The Children of Alenah’s Home

Story and photographs by Juliet Ercolano

This summer, I traveled to China for the second time in as many years. My purpose was to volunteer as a temporary “ayi” (caretaker) at Alenah’s Home for a two full weeks alongside my mother. For those of you who don’t know, Alenah’s is a Beijing-based non-profit foster home run by Children’s Hope International to provide between 20 and 30 babies from orphanages all over China with medical care (including surgery) that they need. The children’s medical issues range from cleft lip and palate to heart conditions to small birth anomalies.

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Working at Alenah’s was an incredible experience! My mom and I lived in the foster home and ate most of our meals with the regular workers in the home’s bustling kitchen. (It seems there is always steam coming from the big rice cooker, and vegetables being chopped on the big, round, wooden cutting board.) The meals are prepared by the foster home’s excellent chef, a young man with a beautiful smile and a wonderful way with the children. In fact, “Gege” – “elder brother,” in Mandarin — was an orphan himself, so he has a special bond with Alenah’s children.

The fact that my mom and I knew hardly any Mandarin – she can say a few words, such as “hello,” “I like Chinese food,” and “I love you,” and I have just a year of college Chinese under my belt – did not prevent us from bonding with the children and the staff of 15 devoted ayis who care for them night and day. It’s kind of amazing how much you can communicate with a smile, a touch, and even some energetic pointing!

Juliet

Juliet

As a Chinese adult adoptee working at Alenah’s, I found myself becoming emotional from time to time, no doubt because I could relate in a very special way to each of those babies and children. Twenty years ago, I, too, was an orphan being cared for in an institution, and needing to rely on the kindness of strangers to get my basic needs met. Although it’s certain that the conditions at Alenah’s are far, far better than the conditions of the orphanage I lived in for five months back in 1994, the realization that these babies and children still need “forever families” sometimes brought me to tears.

In the month since I have come home, I can honestly say that I think about the babies and children there multiple times a day, and long to see them again. Fortunately, Alenah’s staff has created a Facebook page, where I can get frequent updates on each of them and see their photographs.

What struck me the most in my time there (other than how hard the staff work every day) is that each baby and child at Alenah’s that I fed, held, read to, played with, helped walk, sat with, or talked to radiated the simple human desire to be loved. It was a true delight getting to know each ones unique personality.

Although I did not spend as much time with the older children – they go out of the foster home to school every day — they remain my biggest concern and worry. Most families who want to adopt prefer the cute babies and toddlers. But what about the children ages 3 to 8, who need families, too?

One boy, in particular, is stuck in my mind and heart. “Tony” (he told us that was his American name!) is 8-years-old and is paralyzed from the waist down after surgery for spina bifida. He can get around just fine in a wheelchair, and enjoys being the fastest and first at things. He loves to play, to read, to listen to and sing music, and is already a gifted visual artist. Though he and I didn’t have much shared language (he knows some very simple English and I know very simple Chinese), we spent hours drawing together and even writing back and forth in my elementary level Chinese. What came through to me, loud and clear, in every interaction with Tony was his intense desire to be loved and to be adopted by a family in the U.S. (Several of Tony’s best friends at Alenah’s have been adopted by Americans, leaving him behind. It is very painful each time.) I worry about this boy aging out of his eligibility to be adopted. He needs a permanent family in order to thrive and explore all his abilities, especially his ability to love and be loved.

"Tony"

“Tony”

Prospective adoptive parents, won’t you please consider bringing one of these “older” children into your home?

Can you find it in your heart to help the children with a donation?

Please consider a one-time donation to Alenah’s, or better yet, a monthly donation (tax-deductible) of $30 or more. Many Americans spend this much a month at Starbucks or buying lunches at work. That dollar a day could make a huge difference to helping offset the expense of running Alenah’s, including paying the staff of warm, wonderful ayis, feeding the children, their medical care costs, and the rent and maintenance of the home itself. Donating is as easy as going to this link, and you will get a receipt to use on your taxes to prove you donated.

Visiting Alenah’s Home | CHI – Keep Hope Alive

Guest bloggers Lisa and Juliet are interviewed by Children’s Hope International about their visit to Alenah’s Home in China–check it out!!!

Visiting Alenah’s Home | CHI – Keep Hope Alive.

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part V: The Finding Place

SHE ONCE WAS LOST, BUT NOW SHE’S FOUND

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photos of Juliet by Lisa)

For years, we’ve had the story wrong. I am not sure whether I heard it wrong or the original information I was given was in error.

