A Journey to Fill In the Blanks

Times Staff Writer

“Is that your mom?”

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.

We helped found an adoption group, Families With Children From China-Southern California, now nearly 500 families strong. Many of the children attend Chinese schools or take classes in traditional dance. Nora has always been disinclined to pursue such ventures, and I haven’t pushed. At school, she much preferred French.

But over time, Nora’s internal tensions were rising, fueled perhaps by those awkward questions and taunts of classmates. Her mood would flare. “You’re not my real mom!” she screamed during one memorable outburst. “I wish I were back in China with my real family.”

As we prepared for our journey to China, I read “The Language of Blood,” a memoir by Jane Jeong Trenka, an adult adoptee from South Korea. Adopted as an infant by a conservative white couple, Trenka was reared in a small town in Minnesota.

Trenka identified with the prevailing culture — because that was all she knew — checking off “white” on college applications. Eventually, she reconnected with her birth mother and siblings in Korea and became all but estranged from her American parents.

I called Trenka to chat. She talked about the paradox of the “angry but grateful” adoptee, and I thought back to my daughter’s tirades.

When I asked about China adoptions, Trenka said she felt some adoptive parents practiced “this weird exo-tourism … grasping at cultural tchotchkes, taking stuff out of its context…. The adoptive parents of Chinese girls are working so hard and valiantly to give [the Chinese culture] back, but I’m not sure that’s the right goal. These girls can never be Chinese again.”

I cringed. That described me — us. All those books and clay teapots, all those visits to festivals and Chinese New Year’s parades.

In the last few years, researchers, adoption educators and adult adoptees have been putting a face on the profound loss of culture and homeland.

In young adulthood, it can be a prescription for racial-identity conflicts and feelings of dislocation — what one psychologist calls “psychic homelessness.”

Then there is the matter of birth family. We don’t know Nora’s, and most likely never will, yet they are ever-present, lurking in my daughter’s laughter and her tears.

“What our children ultimately come to think is: The family I was meant to be in I was cheated out of,” said Jane Brown, an adoption social worker in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has given birth to three children and adopted five, some now adults.

As Trenka put it: “If one were to think of the most permanent way to destroy a family, so that people could never see one another again, this would be it.”

In my ignorant bliss, I had been so relieved never to have to fear the arrival of birth parents who might want their daughter back. What I wouldn’t give to meet them now. Which parent, I wonder, handed down Nora’s zany-sense-of-humor gene? Her artistic talents? Those three freckles on her face, which she has dubbed Orion’s Belt?

Nora told me recently that she dreams now and then about her birth parents. In her dreams, they have no faces. But she does not dwell on this void.

More intriguing to her is the likelihood that she, like potentially thousands of the other 40,000-plus adoptees from China living in the United States, has an older sister or two somewhere in China.

That bombshell hit the adoption community a few years ago, courtesy of Kay Ann Johnson, a professor of Asian studies and politics at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

In her book, “Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son,” Johnson points out that the application of China’s draconian “one child” policy varies.

In rural areas, a “one-son or two-child” policy has prevailed. Farm families whose firstborn is a daughter are allowed to try again for a son. Many keep a second-born daughter, but a third-born girl would be at high risk of abandonment — in a field or a railroad station or a department store fitting room.

Johnson also hastens to dispel the popular Western notion that the Chinese do not prize daughters, even as their cultural preference for male heirs endures. For many Chinese, she says, the ideal family would include a son and a daughter.

Among the options for abandoned girls are adoptions within China or by same-race families overseas. As Brown views it, the least favorable choice would be adoption by a white family overseas. That would be me: single and white and on the other side of the world.

As we boarded the plane, I thought of Trenka’s trips to Korea. Would taking Nora to China, I wondered, bring us closer together or turn her away from me?

Nora’s eyes widened as she got her first whiffs of bustling Guangzhou, still pulsing with life at 11 p.m.

As our government tour guide’s van lumbered past high-rise apartments with laundry fluttering from every balcony in the thick air, Nora gripped my hand. My throat caught as I recalled our visit to the U.S. Consulate here a decade ago. As I answered question after question to secure her exit visa, my 19-pound imp gleefully pulled my hair from her perch in the baby carrier on my back.

We — my grown niece, Sarah, was along for the journey — headed next to Beijing to meet up with the rest of our 38-family “orphanage reunion tour,” organized by Our Chinese Daughters Foundation.

The nonprofit group was launched in 1996 by Jane Liedtke, a business consultant who lives in Beijing with her adopted Chinese daughter, Emily. Its goal is embodied in the slogan, “We specialize in helping your child fall in love with China!”

Our whirlwind pilgrimage would prove an endurance contest, as we toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, ogled Xian’s terra-cotta army, met peasant painters and posed warily with a giant panda.

All along the way, Nora bargained for silk purses, fans and parasols — cultural tchotchkes, yes, but also treasured reminders. Not everything in China was to Nora’s liking. One entry in her trip diary, written in large block letters: “I HATE THE PIT TOILETS!!!”

