Last February, my English professor at Chapman University encouraged me to enter the Los Angeles Times Asia Correspondent Contest sponsored by Korean Airlines. To my complete surprise my essay submission was awarded a prize of two, round-trip tickets to fly to any Korean Airlines destination in Asia. My choice was to return to Nanjing, which historically had once been the capital of China, and more precisely, to Gaoyou, my birthplace, a city approximately 80 miles southeast.
Eighteen years prior, my parents took this same journey to Nanjing to adopt me. Umpteen times a day, for six long months* they had fixated on a recent photograph taken of me at 5 months of age, which was their only tangible proof that I had formally been identified as their daughter. They had anxiously awaited official notice of the date, known as the “gotcha day,” when the caretakers would unite us at their hotel in Nanjing, and I then would become a “lucky girl.”
Nineteen years ago, according to the earliest records in my parent’s official adoption dossier, my birth mother had followed the established practice prompted by the “one child” edict of arranging for a trusted third-party to alert local authorities that they had found a baby girl just outside of the police station. As the typical story goes, I was swaddled in a blanket with no visible form of identification and then placed into the arms of my caretakers presumably at the nearest orphanage who would nurture me until, ideally, I was chosen for adoption.
This August morning, I looked out our hotel window at least 10 stories above the endless rows of tall buildings that obscured the city streets of Nanjing. My mother’s image reflected in the window as she finished packing a day bag recalling what Nanjing looked like when she last visited nearly 19 years ago.
“I think there were less than a dozen buildings over five stories tall,” … I couldn’t remember much of anything else she said because today was not just an ordinary August morning. Today was the day that I would finally visit the orphanage where I spent the first eleven months of my life.
Months in advance my mother and I had set up a meeting with the facilitators of my adoption, Dr. & Mrs. Hong, from Brightside Families Foundation, who are still involved in the adoption process today. We planned for their son, Eric, who is a few years older than me and attends college in New York, to be our translator in Nanjing, and more importantly, at the orphanage.
At 8:00 a.m. sharp, the concierge called to inform us that our driver had arrived. Larry, a 45-year-old man dressed in khaki cargo shorts and a tennis shirt took our day bag and drove us a few blocks to pick up Eric. As we proceeded to drive through the city, with its tall, crammed buildings and traffic comparable to that in Los Angeles, my mother recollected her memory of the city. Gone were the throngs of bike riders and pedestrians kicking up dust from cobble stone streets, when the city was just beginning to stir with prosperity. Gone were the aged, well-worn buildings and sycamore lined streets with open air markets on nearly every corner as people sat under umbrellas getting haircuts, some even receiving dental work. Now, there was little remaining of that old China, as we drove past countless retail brand stores and American fast food chains occupying the ground floor of the city’s enormous skyscrapers and residential units.
Zigzagging our way out of the city through hectic traffic barely avoiding other cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians we finally reached the highway heading towards Gaoyou. Ten miles outside of Nanjing, farmlands stretched unbroken for miles except for groups of 50-story towers lined up like dominos that sprung up randomly, every five or so miles, seemingly with no access streets or surrounding neighborhoods. These towers, standing in the dirt like lone sentinels, marked the first stages of development in the government’s recent “urbanization” initiative. Eric mentioned that farmers would eventually be relocated into these massive developments in order for more industrialized farming to occur, and my mother responded that she remembered seeing farmers leading ox carts on highways like this very highway.
Leaning my head against the window, I allowed my thoughts to drift to unrealistic scenarios in which I would finally discover my past, meet my nanny, or sift through rice paper documents that would reveal my birth parents identity. As for encountering my birth parents, that was an idea I thought too dangerous and improbable to dare to dream…would they be moved into one of these developments, were they already living in a new housing development… were they still a pair… had I already unknowingly seen them on this trip? These musings were quickly tempered by the realization that it was my job, like a reporter, to record all of these events and to gain as much information as I possibly could and fantasizing would be a distraction.
