Whether you go to steep in the culture or reconnect with the past, a homeland visit can be powerful and profound. Here, the stories of three families who went back, and what you need to know to make the trip.
Land of Contrasts
by Karen Levi-Shandler
Make the trip, you won't be sorry. On a journey last summer to Peru to revisit our son's homeland, I was struck by the depth of the experience. Weeks after returning, the sights, smells, and sounds of the trip were still fresh.
We made our trip to Peru when my son, Gabriel, was 12, and my daughter, Isabel, adopted from Guatemala, was 9. Traveling with a group of adoptive families, my husband and I looked forward to experiencing the country without the worries that characterized our adoption trip. The group was led by a trip coordinator, and there were guides in each locale. There was a social worker, too, an empathic companion who ran groups for youngsters and adults.
It was exhilarating to be with others whose families had been formed like ours. The usual questions—How long did your adoption take? How long did you live in Peru?—set off animated conversations and created instant bonds. We talked about our child's readiness to see his birth family, foster parents, or facilitators, while the kids formed friendships over CD players and games of tag.
We planned to visit Gabriel's foster mother, but that would come at the end. First we would savor this country of incredible contrasts, traveling from sea level into the hills, and higher still into the snow-covered Andes. Lima, bordering the Pacific, was as noisy and polluted as the last time we were there, a paradox of European-style restaurants and third-world poverty. But there are signs of a growing economy, with more locally owned businesses and United States imports, such as Starbucks.
Flying to Arequipa, we drank the famous "mate de coca"—a clear tea made from the leaves of the coca plant—to ward off altitude sickness. This beautiful "white city," built entirely of volcanic stone, is known for its magnificent churches and convents. Gabriel secretly bought a crucifix to wear around his neck, a rebellious act, since we are Jewish. But we understood it as an expression of ethnic identification: It's common for Latino youths to wear crosses.
We flew higher still, over mountains that soar into the clouds. We visited farming towns, where locals eke out a living growing potatoes and corn; the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu; and bustling Cusco, a city built on Incan stone walls. Most Peruvians have Indian ancestors, and our Indian-looking children fit in well. At home, Gabriel talks longingly about communities where people look like him. As a Caucasian in Peru, I felt what it's like to be a minority.
Back in Lima, Gabriel's foster mother visited us in our hotel. She was as warm and loving as she'd been 12 years ago, and said, tearfully, "I thought I'd never see him again." Remarkably, my son sat close to her, as did my daughter. Usually they don't take easily to strangers.
Like most families who adopt in Peru, we knew the name of our son's birthmother, but she hadn't wanted an ongoing relationship. We could have found out where she lived, but we felt that Gabriel wasn't ready. To my knowledge, he had never even looked at her picture.
On our last day in Peru, Gabriel and I visited the hostel where we had lived during two adoption trips. He asked many questions—What did we do here? Whom were we with?—to recreate our first days together.
Since our trip, Gabriel has written about the experience in school papers, and says meeting his foster mother was the highlight. Some people think he seems more mellow. As for me, the words that ran through my mind each day in Peru are with me still: Thank you, Peru, for letting me have one of your children, to love and care for and hold in my arms.
Karen Levi-Shandler is a speech pathologist. She lives with her family in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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 in 1998, 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 OrphanageAs 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.
To Russia, with Love
by Mark Rowlee
It was Julia's idea to revisit the orphanage located outside Kaliningrad, Russia, where she was raised. It had been three years since her adoption, and she was now almost 10. Her "brothers and sisters" in the orphanage would be older, too, and some might not be there for long. Caregivers, also, come and go. It was now or never.
Julia wanted to bring gifts to everyone in the orphanage, all 55 kids as well as the director and caregivers. She's a thoughtful girl, due in no small part to the loving care she received there. So, gifts of thanks seemed right. With the help of her Girl Scout troop, Julia and her mom accumulated six large duffel bags' worth of stuffed animals, Barbies, Hot Wheels, and more. Friends, family, and acquaintances donated money for a six-month supply of medicines and medical supplies.
We contacted Margarita, the translator on our first trip to Kaliningrad, who agreed to help again. A child coming back! That doesn't happen very often, at least in this area. She arranged for her husband, Sasha, to be our driver, and booked us a hotel room.
The flight to Kaliningrad was tiring, and we went straight to the hotel. Early the next day, Margarita and Sasha arrived to take us to the orphanage, and we loaded gifts into their trunk. Julia looked apprehensive during the two-hour ride, but she managed a weak, nervous smile.
