Friday, March 14, 2008

The American Kidnapper

Wednesday, August 22, 2007.I looked up from my stir-fry, American style, hoping the view in front of me had changed.

No dice. It was the usual back of Mei Mei’s head as she surveyed the restaurant dining area while refusing to look at me. She was hoping to find her two orphanage sisters who had been adopted at the same time and if they couldn’t be found, well, the wall was preferable to her new parent.. To the left was a happy group of five couples with the adorable babies they had waited more than two years to claim; to the right, local Chinese families glancing my way, doubtlessly wondering what torture I had inflicted on a cute, 7-year-old girl to cause such alienation. MeiMei’s plate stayed almost untouched as I continued the charade of pretending to eat, unconcerned, and she continued her contempt and rejection.

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. At the Civil Affairs Bureau ceremony the day before, every one of 12 families had seemed the happy family, the perfectly united adoptive family, except mine. Sobs started during the fingerprinting. Sobs continued during my oaths to take care of her. Tears flowed as the passport photos were completed, the eyes red-brimmed between the pigtails. In fact, MeiMei only stopped when the director of the orphanage appeared to soundly scold her: “you are the smiling girl—you are always so happy. You must not cry now and bring shame to us!” As a result, a girl who at least was prepared to show her true feelings to her new adoptive mom was transformed into a stoic semi-adult, refusing to speak to any and all.

Every night that week, my own self-talk would come back to haunt me as I would drift off to sleep. “She’s older: she’s seen so many get adopted; she’ll surely appreciate the fact that she was taken in before it was too late.” I had been naïve—worse than naïve—willfully ignorant. Of course she had attachments. Of course they mattered. And of course—no one had really thought to obtain her consent and understanding over the whole of idea of being adopted.

For the first time I saw adoption in a new light. For one person, it meant adding to a family to enrich it and hopefully give a child in need a better future. For the other person, evidently, it meant being kidnapped and taken away from all she had ever known—and worse, kidnapped with the consent of her “real family”—the orphanage director, the preschool teachers, the nannies she had known since one day of age. And the kidnappers were strangers, looked different from anyone she had every known, and spoke only the most primitive forms of Chinese. Why in the world would she have consented? This business of “America”—it can only be an abstraction when one is seven.

Thursday, the day for visiting the orphanage arrived—one I had promised and now suddenly wanted to take away. We wrapped presents for her friends and I had MeiMei label them. One, two, three presents—all for her favorite nanny. Suddenly I had unreasoning jealousy. She must be some nanny, I thought. After a 2 ½ hour drive we found ourselves at a large, well maintained orphanage building. All the rooms were larger than those in my little condo at home and seemingly cleaner as well. A flock of children came running to greet MeiMei as a minor celebrity. She handed out my candy and my gifts, all the while ignoring me. I was clearly secondary to the entire event of the Returning Orphanage Star. I capitulated and fell into the role of paparazzo, camera at the ready, although the hardest photo of all to take was MeiMei and the nanny together—one dissolving into tears, the other trying not to. The watching children stared at me and my older daughter. Clearly I was persona non grata, there to remove their favorite friend. With effort I managed to smile and ask a few perfunctory questions. Then I hightailed it out of there, eager to start our new life away from all that was holding MeiMei back.

The days remaining in China passed quickly, and I was only too glad. We went home and I tried to ease the way. We would find Chinese speakers in stores and restaurants; I got their numbers and would call them when MeiMei seemed down. I enrolled her in a school with several Chinese-speaking children. I had MeiMei send letters in Chinese to friends back at the orphanage and she did so—but the letters were always about school, as though her new family simply existed as the school transport system and nothing more. For months my daughter and I found ourselves entertaining a house guest—one stubbornly refusing to speak English, eat what we ate, play as we liked to play, bathe when we liked to bathe, and recognize the possibilities of family.

It is hard to pinpoint where real change began. It may have been the major birthday party we threw her in November, complete with magician. It may have been the day, late that same month, when in a Helen Keller-like moment for me, she tried her first word—“juice” and I rewarded her. It may have been due to the undeniable physical delight of having her first ski lesson over Christmas, or being encouraged to call other kids from the orphanage to keep the ties going. It may have been my refusal to react when MeiMei was cold and rejecting. It could have been emerging patience that I wasn’t aware that I had. And finally, it may have been the Mandarin-speaking therapist who gently, carefully managed to explain, “when we love people we must tell them that we love them, or they will not know.” I only know that in early March, as I went to turn out the light, saying “Good night; I love you,” that I heard the same words spoken in return—freely and happily for the first time by the little girl in pigtails.

Today, as we approach April, there is still work to do. But MeiMei is the one who comes running into my arms every morning for her hug when I say, “I’m missing something.” She is the one who buries her head in my neck and kisses it at bedtime, insisting that I not leave. She is the one confidently trying English right and left, and the one who at last is not afraid to call me Mom. MeiMei is still learning who is the Big Boss and who has to take a second or third seat in the family. But at least she is finally in the game.

And as for those other American families we met in China who felt sorry for us—and as for the orphanage staff—they are not here to see our small miracle of change, but it no longer matters. Each child’s heart has its own timetable and its own path to follow—one to be watched, understood and respected. As former “kidnapper,” I am coming to terms with MeiMei’s ways of coping and steps towards acceptance. Both kidnapper and kidnapped are co-discovering and co-inventing family, and that’s what matters most now.

1 comment:

Eva said...

Thank you for your post. We had similar experience 9 years ago.