Two-and-a-half hours later, Larry dropped us off in front of an unassuming concrete wall surrounding a mid-century, two-story commercial building. Had it not been for the prominent sign with bold characters entitled Gaoyou Children’s Welfare Institute, I would never have noticed this nondescript compound. We were soon greeted by the orphanage’s assistant director, a middle-aged woman neatly dressed in a light blue shirt, long black skirt, and thick black tights despite the stifling heat. She lead us up a cement staircase, down a corridor, with walls lined with faded depictions of cartoon animals, and into a conference room.
Hot tea awaited us on a boardroom table large enough to seat 30, far too large for an intimate meeting. My eyes darted around the room as my mother and I observed the walls, which were covered in propaganda, plaques of awards, and a Communist flag. On the table lay a thin, file containing old, yellowed paper with my original adoption documents, identical to the one given to my parent’s years ago. Additionally, forms were handed to me to sign to document the orphanage’s official record of my visit, and as I was filling them out, I noticed a young woman around my age quietly taking pictures of me from across the room. She made no eye contact despite my attempts to catch her attention.
When the director walked in, a graying, slight man wearing a polo shirt and blue jeans, he greeted me with uncomfortable hugs and nervous laughter. Through our translator he thanked my mother for bringing me to the orphanage all the while focusing his gaze and attention solely on me, and then excitedly proceeded to pronounce to the entire room, “Wǒmen de nǚ’ér hái huí jiā”, meaning, “Our daughter has returned home!”
Although sensing my mother’s annoyance at this usurpation, I turned my chair toward the director, because I wanted him to see how profound this overwhelming validation of my Chinese heritage and sense of belonging impacted me. It was as if China itself had opened its arms and graced me with my Chinese identity for in the moment of his pronouncement, I was indeed their daughter and felt emboldened that I would finally be able to achieve a greater understanding of my identity.
With great interest the director asked about my life: did I attend school, what was my course of study, what activities did I enjoy? After a few cursory answers, I was finally asked if I had any questions. There were so many questions that I wanted to have answered. I had already carefully scripted and rehearsed this interview many times, so I chose to ask the easier questions first. “How many orphans live here?” I was informed that currently 200 orphans lived in the orphanage, the eldest being 70 years old. I was amazed and saddened by the sheer number of inhabitants and even more astonished to hear that the Gaoyou Children’s Institute was not just for children. So I asked how many babies currently resided at the orphanage. After five minutes of discussion between the director and Eric, the answer was 20, all of whom had special needs.
The director went on to explain that most of the orphans spend the entirety of their lives at the orphanage because they would not be able to function in society. Gone was my rehearsed script, instead I asked questions that pointed directly to my own infancy. “Were any caretakers present who might have known me as a baby?” A great deal of secretive conversation went on between my translator and the director, and I could tell even within my limited knowledge of Chinese, that their discussion had little to do with my question. Policy clearly dictated that I would not be privy to any of this sort of information. The translator conveyed the director’s answer: “No. It is highly unlikely that any such caretaker is still here.” I looked away from him and gazed at the floor attempting to hide my disappointment, and realized that any further discussion would simply be a waste of everyone’s time. He seemed to share my sentiment for shortly thereafter, the assistant director ushered us out of the room to take us on a tour of the rest of the facilities.
As we headed outside, I slung my camera around my neck, prepared to take photographs of the orphanage, but was promptly told by the assistant director that pictures would not be allowed. An intellectually disabled man who was nearly 40 years old was obviously fascinated by my mother and followed her closely on the tour.
We approached a large building with a rusted gate. Faded red paint chipped off its sides and its windows were thick with soot. The assistant director mentioned that this building once housed the abandoned baby girls. Feeling buoyed by the new prospect that I might finally get a glimpse of my first crib, and visual clues to the first months of my life, my pace quickened as I veered towards the building, presuming it would be the tour’s next destination. “Bu! [No]!” In that moment, the last vestige of gaining a real insight into my infancy evaporated. She softened her tone and proceeded to explain “we are not allowed inside the building. We only use it for administrative purposes now because there are so few babies left.”
