (And we still do, to this day. Though admittedly not as much.) From a certain way of looking at it, I suppose, it's understandable, but there is not now--nor has there ever been--an easy, all-encompassing answer to satisfy that question. Often, over the years, I have found that my best response is my gut-response:
"Why not China?"
The People's Republic of China, to put it as simply as possible, has a population problem.
[Aside: But maybe that's putting it too simply.]
China, along with its distinction of being one of the largest countries in the world--amassing a total of roughly 4 million square miles--also holds the honor of being the most populous country in the world, with an average of roughly 1.5 billion people.
[Aside: Not to waste time stating the obvious, but that is a lot of people.]
The country's population problem has some long, proud roots stretching all the way back into China's distant, dynastical past. The urge to build a strong, invincible Empire runs through the tortured, tangled history of China, re-emerging as late as 1949, with Mao Zedong's rise to power, and with his "Little Red Book," and with his assumption of the title, "Chairman Mao," and with his grand dreams of revolution and reform for the world's most massive country. With Mao's ascension to power, he ushered in a whole new age of social and political upheaval for not only the Chinese people but for the whole world. In the late 1950s and early '60s, Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, appealing to China's younger generation to enlist in his army of Red Guards and to effectively wipe the proverbial slate of history clean and to rebuild a new and culturally "pure" and strong China--stronger than the world had ever seen, he envisioned.
In this vein, Mao encouraged uninhibited procreation, so that China would forever have a booming population and a steady reserve of strength in its numbers.
[Aside: And who in the hell is not going to like the sound of that idea?]
With a great population, he predicted a great world-class economy would follow, as would a world-class military might. Before long, however, this policy became not so much the perfect dream that Mao had envisioned but instead a nightmare of crisis proportions.
China soon had too many people, with not enough housing to shelter them all, and not enough jobs to put them all to work, and not enough food to fill all the hungry stomachs, young and old.
To meet this problem, Chairman Mao's successor--Chairman Deng Xiaoping--implemented in 1980 one of the most singularly devastating family-planning policies the world has ever seen: China's now-infamous "One-Child Policy."
[Aside: And basically, this was meant to be exactly what it says it is. The name fit. Uncannily.]
From its inception, a legally married couple was legally entitled to have one child between them, and that was all. There were many loopholes with this law, as with any law, and there were many exceptions to the rules--all depending on how much money one had to pay off the local governmental offices, of course. Other children were permissible to a family, but this would always include a certain percentage of fees and taxes levied upon the couple. Needless to say, once outside the country's major urban areas, China's poor and destitute, living in the interiors of the country--in the largely rural and agrarian village settings--had no reasonable way of paying such restrictive fees.
Add to this already difficult situation the nation's firmly-ingrained traditions of patriarchy and China's history of relegating women to foot-bound servants of second-class stature, and what you've got is a disaster waiting to happen.
And so naturally that's what happened.
Because of the nation's reluctance to leave behind its patriarchal roots--with its emphasis on family names, and family prestige, and lineage, and legacy--couples tried for baby boys. Endlessly. Expectant mothers and fathers (not to mention grandmothers and grandfathers) wanted baby boys. They needed baby boys, to carry on the family's history, the family's business, the family's pride. Lots and lots and lots of little baby boys, all who would someday grow up to take over the large nation and to rule it with great sagacity and inscrutability as its leaders of business and of government.
And for millions of the not-so-lucky little girls born during the decades that the One-Child Policy held sway, they simply "disappeared," or were erased from public record, or never existed at all. For years, abortions were encouraged (or at least certainly not discouraged), along with forced sterilizations on women. Even something as unthinkable as infanticide--the killing of a newborn baby shortly following birth--(though certainly not legal nor encouraged) existed deep in the shadows as a shameful, unspoken secret in a country slowly dying of heartbreak.
Another option for these unfortunate mothers in China, of course, was abandonment--leaving their babies on the steps of a hospital, or a police station, or an orphanage, or in a public square somewhere (under a tree or by a bench, perhaps) and walking away quietly to disappear into the shadows alone. Sometimes--if the mother were to think of it in her haste--she might scrawl a small note about her baby (a name, a birthday, a place of origin) and pin it to the child's makeshift blanket, along with a favorite toy stuffed inside its folds, perhaps. Most of the time, however (and practically all of the time), there were no notes left behind. There couldn't be, for fear of arrest or recrimination. Sadly, then, very little was ever known about these babies, these abandoned daughters. Basically next to nothing.
