My daughters were born on the other side of the planet from us, two of millions of births in the past decade in China, the world's most populous country. And through no fault of theirs, whether the result of China's much-maligned and now ended one-child policy, or another unfortunate circumstance, they spent their first years in the care of orphanages, before they were matched with our family and whisked away to America.
But now that they turned nine and 12, it was time to revisit the country of their birth, and hope that they'd feel pride in their origins, get a sense of where they were from, and start to understand the complex set of circumstances that led to them becoming part of our family half a world away.
It was a trip we undertook with a few misgivings. My daughters were mostly concerned about the extra shots they'd need and the fact that they couldn't drink the water there. My husband, Mike, and I, who had fallen in love with China on our trips there to meet each of our daughters, were more concerned about how they'd react when they were confronted with the details of their past. We had been able to visit one of our daughters' orphanages on our trip to adopt her, and my heart still aches when I think of it—the rows of cribs filled with babies sleeping on hard wooden boards, the lack of toys and color and most of all, comfort, with one nanny tending to at least 20 babies at once. I knew that if that's what we found again, our daughter would find it too hard to bear. And I wanted, so badly, for them to fall in love with their home country, and to feel proud of their heritage.
Fortunately, most of our concerns were unfounded. The girls weren't thrilled with some aspects of China—the pollution, the crowding, the ridiculously humid and hot weather, and the lack of fast wifi topped their list of gripes. But they were as much in awe of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City as we were, they were thrilled to finally meet and greet a panda, and they were over the moon about eating dim sum, tea, and noodles at almost every meal.
Visiting my daughters' home provinces, though, was bittersweet—in ways we definitely weren't expecting.
There was catastrophic flooding in my oldest daughter's province while we visited, which made it impossible for us to travel to her orphanage and the small town where she was from. (The orphanage director spent the day we were planning to visit trying desperately to divert the Yangtze River with sandbags.) The orphanage was spared, but my daughter's wish to see her hometown, and to meet the foster family who cared for her, was not.
We were, however, able to revisit my younger daughter's orphanage. In a testament to how much can change in China in seven years, the formerly 45-minute drive to the orphanage now took more than two hours, thanks to the surge in car ownership in China.
Fortunately, the orphanage had changed as well. The babies were now cared for in smaller groups in a family setting with a "father" and "mother." There were toys! And the preschoolers now learned English, gardening, and art in rooms bursting with color that looked much like the preschools back home. Many of the younger kids were simply waiting for their new families' paperwork to be sorted out before they'd be heading to a new home. The only disheartening part of the visit was that our daughter's orphanage was building two new, larger buildings to house children, at a time when international adoptions from China have basically come to an end. No matter how good the conditions become, an orphanage isn't the best place for a child to grow up.
My daughter was a little embarrassed by all the attention she received—a giant banner welcoming her home, hugs from all the directors and caretakers who had helped her find her way to our home, a beautiful embroidery of pandas as a gift. But it was clearly good for her to get a sense of where she was from, and she just wished that it had been as nice back when she was there.
But perhaps the hardest part was seeing all the Chinese families around—many with older children and new babies, products of the easing of the one-child policy. Tween girls our daughters' ages, chatting with friends or their parents. I could see what my daughters' lives would be like, if things had been different, if policies had changed just a few years earlier, if they could have stayed in their hometowns with their families. And though my life and the lives of those who know my girls here would be immeasurably poorer, I think my daughters would have lived happy lives back in China—even without the high-speed wifi.
We're hoping to make another return trip in a few years, to make another attempt to visit my older daughter's orphanage. And maybe then, it will be time to search for birth families. But for now, we're just happy to have made the trip—and happy to truly be home.