week journey in China, our first time back to
her birth country since her adoption. Maya
had said she wanted to go back to her orphanage, so before flying home we’d traveled
by train from Shanghai to Changzhou. At the
orphanage, she walked among the many rows
of cribs, and then held one of the babies. The
director hosted a luncheon banquet in honor
of Maya and another adoptee who was also
visiting that day. Her visit there went so well
that, impulsively, I told her we’d go Xiaxi the
next morning; it wasn’t far away, about 25 kilometers. Why not see this place where she
was found, even though her adoption papers
hadn’t given us the exact location?
That morning our driver parked the car on
the town’s main street. When we walked into
the bustling outdoor market, merchants and
customers turned to stare at us. We made an
odd pair, especially in a rural town where nobody saw anybody with blonde hair and white
skin, except on TV. Maya held my hand. Her
expression could be read without translation;
it said, “I’m scared.” Likely, many wondered
if I’d kidnapped this child. A few women approached Maya and tried speaking with her.
She couldn’t understand, nor did she reply
with the words, Ni hao, “hello” in Mandarin,
as she’d politely done during the rest of our
trip. Instead, she froze and stayed silent.
Maya tightened her grip on my hand and
I knew we had to leave. From the car’s back
seat, I asked the driver to take us to our hotel in Changzhou. The rest of the day Maya
watched TV in our room without saying a
word. Meanwhile, I scolded myself for being
so poorly attuned to my daughter’s feelings.
I’d neither prepared Maya for what we’d encountered, nor had I paused to think about
whether she was ready to absorb the range of
emotions that such an experience would stir
in her. I felt awful. I apologized.
I also made a promise to myself: Someday
I’d help my daughter to go back to Xiaxi in
such a way that she would not feel like such
an outsider. In August 2013, with Maya about
to start her senior year of high school, that
promise was fulfilled. As a bonus, her friend
Jennie, who had lived in a neighboring crib in
their orphanage, asked to come along when
Maya described the journey. Jennie wanted to
explore her rural town, Xixiashu, in this same
way. As Maya and Jennie spent time with
“hometown” Chinese girls, the two American
adoptees were able to lean on each other.
This time, I stayed behind in Changzhou
with Jennie’s mother while our daughters
went to their rural towns. This was their jour-
ney to make, not ours.
I’m now using my lifelong experience as a journalist to produce a digital storytelling
experience about these American and Chinese
WINTER 2016 37
Maya and Jennie, then know as Chang Yulu (Maya, front left crib)
and Chang Yuchang (Jennie, second left crib) in the Social Welfare
Institute in Changzhou. This photo was taken the day before they
left the orphanage with their new moms in June 1997.