"Uncharted Territory"

Sometimes, you go somewhere expecting it to be totally different, and it ends up seeming familiar. I had that feeling as I led a group of students on a trip to China—and then again, back home, as we met an expectant mother.

Author Lisa Emmerich and her husband with their three biological children and newborn son through domestic adoption

The wide, glass walls of the airport walkway revealed no sign of foreignness. Bold advertisements in brushed metal frames screamed out in bright colors and the city lights shone orange beyond them. Just like in American airports, the posters featured beautiful white people wearing expensive watches, pearl jewelry, and Gucci bags. English slogans in large font sat above Chinese slogans, which made the Chinese characters look like an afterthought.

After years of teaching about ancient Chinese history and religion, I walked outside and into Beijing for the very first time. I was living a dream, chaperoning a group of curious middle school students through China on an educational trip.

Meanwhile, my husband, Conrad, was home in North Carolina shuttling our three daughters around to their summer activities and managing an even bigger dream of ours: adoption.

Months earlier, he had rolled over in bed as we were falling asleep and said, “I think if we’re going to adopt, we should go ahead and do it now.”

Surprised, I grilled him with questions. Although we had discussed adoption before even exchanging rings 14 years earlier, that particular dream seemed to fall by the wayside over time as various parenting challenges with our three biological daughters took over.

I knew our reasons for wanting to adopt: We have a lot of love; we love raising kids; there are kids who need love; we love a challenge. But I’d managed to tuck those reasons away as our girls got older.

Two things Conrad said that night made me open my computer the next day and unearth the files we’d set aside years earlier. First, he said that, no matter what the circumstances, we could never regret having a child. Second, he said that we would learn an incredible amount about ourselves and our world.

He was right. Our home study autobiographies totaled 18 pages. We answered questions about parenting that we’d never discussed through 11 years of raising the girls. Our sweet social worker asked, “What do you do when your child believes you are wrong about disciplining her?” She asked, “How would you handle it if your child wanted to switch religions?” and “What makes you a good parent?” We discussed the meaning of love and family with the girls. The three of them, it seemed, already knew that family didn’t have much to do with biology. We were thrilled by their curiosity and excitement about the process.


Unexpectedly Familiar

By the time I was in China, our home study had been approved and we’d been working with an adoption consultant to see domestic cases. (I can’t count how many times people asked me whether I was bringing a baby back from China! Nope, just a bunch of teenagers.)

Bedraggled and jetlagged, we slumped into bed at our hotel in Beijing. For breakfast the next day, we ate airy steamed buns, noodles, and boiled eggs. Then we boarded a tour bus and burst into the city; or maybe it was the city that burst into us. Against the backdrop of a grey sky, Beijing’s colors were vivid. The Summer Palace, where emperors once escaped their governmental duties, seemed shaded by an Instagram filter in which every primary color stood out. Our students took selfies standing within a long corridor painted with mythical scenes in crayon box shades. Lime green lilypads blanketed the lake behind them and modern skyscrapers soared beyond the water.

After exploring Beijing for a few days, we boarded a plane to Xi’an, China’s oldest capital. As the plane lifted into the air, I asked a student how he felt about China so far.

“It’s pretty normal,” he said. “Which is weird. The airports, the bikes on the street, the way people act, seems familiar. But you look around and you haven’t seen any of this before. It’s all new. It shouldn’t feel normal, but it does.”

I understood what he meant. Sometimes, you go somewhere expecting it to feel ordinary, and it feels like the world has been upended. Other times, you go somewhere expecting it to be totally different, and it turns out to feel quite familiar. China felt like that; the mix of normal and weird was exhilarating.

A few days later, our group drove to the site of the terracotta warriors, a vast army of thousands of packed earth soldiers who are thought to protect the tomb of China’s first emperor. The sight of the soldiers was jaw dropping, but I was even more impressed by the questions my students asked: “How did they make so many statues in such a short time?” “What views about the afterlife made them decide to make this many soldiers?” “Was the emperor a despot or a hero?”

My teacher teammates and I sat in the hotel lobby that evening, making plans for the next day’s adventures, when I received a message from Conrad over WeChat, China’s version of Facebook.

“I just put our name in with an agency case in Kansas. This one might be it.”

I rarely had WiFi, so I was thrilled to get his message.

“Hooray! What are the circumstances?” I sent back, along with a colorful GIF of a happy panda for him to show the girls.

I couldn’t access the detailed email he sent in reply, but I trusted his judgment and allowed myself a bit of giddiness. One of the things we’d learned was that we were usually on the same page when it came to sending our profile to an expectant mother.

In Shanghai the next day, we visited a Buddhist temple that serves as home to many important Buddhas. The sky was deep blue and bright red prayer flags blew in the wind. At the Jade Buddha Temple, anyone can burn incense to make a request of one of the Buddhas. Our tour guide told us that dreamers should not tell anyone their wish, or it wouldn’t come true. If it does come true, however, the dreamer is meant to return to the temple to send up a message of gratitude.

At a kiosk, I purchased a bundle of sweet smelling incense labeled, “Good Fortune for Children.” In the middle of courtyard, many dreamers gathered around a metal fire bowl, lighting their incense. One of my students asked to light mine, so I handed it to her and she thrust the sticks into the flame until their tips turned ashy grey. She handed them back to me. I held the sticks in front of my forehead and made my wish four times, turning to face each of the cardinal directions. Then I handed the bundle to another student, who used it to make his wish. After many wishes, the sticks burned down to just a few inches and a student threw them into the flames.

It was just about time to go home.

Our New Normal

Less than two weeks later, Conrad, the girls and I sat in a cozy room in the midwestern United States. I was barely over my jet lag but we’d been matched and were minutes away from meeting the expectant mother.

The social worker came into the room and said, “Give her a minute; she’s really nervous.” I felt like I could barely breathe. But as soon as she walked into the room, the mood changed. We hugged, we laughed, we talked all at once. She wore jeans and a t-shirt and had round cheeks, bright eyes, and a wide open smile. It felt pretty normal, which was weird.

We named the baby. We went to an ultrasound and counted his kicks. The baby stuck his hand into his mouth, then sucked on the umbilical cord. We marveled at his lips. We went out to lunch at Applebee’s and exchanged numbers. Then we swam in our hotel pool, and she did a handstand, giggling with our girls in the shallow end.

And it was just like China. Totally unexpected but somehow familiar, and right.

LISA EMMERICH is a former journalist who currently teaches world cultures to seventh graders in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She and her husband, Conrad, are the parents of three biological daughters and became the parents of a son through domestic adoption in September 2017, after this essay was written.

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