To China and Back Again
From watching … the children, I learned that our two cultures have much in common. [W]e all take great pride and joy in our children. — sociology Short Term journal entry, May 11, 1979, Guangzhou, China
When I penned that journal entry seventeen years ago, I had no idea how much the Chinese culture would figure in my life years later. They say that life brings you in circles, and now I believe that is true.In the spring of 1979, I jumped at the chance to participate in a historic Short Term unit with Professor of Sociology George Fetter: the first group of Bates students to visit mainland China. The country had just opened to foreigners and the persistent Professor Fetter had wrangled us an invitation to tour many of the country’s principal provinces.
Making the trip then was as easy as throwing some jeans and T-shirts into a suitcase and locking my dorm room behind me. For three weeks, we traveled through large cities and small villages teeming with people and bicycles, all colored in drab shades of brown and gray. We often sang for our hosts, and in our free time would wander the back alleys of the cities where we stayed, studying the people we saw, as they studied us. The brightest spots I can remember were the many children we encountered along the way.
As we traveled, people stopped and looked at us, as we did them. The children were especially cute and the most willing subjects for photographs. — journal entry, April 26, 1979, Beijing, China
This past spring, I once again packed up for a trip to China, only this time there were four suitcases, loaded down with diapers, formula, and baby clothes. My wife, Heidi Duncanson ’82, and I had applied to adopt one of China’s many abandoned girls, and we were matched with a little six-month-old, Jiang Zhanru, in April. She was waiting for us in an orphanage in the city of Shaoguan, about half a day’s travel from Hong Kong.Certainly things had changed in China since I had been there last, but many of the cultural standards stood firm, including the preference of young couples for baby boys. This, together with the Chinese government’s controversial policy on population control that forbids couples from having more than one child, has led to the abandonment of thousands of baby girls each year. Fortunately for us and others, the government has created a program that allows foreigners to adopt abandoned babies from the numerous orphanages throughout the country.
We arrived in Guangzhou (the city formerly known as Canton) after nine months of paperwork and a twenty-two-hour flight from Boston. There were still millions of people and bicycles, but there were also more cars and unfortunately, more pollution than I remembered in 1979. The U.S. influence had definitely been felt, as evidenced by the presence of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Western dress. Our hotels were modern and well staffed, and we could even find a good cheeseburger when we craved a taste of home.
Our adoption took place on May 28, 1996. We had taken a three-hour train ride from Guangzhou to Shaoguan that morning, passing through acres of rice paddies and tropical mountains. We traveled in the “soft-seat” cars, which meant that we had air conditioning (helpful in the ninety-plus-degree heat), as well as rules against smoking and spitting, two common habits among the Chinese.
After a brief stop at the hotel, we boarded a small bus that took us across two of Shaoguan’s three rivers and up into the hills outside the city. At the end of a rutted dirt road, behind a crumbling gate, was the Shaoguan Welfare Institute, a series of low stucco buildings surrounded by ramshackle housing.
We were greeted by the orphanage directors and escorted to the second floor of the sparely furnished administration building. An assistant ceremoniously offered us tea and cut open juicy oranges, which Heidi and I were too nervous to eat. One director offered us each a cigarette. Not wanting to be rude, we took them until our translator came in and burst out laughing, knowing that none of us smoked. He explained this to the director and we then made a big show of passing the cigarettes back with smiles all around.
Soon it was time for the babies to be brought in. We sat sweating in the sweltering office until finally they called us out on the balcony. Our first glimpse of our baby was a wash of emotions, as we gently held the tiny, wide-eyed girl who was to become our daughter. She did not cry right away, but was quietly watchful. Within minutes of boarding the bus back to the city, she was asleep in Heidi’s arms.
That evening, we spent the first of many sleepless nights. Our baby, whom we have named Hope, would not drink from any of the bottles we had brought and was not wild about sleeping, either. We took turns walking around and around the small hotel room, hoping her crying was not keeping everyone on our floor awake.
On the second day, she began running a fever with a stuffy nose and still wasn’t eating. We gave her Tylenol and tried to force fluids, but she continued crying and we started to feel like zombies. We spoon-fed her formula and rice cereal to keep her hydrated.
On the third day, we returned to Guangzhou and put in a call to our pediatrician in New Hampshire. Heidi’s mother’s intuition suspected an ear infection, so she spoke with the doctor about starting Hope on the antibiotics we had brought from home. Within twelve hours of the first dose, Hope started smiling at us! We also found a way to feed her: We bought a bottle with a spoon attached to it at a big Chinese department store. Things were finally looking up.
As we strolled the streets of the city, people would frequently stop us and ask in broken English, “Boy or girl?” When we answered “girl,” they always smiled and replied, “Lucky girl!” We smiled and nodded, but in our hearts, we know that we are the ones who are truly lucky.
Mark and Heidi arrived back in the United States on June 6, 1996, with seven-month-old Hope Zhanru Weaver. She gained five pounds in the first twelve weeks but still isn’t wild about sleeping.