Let me back up: The day I met my younger daughter in a hotel room in Nanjing, China in December 1994, I swore I was told by our translator that the baby was “found by a police officer at a station and taken to the family planning clinic. They then took her to the orphanage.”

But, apparently, that’s not what actually happened.

When Juliet and I visited her orphanage on our recent trip to China, at one point the director sat down with us and opened Juliet’s file. (We had sent this special request through our contacts at Children’s Hope International months before arriving and were assured looking at the file was no problem.)

Through Savor, our translator, we were told that one-month-old Juliet was found by workers one early morning in July 1994 at a women’s health/family planning clinic, and was taken from there to the Changshu Social Welfare Institute, from which we adopted her five months later. Not a single station (bus or train) or police officer involved! (I am embarrassed to confess that it took me until earlier this year to discover, online, that Changshu doesn’t even have a train station!)

As Juliet and I recovered from our surprise, the director gave Savor and our driver the address of the clinic, and we headed out.

On the way, I once again found myself feeling a little nervous. What would the place look like? How would Juliet feel when she saw it? Would we both dissolve in tears, knowing we were staring at the spot where she was left by her birthmother one summer morning?

We got those answers very quickly, as the clinic was not far away. On the way over, Juliet and I held hands in the backseat of our driver’s car and didn’t say much. Instead, we peered out the windows, both lost in our own thoughts.

About 10 minutes later, the driver pulled into the driveway/parking area of a large, modern, sand-colored building with brown marble steps and an aqua sign saying世代服 Shidai Family Planning Service. 

We hopped out of the car, and Juliet and I looked around silently. We immediately noticed that in order to pull into the parking area in front of the clinic, we had driven through an open metal accordion gate and past a little guardhouse.

Juliet and I were walking over to it when a middle-aged woman wearing worn jeans and a flowered blouse came out of the clinic’s front doors, curious about who we were and what we wanted.

Speaking Chinese, Savor explained and a big smile broke out on the woman’s face. Apparently, this woman worked at the clinic back in the summer of 1994, and remembers “a few baby girls being dropped off here.” She proceeded to tell us that birthparents would wait until dark and then climb over the gate (closed and locked at night, and much higher than the one there now) so they could place their babies carefully up on the steps of the clinic’s front door, safely away from passersby on the street and any danger.

“We would find the babies when we came to work in the morning,” she said, through the translator, “and bring them to the orphanage.”

Juliet asked me to take her photograph with the woman, and commented afterward “Is it weird that I am smiling? I just feel like smiling knowing this lady was there when I was found!”
I told her that there were no “shoulds” when it came to her feelings. I snapped a few shots of the worker and Juliet, as well as some of Juliet in front of the building. Then I handed the camera to Juliet, and she took a few for herself.

I admit that I had a feeling of unreality while clicking the shutter: It was almost impossible to envision my daughter, now a beautiful, healthy and strong 19-year-old, as a helpless, month-old baby wrapped in a blanket and left on that stone step landing. The disconnect was just too much for me.

And later that evening, over dinner, Juliet told me that she felt the same way.

“I am glad that I got to see where my parents put me, but honestly, Mom, it doesn’t seem real,” she said. “One thing that made me feel good was hearing that she climbed over that high gate to make sure I was safe. All this time, I was picturing myself on a train station platform, with lots of people just walking by, maybe not caring or even not seeing me. At least, this way, I know they wanted me to be safe and go on to a better life.”

Read about the trip Lisa and Juliet too to China in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Read about the monuments in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II

Read about Juliet’s foster home in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part III

Read about Juliet’s orphanage in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part IV

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For Lisa’s story about picking up baby Juliet from China, read this post and then this one.

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part III: The Foster Home

Read about the trip Lisa and Juliet too to China in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Read about the monuments in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II

Part III: The Foster Home

Story by Lisa DeNike Ercolano
Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photo of Juliet was taken by Lisa)

I still dream at night about the babies and children we saw at Alenah’s Home.

The big sunny playroom at Alenah's

The big sunny playroom at Alenah’s

Tucked snugly away amongst a series of other traditional Beijing hutong houses, sunny, well-scrubbed and cozy Alenah’s is home to about 20 orphaned babies and children with special medical needs.
This spirited little boy was very friendly and loves visitors!

This spirited little boy was very friendly and loves visitors!

There’s the baby girl with big, serious eyes and a rosebud mouth. She has a congenital heart condition and needs surgery, and all she wants is for someone to hold her and sing to her. (Juliet did — for about three hours!)

