My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Adoption series: Jim & Kristen Weathersby, and adopting from Guatemala

Click below to here just a snippet of the experience the Weathersby family had bringing their daughter Katie into their hearts and home. [audio:http://betheink.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Adoption-and-Guatemala.mp3|titles=Adoption and Guatemala]

**Please note** This is a rough-cut, sample pilot episode, constructed in a very short period of time, so as to exhibit some sample content for my HIST 7040 final project. This will not be the only piece on the Weathersby family, nor does it begin to cover entirely the many things we discussed in recording their experience. Over the summer, I intend to build more of the components of this project, including its own web site, a working title for the project, and an intro for each podcast episode. Please forgive the brevity of what I have now.

 

Podcast pilot episode: transcript

Jim and Kristen Weathersby on adopting their daughter Katie

Jim and Kristen Weathersby adopted their daughter Katie from Guatemala in 2008, bringing her home at the ripe age of seven months and one week old. In the case of their international adoption experience, the timing was everything, as, by the time they had invested over a year in the process, a legal complication between the United States and Guatemala immediately halted what had formerly been a popular program for Americans adopting abroad.

The Weathersbys had wanted at least one child and, after a long and morally challenging trek down the fertility path, determined they wanted to adopt. The nature of international adoption appealed to them over the domestic option, and Guatemala offered a short wait time upon submitting an application—about six to twelve months, relative to countries like China—which can run upwards of two years. For Jim and Kristen, their age was also a factor, and Guatemala was one nation that did allowed couples over thirty-eight to adopt infant children, rather than an older child.

The couple began the application process—itself reams and reams of paper, red tape, and bureaucracy—in December of 2006. Katie was born August 23, 2007. A few weeks later, after months of waiting, they got word that they had a daughter.

 

Kristen: In September, they said OK, we have a child. And they sent us a videotape, and a bunch of pictures of Katie at seven days old.

While the initial U.S. side of the adoption was behind them, they now embarked upon completing the requirements for the Guatemalan end of the process. They soon realized, with events that were taking place on the global stage, that they were about to be caught up in an international event.

Kristen: So the first half was the U.S. side of the adoption. From September on was the Guatemalan side of the adoption. And so at that time, the laws have changed since then, but since that time, there was a whole slew of government agencies that you had to get through and approvals you had to get through. And then they announced, mostly because the United States government insisted, there’s a Hague Treaty that involves our—the United States’ relationship with other countries and adoption, and it has more than adoption, but it also involves adoption. And, we were non-compliant.

 

Jim: The United States.

 

Kristen: The United States was non-compliant. Because one of the requirements of the United States, the Hague Treaty is, to do adoptions internationally, you can only do with other countries—with countries that control the adoptions centrally from a government, ok?

 

Jessie: I see.

 

Kristen: Now, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Central America, and they have an incredibly poor and corrupt government. So to bring a governmental agency into it is, I could talk for days about that. But, at the time that we did it, it was still a private process.

When the Hague Treaty violation rose to the surface of international relations, the long-successful connection between adoptive families in the U.S. and orphan children in Guatemala was abruptly halted. For months after getting those first photos and video footage of their daughter, the Weathersbys did not know if they would be allowed permission to go and get her before the tiny window that remained open was shuttered entirely. As it turns out, they made it through with only days to spare, in the last weeks of 2007.

 

Kristen: So we got in December sixteenth, they closed on December thirty-first. December fifteenth.

 

Jim: Yeah. Fifteenth or sixteenth. Yeah but still.

 

Kristen: They closed on the—we were told at that point in time, that, on December fifteenth-ish, that it may be August, July or August, before we were going to get her, even though it had closed, so we were preparing for that.

I spoke with the Weathersbys about the reaction they received during their two visits to Guatemala, and some of the perceptions of adoption that existed in the country at that time, in 2007 and 2008—partially as a result of very same governmental trouble that had almost left them waiting months, or even years, to bring Katie home.

 

Jessie: What were some of the responses, did you, I don’t know how long you were in Guatemala, but, um, you [Jim] were kind of saying before that there was this sort of—

 

Kristen:  Guatemala is a tough country. Um, they aren’t one hundred percent—OK. Guatemala as a culture only has two classes, lower class and upper class [indicated with hands]. And um, lower class typically is the native population, the Mayans, and, uh, the twain don’t meet, very much. So, they don’t adopt. Their culture does not, you will not find a upper-class family adopting a Mayan kid, that doesn’t happen. So, at some point in time, there was, there’s plenty of rhetoric, especially as they were changing the laws and going through the change from—

 

So I don’t know of we did this, let me back up. So, PGN is the, was the part that you had to get through, to know that you were going to get to adopt.

 

Jim: The equivalent of their attorney general’s office.