Linguistically, we were minimally prepared. When I decided to study with a Mandarin tutor before our trip, Nora, previously resistant, asked for lessons too.

She picked up the tricky Mandarin tones far more easily than I, a welcome indication to me that the language had been hard-wired during her early months. I, meanwhile, struggled to get my tongue around phrases — not typical tourist fare — that I hoped would address the inevitable questions.

“Zhe shi wo shou yang de nu er.” This is my adopted daughter. “Shi, ta shi zhong guo ren, ye shi mei guo ren.” Yes, she is a Chinese, and also an American.

Chinese, but also American. Nora will forever wear her Chinese-ness on her face. In dress and attitude, she is unmistakably All American, with her flip-flops, Old Navy capris and Hello Kitty T-shirts.

At a Chengdu park, I captured video of Nora and other children from our group passing Chinese girls in green school uniforms. Unspoken but certainly not unnoted by Nora: This was the life she might have led — in an ancient land where peasants sweep streets with feather brooms in the shadow of sleek glass towers.

I would like to say that Nora and I cheerfully toured every site arm in arm, a poster family for trans-racial adoption. But the weather was muggy and smoggy, and she is a preteen, after all.

Nora bonded with Elli and Kate, two girls her age. I hooked up with their moms. For much of the trip, mothers and daughters were on parallel journeys, and that was fine.

On our 11th day, we arrived in Taizhou (pronounced “tie joe”), a vibrant manufacturing center small by Chinese standards at 1.3 million residents.

The next morning, I ventured out early with a video camera. I caught glimmers of my darling daughter in the faces of bicyclists and scooter riders as they whizzed by in the busy streets.

We traveled in poorly air-conditioned vans with three other families. Our driver made several U-turns before finding the nondescript alley that would lead us to 109 Yingchun West Road, the Social Welfare Institution.

An influx of funds from adoptive U.S., Canadian and European parents has helped the institution modernize. The old brick cottages where Nora lived as an infant have been razed, replaced by high-rises for youngsters and the elderly.

Orphanage staff greeted us in a small waiting room with fresh watermelon, grapes and litchis.

We spent a few chaotic minutes discussing our children’s orphanage files as our guide attempted to translate. I learned nothing new. Nora’s face brightened when she saw a toddler-sized red footprint in her file, apparently made the day she headed off to meet me in Nanjing.

We climbed a flight of stairs and were greeted by the wailing of babies. Inside an almost unbearably warm nursery, hung with red satin peppers and decorative firecrackers, lay 16 foundlings in metal cribs, with pads covered by bamboo mats. We were invited to tickle their feet and pick them up.

In her trip diary, Nora singled out her favorite, “a baby that was in the corner of the left side,” with whom she played for several minutes.

Through the crying and chatter, I heard Nora’s Chinese name, Tai Xiu, and whipped around to see a caregiver hugging my startled daughter, who was smiling broadly. I had with me three photos from my meeting with the orphanage staff 10 years ago. One featured a lovely black-haired woman holding Nora.

Here, now with gray in her hair, was that woman. I showed her the picture as tears spilled down my cheeks. Later, Nora would write: “It was so cool that some caregivers remembered me. They are so so nice.”

On our way to a banquet at a local restaurant, the vans pulled over. The orphanage doctor said something to our guide, who translated: “Here is the finding location for Tai Xiu.” Taken by surprise, I grabbed my camera, but the doctor said there wasn’t time to get out. I could shoot a photo from the window, he said.

The picture shows a carefully manicured park that years ago, we were told, was a neglected patch of grass.

“Do you know how long I was there?” Nora quietly asked the doctor. No, the doctor said, they did not. My eyes welled with tears, and I gained a flash of insight into why my daughter has always hated being alone, especially at night.

We later toured Taizhou’s most noted attraction — a memorial to a famous Beijing opera star — where Nora posed in front of a statue with a sweet smile (without my having to beg her).

We spent hours in a Taizhou department store, buying toys and clothing for the orphanage. And far too soon, we had to leave this city, where I had, briefly, felt oddly at home and of which Nora was obviously proud.

On our summer tour of China, my daughter learned that the Great Wall is not flat but has many steps. She learned that the peppercorns in Chengdu pack a spicy punch.

And she learned that on the other side of the world, someone had once cared for her, worried about her, hugged her. Perhaps that explains why, when Nora and I compared notes later about how we felt after seeing Taizhou, we both said the same thing: relieved.

The truth is that a 15-day trip can’t give Nora back her birthright. But it did provide an extra bit of knowledge and solace.

There is a memory I cherish from our first day as a “forever family” in China 10 years ago. Once the weepy Tai Xiu finally came into my arms, she would not tolerate being put down. My left arm ached from the unaccustomed weight. When one of the young Nanjing hotel maids encouraged Tai Xiu to come to her, she clung to me.

May Nora always cling to me — and to China.