Juliet holding one of the babies at Alenah’s

And then there’s the six-year-old boy who is paralyzed from the waist down from a previous surgery to repair the meningocele he was born with. Certain that others will reject him, this clever boy puts up a defensive front whenever approached. But if you show him you are really interested in him, he opens up like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

These children and more come to Alenah’s from orphanages and other sites throughout China to receive expert medical care available in the capital city.

But just as badly as they need medical care (surgeries, medicine, therapy), they need love — and lots of it. And they get it at the home, which is staffed by 14 gentle, caring “ayis” (the Chinese word for “auntie” or “caregiver”) and a series of loving volunteers.

The ayis and some volunteers in the back courtyard at playtime

The “ayis” and some volunteers in the back courtyard at playtime

Alenah’s is run by Children’s Hope International, the wonderful adoption agency that brought Juliet into our lives. (CHI is headquartered in St. Louis in the US and in Beijing in China.) Melody Zhang (Zhang Wen) is the director of Alenah’s and of the Beijing Office of Children’s Hope there. Deeply committed to children’s rights, Melody and her team at Alenah’s have managed to care for more than 70 of these children since the home opened in 2004, and 20 of them have been adopted.
Meal time is a very happy time at the foster home

Meal time is a very happy time at the foster home

Juliet and I fell in love with the children there and are looking for ways to help them. We would love to be able to return next summer and spend a few weeks helping the caretakers.

If you want to know more about Alenah’s Home and its mission, watch this little news clip about it:

http://www.adoptblog.childrenshope.net/2013/05/a-visit-to-chi-foster-home.html

Back to Where She Once Belonged

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

I had only been Juliet’s mother for a few hours before I started thinking about how my husband and I would have to help her stay connected to her Chinese heritage.

“We have to pledge to take her back to China every few years, so she knows and understands her place of birth and the culture,” I said, solemnly and with every good intention, to my husband on the fuzzy, long-distance call from the hotel in Nanjing where I first met the tightly swaddled six-month-old with the bright red cheeks and a bristly mohawk of black hair.

My husband had remained in Baltimore with our homemade daughter, four-year-old Olivia, while I traveled to the People’s Republic, accompanied by my father, Bob, and a group of other adopting parents, to adopt our younger daughter.

She was handed gently to me in a Nanjing hotel room by the smiling, middle-aged Chinese woman, an ayi, who took care of her in the orphanage.

Sadly, good intentions notwithstanding, that is not what happened. As John Lennon famously said “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” And our lives — as the working parents of two active, busy, growing girls — didn’t include the time, or the money, to make those intended trips. Added to the time crunch was the fact that, as a ballet dancer, Juliet had to spend every summer in training — just like an athlete!

So as Juliet entered her senior year of high school, we decided it was time to bite the proverbial bullet and make that dream of returning to China a reality. We put money aside, and contacted the wonderful agency that brought her into our lives — Children’s Hope International in St. Louis, Mo. — to help us plan the actual trip.

It seemed to take forever to get here, but eventually the calendar turned to June, and Juliet and I took off from Dulles International Airport for Beijing. (We decided, in the end, for various reasons that this would be a mother-daughter trip.) In future blog posts, we will be privileged to share some of the things we saw, the emotions we experienced and the things we learned, with readers of this blog.


Lisa and Juliet

Lisa and Juliet at the moat around the Forbidden City

 

Follow us to Part II of Back to Where She Once Belonged for a visit to China’s monuments

 

 

 

Pain on Every Page

By Adoptive Parent

I logged onto Amazon.com a few weeks ago, searching for some good guidebooks about my child’s birthplace: the People’s Republic of China. As I perused the offerings, I glanced down at the section “Recommended for you” and saw an intriguing title Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss by Xinran.9781451610949_p0_v1_s260x420

Reading the summary, I learned that Xinran not only is the author of several other books about the lives of Chinese women, but also spent time as a radio journalist, whose show Words on the Night Breeze told the true stories of women in China through their letters and interviews.  In addition, she founded a charity called “Mothers Bridge of Love, “ aimed to help Western families who adopt Chinese children.

Xinran’s book offers sometimes harrowing but also often heartbreaking stories of Chinese mothers “losing” their daughters, mostly seemingly because of the centuries old belief that until a woman gives birth to a son, she is not fully a human being. When combined with the One Child Policy that was instituted in 1979 by the Communist Party as a way to control the country’s burgeoning population, this preference for boys has meant the pressure on women to have sons has gotten even more intense, and has led to thousands of baby girls being abandoned and sometimes even killed.