For these little girls left alone at the hands of fate, whatever names they would end up with were provided for them later at the orphanage or at the hospital. And specific birth dates were, most often, just a best guess after a mandatory and rushed physical check-up on the baby.
Cue the music for our dramatic entrance, then, the two of us. This is where my wife and I come into the picture. But as I've tried to make clear all along, we are no heroes. We never entered into the adoption of our daughters with that kind of mindset. We never saw ourselves that way (and we still don't.) We're no better or no different than anyone else with dreams of starting a family.
We simply wanted a child.
We wanted our own family, and this is how we decided to go about it. And there are countless other parents the nation over--the world over--who make the same decisions we did and who tread the same grueling path we did when we made our journeys back in 2000 and 2003.
But while international adoption enjoyed a booming popularity during the mid- to late-'90s and the early turn of the millennium (just in the United States alone), that certainly does not mean it has ever gotten much easier. The long, cumbersome process is a marathon. From start to finish--from the day we first contacted our agency, Chinese Children Adoption International in Englewood, Colorado (an organization I will always only praise), to the day we returned home with my older daughter in September of 2000--the whole process took roughly 18 months.
[Aside: Now, I know that may not sound like much to some, and there may even be those who imagine that all we did was fill out an application and sit back and await our turn to travel. But it wasn't like that at all. Those 18 months, from beginning to end, dissolved into a maze of governmental offices, and agencies, and meetings, and home-studies, and health exams, and financial disclosures, and bureaucratic paperwork, and more paperwork, and more paperwork, and more paperwork, and more paperwork, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more....]
It was an endless uphill climb that pushed us physically and emotionally to the limit, and then it pushed us even further.
It pushed us all the way to China.
What can I possibly say about China? What can I possibly say about that distant land that hasn't already been said so much better by so many better writers? What can I possibly tell you about such a place so incredibly vast, and so incredibly diverse, and so incredibly mysterious, and so different, and yet so real?
Let me just say, in short, that I loved it.
[Aside: Now, I know that had you been with me during the whole three weeks my wife and I were there to adopt our daughter, you might have thought I felt differently about the trip and about the place. But make no mistake: There were certainly those times (several of them, actually) when I didn't like China very much and when all I wanted to do was come home with my new family intact.]
On the whole, without a doubt, I loved the country. And I loved our visit. And as I've always promised my older daughter and her younger sister, if they ever reach an age or a time in their life when they are curious about where they come from--the land of their birth, that distant land of clouds, and mountain-peaks, and panda bears, and Great Walls, and bamboo orchards, and dragons, and Lords of the Middle Kingdom--then I will find a way to take them back for a cultural visit, a brush against their touchstone, and I will see the country of their origin with them. They deserve that much.
So far, that hasn't happened. (And it admittedly may not.) But someday I would love to return to China.
Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I were first there in 2000, we certainly saw many cities, many sights, and many surprises. We visited museums, and stores, and shrines. We tasted the food. We visited with the people. We saw a side of China that, I know, most tourists don't get to see. In many ways, I feel we saw the real China, or at least a part of it. We saw the best and the worst of it. The heart and the soul of it. We mingled in the crowds. We rubbed elbows with the people. We talked with them (or we did our best to, anyway.) We communicated. We connected. We made friends. We made memories. And we brought home the greatest gift of all--our older daughter.
We first arrived in the city of Shanghai, that mythical port city on China's east-central coast, where we stayed for two days before departing by air for the city of Wuhan, 300 miles to the west in Hubei Province, along the famed Yangtze River. It is here where we spent most of our time.
[Aside: Please understand, now, that when I say "we," I'm generally referring to our travel group of twenty other couples, all parents-in-waiting of CCAI (from all corners of the United States), all of us nervous, and anxious, and tired, and all--like my wife and I--willing, quite literally, to "go the distance" and to roam to the ends of the earth to fall in love with a little girl on the other side of the world.]
It is here, in the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, where my family became complete and my heart grew full. It was in Wuhan where we first laid eyes on our daughter--after 18 excruciating months of waiting--and where we first held her in our arms.
