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Meeting Mr. Li

By Avra Wing china2Seventeen years, ago, my husband and I adopted a baby girl from China. That sweet, smart baby is starting to get college acceptance letters. About to embark on yet another new life. And it makes me think, more consciously than I have for a while, about how she began her life with us. Our first glimpse of her was a small photo of a five-month-old propped up in a chair. The accompanying letter from our adoption agency dutifully asked, “Do you want this child?” This adorable girl? This baby we’d longed for? Uh, yeah. Two months later we were in Hunan Province on our way to her orphanage—a bare-bones operation with nary a toy in sight. The back of our child’s head was flat from lying in a crib all day. She couldn’t sit up. She didn’t know how to reach for or hold anything. She kept herself stimulated by staring at her hands as she ran her fingers over each other. She was unnervingly quiet our first day together. By the second day she smiled. The day after that she was laughing. By the end of the week she was grabbing for the toys we’d brought. We felt like geniuses. After all, we had raised two children already. But we weren’t giving her enough credit—for the remarkable resiliency she displayed in making this second major transition in her very young life. We weren’t considering what she had lost. A demonstration of how much she had left behind came on our way home. My husband’s cousin, fluent in Mandarin, met us at the San Francisco airport during our wait to change planes. He picked up our daughter and began speaking to her in the only language she had known until the day she became ours, and I literally could see her glowing. When she was 11, we took her and her big brothers to China. Against all advice: “Don’t go until she’s ready. Don’t force her.” Well, she wasn’t going to be ready. She had dropped out of Chinese culture classes. The girl loved ballet, but no way she was going to ribbon dance. She didn’t like hanging out with her “sisters”—other adopted Chinese girls. Any mention of her birth family, however oblique, brought instant tears and a refusal to talk. Yet we had an instinct that it was important for her to go back. Our trip began on the wrong foot when the tour guide in Beijing greeted our daughter with an over-hearty “Welcome home!” She wasn’t at home. She was uncomfortable with the Chinese people who stared at us, who tried to talk to her and were surprised—or angry—when she didn’t understand them. During our visit to the orphanage she broke down when one of the nannies pointed out the room in which our girl had stayed. We were sure we had made a disastrous mistake. We didn’t feel like such geniuses. But then something happened. My husband and I went to our child’s “finding spot”—the accepted euphemism for the place where she’d been abandoned. She had been deposited in front of a local government bureau and then brought to a police station. The bureau was deserted so we moved on to the station. It had been more than 10 years—no one knew anything about her. But one policeman got on the phone and contacted the person, Mr.Li, who had been the station chief at that time. And then Mr. Li invited us to his new office. He was thrilled to see the little girl whom, he said, he had never forgotten. He remembered he was off duty when he got the call about a baby being found. Nervous about caring for an infant, he had asked his wife to come along. He recalled how people had stood around our child murmuring that she was hao piaoliang, so pretty. That her legs were long and he thought her height would be above average. He smiled when he saw his prediction coming true. And, in return, she glowed. A while after our trip, our daughter began studying Mandarin. She started mentoring younger adopted girls from China. She still expresses no desire to find her birth family—which might be impossible, at any rate. For now, meeting Mr. Li, her pictures taken with him, suffice. When he put his hand on her head it was the closest she’d ever been to reconnecting to her earliest days. The closest she may ever be. It is the moment she wrote about in her college essay. We worry about our little girl going away from home next fall. How will she manage among strangers in a strange place? How will she succeed? And then we remember what she’s already been through and how she’s aced it so far.

Avra Wing is the author of the new young adult novel, After Isaac. Her first novel, Angie, I Says, was made into the film Angie. She is the mother of two grown sons and a teenage daughter.

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