The stories in this book are not for the faint of heart: in one chapter, Xinran watches as a newborn baby girl is thrown out with the afterbirth in a slop bucket. When the author expresses her dismay, she is told that “It’s not a child … it’s a baby girl, and we can’t keep it.” In another chapter, she chats with an apparently doting father dandling his toddler daughter on his knee as the train they are on speeds along. Later, though, as the train starts on its way again after a short stop, she sees the little girl sitting alone on the platform. It turns out the man’s wife is pregnant and they need a boy, so they have left their beautiful daughter in the station, trusting someone will take her to an orphanage and she will be adopted by someone who can give her a better life.

Several other stories involve women who work in the orphanages slipping their daughters into the populations there, in order to allow them to be adopted by “wealthy” couples in the United States or Europe. These mothers aren’t heartless: they believe they are saving their daughters from lives of hard labor in the countryside.

The one common thread running through all of these accounts is the pain and heartbreak of the mothers involved. Read it.

Xinran

Xinran

Teen Adoptees are “Somewhere Between”

by Marisha

 

INTRODUCTION TO “SOMEWHERE BETWEEN”

SUMMARY: THE GIRLS’ STORIES

SPECIAL AND DIFFICULT MOMENTS

FILM TRAILER

INTRODUCTION TO “SOMEWHERE BETWEEN”

What an experience I had seeing the award-winning documentary Somewhere Between, about the lives of four American teen adoptees who were born in China!  Although I was adopted as a baby from Korea, nothing I’ve seen or heard about adoption has ever opened me up in such a vulnerable way.  I can’t put myself at a distance and be as objective about the film as I would like; however, this review is my best attempt to do so.

I saw the film, which was directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, at the Nuart Theatre in West LA last week.  It has moved on to San Francisco and will air in theatres across the country.

The dictionary defines the word “adopt” as “taking into one’s family through legal means and raising as one’s own child.” In the wrong mindset, adoption can seem negative, foreign, not appealing. To raise a child not of one’s own blood. To invite a mysterious, difficult journey, that is both emotionally and physically grueling. But for others, adoption is nothing short of beautiful. A palette of amazing unknowns, the trust in destiny that brings a child in need to a family who can provide. Hearts ever loving, ever forgiving, willing to love a child and disregard all other standards of what makes a family. To understand what goes through the minds of (some) adoptees is like a Rubik’s Cube. The answers are hard to find, but it is possible to gain knowledge and solve the puzzle. This film showed just that and more.

I didn’t know what to expect of the film. To be quite honest, I felt it would only scratch the surface of adoption and focus on the glitz and glamour of the emotional roller coasters. Instead, what I found was a very emotional story–and very deep raw discoveries, not only for the girls, but for myself .

The film followed the lives of four girls who were all adopted from different provinces of China. They all shared different stories, different family lives. They had different interests, different religious backgrounds. But they did share one commonality– their adoption.

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SUMMARY: THE GIRLS’ STORIES

Screening Map

In case you live too far from screening cities, these are the stories of the girls.

We first see Fang Lee, a fifteen year old girl with a maturity beyond her years. She lives in Berkeley CA with her sister, who is also adopted, and two very loving parents, Hanni and Alan. Fang was adopted as a toddler  and spoke fluent Chinese by the time she was adopted in 1998. Her parents embraced that skill and kept the Chinese language alive during her childhood.  She speaks both Chinese and English equally, although her father doesn’t speak any Chinese. Fang travels with her family once a year to China, to keep the memory of her birth city alive.

She speaks of her memories of her birth parents. Her birth dad chopped firewood and her birth mother grew vegetables.  They lived in a shack with only one bed. She remembers her birth mother pierced her ears. Then she tells the heartbreaking story of how she was abandoned. Her mother told her she was going to visit her grandparents and that her stepbrother would take care of her until she returned. Her stepbrother took her into the village and brought her to a little stoop. He sat her down and told her he was going to get some stuff and to not move until he came back for her. She watched him walk away–and he never came back.

Fang is asked if she is mad at her birth parents. She strongly responds no because she believes in fate, in destiny. That the decisions of her birth parents only brought her one step closer to the life she was given. And that the decisions of her adopted parents gave her the life she now has. This is how I feel about my own life.

Next we travel to Newport, Massachusetts, and meet Jenna Cook, also fifteen, who was adopted from China in 1992. She has a sister, Sara, also adopted, with their two moms Peggy and Carol. Jenna was the most artistic of the four girls, something I have in common with her.  She has 11 years of figure skating under her belt, as well as two national competitions. She plays guitar and at one point in the film sings the song “Country Roads” acoustically. She is in crew at school at the Phillips Exeter Academy and holds the leadership position of coxswain. Jenna is a leader, pushing the envelope.  She stays enthusiastic and yet calm. Holding that position has taught her strength and power and the importance of unity and teamwork. She talks a lot about being aware that she is living in a white world and refers herself as a “banana,” meaning “white on the inside, yellow on the outside.” I loved this, because I too make that same joke with “Twinkie” haha.