And what can I tell you about that day that you probably can't already guess? It was (along with the similar sort of day three years later in the city of Changsha, just a province to the south, in Hunan, where we first met our younger daughter) one of the two greatest days of my life.
It was also one of the most heartbreaking.
I will never forget it. The morning of August 28, 2000, is burned in my mind forever. The excitement. The happiness of first laying eyes on my daughter, so happy, so playful, and so full of life.
And the gutwrenching sadness of watching her nanny--the woman entrusted to care for my daughter at the orphanage during the first year of her life--cradle my precious girl in her tanned, wiry arms for the last time, and slowly rock her, and sing to her, and say "Goodbye..." in whispered Chinese, and dissolve in tears as she slowly, reluctantly handed her over to my wife's waiting arms.
I can never forget it. I don't ever want to forget it.
We spent eight days in Wuhan, where much governmental paperwork took place in bland beige communist-style rectangular stone buildings (in need of air-conditioning), and where we secured my daughter's passport and her officially notarized documents detailing her heretofore unknown history--otherwise known as her "Abandonment Report"--and of her legal adoption by us. Once all of those papers were completed, we flew to the city of Guangzhou, in China's southeast corner, situated along the Pearl River Delta, just off the South China Sea.
This is a wonderful city, Guangzhou, with a rich and colorful history. Of course, our three-day stay here was made all the more wonderful by our accommodations at the world-famous White Swan Hotel.
[Aside: Believe me, words cannot do this place justice. It is glorious and well deserving of its reputation as one of the world's finest hotels. The Chinese definitely know how to do this stuff right.]
As it turns out, every American family adopting from China had to pass through the city of Guangzhou, for here was located the U.S. Consulate Office, which--among other things--approved the babies' visas and granted permission for the girls to travel back to the United States as legally adopted citizens. This visit to the Consulate was really the last stage of our long and arduous journey. It was to be the last corner of the maze (as well as the nail-biting experience of getting through Customs at Hong Kong International Airport, on the way out of the country) to navigate around and through while overseas--the last obstacle to overcome. And it was a joyous moment when that visit at the U.S. Consulate Office was finished.
[Aside: But unfortunately--at least in our case, anyway--we were so tired at this point it was hard to generate the kind of enthusiasm the occasion fairly deserved. We did our best, though, by taking a walk together, the three of us, that evening down the street from the hotel and to the pink neon sign of Johnny's, a faux-American '50s diner (or at least a Chinese attempt at such), where we sat down and enjoyed the Chinese version of cheeseburgers, and fries, and chocolate malts. It tasted like home--or at least sort of. And it was wonderful.]
From Guangzhou, then, we flew the short, half-hour "puddle-jump" to the city of Hong Kong. And in a word, Hong Kong was glorious. Or, at least to be fair, I guess I should say that Hong Kong International Airport (once we safely got through it and could all breathe a collective sigh of relief) was glorious, because we never actually got to see the city.
[Aside: We would get our chance to see more of this legendary city, Hong Kong, on our return trip in 2003. Then, we took our time strolling the city's streets. We toured Victoria Peak. We took a ferry tour out into one of the gleaming city's many harbors. I visited an authentic Chinese clothing store--one of thousands in the city--that specialized in men's suits, where I got measured and fitted (just to say I did it). But those are stories, perhaps, for another time...]
We stayed at the Regal Hotel, connected to the airport by a wonderful glass walkway. Even just stepping off the plane and walking through the terminal, though, you could feel it in the air immediately: Things were different here. Things moved at a different pace. The air smelled a little cleaner. You could hear the strains of English being spoken in the background. We were closer to home; we could feel it. And I don't mind telling you that at that point we were ready. We were ready for western civilization again. And that night we celebrated by eating at McDonald's in Hong Kong International Airport. Believe me, a Big Mac never tasted so good.
The next morning we took off for our 16-hour return flight, and we said goodbye to my daughter's homeland.
I cherish my memories of China. The smell of it, the sound of it, the feel of it. Images of its land and of its people and of its faces will never let me go. One of those images, in particular, came to me on our last night in Guangzhou, while I was outside walking alone along the streets--all lit up with brightly colored neon, and crowded with Chinese people taking in the evening air, like me. And there were bicycles, and cars, and motorcycles. There was noise, and combustion, and confusion--the mix I had grown comfortable with and familiar with over the past three weeks. The mix of a great Chinese city. And I loved it.
