Hope, love, and help are chiefly among other things verbs. To understand needs some effort too and in the end that is what the following story is about.
But it begins with a record of my journey to Hengdong, Hunan Province, China, where I visited the Hengdong Social Welfare Institute (SWI). My youngest daughter Clara-Li spent her first 18 months in this orphanage before we adopted her in Changsha, Hunan's provincial capital, on August 10, 2004.
We had been unable to travel to Hengdong during her adoption trip, despite our determined lobbying at the time. No other adoptive parents had been able to visit the Hengdong SWI, although several hundred other families from western countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands had traveled to Changsha to adopt children from this same orphanage, mostly between 2002 and 2006. Today one rarely hears of foreign adoptions from the much smaller number of children housed in a newer Hengdong social welfare facility.
In late 2005 it was found that the Hengdong SWI, along with at least five other nearby orphanages in southeastern Hunan, routinely paid for abandoned children brought in by “finders” who, as it turned out, often had paid for the children too, and in a neighboring province. These practices were illegal and as a result arrests were made, many highly placed officials were fired, and about a dozen people eventually went to prison, including the director of the Hengdong SWI.
The case would be widely reported by Chinese and international media and led to a temporary shut down of foreign adoptions in Hunan Province. It has many layers and the orphanage officials involved said that in buying abandoned children from intermediaries they were acting in the children's best interests. For only a small portion of rural China’s abandoned children were taken in by its state controlled orphanages. The rest were absorbed into families informally or otherwise left to find homes through a growing unregulated domestic black market, the murky realm of shadowy intermediaries and questionable safety.
China had 1.3 billion citizens, strictly enforced population restrictions, and astonishing numbers of abandoned children. During China's peak foreign adoption years (roughly 1995-2005), these children were most often infant girls left by roadsides, in marketplaces, or at other locations usually described in local police reports. In addition, news of the Hunan case and other later reports showed how orphanages in several regions of south central China sometimes fabricated police reports to hide instances in which children were brought to them directly, against government rules that emphasized zero tolerance for over-quota births.
Strict family planning rules left no provision for birth parents to formally give up over-quota children to orphanages or through government approved adoption. Instead, admitting to having over-quota children made parents subject to harsh fines or other penalties.
On the one hand, it may have been much better for an over-quota child to have been secretly abandoned directly to an orphanage or to someone promising to bring her to one, rather than for her to have been physically just left somewhere with varying odds she might be found by someone responsible and kind. Still, the Hunan case and that of the Hengdong SWI, as a specific example, offer less in the way of straightforward rationale and more of a maze of contradictions. In this sense it may help at the start of this story to consider that many Asian traditions hold to the idea of relative truth; that most things can be true in one sense and false in another. In other words, the only thing that is certain outside our immediate experience is that there is no certain knowledge outside of our immediate experience.
In early 2005, before the news broke and just five months after we returned home with Clara-Li, the charitable organization Our Chinese Daughters Foundation (OCDF) indicated in response to an offhand email inquiry that it might be able to arrange a private visit to the Hengdong SWI. Its staff would at least be glad to try, using its experience gained from arranging culture-focused travel programs for adoptive families wishing to return to China with their children. Although this trip would be outside of the norm, an OCDF representative in Beijing obligingly made the required official contacts, set up an itinerary in Hunan, and recommended a visa service and travel agent for the long series of flights there and back.
We quickly decided to go for it. We also decided this would be a journey best made by me alone, for obvious financial reasons so soon after our last trip to China but also because this project seemed to have a high probability for disappointment, given the non-history of previous visits.
Why, we wondered, had Chinese officials suddenly changed their minds? In response to our nagging pleas to be allowed to visit Hengdong during Clara-Li's adoption trip we had been supplied with all manner of official discouragement: the area was off limits to foreign travelers, some Chinese travelers had been robbed there, another intrepid foreigner had been detained in an area nearby and his camera confiscated, the area couldn't be traveled to in one day, and so on.
But two years earlier I had decided to ignore similar warnings in Jiangxi Province, and summoned the optimism to jump in a taxi for an 80-mile trip to the town where my first daughter was from. The road then, it became clear, wasn't really washed out. Indeed, at the end of a nicely paved highway in Gao'an, Jiangxi, in 2002, I had eventually stood in front of a busy downtown market on the same spot where that daughter was said to have been left and found as a newborn infant, in a small cardboard box. In a flood of triggered images and understanding I had made a very important connection, then wiped my tears and left.
When we returned to China for our second daughter, our child in Hengdong, I knew I owed it to her to try to make the same connection, before too much had changed.
I wanted to be able to honestly tell her something about where she was from.
This time, it would just require a special trip.