Her boyfriend is from South Korea.  She says something which struck a chord in me about the comfort she has with her boyfriend’s mother. She feels that being around someone with the same “Asian” exterior is a similarity which makes her feel as if she belongs.  It creates a sense of familiarity.

The third girl, Ann Boccuti, fourteen, lives in Pennsylvania and  is a member of color guard and plays the piano. Cathy and Bob are her parents, and she has an older brother who is biologically related to her parents.  Her issues of being adopted have become more apparent as she gets older.  She says that although her hobbies are known as “reject” hobbies, she doesn’t care. Ann was adopted from an orphanage in China and talks about how her adopted parents thought that she was going to be a “special needs” child because she had cross-shaped legs and crossed eyes. But her father had faith and she grew up fine. She expresses disinterest in finding her birth parents, but wants to visit the Chinese orphanage that she was adopted from one day.

Her story intersects with her friend Haley Butler, thirteen, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She was adopted at six months old on February 22, 1995, from China. She has a younger sister who is also adopted and an older sister, Heidi, who is Caucasian and was crowned Miss Tennessee. Haley loves pageants and followed her sister’s footsteps into the pageant world. Religion is a huge part of the Butler family and Haley claims that even if she lived in China, she would find her way to Christianity.

Her mother Jeannie helps kids with the Annabelle’s Wish Orphanage and makes it her goal to help as many orphaned kids as she can. The family has been to China 22 times and has helped over 2000 children. It was quite amazing to watch.

Haley’s story was the most incredible to watch. She had this deep dream to find her birth parents and decided to take action. So she creates a poster with all the information she has on her adoption and birth parents and goes to China to the province she was from, where she posts the poster in the village. Miraculously, a man comes forward claiming to be her birth father and hours later she meets him and two of her three birth siblings. This part of the film was particularly emotional. They proceed to do a DNA test and three months later they discover that he is her birth father. So Haley and her family plan a trip to China to meet her birth mother, her other brother, and to find the answers to what led her to the adoption.

She is really nervous/excited to meet her birth mom because her birth mom chose not to come to the first meeting. This meeting is set up in a hotel room in China with lots of picture books depicting Haley’s American upbringing. The whole family meets and Jane, the translator, helps the two families converse. Haley’s birth mother is emotional and won’t let go of her when she first meets Haley. The family learns that Haley’s birth dad did not want to give Haley up, but her mother could not provide for all four of her children. When he went to work one day, she wrapped Haley in a basket and gave her to a family friend without her birth dad knowing. The parents had thought the family friends were going to raise her, but instead they had taken Haley to an orphanage instead. (The Chinese culture values boys over girls.  The One Child Policy has had a tremendous effect on availability of girls for adoption).

The two families then venture to Haley’s birth hometown, where they have a beautiful traditional Chinese feast. Haley’s family promises to visit every year.

I was mesmerized by this story, especially how she finds her birth parents so quickly in such a big country. It is such an overwhelming situation, and I was so proud of Haley for how she handled it. Maybe it helps that she is still so young. Or maybe she doesn’t understand yet the magnitude of what has occurred?  Her story brought me to tears, because I too hope that when I start searching in Korea, it will come that easily.  However, the odds are against that for most of us international adoptees.  My only reservation about the film is that some teens might watch this movie and get unrealistic expectations about finding their birth parents.

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SOME SPECIAL AND DIFFICULT MOMENTS

These four girls are extraordinary, and their stories plucked a lot of emotional strings in my own life. Three of the girls are now college students and Haley must be close to eighteen.  I wish them all well on this new phase of their lives.

There were many special and some very difficult moments in this film.  The biggest moment was when Jenna goes to Spain to speak at a convention for the parents of adoptees. The word “abandon” is brought up.  They want Jenna to elaborate on her feelings toward the word. She is brought to tears, saying the word is “negative” and that she was placed into a better life because of it.

I really connected with her when she spoke of how adoption has negatively affected her. She speaks of “perfectionist tendencies, fear of failure, and having to compensate for not feeling good enough.” She is happy about her better life, but can’t help those moments and small thoughts of abandonment. It struck me so hard because I, too, have felt all those feelings throughout my life. The “A Word” has always been an emotional one for me, and I am so glad this film touched on it. It is important for people to know.  The discussion of issues in “Somewhere Between” can even help the non-adoptee understand the adoptee in his or her life.

