Part 1: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine]


At the age of five, I dug for China so tenaciously in my family’s garden with a bent, scratched old stainless steel spoon that I exposed the roots of a fledgling maple tree.

The tree died weeks later. But the time I spent scraping and clawing at the clods of dark earth brought to life in my imagination a whole different world — one inhabited by beautiful, black-haired people, rivers teeming with fish and exotic boats, mountains shrouded in mysterious mists, green rice paddies swaying in the breeze – images that up until then, I had seen only in encyclopedias or the occasional children’s picture book.

It’s part of my family’s folklore that I always fervently desired to be Chinese. Tugging at my pale blonde braids, I’d pester “Am I Chinese? Am I Chinese?” until my mother – exasperated that her blue-eyed, French-Dutch-Irish child wouldn’t let go of an idea once she had it – would say “Yes, yes, you are Chinese.” I was temporarily appeased, even when the mirror did not concur.

No one – not even me – understands where that longing came from.

But the attraction for things Chinese grew with me into adulthood. When my husband, Patrick and I married in the June of 1988, we offered our wedding party a Chinese banquet for the rehearsal dinner. With my gleaming sapphire engagement ring, a pair of chopsticks, a bevy of close friends and family and a steaming platter of dumplings and Szechuan chicken before me, I was in heaven.

The birth of our daughter, Olivia, in September 1989 put my Chinese fixation on hold. The joys and struggles of pregnancy and giving birth, breastfeeding, maternity leave, learning the best way to kiss boo-boos, managing on four hours sleep a night and reading Goodnight, Moon ruled our lives. I’d drop into bed exhausted and sticky with peanut butter and jelly, but the glorious girl with giant, soft brown eyes and honey hair had become the light of our existence.

Olivia, Lisa, Patrick

Lisa and Patrick with their daughter, Olivia

As Olivia grew from a baby into a little girl, we’d sometimes talk about having another child. But the time never seemed right. The truth is, we were satisfied as a family of three.

Sometimes, though, fate taps you on the back so lightly you can flick it away like a pesky fly. Other times, it sucker punches you in the gut, leaving no question that something is demanded NOW! That’s what happened to me one sunny Sunday morning in April 1994, as I leafed through The New York Times Magazine.

The article in question described one writer’s journey to China to “adopt one of the tens of thousands of baby girls abandoned in China each year.” By the second paragraph, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that was what we were going to do, too.

It’s as if the last piece of a difficult puzzle had snapped into place. My heart was overwhelmed with a sense that “This is what we have been waiting for. This is why we couldn’t seem to decide to conceive.” There was a sensation of fullness and rightness – an “Ah, yes!” that was almost audible in my soul.

Waving the magazine, I rushed downstairs, where my husband was watching TV. “This is it!” I shouted. “We’re going to China to adopt a baby girl!”

My more cautious mate barely looked up. I was blocking the screen, dontcha know.

But I knew this was what we were supposed to do. Call it God. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want. I had my directions and I planned to carry them out.

Strategy #1: Clip the story and hang it prominently on the refrigerator. It got moved to the side, with the pizza coupons. I moved it back. A dance ensued – back and forth, forth and back.

Eventually, though, like all halfway civilized couples, we sat down and discussed adopting from China. Well, he discussed and I begged. I enlisted Olivia as my ally. “Daddy, please let’s adopt one of the babies from China who needs a mommy, a daddy and a big sister,” she’d plead.

For weeks, we dissected the issues. Could we love a child not of our blood? Yes, of course! We loved each other – and we weren’t related. Did we realize that we were bringing a whole different culture into our home? Olivia solved that one. “Now, we’ll all be a little Chinese!” Did we understand that by adopting an Asian child, our family would become a minority family? That bothered us least of all. How to handle the questions of strangers went into my court: since when didn’t I have some kind of verbal answer for everything?

Ultimately, my conviction that a certain child waited for us won. We agreed. We would build our family by adoption.

Every night when Olivia and I said her prayers, we added something: “Dear God, please take care of our baby in China. Let her know her Mommy, Daddy and her new Big Sister love her so much, and we are trying as hard as we can to come and get her.” (I’ll admit that, once in a while, annoyed by all the talk about a baby, Olivia would slyly add with a sigh: “God, please make it so no new baby comes from China.”)

By this time, we had contacted numerous agencies dealing in international adoption, and had recovered from the shock of the cost. We also had adjusted to the fact that because Chinese law restricts the adoption of “healthy” infants to single people or couples ages 35 to 60 who are childless, we would need to be open to the possibility of adopting a child with some kind of minor, correctable need.

(To deny this frightened us would be to lie. An unhealthy child was not what we had imagined. But as time passed, we remembered that even giving birth ourselves has its risks. Somehow, we knew that the child meant for us would be perfect for us, whether she was “perfect” or not.)

I began our paperwork the week of June 12, 1994, by filling out an application for a social worker to visit us to do a “home study” – the requisite family history that would assess our fitness to raise a child. Besides conducting numerous interviews, our social worker also needed income tax returns, bank statements, a health inspection, copies of our birth and marriage certificates, a statement by our doctors that we were healthy, a fingerprint check through the Maryland State Police and the FBI and more paper too tedious to mention.

Once we were approved, we had to garner even more papers from the Chinese. I struggled for most of the summer to obtain all the official stamps and seals needed. We applied to the local bank for a home equity loan to cover the costs.

By October, our dossier was ready. Told by our agency to expect at least a six-month wait before hearing about our newest daughter, we tried to forget about it. But every time the phone rang, I’d jump up and say “Maybe it’s the agency!” Olivia would roll her eyes and sigh in an exaggerated manner.

But one day – November 11, 1994, at 4:30 in the afternoon – the phone rang. It was the call we had been waiting for! The agency’s China coordinator calmly told me that we were the proud parents/big sister of a baby girl named “Yu Fen” – Chinese for “Fragrance of a Flower.” She weighed 10 pounds and was waiting for us at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home (orphanage) in China.

Arrival announcement

The Arrival Announcement

Oh, yes, and one more thing: her birthday was June 12, 1994, the same day I had started our paperwork. The hair on the back of my arms stood straight up.

[Look for Part Two TOMORROW!!!]


  1. Lisa, I love the ending of this section. It’s kind of like an answer to the question I posed in “A Pink T-shirt.” So amazing how these things happen when we are waiting for our children.

  2. I’m loving your beautiful story, Lisa. Yes, it is an adoption story, yet it seems like any birth story in the sense that it is dramatic and there will be a baby! I can hardly wait for little Yu Fen to be placed in your arms.

  3. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Thanks for reading, you guys! Of course, this is a narrative close to my heart.

  4. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Yes, Juliet has read it previously. She loves it, as it gives her a glimpse into her family before we were her family. I think she also finds it funny that Olivia got kind of sick of hearing everyone go on and on about the new baby. (Once, after Juliet came home and turned the house upside down — as babies do! — Olivia wearily suggested we put a stamp on her and send her back to China! Of course, that was just the usual sibling rivalry speaking, as the girls today are very close and Olivia has always been extremely protective of her little sister.)

  5. Reblogged this on Don't We Look Alike?.


  1. […] Lisa’s story about picking up baby Juliet from China, read this post and then this […]

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