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Returning to China

by Alan Morse

Adoption in China creates new little Americans; but these ambassadors also transform American families into Chinese-American families, with ties that ultimately pull them back to their children's birthplace.

From the day we brought a toddler named Ting home to Maine, we plotted our return to China. For us, it was not if, but when. How old would be old enough for Ting to appreciate China, but not too teen-aged, cooler-than-thou to absorb it? Would a trip back serve our desires more than hers? You know the questions. I leaned toward age 11. Don't ask me why. It was a gut feeling.

Well, it turns out, 7 is perfect. And I'd be willing to bet that 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15 are, too. Pick an age. Just take them back!

Ting was nervous before we left, but it was hard for her to express until we were nearly packed. "Why are we going?" she wanted to know. What would happen if she decided she wanted to stay there? Would we come home without her? What if some "bad man" tried to take her from us while we were visiting? What if she got lost and we couldn't find her, and she couldn't explain who she was in Chinese? Could she hold babies at the orphanage? Would we visit her Chinese Mama and Baba? Could we go where she was born? Would we see her Ayi?

Ting's questions multiplied at bedtime, but her tensions played out at school. The day before we left, her teacher said, she was especially quiet.

Ting left for China on the school bus at 7:06 a.m. on October 10. She wanted us to pick her up at school with her suitcase so she could savor every possible last minute. [Eons later, we dropped our jet-lagged daughter off at school before returning home, so anxious was she to hug her friends again. Ting bounced off the school bus from China at 3:07 p.m. on October 27, and promptly fell asleep in a leaf pile.]

Ting worried, before we left, about how she would talk to the children she'd meet. She knew only a few words of Chinese, given that our rural town is far from any Chinese-language class. We expected that those she met would know some English, but we had no idea how quickly Ting would slide into easy communication with every person she encountered. She cartwheeled toward them, flashed her smile, and they'd be off.

Ting communicated best through her cartooning art, which fluttered from her pads almost as fast as she could rip off pages. She shared markers, colored pencils, and paper with her new friends, and soon engaged them in intense, pencil-punctuated, bilingual conversation.

Privately, just once, Ting melted down over the language barrier. "I can't speak Chinese and they can't speak English," she sobbed, before ticking off a litany of tragedies, from too many restaurants, to unrequited love for our translator, to intense loneliness for friends at home. Then she was done, went to sleep, and was her usual cheerful self in the morning. Ting is a delightful, easy traveler, and proved far more adaptable than her fogey parents.

Since we've returned home, her questions and comments never—and I mean never—cease. In China, though, questions often gave way to more intense observation and acceptance. Ting noticed everything but did not have nearly enough time to verbalize it all. But anyone who knows Ting can see that China affected her on the deepest level.

Visiting Ting's Orphanage
As we gathered that Monday morning, we remembered the anticipation of venturing to meet Ting five years before. There were many unknowns and a similar sense of importance: We realized we were again embarking on the unforgettable. Ting was subdued, windmilling her arms in half-only cartwheels as we piled out of our van at the Tongling Social Welfare Institute. We recognized it from pictures, but failed to remember the director who greeted us, despite having met her five years before when she and two others brought Ting to us in Hefei. She knew Ting, though, as did everyone else who'd held her as a baby. Hadn't changed a bit, they insisted.

Ting returned their warm hugs, and we began more than four hours of visits, talking and learning about the Ting we'd never known. She was stubborn even as an infant, they said, refusing to come in from the yard. Adventuresome, too: the only one who dared to climb that tree. Clever and cuddly. Her Ayi was so upset when Ting left that she sat and cried for days. Yes, she'd gone home with her Ayi overnight, but only once. Why was she so old when adopted? It was just a matter of numbers. They were allowed to send so many for adoption, and Ting stayed. Yes, she was very healthy. The marks on her knees? No idea what they are. Oh, by the way, here's a picture of her as a baby from her file. Never seen it? Go ahead, take it. And here's a list of her best friends in her "class" and their addresses now.

Our daughter arrived at the orphanage with well-rehearsed expectations. She'd told us she hoped to hold babies, but what else she imagined, I can't say. At home she'd play-acted orphanages made of blocks, clay, and tissue for four years. Here now was the real thing.

As wonderful as our tour was, this was Ting's reality check, and watching her was a kick in the stomach. The rooms were clean but bare, the toys few, and the babies cried when they saw us. This was not the way it was supposed to be for Ting. After a few minutes, she put her fingers in her ears. A little later, she asked to leave. She has not wanted to talk much about these moments. We took many pictures, and the images are burned into each of us. We will talk about this experience later. There's plenty of time.

That afternoon, we went to the home of Ting's Ayi, a woman who was only 21 when she tearfully parted with Ting. Now, at 26, she dabbed her tears again. This meeting, also long anticipated, left us with less to ponder. We reconnected with a person important in Ting's life, and came away feeling our mission was accomplished. Ting left her beloved panda backpack with her Ayi: Her backpack was the most precious thing she could imagine giving.

The next morning, we visited the hospital where Ting was found, but the scene appeared to hold little meaning for Ting. Perhaps our pictures will, as Ting grows older. We walked the streets, breathed the air, and imagined what life would have been for Ting had she not been spirited across the Pacific five years ago. The director of Ting's orphanage praised our return emphatically, saying we were giving Ting her history. It felt to all of us like going home. Considering that our family is now Chinese-American, that should come as no surprise.

Since then, we enjoy a more mature, peaceful Ting. The change is palpable; more than just a release of tension. Ting returned to her orphanage, walked the streets of Tongling, visited the school she would have attended, and made lots of Chinese friends, from ages 2 to 87. She went, navigated without misplacing her American Mama and Baba, and returned safely to her friends, secure now that she could go and come home without losing herself.

And return she will…every five years, she vows.

Alan Morse, his wife, Elizabeth Cooke, and their daughter Ting live between woods and a pond in western Maine. This article, abridged for AF, is reprinted with the author's permission from China Connection, the newsletter of FCC-New England.

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