Funny moments throughout the film were the reactions they got from strangers and friends about their adoptions. One of my favorites was when Haley and her little sister and mom were at a salon. A lady next to them said to her sister, “Congratulations on coming to America. Aren’t you so lucky you were able to come here?” My first reaction was wanting to punch the woman, but that of course is the ignorance we have talked about previously on this blog. The girls were asked: “Aren’t you good at math? Do you speak English? Where is your real family?” I thought the girls handled these questions the way I would–with comedy and poise. They understand that they have nothing to apologize for and their maturity and understanding shows by taking these comments with a grain of salt.

Fang inspired me with a story of one trip to a Chinese orphanage where she saw this little girl with cerebral palsy wearing a pink dress. She describes her as ‘looking like a statue but had life in her eyes.” When she returned to the United States, she raised $5000 for her which paid for intensive physical therapy. Fang visited her every year and eventually found her a home with a wonderful family in America who had another adoptee with cerebral palsy. It was an emotional adoption and showed the true beauty of how amazing an adoption is and how incredible Fang is for helping this beautiful little girl in need find a home. She has truly inspired me to want to go back to Korea myself one day and help other children.

The last story I want to share disturbed me so much that it will stay with me forever. Haley travels to Amsterdam, Holland, and meets with an older South Korean adoptee named Hilbrand Westra.  He is one of the people trying to get the rights for adoptees to be able to retrieve their adoption and birth files. Haley asks why this hasn’t been able to happen yet, and he gives a very chilling response. He explains that in Korea, especially, the files for the adoptees were a lot of times falsified, fraudulent, and hidden because a lot of children were not, in fact, orphans. They were children with able families who wrote up fake documents to make agencies believe that they were “orphans.” I can’t tell you how emotional I got in the theatre. I never believed I was an orphan because my paperwork shows that my birth mother was unmarried and unable to raise me, but the idea that the story I have been told may be false, makes me believe that my hopes of finding my birth family is farther and farther from being possible.

All in all, this was an INCREDIBLE movie to see. It really delved into the tough questions and was raw and real. Adoptees share a commonality, a similar journey from a murky past to a different future. We all share self-doubt towards our adoption and the word “abandon” hits an emotional chord for all of us. Adoptees know their stories are unique and that there is no “normal” for them. But most of us  embrace that and understand that adoption has led us to a beautiful life with beautiful families. The film talks about destiny, and that is really what it is. Proof that God did not overlook us, but took the time to give our lives meaning. We feel special, blessed. I think our identities will always be questioned at certain times, and we will feel stuck between the known and the unknown. But through that comes great strength. I leave you with this quote from Fang’s art teacher: “The past reflects from the present, but the present takes us from the past.” Thank you for reading and please see the film if you get the chance! x

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FILM TRAILER

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Part 2: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[Part  1 was published here yesterday, July 25, 2012.  Lisa had just learned that her new daughter was waiting for her at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home in China.  This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine.]

I screamed and hollered, whooped and cried. Olivia jumped up and down. The agency representative told us that Yu Fen’s photo would arrive by Federal Express the next day. I phoned my husband at work and told him. He was ecstatic. We called grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends.

Less than month later, on December 3, 1994, I set off for China and second-time motherhood from Baltimore-Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport. I was joined by my father, a hearty fellow who loved adventure and who volunteered to accompany me so Patrick could stay home with Olivia and make things ready. (My father had served in the Army in the Philippines during WWII, and loved the idea of returning to the Far East to meet his newest granddaughter.)

Along with us came a suitcase full of paraphernalia – diapers, bottles, snowsuits, onesies, film, video camera, chocolate, gifts for officials, and a sense of anticipation the size of the Forbidden City.

We emerged from the international flight on December 4 into a warm, silky, black Hong Kong evening. There, we met up with our group – six families traveling to pick up babies. They came from all over the U.S. – Arizona, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri and Georgia.

Zonked by travel, many of us hit the sack. I later learned that some of the others had brought sleeping pills and sedatives, anticipating the nerves that we would undoubtedly experience. Not me: I lay in my room, staring at the ceiling most of the night. Tomorrow, I was finally going to meet our younger daughter!

Ready to meet the new baby

Lisa, her father Robert DeNike, and others ready to meet the new babies!

The next morning, the group gathered for breakfast, then boarded Dragon Air for Nanjing, a beautiful city located on the South China Sea on the central southern coast. Nanjing is famous for its broad avenues and lush, ancient trees. In late afternoon, the streets teemed with bicycle riders making their ways home from work under a canopy of trees so large I could imagine them forming an umbrella of shade during the notoriously hot summers.