I had my camera with me this night, practicing my side-hobby of photography, trying to find some last-minute pictures before we left for Hong Kong the following morning. Strolling about the city streets with no clear destination in mind, I turned down a frontage road, away from the familiar confines of the hotel's well-lit grounds, and I chose a pathway along the Pearl River, the lights from the buildings across the water on the other shore reflecting off the outline of boats and junks which silently made a steady flow of river-traffic, day and night, along the Pearl's choppy waters. I stood there for a moment by myself, quiet, looking out at the peaceful scene and looking back at all that had happened during our stay in China.
And it was then when I noticed the moon hanging in the dark sky over the city. To be honest, this was probably my first opportunity--that I remember, anyway--to view the moon during our stay. And so I looked up at it for a long time. It was fat, and full, and glowing white, and lighting up the night sky and the darkened city and its timeless river flowing below.
And I thought of my trip to China.
I thought of everything that had happened to me along the way, all the excitement and the drama. I thought of all the things I had seen and heard, all the countless ways in which my life had changed. And I thought of everything I had gone through--everything we all three had gone through--to get to this moment now. I thought of all the time spent wondering, and wishing, and waiting.
And I thought, too, of my daughter's birth-mother and birth-father--whoever they are and wherever they might have been on this night. I wanted to tell them not to worry. I wanted to tell them that everything was going to be all right for their daughter--my daughter--and that my wife and I would do everything in our power to love this little girl, and that we would always remember, and that we would raise her to remember as well.
And I also thought of my daughter's nanny, alone this night in the orphanage, perhaps, and crying for a little girl whom she loved and was missing very much, a little girl who--very soon--would be going home to live with her new family, to a place called Chicago, in the United States of America.
A place very far away on the other side of the world.
I thought of all these things as I stood there by myself along the banks of the Pearl River looking out at the city of Guangzhou in the People's Republic of China--how the city glittered at night across the water like a chandelier catching rainbow-colored lights. And I watched the moon. For the longest time I stood there, oblivious to the noise and the crush of the busy city around me, and I watched the moon from where I stood.
And I thought of the framed picture hanging on our wall back home by the door to our daughter's new bedroom, and of its words written near the base of the frame:
"I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world."
I thought of the picture, and I smiled, for I knew now, finally, just what those words meant.
As I've said before in this essay--in the Preface and throughout--a lot can happen in 15 years. During the interval that I first wrote this piece, the world has changed, I have changed, and international adoption (particularly from a nation like China) has changed.
Obviously, the Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, is a seminal event etched in collective memory that rocked not only the United States but the rest of the world. Things were different after that day. Those of us of a certain generation--like myself--can very clearly draw a mental map, demarcating finely drawn borders in our personal memories: BEFORE 9/11 and AFTER 9/11. This is not the same world that I live in now, 15 years later, as the world in which I lived and traveled then, back in 2000. Terrorism is a daily thing now--with both a tangible and intangible nature to it. It is a force and fear that we live with, as citizens of the world. Most of the time we go about our daily lives with these fears nestled comfortably somewhere in the background, but then that subconsciousness reaches the surface every time there is an attack from ISIS on the streets of Paris, or there is a shooting at a mental-health facility, or at a public school, or at a crowded cinemaplex on the opening night of the latest blockbuster film.
We live with these fears now in a very real way. We deal with these national and international "terrors" on a level that we didn't have to think about or worry about 15 years ago. And I realize, when revisiting this essay now, that my initial trip to China in August-September of 2000 was literally at the very end of that "golden" time. And, of course, I didn't know it then.
In one calendar year--from September 2000 to September 2001--everything changed. And that's really kind of amazing for me to confront, reading this essay again today.
The changes could be felt, certainly, when my ex-wife and I traveled only three years later, in 2003, to adopt our younger daughter from Changsha. It was the same kind of trip, certainly. Same goal in mind. Same adoption agency. Very similar itinerary--with some changes along the journey, of course, regarding airports and cities and hotels and the like. It was the same trip, in many ways.
