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Back Home in a Chinese Orphanage

A five-year-old girl revisits her past. By Lisa Gubernick



"Would Lily like to go meet her sisters?" The question came from Lou He Lian, the fiftyish director of the Yiwu Social Welfare Institute, the orphanage near Hangzhou, China, where Lily had lived before we adopted her when she was seven months old. Lily, now almost five, nodded a vigorous yes. Her father and I weren't as wholly enthusiastic. But we'd traveled more than 7,000 miles to revisit Lily 's first home, and we weren't going to say no.

The trip from Hangzhou, the nearest big city to Yiwu, a small town by Chinese standards of 650,000, was about 65 miles and two hours down paved roads lined with fresh-water pearl farms and rice paddies punctuated by the occasional water buffalo. In recent years, Yiwu's growth has been fueled by what locals call a "small commodities market," a massive indoor emporium with thousands of dealers hawking everything from portable fans to Mao buttons that generates more than $25 billion a year. Signs of the new prosperity were everywhere: a clutch of Honda dealerships, a forest of cell phone billboards, a brand-new high-rise luxury hotel complete with bowling alley, indoor pool, and disco. Lily's orphanage, a gated compound, had three buildings separated by a verdant garden. Our car drove through the main gate, then it was up the stairs to the main conference room, a white-washed affair with a painting of a large waterfall on the far wall. The artwork was flanked by a half-dozen gleaming brass plaques, management awards for Ms. Lou, who said she'd been running the Yiwu orphanage for eight years.

Orphanage management is a skill that's come of age over the past couple decades or so in China, with the institution of the one-family, one-child rule. Even though the rule is no longer quite so strict-families in Lily's province of Zhejiang are routinely granted exemptions for a second child-most still want at least one boy. If the first child is a girl, they'll try for a second. If that child is a girl as well, she will often be abandoned, left "where she will be found," as it was explained to us by Marco Yu, who works with Americans who are adopting Chinese children.

Today, virtually every one of the sixty-odd counties in Zhejiang province has its own orphanage. Yiwu, with just 50 children under the age of five (school-age children are sent elsewhere), is apparently considered among the best maintained, a function both of Ms. Lou's efficiency and her city's prosperity. We had called Lily's American adoption agency to make sure we'd have a contact in China so we could visit the orphanage's officials. We hadn't counted on just how many of them there would be. We were the first adoptive family to return to Yiwu, an event that occasioned a visit from the local head of Civil Affairs, which handles adoption, and three of her staff members, one of whom carried a video camera, recording Lily's every move.

While Chinese orphanages haven't generated as much criticism as those in Eastern Europe, they have had their problems, most recently in 1996 when Human Rights Watch issued a controversial report deploring their conditions. Since then, the government has made orphanages (though not adoption) all but off-limits to foreigners, who, while required to visit China to get their children, aren't allowed to see the institutions where they had been living. But having Lily with us clearly exempted us from the ban.

After we arrived, watermelons, along with large goldfish-enameled spittoons for the pits, were brought out. The conversation between bites was brief and somewhat awkward-we spoke no Chinese and the Chinese bureaucrats spoke no English, so all questions and comments were passed through Marco. We were asked if Lily had been healthy (clearly), if she was in school (of course), if she speaks Chinese (a smidgen). I gave them a photo album of the children we knew who had been adopted from Yiwu, and they greeted the pictures with the coos usually reserved for long-lost relatives. Then we were off to see Lily's "sisters," the fifty-odd girls who lived in the children's residence, a Spartan four-story building with air-conditioners hanging out of most windows. As we walked across the garden, Marco initially warned us against taking pictures, then, after a brief consultation with Ms. Lou, quickly reversed himself. "Take pictures," he said. "The Bureau of Civil Affairs wants you to take as many as you can."

We went up to the second-floor balcony, where most of the girls were milling about-the toddlers in brightly colored wheeled walkers, the older girls on their own. The little girls, virtually all under four, were gussied up in improbable polka-dot dresses and unfortunate matching hats. Lily became a sort of pint-sized camp counselor, singing, holding hands, trying to organize ring-around-the-rosy. She stayed outside with the bigger kids, while we wandered around, going back to the sleeping room, lined with rows and rows of metal-barred cribs. Most cribs were empty; there were a half dozen infants, far fewer than when we had been there four years before.

The reason, we were told, was a recent change in Chinese adoption laws, making it easier for the Chinese to adopt. Under the old rules, parents had to be over 35 and childless to adopt healthy infants; the new rules lowered the age requirement and eliminated the stipulations regarding other children.

For the most part, the girls at Yiwu looked healthy. There was an infant with spindly arms and birdlike features who spent most of our visit held closely by a nanny-except for a few moments when, out in the play area, she was passed into Lily's arms. Looking at those kids on that hot summer day, it was unimaginable that Lily had once been among them, impossible to conjure a life that included only that garden compound. We asked who had chosen Lily for us; the previous head of Civil Affairs, we were told, an official who had left the job a year and a half before. I asked how the choices were made, and the question was greeted with polite smiles-and silence. Frankly, I'm not sure I really wanted to know. The chasm between life on that cement balcony and our daughter's rich life in New York is incomprehensible, a mystery perhaps better unfathomed.

A Chinese sociology professor was once asked what his countrymen thought of the girls shipped abroad. His answer: "It's as though they've been set adrift in a jar full of sugar." We left the orphanage girls at Yiwu for a banquet at a nearby restaurant and a visit to the famed commodities market. Ms. Lou bought Lily a bag full of presents-a small wooden carving of a Chinese girl sitting in the moonlight and a perfectly garish little dog made out of fresh-water pearls. Then we returned to the orphanage. The nurse who cared for Lily, a strong-featured woman who had left to work in an old-age home not long after we had adopted our little girl, was brought back to see her former charge. "Mama," Ms. Lou said, pointing to the nurse. "No, that's my mama," Lily replied, pointing to me. The next morning Lily presented Ms. Lou with several dozen pastel pens. "These are for my sisters," she told her. "Make sure to tell their mothers they are washable." At first Ms. Lou looked puzzled. Then she smiled, perhaps a little sadly, and told her that she would.

Lisa Gubernick lives with her family in New York City.


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