“The Point of Return”
This came up in the Boston Globe a little while ago. Thanks for the article tip Q!
NEWBURYPORT – Years ago, three little girls celebrating the anniversary of their adoption on the sandy beach at Plum Island dreamed of taking a big trip, perhaps to New York, when they were old enough to drive.
The girls are 16 now, and they have made a big journey. Instead of going to New York, however, they traveled to China this summer to volunteer in the orphanage in Wuhan that took them in when their birth parents abandoned them as infants. For two weeks Jenna Cook, Zoe Guastella, and Nona Morse helped children with disabilities and taught the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to kindergartners learning English. They gave swimming lessons and dance classes and strengthened their connection to the country where they were born.
“I’ve always wanted to give back,” said Cook, who lives in Newburyport with her mother, godmother, and 12-year-old sister, also adopted from China. “I always wanted to thank the people at the orphanage for taking such good care of me. I wanted to show them that when the babies go away they’re not gone for good.”
What Cook and her friends did is rare, if not unique, among the almost 70,000 Chinese children, overwhelmingly girls, adopted by Americans since mainland China opened itself to foreign adoption in the early 1990s. As new as volunteering in the orphanage of their origin is for young people from China, it is a path already trod by adoptees from Korea, from which Americans have been adopting for a half century, and elsewhere.
“There was a time when people didn’t talk about adoption, when you were supposed to be in your adoptive family and not look back. As we as a culture embrace that it’s good to go back to your roots, it’s good to go back to where you come from, this will happen more and more,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “The girls from China, as a cohort, their parents have been very big to embrace their culture and background. For them, it makes perfect sense that they would want to go back, see the orphanage, and maybe do something for it.”
The three girls were among 206 children adopted from China in 1992, up from 61 in 1991, the first year China appeared on the State Department’s list of 20 most popular countries for international adoption. Although many have visited China with their families – and toured their orphanages – in the years since then, the girls are among the few adopted from China who are old enough to go back to give back. Indeed, when Cook, who has also visited China twice with her family, first suggested returning as a volunteer when she stopped by the Wuhan Children’s Welfare Institute in 2006, the orphanage’s director replied she was too young.
‘They brought fresh air’
On June 22, the girls, accompanied by Zoe’s mother, Rita Guastella, stepped onto the tarmac at the airport in Wuhan, one of China’s so-called furnace cities, and were greeted by air so hot and sticky that their camera lens steamed. The photograph taken at that moment shows the girls shrouded in fog.
So began their adventure as the first adoptees to return as volunteers, not merely visitors, to the Wuhan orphanage, one of China’s largest. To arrange their visit, the orphanage’s director, with some difficulty, secured an exemption from regulations permitting only domestic volunteers.
Cook, a poised girl who speaks in careful sentences, worked three jobs last summer to save for the trip. She plays guitar and is coxswain for the rowing team at Phillips Exeter Academy, which she asked to attend because she tired of being one of her earlier school’s only Asian students. Morse lives with her mother in Brookline, where she plays tennis and is active in a club that helps children in Chinese orphanages who need surgery for cleft lips. She saw the orphanage for the first time since infancy when she went to China at age 9. Guastella, as ebullient as Morse is reserved, is a competitive swimmer who lives with her mother in Cambridge. This was her first return trip to China.
The volunteering wasn’t the only thing differentiating this trip from previous visits. This time a filmmaker, who doubled as interpreter, recorded the girls’ experience for a documentary she expects to finish in September. “People are curious about their fate,” filmmaker Bai Yujuan said via e-mail, “about how they grow up in the US and how they think about themselves.”
In the “Little Sisters” program, the girls worked three days a week with children whose “disabilities” ranged from Down syndrome to abnormalities of appearance such as being albino that would warrant no such labeling here. The kindergartners from the community whom they helped two days a week would squeal “toes, toes” to request the song that teaches body parts. They met an 18-year-old who’d lived in the orphanage since his family died in a fire when he was 9 and who will enroll in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, which Guastella’s mother told her “was something like getting into Harvard and winning the lottery.” They met a 10-year-old girl about to be adopted by a family in San Diego who worried about making friends. They met a young girl with scoliosis about to be adopted by a family in Spokane, Wash.
“It was really emotional sometimes, and also a really wonderful and happy experience,” Morse said. “I felt really lucky to be there.”
The excitement was mutual. “The girls brought fresh air to the class,” Bai, the filmmaker, said one teacher told her.
Connected to their heritage
The trip culminated childhoods filled with efforts to maintain their connection to their heritage. They have studied Chinese and learned Chinese dance and joined playgroups for children adopted from China. Folk art from China hangs on the walls of Cook’s living room, and she’s painted a mural of bamboo and monkeys on her bedroom wall to make it look like China. “A lot of it comes from what you see your parents loving,” Cook said. “My parents really love China.”
Families who adopted from China learned from adults who had been adopted from Korea in the 1950s and 1960s. “A lot of them were raised in Caucasian communities, often not seeing a person who looked like them,” said Melissa Ludtke, mother of a 12-year-old daughter from China and editor of the newsletter of the local chapter of Families with Children from China. “Many of them say, ‘We wish it had been different.’ That’s one thing our group has taken its cue from.”
This summer’s trip was an outgrowth of so-called “motherland” tours that have been a staple of adoptive families since the early 1970s, when Oregon-based Holt International, the country’s oldest international adoption agency and one of the largest, organized a trip to Korea for young adult adoptees, said Holt vice president Susan Soonkeum Cox, who was adopted from Korea in 1956. Holt also launched Korean culture camps for younger children.
“When transracial, international adoption was new, the concern was how would these children fit in. Our parents were told to Americanize us as quickly as possible,” Cox said. “The evolution of understanding better what the practice should be came from experience. A great deal of it was adult adoptees saying, ‘I wish I had known more about my culture and heritage growing up.’ ”
Holt has helped adoptees volunteer in orphanages in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and the Philippines, Cox said, and Cook’s mother has a friend whose son volunteered in his Colombian orphanage. “In Korea,” Cox said, “it’s pretty well-established.”
The girls left China with questions – had they passed their birth parents in the street? – and, for Guastella, at least, some answers. Each girl saw her file. Cook’s had no note from her birth parents, and Morse’s had a simple notation of her birthdate. In Guastella’s was a bright red paper, an auspicious color, and, in neat calligraphy, a message that, translated, read: “Because of a flood in our hometown, we cannot afford to raise her. If some kind-hearted person could find her and raise her, we would be forever grateful!”
Guastella, crying and clinging to her mother, focused on the exclamation point. “If I were to define myself as a piece of punctuation it would definitely be an exclamation point. It’s part of my personality,” she said. “It showed they really loved me, and it was hard for them to give me up.”
She’s saving money to return next summer.
“There’s a part of me that’s now filled in because I’ve gone back and seen my first home and seen the kids that I could have been,” Guastella said. “Helping them was amazing.”