In the weight of my unremitting discomfort and sense of futility I began to notice the heat of the afternoon sun, the mugginess and stench of unearthed garbage wafting in the air. We shuffled through the old, broken concrete of the courtyard while a flock of chickens pecked at food strewn in the cracks, and proceeded to another building that held two small classrooms. We entered the first, where a young woman monitored six down syndrome toddlers as they played at a coloring table. The toddlers were shy but curious, as I imagine visitors do not frequent the orphanage. They stared at my mother in fascination, as they likely had never seen a Caucasian, blue eyes or blonde hair before. The room was small but neat.
Pictures and handmade drawings were taped to the walls in perfect rows and columns and schedules indicating the children’s lessons and playtime were posted in each corner. The assistant director graciously noted that these rooms had been renovated with funds provided by American donors. Unfortunately, we were not invited to view any of the living quarters. And then, abruptly, our tour was over.
We had two hours to kill in Gaoyou before attending our scheduled dinner that was provided by the same officials. A massive feast was presented to us, however at this point, for me it was a pleasant but hollow gesture. At dinner the officials and Eric conversed in Chinese, while my mother and I were unintentionally ostracized.
After dinner we rode in silence the entire two and a half hours back to our hotel. Once my mother and I arrived in our room we collapsed into bed. Though I had not let any indication of my emotional state show on my face that day, I woke up that night crying.
In the days that followed, I began to process all that I had seen and heard at the Gaoyou Children’s Welfare Institute and now as I reflect on this life changing trip, I am beginning to comprehend why it has been so challenging. It is as if my mind had been muted to protect my true feelings. Visiting the orphanage was a far cry from what I expected. Not one of my questions was answered. Although the official presentation had been carefully staged to be a welcoming return home and had been blanketed with good intentions, it did not obscure the truth of the place.
The orphanage had been for the most part re-purposed and was clearly operating with very limited funds. The presentation left me with a cavernous emptiness, for before my visit it I had always pictured it as a warm place, a pleasant fantasy. In some ways now I regret even wanting to know more about my past. I am frustrated that I was not allowed to take pictures, to explore the building where I resided as a baby, or to get any meaningful answers to questions that have been simmering for as long as I can remember. I realize that my birth and infancy likely will always remain a mystery.
In retrospect, it became clear that the Chinese government concentrated on the collective people, and that the notion of individuality was largely insignificant. This was a far cry from the U.S. where the rights of the individual are far more pronounced, and records of my birth and significant health information would have been documented, but in China it would not be meaningful enough to lift a pen.
I was embraced as a daughter of China and if I had not been adopted, I would have been cared for throughout my life. However, my feelings and my basic emotional needs were discounted and ignored; instead, my identity became meaningful only by my achievements. In the eyes of the director and other officials, I was a child of China, and to a lesser degree I was a child and product of my birth and adoptive parents.
Because of this trip I have gained some peace knowing I came from a place of love. I heard it in the director’s pronouncement. I saw it in his eyes when he said they were proud of me. I felt it despite the awkward translations, the limited dissemination of information and the vast cultural divide. Even before my adoption I was a “lucky girl” in the sense that from the start I was never truly abandoned or left, I always had a family, unknown to me, but a family all the same, strangers with kind hearts for whom I will be forever grateful.
Under the same moon I brushed my hair
Closed my eyes only
To awaken to my tears, collected
And matted strands on my face
Not knowing yet realizing the origins of the sorrow
A story not shared,
A meeting nowhere closer
A memory unrestored.
*[That six-month waiting period, rather than the previous 30-day waiting period, was caused by a controversial op-ed piece published in The New York Times around the time of my identification, asserting that the Chinese government had been engaging in the lucrative sale of its baby girls – – the less preferred gender for societal and parental financial security, under its “one-child” edict, and cited that China permitted adoptions at 6 months old versus the international average of 1 year old, as evidence of an overall greedy and unseemly governmental adoption policy. From my parents’ perspective, that article could not have been more incorrect as they thought it would be of greatest, mutual beneficial to adopt and care for a child at the youngest age possible. Because of the drastic consequences of that article, I am mindful of the potential unintended negative impact of anything that I may convey here.]