Anne Mei’s Chinese birth certificate gives her date of birth as July 2, 1996. We have always celebrated her birthday on July 2nd, and this year she turns 20.
Laura and I did not meet Anne Mei until 10 months later, Sunday, May 18, 1997. Laura and I often forgot our own wedding anniversary, June 22. Some years Laura even had to ask me what was the date of our anniversary. We didn’t need to remember a specific date to remember to say Te quiero every day. It was the same with the day that we wrapped Anne Mei in our arms for the first time. The emotions of that day lived in our hearts every day. We didn’t need to keep track of some specific date.
But we did have many birthday parties on July 2. This year Anne Mei is spending her birthday with a friend so she and I are going to a play and out for dinner on July 3. The social schedule of a 20-year-old requires making accommodations.
The memories of May 18, 1997 remain strong. We arrived at the airport in Changsha, Hunan Province, China in the early afternoon. Our local guide, Mr. Ma, met us in the terminal. He was somewhat of a wit and knew exactly the effect he was trying to achieve when he asked if anyone needed to use the facilities “to change their diapers.” That was when we first encountered Chinese “facilities.”
From the airport, we were driven in a van to the hotel, where we quickly unloaded our bags and headed straight over to the orphanage, Changsha Social Welfare Institute No. 1. They brought us into an institutional waiting room. Unlike the sterile, bland walls of an American institution, the walls in this room were covered with an ornate tapestry on one side and with heavy, dark curtains on the others. The room seemed rather dark, even with the lights on. The tapestry showed a line of travelers dressed in traditional Chinese clothes. Some were carrying bags over their shoulders. There was a black and white stork flying over their heads.
Finally, Mei arrived with Fen, who was being adopted by Eileen and Bob. In the picture below one of the caregivers hands Liu Mei to Laura. “Liu” like other Asian surnames came first. It was the surname of the director of the orphanage, and was given to all the children. We are going to call Mei “Anne.” Eileen and Bob are giving Fen the name “Ciani.”
The caregiver has both arms around Mei’s chest. She is looking very fondly at Mei. There are two caregivers also watching carefully. One has her hand up to her chin, a nervous gesture to cover her mouth. They all seemed as nervous as we were. Mei does not look happy. Her head is turned to one side and she is frowning. Since the picture is taken from over Laura’s shoulder, we can’t see Laura’s face.
We asked the caregivers many questions about Mei. They told us that she was not a cranky baby, and that she liked her formula mixed half and half with rice cereal and with sugar. She slept in a crib with other babies, and that her name means “Rose.” We didn’t know what sleeping in a crib with other babies meant until the next day when they let us visit the ward.
Laura held Anne Mei closely. Then she let me hold her. Laura took her back for a picture of the three of us together for the first time. In this picture (at the top of this blog post) Laura and I are beaming. Anne Mei is frowning with her lower lip stuck out. She was quite frightened. Who are these strange people, strange looks, strange smells, strange sounds? By the time her face became a bit more relaxed, it was time for us to leave … without her.
The next day, Monday, right after breakfast we all got in the van to go to the Ministry of Civil Affairs and then the notary to take care of paperwork required for the Chinese adoption. In the waiting room we met couples from Spain and Britain, also here to adopt.
Mr. Liu, the orphanage director, joined us at the Ministry of Civil Affairs. After the notary we went to the orphanage to pick up the babies. This was not planned so we don’t have presents for the director or the caregivers. But we do get Anne and Ciani. While this was going on, Charlene, our other American traveling companion was driven out of the city to meet the 7-year-old girl she was adopting.
Anne Mei gave her new Mom her first smile when we were in the reception room.
At the hotel we changed Anne’s clothes and washed her off, putting medicine on all her sores except the one on the top of her head. She did not like the bottle of American formula and cereal that I prepared, but didn’t fuss over lack of food. It was only after we returned to New Jersey that we learned that much of this lethargy was due to severe anemia. Anne fell asleep in Laura’s arms and we put her down for a nap.
After she woke, she gulped down a small bottle of just formula with lots of sugar. Eileen and Ciani come to visit while Bob and I walked to the store to get some Chinese formula. Ciani did not like the American formula, either.
We all gathered for supper at the Hunan restaurant on the first floor of the hotel. Charlene had returned with her little girl, ShaSha, whom she will call “Teresa.” ShaSha ate the hot pepper dish we were served first. I could only eat a little bit. Bob ate more than two plates and his face turned bright red. He told me later that he did not like the chrysanthemum tea so he had nothing to drink. Tina, the adoption agency’s Chinese coordinator, had told the waitress not to make the other Hunan dishes less spicy than normal. I liked the last dish—little Mandarin breads (steamed and fried) with a cream sauce to dip them in. Anne Mei drank the Chinese formula, as we ate.
The formalities in Changsha were not completed until Wednesday. We flew from Changsha to Guangzhou (Canton) that evening, where we stayed at the White Swan Hotel, along with many other international adoption families. Our main business in Guangzhou involved completing the American paperwork for Anne, Ciani, and Teresa.
Among the activities to fill the time waiting for appointments at the American consulate was taking group pictures in the lobby of the White Swan. In the picture below, from the left are Ciani, Teresa, and Anne.
When asked to name one of the happiest days of your life, sometimes you pick a day that went fine for you, but upset your loved one. If you’re both lucky, she doesn’t even remember the day. The enormity of the changes in the lives of these three little girls is apparent on their faces in 1997. In 2016 these young women face another new world, adulthood, with strong smiles..