Thursday, October 11, 2007

It Takes a Village

Today at the zoo with Jessica and Yea-Yea, we sat down for lunch near a mom and her two kids. White mom, Chinese kids. I smiled at them, but they were busy eating. Without considering it any further, I said cheerily, "Hello. Do we know you?"

Not the most subtle salutation. But honestly, identifying another adoptive parent of Chinese children begs for a secret handshake, or at least some kind of finger sign. The evidence sits there like an elephant in the room (the elephant in the zoo?) when we're right next to another family that looks like ours, so we smile at each other coyly, then look away, batting our eyelashes. Our children, not nearly so socially delicate, stare each other down as if to say "I know about you."

The first time it happened to us, we didn't have Jarrah yet. Shortly after we filed our paperwork, David and I saw them in Outback Steakhouse. The smiling white couple, holding a Chinese baby in their laps, feeding her off their plates. I beamed at them, practically winking, willing my face to convey approval and excitement without suggesting "stalker" or "nativist." It was hard back then, because I had no child to hoist up and affirm my credentials: "See? We're the same! See? The same!"

China adoption is hardly rare these days, and has been occurring in this country since 1992. In the past couple of years, China has ranked #1 in the United States in the total of international adoptions. Since 2002, approximately 5,000 to 8,000 Chinese children have been adopted by U.S. families each year. So it's not at all unusual to go to Legoland or Seaworld or any other popular kid attraction and see at least one family that looks like mine. On the other hand, you have to put these numbers in the context of every biological child that's been born since 1992, and suddenly you're looking at a unique situation indeed. Certainly, encountering other families formed by China adoption is not so commonplace that it could ever go without notice. At least, not by me.

In China, we were on Lantau Island off Hong Kong when we spotted a blond couple eating lunch at the vegetarian monastery with their beautiful little girl, clearly Chinese. I poked Mary and pointed. She said, "I'm going to talk to them." I hissed, "Don't! What if we've made a mistake?" But Mary was not so jet-lagged that she couldn't see what was escaping me: these people were not in China for a vacation. Mary was a natural. She walked up and said, "Hi. I'm Mary, and this is my husband, Paul. These are our friends, Sam and David. We're adopting baby girls in Chongqing in a few days."

What a great approach! It put the facts on the table, and allowed the recipients to respond in whatever fashion they liked. With Mary's intro, it was easy for them to confirm what we'd suspected: they were here to adopt again. In fact, they were traveling with our agency, and we'd be standing together to swear the oath at the Consulate in Guangzhou in two weeks.

Since then, we've had "the encounter" many times, and often, we've been with Paul, Mary and Joy. That's not really a coincidence, as we often visit popular kid attractions together. There's always a lot of meaningful "Hi" and "Well, hello!" with waggling eyebrows, like we're trying to determine if the other is single and looking. But actually, we're trying to make a connection, validate ourselves by confirming there are others like us.

Or maybe that's just what I'm trying to do. I spend so much time in groups of parents and children--through school, playdates, or just chatting at the park--in which I am special and separate. I am Other. It's not remarked upon, or hardly ever. But everyone has their bundles of joy with matching red hair, or pointy chins, or big blue eyes, and then there's my daughter, who has black eyes and straight hair, and me who, well, doesn't.

And that's why I think I'm drawn to other families that look like ours. Because, in fact, they don't: David and I don't resemble those other mommies and daddies, and our daughters, aside from being Chinese, don't look alike, either. But, by virtue of how we are arranged, we are parallel, subsets of a larger set. And while that doesn't much matter to Jarrah (she'd make friends with a dinosaur if it were seated at the next table, munching on pizza) it matters to me. It makes me feel special in a good way, like being in an exclusive club for which only a select few know the password.

If only there were a damn password. Because there's not, today I startled this other mom when I said, "Do we know you?" What I really meant was, "Are you in San Diego FCC?" but she looked surprised and laughed, and for one horrible second I thought she was going to say, "This isn't what you think it is." But if it hadn't been what I thought it was, she wouldn't have known to say that, would she? And she did know. "Actually, we're visiting from Chicago; my husband is here on business."

I introduced myself and Jarrah to her, and she introduced her girls, who were three and five, and angelic in both appearance and deportment. During our half-hour lunch, while Jarrah slathered her head and arms in tomato sauce and whined ceaselessly for "treats," I never heard either girl make a sound. They sat up straight, ate their sandwiches, and hardly seemed curious about us. Their mom, Kathy, told us that while they are FCC members in Chicago, they adopted at the same time as several of their friends, and they sort of form their own little group now. So, possibly this scenario is truly common to them.

