The Dawn Of Their Bond

(Family Photo - Family Photo)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 31, 2007


Twelve years ago, five families from the Washington area came to this city in China's eastern Jiangsu province to adopt children. They found little girls to welcome into their worlds and, in doing so, joined a new generation of American families that had only recently begun to adopt from this country.

Overnight, an infant named Chang Chunhe became Maddy Conover; another infant named Chang Chungui became Maryann O'Connor Roe. Four other girls were adopted, one of them a year later.

Last month, the five families made their first roots visit to China, an attempt to reintroduce their daughters to the country of their birth and to dig up clues about the first several months of the girls' lives. It was the kind of trip an increasing number of American families are making as the tens of thousands of children who have been adopted in China come of age.

"We wanted to give the girls a sense of who they are," said Janet Bass of Bethesda, who adopted one of the girls, Alison Staffin. "We came here without children, got to know each other's stories and became friends. There's a special bond between the girls, and we wanted Alison to be proud of her background."

Parents say it's a background coaxed out at home with trips to the Sackler and Freer galleries of Asian art or with lessons in martial arts or Mandarin Chinese. It's a background the girls are curious about and eager to explore.

But in the case of the Washington area families, the babies who left China were returning as all-American preteens. And they faced a challenge familiar to other adoptees who make the trip back: how to learn about a homeland whose traditions -- and politics -- they never really knew in the first place.

In Tiananmen Square, for example, the families tried to unfurl a red banner that said "Journey of the Dragon 2007." It was for a group photo in honor of their trip and not in any way connected to the bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters there. But the police, wary of any public displays at the square, immediately confronted the families and rolled up the banner. For the girls, it was eye-opening.

"In America, you have a lot of freedom of speech," Alison said. "You can have a big banner that says 'I hate Bush' or something, and the police don't tackle you."

During the trip, at various stops along the way, the girls' speech, posture and habits set them apart. At a restaurant, they squealed, "Eeeww, gross!" and reached for the french fries when served a whole turtle. They struggled gamely with chopsticks. And when they hung out at their hotel, wearing flip-flops and shorts, they rehearsed "Breakaway," the hit by "American Idol" star Kelly Clarkson, which one of the girls had brought to China on her iPod.

"Grew up in a small town, and when the rain would fall down, I'd just stare out my window, dreamin' of what could be," the girls harmonized. "And if I'd end up happy, I would pray."

'I Can Feel Something'

More than 50,000 Chinese babies have been adopted in the United States since 1989. Last year alone, the State Department issued 6,493 visas to orphans from China. But those facts aren't well publicized here. Everywhere the families went, they drew stares -- so much so, that they started to hand out pink cards that read in Chinese and English: "We are Americans. Our children were adopted from China and we have returned to visit China because we want our children to be proud of their Chinese heritage and see the beautiful country."

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