The puzzled second-grader looked from my face to my daughter's, back to mine and then again to my child's — struggling to reconcile my pale features and blond hair with Nora's tawny skin, dark brown mane and almond-shaped eyes.
"Yes," Nora chirped to her classmate. "I'm adopted."
I silently cheered. My efforts to make Nora proud of her Chinese heritage and at ease with being the daughter of a single white mother were paying off. Or so it seemed.
As we cuddled in bed that night, my normally good-natured 7-year-old began to sob. I wrapped my arms around her, but she was inconsolable. "You know, Mommy, it really hurts my feelings when people say we don't look alike."
Her words stung. Yes, my daughter and I came from different races, but I had thought that my love for her would conquer all. In multicultural Los Angeles, I figured, a family like ours would blend in.
That was not the case. As I summed it up for a family therapist, "Nora has a hole in her soul."
So in June, 10 years to the day after I adopted the 15-month-old Tai Xiu, she and I boarded a United 747 bound for the land of her birth. My hope was that by experiencing firsthand the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of her native country — even for a short time — she could start to fill in the blanks.
We would not be alone. Dozens of other adoptive families, many feeling the same confusion we did, also had signed on for this 15-day tour of China. For the first time in her young life, Nora, now a lean and leggy 11-year-old, would be part of a vast majority; her blue-eyed mother would be the oddball.
We had no illusions of finding her family. We hoped not only to hike the Great Wall and sample peppery Sichuan food, but also to visit a place I hadn't been allowed to see before — the government-run orphanage known as the Taizhou Social Welfare Institution.
The trip would prove a revelation. And not just for Nora. For me.
Worries about trans-racial adoption were far from my mind in spring 1993 when, 42 and single, I began thinking seriously about adopting. I had long yearned to be a mother. A hysterectomy seven years earlier had cured my cervical cancer but dashed any hope of conceiving and carrying a baby.
China appealed because I wanted a girl, and Chinese orphanages were overflowing with them — an unintended consequence of years of population planning in a society with a deeply rooted preference for boys.
Another bonus (or so I thought): There would be no birth parents to interfere in our lives. Most of the thousands of children available for adoption in China at the time had been abandoned by families seeking to avoid fines, or even forced sterilization, for surpassing birth quotas.
As I completed a stack of required paperwork, I briefly pondered the wisdom of a trans-racial family. I thought, naively, that I was doing all the right things — devouring books about Chinese history and culture, attending seminars on trans-racial adoption, taking culinary tours of Chinatown.
In June 1994, I met a sad and frightened tot named Tai Xiu (pronounced more or less "tie shoe") in a hotel hallway in steamy Nanjing. When an orphanage worker attempted to push the roly-poly toddler into my arms, she resisted with all her strength and shrieked.
Only after much coaxing did she finally let me hold her. By the next morning, she was giggling and strutting through the hallway.
Many times since, I have thought — guiltily — about how terrifying those first hours with her strange new English-speaking "Mama" must have been. But back then, all I could think of was my extreme joy in gaining a lively, lovely daughter. I gave very little thought to what she was losing.
I brought her to California, and for years, outwardly, our family seemed a happy little unit.