But it was also a totally different trip, in many other kinds of ways. And my ex-wife and I, as well as everyone in our agency's travel-group, could feel it. It didn't have to be talked about. Traveling the world was no longer the same--it didn't matter if you were American or not. (But certainly being American made us stand out, perhaps--it made us self-conscious and self-aware in ways we didn't notice the first time around.)
Again, interesting (for me, at least) to look back on now.
Another important change over the past 15 years is in the fine details of international adoption, and of Chinese adoption in particular.
I don't talk about this in my essay (and I still chose not to when digging back into it and revising it), but some of the reasons why my ex-wife and I decided to go the route of adoption from the People's Republic of China were:
- When doing our initial research into international adoption (which we admittedly knew nothing about in the beginning, because no one really does) and when checking the websites of such agencies like CCAI, and others, and when clicking on the pictures of those little girls in the orphanages, we fell in love with them immediately. Each and every one of them. They are so beautiful.
- Again, when doing our research, we saw evidence that--statistically--the young children from Chinese orphanages seemed to have a higher percentage of good health statuses, as opposed to many children from many orphanages from many other parts of the world.
- And most selfishly, perhaps, we knew the situation in China--we knew of its oppressive communist government, and of its overwhelming population, and of its crushing One-Child Policy, and of its dehumanizing patriarchal attitudes toward women. When we put all the pieces together, we knew (or at least believed we knew) we could give our daughters better, fuller, and more "meaningful" lives than what they would ever be able to have in their given situations in their homeland. And we also knew--back then, anyway--that there would be no way a birth-mother, some 15 years later, would show up on our doorstep, rap on the door, and say, "Hi. I gave birth to your daughter. And I'd like to be a part of her life now." As selfish and ugly as it may sound, we didn't want that. We didn't want that for ourselves or for our daughters. And we knew (or, again, at least we believed we knew back then) that adopting from a country like China would prevent such a scenario from ever happening.
Terrible of us, right? Thoughtless. Heartless. Selfish.
Well...maybe. But that was a decision we made for ourselves and for our daughters, and we live with it. Right or wrong.
However, something very interesting has happened over the past decade or so. Again, things have moved on in the world rather quickly. And many things have changed. And nowadays, in the matter of international adoption and of the once-laughed-at notion of tracking down--through use of DNA investigation--individuals on opposite ends of the earth, it is possible (still extraordinarily difficult and highly unlikely but possible) for a girl who was in the first days of her life abandoned and orphaned and left alone to now find her birth-parents and to travel the length of the world to meet them.
It has happened. And I think that is amazing.
Another development that has occurred within international adoption over the past decade or so is an increased attention to detail regarding the historical accuracy and specificity of the circumstances surrounding these children's supposed "abandonment" and "orphaning." The stories we were given in regards to our daughters' pre-histories--their "Abandonment Reports," as such backstories are officially referred to--is the similar stories most (if not all) adoptive parents are told about their orphaned children from China (and from other parts of the world).
The questions being raised today, however, are whether or not these stories are accurate or even true. The questions being raised these days in regards to international adoption involve admittedly ugly and upsetting notions such as the black-market, and the stealing and/or selling of babies immediately following birth, and of money passing hands, and of big business...
I don't mean to sound like an ostrich sticking his head in the sand, here, but I would hope that anyone reading this could understand what I mean when I say I don't prefer to think about such notions. I'm also a stubborn realist, however, and if I'm honest with myself I have to admit that such questions and notions were probably always lurking somewhere in the subconscious corners of my mind.
I don't want to think about such realities, though. I just don't. A part of me would prefer to live with the "stories" that my ex-wife and I were told about our daughters' Abandonment Reports from day one. I'm not fool enough to dismiss the world we live in. I know what kind of world it is. But I also know what kind of world I want to believe in, if not for myself than at least for my daughters--the kind of world I want to live in, and the kind of world I want them to live in.
And so we do what we do. And we do the best we can. And we move on.
[Aside: If any readers out there are interested in seeing a superb documentary film about all that I've talked about here--international adoption, Chinese adoption, changes and developments thereof, and the effect on American families and on the girls themselves as they assimilate into a culture they both find themselves belonging to and not belonging to--I recommend checking out the 2011 movie, Somewhere Between, directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton. I simply cannot praise this film enough. http://www.somewherebetweenmovie.com/]