 

Kristen: Under the old laws. And you had until December 31st [2007]. If you made it through PGN by December 31st, you would officially have adopted your child and you could—otherwise you had to start all over again, your adoption, and all that process that you’d gone through for the last year meant nothing. And you had to go restart under the new laws. Well they, after that, they closed for a whole year. So even the restarting process, you couldn’t do for a whole year, because they had to figure out how to have the infrastructure of an adoption program—

 

Jim: From nothing—

 

Kristen: From nothing. With no money. Zero money. And a corrupt government. So, part of the rhetoric during this whole process was that Americans were stealing babies. That rich Americans came down and they stole all the children. So there was this assumption, um, that everyone was down there stealing babies. It’s already—one of my, my former head of security was with the secret service, and he was stationed in Guatemala for seven years—it’s already, like adoption, no adoption—it’s a gun state. You have any money down there, you have a bodyguard. Locals have a bodyguard. We stayed in the nicest section of Guatemala city, and the restaurant next to our hotel had been sprayed with gunfire. Um, because there had been an attempted robbery, right there. The Intercontinental Hotel, there were armed—like rifle-armed—armed guards posted all the way across the sidewalk. You know, we, because we were adopting, were taught, kind of, to fear. Now I have friends who go to Guatemala on vacation and they’re not afraid, and that’s not—but, there was this kind of, culture of—

 

Jessie: With the connotation.

 

Jim: They told us not to leave the hotel, basically.

 

Kristen: Mm-hmm. And when we did leave—

 

Jessie: That was because of the changing... ?

 

Kristen: Well one thing, you’re assumed as Americans to have a lot of money.

 

Jessie: That’s true.

 

Kristen: You’re assumed to be stealing a baby. So, we had armed guards pretty much with us at all times.

Katie’s adoption story, and the experience with international politics within that story, highlights one of the many complications involved in adopting across national borders.  Cultural perceptions affect the host country’s citizens’ willingness to adopt, which means some cultures, like Guatemala’s, are left with larger numbers of orphaned children who will not be adopted in their country of origin. For Jim and Kristen, this opened up the world to them, as their daughter is the admitted light of their lives.

Jim: You know, I mean, it was a long process, but in the end, and I’m not, I’m not the first one to say this, because I’ve heard several people do this already who did the same thing—it’s well worth it. I mean, it definitely well worth it. Um, she, you know, she’s just the light of our life.

 

A betrayal of identity: the dramatic unveiling of baby-stealing in Spain, and the lives that have been forever scarred

I have been thinking a lot about adoption lately. It is a subject that really fascinates me. I like the idea of scrambling things we think we know--like biology and genetics and "family"--and giving them far greater parameters. Over Christmas break, I read a book about the diaspora of Chinese daughters over the past twenty to thirty years, and the kinds of stunning stories they will have to tell, as many of them will come of age in the next decade. (You can read my post about that book and my thoughts on a "fluid sense of family" here.) Since then, I have been doing some groundwork on dreaming up my own historical project on that very subject. I am preparing the proposal documents for what I hope will become my capstone project for my master's degree, which I will complete in the next thirteen months in order to graduate next May--in 2012. It will be a podcast series, historical in nature but founded in interviews and oral histories, on Adoption.

This has been especially tricky for me because the broad term encompasses several issues surrounding identity that are enormously complex and enigmatic. First, as I have said, the whole notion of a family based on things even deeper than biology is an enthralling break from the regular. When you are adopted into a family and those connections are lost--sometimes permanently, that can lead to even more interesting questions than the ones inherent in the searching for genealogical roots, and the holding on to ethnic or cultural traditions. None of my family is from the South; I have ancestors that died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, yet I am a southerner. How can this be? I identify with just as many cultural oddities from either side of the Mason-Dixon line. I have lived in the South for thirteen years (a majority), and consider it my home. But if you want to inquire about my roots, they are no where around here.

People certainly get worked up about the "roots," and their ancestry. They are significant factors in helping people understand themselves, their positions in the world. I am not dismissing that at all. Plenty of people who are adopted take to researching their own biological families in order to make sense of their own lives. But as a person whose place in between where my family is from and where I myself am "from" now, I think scrambling those ideas is truly intriguing, and plain fun to explore.

This leads me to the second component within the word "adoption"-- the embracing of a new place, or a new culture, or even a new language. Here you have moved, perhaps across international borders, to adopt a new position in this wide world. The adaptation that you go through to create your own, meshed identity is entirely distinct from the notion of digging into your roots to see how your ancestors lived. It does not mean relinquishing the value of your customs, your culture, your language or your foodways; it means creating a living combining all the best things from your roots and your family with the new space and communities you find yourself within.

