By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; B01
Abby Newell's adoptive parents have been preparing for her "birth tour" for years. They have attended Chinese culture camp in Silver Spring, decorated their Fairfax home like a Shanghai apartment and - most important, they say - enrolled Abby in Mandarin classes on the weekend.
The goal is for her to land in China sometime in the next few years with a sense of her own complex identity: She is both an 8-year-old girl from suburban Virginia and a child whose birth mother left her in a rural Chinese outpost with a note pinned to her saying, "I can't keep this child."
Thousands of American parents who adopted girls near the peak of the Chinese adoption boom earlier this decade are facing similar dilemmas as their children reach school age. Increasingly, they are turning to weekend classes in rented public schools or storefronts taken over by bare-bones Chinese language programs.
"We've always believed that language is the key to culture - to Abby's heritage," said her mother, Robin Lelyveld Newell. "These classes aren't just about fluency. They're about identity."
Across the country, there has been a surge in Chinese classes. More than 1,600 American middle schools and high schools now offer Chinese, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, up from about 300 a decade ago. But the more pronounced increase is in private Chinese language schools, most of them run by non-profit groups.
More than 30 private Chinese schools now operate on weekends in the Washington area. Many of them, started as community centers for recent immigrants, also have become informal meeting places for groups of adoptive parents. Some of those schools now count recently adopted children as their primary demographic.
Every Sunday, when the Latino church congregants leave George Marshall High School in Falls Church, the Chinese teachers arrive. For two hours a week, the second floor of the building belongs to the Northern Virginia Chinese School.
The school, founded 20 years ago by several newly arrived Chinese families, has seen a massive influx of adoptive parents in recent years. The aging Chinese men who practice tai chi on the school's linoleum hallway floor during classes have been joined by younger, American fathers. Entire classes are now filled with adopted girls, some still a few years away from kindergarten.
"They are, without a doubt, some of the most enthusiastic parents we have," said Jeanny Ho, the school's principal.
In Rockville, the Cultural Language Arts Programs and Services for Non-Chinese Speaking Families teaches more than 70 adopted children, three-quarters of its student body. The school opened in 2003, months after Yen Chen started fielding calls from eager parents worried that their adopted children were losing touch with their Chinese roots.
"â'I can't teach my daughter Chinese, but I don't want her to lose her language. Can you help?' they asked," Chen recalled.
Those calls kept pouring in as the number of Chinese adoptions rose sharply in the U.S., peaking at 7,900 nationally in 2005, and then decreasing just as abruptly as it rose. China has tightened its adoption policies in recent years, changing the criteria that foreigners must meet in order to adopt Chinese children.
Chen watched as the children who arrived at weekly Chinese classes kept getting younger, as their parents seemed to become more committed to maintaining their children's Chinese heritage.
Chen now holds a weekly class for 1-year-old adoptees and their parents. "I tell them, 'I don't know how much your child is going to absorb.' But they just want the girls to be surrounded by the language as early as possible."
On Saturday morning, three adopted toddlers squirmed in their seats at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, coloring a birthday cake and gluing four paper candles to it. Together, they counted the candles.
Then they sang "Happy Birthday" in Chinese and danced around the room. "Mommy's going to be so proud," one girl squealed.
"There's never been a wave of adoptions like this - with so many children from the same country in such a short amount of time," said Fang Wu, a professor at Howard University who has studied adoptive families in the Washington area. "And no other group of adoptive families has formed such a closely knit community."
For many of those families, connections are forged in Chinese classes when their children are barely old enough to read in any language.
At Hope Chinese School in Herndon, Carolina Schaefer remembers watching as 6-year-old girls formed a circle during a break between classes this fall.
"Do you know I have a Chinese and an American name?" Schaefer's daughter, Phyllis, asked.
"My birth mother is in China," another said.
"So is mine," another girl added.
Schaefer is looking ahead to a birth tour for her two adopted daughters. Now 4 and 6, they already have been studying Chinese for several years, first with private tutors and now at Hope.
"It's not just about the language. It's about finding out what Chinese families are like. It's about having a connection to the culture, period" Schaefer said.
In Hope's advanced classes, her two biological sons, 9 and 10, stand out like sore thumbs, she says. "We're the only Caucasians in the room, and that's just great," she said.
But a few months ago, the boys came to Schaefer with a strong suggestion: "We want to take German," they said, "not Chinese."
Schaefer paused. She had no intention of trying to force Chinese fluency on her children, adopted or biological. She knew that even the most well-meaning adoptive parents tend to run headlong into the obstacles of American adolescence. Weekend Chinese classes get supplanted by baseball practices and theater rehearsals, and the bonds over a shared culture don't always survive middle school.
Shaefer also knew that as her daughters get older, they will continue asking questions about their own heritage. But will they grow to feel more American or more Chinese? Will they be grateful or resentful for their mother's efforts?
"When you adopt, you inherit this big bag of questions and unknowns. It's a journey you take with your children," she said.
Shaefer thought more about her sons' request. They could learn German some day, she said.
"But for now, Mandarin is the family language."