As we pulled up to the building, Julia jumped out of the car and raced up the still-familiar steps. She was halfway up when she stopped abruptly, face-to-face with an older, kind-looking woman. "Valentina!" Julia shouted, a genuine smile illuminating her face.
"Oh, Yulichka," said her favorite caregiver, wrapping Julia in her arms. Giggles, tears, and lots of questions ensued, but the latter were understood only by Margarita. She translated one of Valentina's comments: "She doesn't speak Russian any longer, does she? She even says my name with an American accent."
Valentina led Julia upstairs, where Olga, who'd been her best friend, was waiting. Olga was now in foster care, and had made a special trip for the occasion. Three years had done nothing to diminish their friendship. The girls held hands and gabbed—with Margarita's help—as if they'd never been apart.
After lunch, there was another emotional reunion. We had asked the orphanage director to locate Julia's older sister, and now she was there, waiting to see us. Marina was 24, and she and Julia had seen each other only a few times in the years leading up to Julia's adoption. Would she be happy to see Julia? Would she be upset with us? We had no idea which way the visit would go.
Small, shy, and quiet, Marina seemed nervous as we approached. But relief and pleasure took over as Julia walked up and gave her a hug. "I missed you!" she exclaimed. The sisters exchanged kisses and presents, then Julia summoned her courage and in Russian said, "Ya tibya looblu": I love you. A faint smile appeared on Marina's face. We saw her only one more time, but now we know how to contact her.
In the days that followed, we enjoyed the city and spent time at a Baltic Sea resort. Unlike our first trip to Kaliningrad, there was no paperwork, no anxiety about appearing in court. This time, we were tourists.
Going back to Kaliningrad was good for our family—a chance to recapture early emotions and important relationships. For Julia, seeing her sister seems to have put her more at ease about her past.
And by returning to Kaliningrad, Julia affirmed to the orphanage caregivers that the work they do is worthwhile. Now they know that what they had felt in their hearts is true: Through adoption, children like Julia have a chance for a better future.
Mark Rowlee is a travel agent and travel writer. He lives in Sunnyvale, California, with his family.
Homeland Visits Overview
by Carrie Kitze & Jean MacLeod
A Piece of the Puzzle?Whether a return trip is to San Antonio or San Salvador, to the next state or halfway around the world, more and more families are finding that "going back" gives their children a foundation for building identity.
When to Travel?Dr. Jane Liedtke, of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, recommends a first trip between the ages of 6 and 10, when children are open to cultural differences and less judgmental of the poverty they might see than in the middle-school years, when peer-group judgments can rule a child's psyche.
With each child the optimal timing of the trip will vary, and maturity and personality are big factors. Personal finances also play a role in international travel. If a homeland visit is not financially feasible for your family right now, use the present to learn about your child's heritage.
It's a Process!Family talks about the trip should begin a year before travel. Books and videos can get everyone talking about the birth country and about adoption. Does your son have fears associated with such a trip? Does your child understand what will happen on the trip, whom he will meet, and that he will be returning home with you? Your child's reactions can help you gauge his emotional readiness and expectations.
Culture or Adoption?What is the purpose of the trip? If it is exposure to a culture and a place, enjoy the sights. Many people choose to create positive memories of their child's homeland on a first trip, and later delve into adoption issues, visit a foster mother or orphanage, or even meet birth relatives. Just seeing the land where your child started life can be a positive experience.
Visits to orphanages and meetings with birth siblings and birthparents, on the other hand, require serious thought and planning. A child should have a firm grasp of her birth and adoption story, and be able to express her feelings about it.
When pursuing a child's personal history on a homeland visit, be ready for the unexpected. What if you find out information that is different from what you have previously told your son or daughter? What is your responsibility to a newly discovered birthparent, or your child's biological siblings? Knowing when to pull back from situations in which your child seems uncomfortable will help your child feel safe. Set up a signal for "I need to get out of here," and observe your child's cues.
Solo or Group Travel?Families report that both types of travel work well. Can you follow a routine and a schedule set by someone else? Do you relish the comfort of a group and the companionship of others going through the same thing? For many kids, travel-mates with the same history and past are a powerful benefit. In any case, hire an interpreter for important meetings.
What Happens If It Doesn't Work…Be prepared to cut back your daily schedule if need be. Find alternative activities, and offer them to your child without blame or repercussions. Understand that positive AND negative experiences are all part of the process of learning about your child's culture of origin. A trip doesn't have to be perfect to be effective or memorable.
Carrie Kitze is the publisher of EMK Press in Warren, New Jersey. Jean MacLeod is an author, a homeland tour leader, and director of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation in Bloomington, Illinois.
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