So when it came to composing this into a specific topic, well, I am honestly still working that out. But the fact is, the whole fluidity of identity, of biology and adoption and roots, of "nationality"--that tricky word I have dissected many times on this blog--they have been on my mind constantly for the past few weeks. So when I heard a shocking story by The World's Gerry Hadden, about an entire industry of babies sold illegally into adoption in Spain--whole lives being changed and identities being scrambled--I had a dream about it.

In the dream, I was the one whose birth certificate came under question, when my brother investigated my birth and discovered that long ago my document had been flagged as invalid, for some undetermined reason. I shall spare you the details. But I woke up feeling betrayed, feeling lost in my own skin. I realized that if I was going to jump into this very sensitive and emotional topic, I needed to understand that I was not immune to feeling rejected, or confused, or lost in my own identity. People had lived their whole lives in Spain not knowing they were not biologically related to their parents. Sisters who had twins who had "died at birth" turned out to be living lives away from each other. Grieving mothers' lives were changed forever, as they grow older pining for their dead child, who in fact is still alive, and is connected to a different mother altogether. In a very philosophical way, it made me take one step back and consider, as I have many times before, the whole concept of your family, who you love, and who cares about you on the planet. It puts into even greater question the theory that your genetics matter in the large scheme. They don't.

The story about the stolen Spanish babies is stunning. Heart-breaking. Absolutely tragic and fascinating at once. Adults are confronting their parents, finding out they were in fact purchased. Investigators and public prosecutors have said that this has been going on from about the 1950s to as recently as 2000(!). It has been due in large part to a high level of trust of doctors and priests, and a targeting of young mothers who appeared poor or vulnerable. They would determine immediately after birth that the child had died, and that the hospital must take care of the funeral and body since the infant was under 24 hours old. That rule was made up. Mothers who protested were threatened to be put into a mental facility. Read the whole thing, or listen to the radio story, here. Estimates range from 3,000 to 300,000 cases of kidnapped and illegally sold babies over the years. Lawsuits are being filed now, after Antonio Barroso--himself a victim of this, who had to confront his parents as an adult--founded the organization ANADIR, so people whose lives were changed forever by this practice can find some restitution, or at least resolve in their own lives.

As I said, I was shocked into having identity-crisis dreams about this.

A database has been set up for children and mothers to find each other again. There have been many people who long-suspected they may have been adopted, so they are finally able to act on those suspicions. Even more, modern technologies like DNA testing has helped prove where there was and was not biological relation; this is something Spanish doctors had not predicted thirty years ago as being scientific proof that could be used against them. This is the lead story from the PRI broadcast:

Estefania Anguita was born in Barcelona in1986, along with a twin sister. But minutes after their birth, she says, doctors told her mother that Estefania’s sister had died.

“My parents weren’t allowed to see my sister’s body,” Anguita said. “The hospital staff wouldn’t let them. My grandmother wanted to bury my sister in the family plot but the hospital said that was impossible too. It was the hospital’s responsibility, they said, since the baby didn’t live more than 24 hours. They just made that rule up."

Anguita always knew about her deceased twin, but says she grew suspicious last year, when her parents admitted they didn’t actually know where her sister was buried. So she went to the hospital where they were born.

“There wasn’t even a record that my mother had given birth to us,” Anguita said. “There was no family file at all. I said it must be here, especially because there was a death involved. Death records are kept forever. And yet there was no trace at all.

Antonio Barroso, who founded the ANADIR organization mentioned above, has an amazing story of his own. Read it here, in Gerry Hadden's blog post on the topic. There's also a story about the uproar by Time magazine, here.

Needless to say, it only increases my own resolve in recording some stories on my own home front, in the unwieldy and curious story of human connections, biology, adoption, roots, and the effects they have on real people's lives. Here's hoping I can somehow make that into a compelling historical narrative. Jury's still out on that one.

A fluid sense of family: on adoption and the global diaspora of orphaned Chinese girls

It's become a family joke of sorts that I may someday have a family that looks rather like that of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's. That is, a multicultural bunch of kids, a collection of orphans that I've taken under my wing. Whether this becomes a reality will remain to be seen, but I most certainly feel strongly about adoption for my own life. And on this subject there's a large elephant in my own theoretical room, involving the largest single-gender diaspora in history: the international adoption of Chinese girls. We all know I have a minor interest and fascination with China and its people, and I would be lying to say it did not extend itself to the prospect of someday providing love and family for a daughter of China.

With a couple free weeks, I was able to breeze through Karin Evans's book on the larger historical phenomenon at play here, The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. Evans, herself a mother of two Chinese daughters, spent years pondering the connections lost and found, birth mothers and families, the larger historical ramifications of so many girls leaving China and what their dual identity would mean for their own lives, their families, and the whole world as they grow (and have grown, in some cases) into adults.