I can still hear the tinkling of bicycle bells – a sound that will forever say “China” to me. Everywhere I looked, there were the beautiful people I had imagined as a child.

We barely had time to unpack in the hotel before the word came: the babies were here! They would be coming from two different orphanages, my daughter’s in ChangShu, and from another in nearby, and larger, Suzhou. Our videotape shows us pacing the halls like expectant fathers in a 1950s sitcom. No one knew what to do. Chat? Laugh? Cry? One of the biggest moments of our lives was about to happen, and there was no way to prepare. I found myself, ridiculously, putting on lipstick!

At last, we were beckoned into a hotel room filled with babies and Chinese women, who were all talking at the same time. Excited and uncertain, we stood there, our stomachs in knots. What now?

Just then, a small, short-haired Chinese woman stood up and said “Yu Fen,” holding out a bundle. My baby! Jumping forward, I took her in my arms. Packed in five layers of machine-knitted acrylic sweaters and pants with the traditional Chinese split-crotch, my daughter had bright red apple cheeks, a Mohawk of damp black hair, a rosebud mouth that did not look pleased, and shiny black almond-shaped eyes that looked solemnly straight into mine.

What happened next was a blur. The others got their babies. But I was transfixed – under a kind of a spell. Unlike the other new parents, I didn’t ask the “aunties” – the babies’ caretakers – any questions about my new daughter’s feeding or sleeping habits. In a videotape someone took, I watch myself in slow motion, walking across the room, sitting in a chair, stroking the cheek of my new daughter: Juliet Meiying.

Suzhou Garden

Lisa with Juliet in a front pack in The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, PRC

My husband and I chose “Juliet” because we both love Shakespeare and as Romeo said in that famous, eponymous play “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” We picked “Meiying” as the middle name, because it means “beautiful flower:” almost the same as her orphanage name, but decidedly easier on the Western ear. It would also be simpler to spell, should she later decide to use it instead of “Juliet.”

I began to rock her, peeling off one layer at a time, noting that the clothing was soft with wear and washing. Asking permission of our coordinator, I took the baby back to my room, where I did what every new mother does: I peeled her down to her naked body. I counted fingers and toes. I cleaned her bottom and powdered her. I kissed her belly button. I changed her into a new Pamper and snapped her into a fresh onesie and clean sleeper.

Then I grabbed up Yu Fen (it would be days before I felt comfortable calling her by her new name) and went back down the hall to see how everyone else was doing. Some babies were sleeping; some were cuddling; some were crying. The aunties were laughing, giving jolly and  brisk advice in Chinese, telling us “If she wakes at night, don’t feed her! Just change her.” They showed us what the babies had been fed on: one scoop of formula, one scoop of ground white rice, one scoop of sugar per 12-ounce bottle.

I only half listened. I took Yu Fen (who had fallen into a very deep sleep) back to my room, and made a nest of blankets and comforters for us on the floor. I didn’t think a five-month-old could roll off the twin bed next to mine, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I curved around her like a spoon. She was warm and smelled of Johnson’s baby powder. Her long lashes curled cunningly against her red cheeks. I nestled closer and her little head with its bristle of hair fit perfectly into the crook of my neck. She was mine.

The rest of the trip was irrelevant. I had our new baby. We traveled from one province to another, seeing notaries and officials, going before tribunal where we had to answer questions.

Amy and Olivia at the airport awaiting Juliet's arrival

Lisa’s sister, Amy DeNike, and Olivia unfurling a banner in December 1994, the day Juliet/Yu Fen came home on a flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport

How had my family prepared for the baby’s arrival? Why hadn’t my husband come along? Why did we want to adopt a baby girl from China when we already had one daughter at home?

But how to account for a matter of the heart? How to describe that single moment in which fate grasped me by the gut and led my family in a direction we’d never dreamed of going? How to explain the inexplicable – how, like a cord, my very soul drew me halfway across the world to a tiny girl lying alone and abandoned in a crib somewhere in China?

Chinese is a wonderful language, full of expressions and words that often go far beyond our own in describing matters of emotion, fate and destiny. Maybe there is a Mandarin word that would have made it all made sense, but I didn’t know it.

So as I spoke to the officials in that small, unheated room, I simply held Yu Fen tightly against my chest. Our hearts beating together provided the answer.

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]

PART ONE

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!!!]