Kathy was friendly, and her smile was warm, but she didn't try to draw me out. I asked her a bunch of questions ("What province?" "How old when...?") and I volunteered some info about Jarrah's orphanage because Kathy looked amazed after asking Jarrah, "How old are you?" and hearing "I'm two and a half." Kathy shot me a look, I nodded, and she burst out, "Her orphanage had some good nutrition!" Considering Jarrah was 27 lbs. at 13 months, that must have been true, but it was weird to hear this from another parent of a Chinese girl. Jarrah really does tower over a lot of her same-age peers, Chinese or not.

I'm not sure what led her in this direction, but Kathy asked me, "Are you on your own?" Ah, now there's another code. It means, "Are you a single parent?" Until now, a common version of Chinese adoption, since China has long been a friendly place for single moms. No more, though. On May 1, 2007, the China Center for Adoption Affairs stopped accepting applications from singles. They have their reasons, but they are culture-specific, and it's a great loss for both countries, if you ask me. I tried to figure out what I'd said (or didn't say) to suggest that I was single, but I never figured it out.

I also said Jarrah was an only child "for now," and she echoed "For now?" "Well, turns out this parenting thing is hard," I said, and she laughed and nodded. Then she told me that having two is crazy-hard at first, more than twice as hard, but then suddenly, it's way easier than having one. A lot of people have told me this, and I can't imagine what they might mean. We'll see if I ever find out. With the current wait times for child referral in China running to three years, it's not looking promising.

When we were getting ready to go, I had to stifle the urge to offer Kathy my card. (It's a Nia business card, yes, laugh if you will.) For some reason, I wanted her to know she had "people" in San Diego, if she wanted any travel advice, or playdates, or another like-minded adult to talk to while her husband was at the conference. But I guess what stopped me is the presumption on my part that I was "like-minded." After all, what did I know about her? Nothing at all, except that she has two children, and enjoys the zoo.

And yet I read a tapestry of shared personal history, and mutual experience, into the single stitch of her children's origins. I can't help myself. Maybe it's a rookie impulse--I've been doing this less than two years. Maybe not. I'd be interested to hear your perspective, Readers.


Jenny said...

My take is from another point of view.

We have twins from Viet Nam. They are 15 months old. And we are asked which province they are from quite often, also, if they are chinese or other questions surronding China adoption.

It is fine but my girls are Vietnamese and instead of being polite or inquiring about Viet Nam, usually the China adopters go running....And I find that odd. Aren't we all in this together. I also really have an issue cause my girls are Vietnamese and it is not China but that is for another day....

Anyway, Viet Nam will never have a program like China but it is nice to remember not all asian adopted children are from China.

Sam said...

Thanks for sharing that, Jenny. You bring up a really important perspective that I hadn't considered. I will definitely be more aware before I make assumptions now!

Mary and Paul said...

Hi Sam,

I am intrigued when I see a family resembling ours, too. And, my impulse is to say hello and ask questions, as well.

I guess that is human nature, to find a commonality between us and the world out there and to look for what we consider "home."

On another note, I hear the same about having two. Hmm...



Chinazhoumom said...

You ask what you know about the "lady/mom" - well you know that she passed the FBI background ck - was screened by 2 countries - and now has 2 daughters - I like you think - yes there should be an "sign/handshake/nod" that says 1.yes we adopted Asian child(ren) and/or 2 what country...(ie - head tilt right=China - Left-Viet Nam - etc...but now we continue to seek out what makes us the same - we get to parent the most beautiful children around!

steph said...

I love that there are those that seek the familiarity, the oneness of humankind and specifically womankind and familykind...I think our children do give us a gift of openness, of connection where perhaps it did not previously exist, so obviously anyway.

Your words of a common tapestry bring forth a recollection of one of many times spent in a pharmacy line. I recall a woman with such angst, perhaps even anger at the pile of drugs, needles and debt being piled on the counter in front of her. I regret to this day not reaching out to her when I felt such a pull to do so...I must have been a mom by this point, otherwise I likely would not have been so inclined...
There are few experiences in this life as profound as motherhood can be and to have an outward expression of a familiar path to that destination is something a little extra special and I'm sure those you reach out to are indeed touched.

Jenny said...

I was actually worried after I wrote it that I sounded snotty....glad it didn't.

Anonymous said...

We're always looking for "our villagers." ;)

Best, Gail

Jacob said...

I know what you mean--everyone with a bi-racial child has the response you're describing to me and my son. We look at each other and smile warmly. We share certain experiences that no one else can have. We know what it's like to have people assume you're your own child's nanny, that your kid is not a biological relation, or, stranger, that the child has nothing to do with you, even when he's calling you "Mommy." Or people make weird, leading inquiries about the father, trying to figure out his identity. You share those with your community.