Her questions, discussions, and stories resonated with me on many levels, as a woman, as a historian, as an American, as a global citizen, and as someone who feels strongly in favor of adoption. Some of the letters to her oldest daughter, written before she had ever seen her face, brought me to tears. "When we get together, you and I, I won't really know what you've been through--who carried you and gave birth to you, what she first whispered to you, how long she held on to you before having to make a deep, sad decision. I am certain the loss of you will linger with her all her days," she writes to Kelly. Evans does an incredibly poignant and thoughtful job imagining the lives and loss of the families that gave up each of her daughters, in response to the one-child policy, poverty, the persistent favoritism and preference towards having sons, and other cultural and social factors. Or, as one letter accompanying an abandoned infant said, due to "heavy pressures that are difficult to explain."

The most fundamental story from this historical narrative, however, lies with the daughters of China, the "lost" generation of girls. Many did not survive, victims of abortion--by choice or forced--and infanticide, and those who do make it to orphanages were illegally abandoned in public places, parents hoping their daughters would somehow make it to an orphanage and from there into a loving, providing family. Those who have miraculously survived have become parts of new families, some in China, some across the world, and a very large number of them in the United States. Their stories will be flooding into our lives before we know it, as they each face the enormity of the dichotomy they embody in their own, individual ways. How will they come to terms with their two nations, and how each one has treated them? (I can't wait to see and read.) One of the most important aspects--and difficult, perhaps, for adoptive parents--will be evaluating the entire process and potential value and damage both within transnational adoption. Taking a deeper look at the whole process and the lives affected, I understand it as no light undertaking, but rather a lifelong weight of work more complex than anyone can anticipate at the outset.

It again rose in my mind throughout the discussion of these girls and their futures that the notion of nationality can only go so far. Jennifer Jue-Steuck, a young woman adopted from Taiwan and a PhD candidate at UCA Berkeley as of 2008, described her complicated position and experience eloquently, as "floating down like a feather to an unmapped country between 'Chineseness' and 'Americanness.'" Nationality is once again called into question, as soon as you try to get at what it really means, and begin to determine what traits or characteristics render a person as having one specific tag. Return visits to China, by adopted children, yield questions. A bit of hypothetical conversation might go:

"Are you Chinese?"

"Nope, I'm American. But I was born in China."

"Then you're Chinese."

"I'm Chinese-American."

This is truly one of those times when the term is challenged most, and it enthralls me. What's more, in the cases of Chinese-born adopted daughters, it also challenges the entire notion of family, as does any international (and domestic, for that matter) adoption. Some of my longing to adopt comes from the desire to expand and learn more about the people of this world, and most of all to provide for a child, already born, who needs me. But after reading more about the complexities, I realize it is also because the fluidity of a family that is based on human love, rather than biology alone, stabs very deeply to the core of our very natural and instinctual selves. Evans quotes an essay by adoptive father Evan Eisenberg, who writes:

Adoption urges is toward a more fluid sense of family, a broader sense of community. . . . We move into a richer environment than the nuclear family can provide. Although modern adoption remains firmly within the nuclear orbit, it is inherently a part of this richer notion of child raising, this soup of relations that may be thicker, even, than blood.

The stronger dose of this kind of interpretation of family, the better, in this world. Evans also comes to a personal realization regarding genetic inheritance and its actual impact in our lives. While her daughters do not know their biological families' medical histories, they do exhibit interests and inclinations that, had they been biological children of theirs, would have been attributed to various family members.

When Kelly and Fanny turn out to love music, singing beautifully, taking up instruments, or dancing across the living room, it would be natural, were they our birth daughters, to credit the genetic contribution of Mark's grandfather the accordion player, say, or my mother the dancer. Yet the process of falling completely in love with these girls has changed whatever thinking I might have had about genetic inheritance. Whatever Kelly blossoms into is completely hers. What Fanny enjoys and brings to our family is all hers alone, too. We'll probably never know who their talents and inclinations come from or through, and it doesn't matter.

No matter our biological makeup or what nationality we fall under--in whatever complicated way-- a broader and more fluid notion of family garners love and acceptance. That is the message, loud and clear, in the stories wrapped up in Evans's book, exemplified through the lives of the adopted daughters, adoptive families, and a human drama occurring on an international stage. I absolutely believed this before, and am ever more reassured of it.

Although adoption regulations have increased in China (through a 2000s-version set of social and economic forces that you can read about elsewhere), there are still millions of children, born and unborn yet, who need homes, love, parents, siblings, grandparents. The country of origin does not matter to me; China happens to be the country with the most explosive conditions, and the largest of-yet studied group of orphans. What matters are the children, and there are several unborn children who will someday need a home, who will be waiting on the other end of a winding, red thread, for me to be their mother.