Why I Forgive

by Juliet Meiying Ercolano

[Juliet is our first guest blogger.  She was born in The People’s Republic of China and joined her “forever family” in the United States when she was six months old.   A rising senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, Juliet is a dance major.]

When I was only one month old, I lost my first family. I lived for five months in an orphanage in China sharing a crib with two other babies. Because of the shortage of food, the nannies or ayis (pronounced “eye–ease”) thickened our bottles with ground rice to keep our stomachs full. (I was so small when my family adopted me that I only weighed 11 pounds at six months old.)  I am told that we were kept tightly swaddled in blankets to keep us warm and to take the place of someone holding us because the orphanage, or “social welfare homes” as they are called in China, were understaffed.  We babies obviously spent many hours trying to entertain and soothe ourselves, because when I was adopted I had a bald spot in the back of my head from rubbing back and forth against the mattress from trying to comfort myself. My parents told me I cried the first time I saw a rattle shaken in front of my face because we did not have toys in the orphanage and seeing and hearing it scared me.

Orphanage babies in China

Babies waiting for adoption at an orphanage in China

Juliet and aunties

Orphanage “aunties” holding Juliet before she goes home with her new mom

Of course, I don’t remember any of this myself because I was so young when it happened, but I’ve heard these stories so many times and each time, they have left me feeling angry and confused. To make me feel better, my parents often reassured me that my birth mother must have loved me very much, indeed, because the orphanage told us that I was left at a crowded train station. This showed that my birth mother wanted me to be found and wanted me to have a better life, they said.

It makes me feel sad that I don’t know anything about my birth mother. I don’t even know the simplest facts that most children (even other adopted children) know, such as my mother’s name or age, or what her favorite food is, or if  I resemble her in any way. I don’t know if anyone really understands how much I wish I knew those things that most children take for granted. For years, thinking about my birth mother caused me a lot of inner turmoil, and I blamed myself a lot of the time for my birth mother abandoning me. Maybe I did something wrong that caused her not to want me, but I will never really know.

Baby Juliet

Baby Juliet

I know that if I ever had a baby, I wouldn’t separate from her for any reason at all. I would make it work, somehow and some way, no matter what. I’d  remind my precious baby girl each day how much I love her and how important she is to me and how I’d never let her out of my sight. The feeling of not being good enough still haunts me to this day. If I am not “perfect,” I fear that people will walk right out of my life. That anxiety – of being left – is something I’m still working hard to overcome. It was particularly bad when I was in kindergarten. From the time one of my parents dropped my off at the classroom to the end of the day at pick up time, I would worry: What if they don’t come back? I remember crying every single school day, terrified  that my mom or dad would forget to pick me up and would end up leaving me and never coming back to get me, the way my birth mother left me that day in the train station.  The other children in my class didn’t understand and couldn’t reassure me. I felt different from the rest of them and thought something must be wrong with me. I made myself feel sick every morning, just anticipating the end of the day. I was taken to a child therapist for awhile, but it did not help much. I was too shy to talk and all I can remember during those sessions was she made me draw and play a bunch of games.  Luckily, a year later, my older sister joined my school and I felt a sudden sense of security knowing she was in the same building I was in and I no longer cried at school. My attachment issues with my parents got better year after year and I no longer was afraid to go to school.

Juliet standing at the wall

18-year-old Juliet today

The good news is that now that I am older, I don’t think about my adoption as an upsetting thing at all. Of course, at times I wish I had more information about what led to my being adopted and about my birth family, but mostly I don’t think about it. I don’t feel any different from a girl living with the parents who gave birth to her. My adopted parents are my parents, not my “adopted” parents.  I have two mothers—one who gave me life and the other who let me live it. My family is the one in America. I no longer associate feeling anger with my birth mother.  I find myself feeling more grateful and happy (that I ended up in a family with parents who really wanted me and could take care of me) than upset.

Though I have struggled with my adoption at times, especially as a young kid, I now honor my birth mother’s choice. If she hadn’t decided to give me up, everything as I know now would be altered dramatically including all the people in contact with me. I would be living a completely different lifestyle. I thank my birth mother as often as I think of her for giving me a loving family and safe place to live.

In short, I have forgiven my birth mother for the hard thing she did.  It was hard for me,  of course, but I am now mature enough to realize that it must have been very difficult for her, too. I realized at some point that I was embracing my negative feelings as a way of staying attached to my birth mother, who I never really knew and whose circumstances I could never really understand.  I recognized that it would be foolish not to let go of those bad feelings, which were hurting me and making it harder for me to appreciate and enjoy the life I had now. Forgiveness was a letting go of the bad and a letting in of the good.  And that is why I forgive.

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