Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Last column

I got almost no feedback via email or forum on this column, which really surprised me.


THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL



Expat Parents in China Keep
Adopted Babies Close to Home

September 14, 2007

Virtually every flight I've ever been on from China to the U.S. has had at least two couples returning home with a newly adopted Chinese baby. I have been touched watching their interaction, which is often simultaneously tentative and loving. I have also seen large groups of Western couples with new babies touring around Beijing, during their imposed stays here before heading home. It can be a strange sight, one that has led me to wonder if there is any undercurrent of discomfort amongst Chinese about all these babies being taken out of the country. I have detected none.

New, more stringent adoption laws recently went into effect and the number of Chinese children adopted and brought to the U.S. fell by almost 1,500 last year, after two decades of steady growth. But there were still 6,494 adoptions, 95% of them girls, according to Adoptive Families magazine. The Chinese system is considered the model for international adoptions, with a high degree of transparency, clear standards and

In the last 22 years, 62,389 Chinese children have been adopted by American families, according to the support group Families with Chinese Children. A small number of these children don't have to travel too far to their new homes; they are adopted by expats living here already. The U.S. is one of just six nations that allow its citizens to adopt a Chinese child while living in China. Other countries are concerned about the lack of control and oversight they have over their far-flung citizens, but American expats seeking to adopt follow the same well-defined adoption process that is required of families living in the U.S.

Statistics don't seem to be kept on expats adopting babies, but one close observer who works with adoptive families estimated the number between 200 and 300 a year. I personally know three families who have adopted here and two more whose applications are currently being processed.

Living here makes it easy for the new family member to simultaneously maintain a Chinese identity and develop an American one. It's an issue that American families who adopt Chinese children struggle with -- how much to educate their children about their homeland.

"I think that the majority of parents make an attempt to make sure their children feel positively about Chinese culture," says Susan Caughman, editor of Adoptive Families magazine and herself the mother of a Chinese daughter. "It's definitely understood in the Chinese adoption community that this is something good for your child's identity. A smaller percentage of parents make an effort to actually make sure their children learn to speak Chinese."

There is a group of expats, mostly women, who volunteer in orphanages around Beijing. Their level of involvement varies from occasional work days to near-constant fundraising and/or administration. Collectively they do a lot of vital work. Their efforts seem particularly needed by children with health or developmental problems, who are sometimes abandoned due to the lack of widely available free healthcare.

My friend Cheryl Latta, an American mother of four, began volunteering at a nearby orphanage once a week shortly after arriving here two-plus years ago. She found the time fulfilling but frustrating.

"I enjoyed playing with the babies but wanted to do more," she recalls. "I kept thinking, 'If I could just take one of these kids home, I could give them so much more.'"

Cheryl was referred to Teresa Woo, an expat from Hong Kong who runs Beijing's Ping An Medical Foster Home. Ping An takes in orphans who are stricken with serious illnesses and disabilities, arranges and pays for their medical care and surgeries if necessary, and provides pre- and post-surgery rehab care until they are fit enough to return to their original orphanages. The more fortunate orphans might find themselves in foster families, many of which are Ms. Woo's friends and/or regular volunteers.

"Most of our kids are abandoned for medical reasons," says Ms. Woo, whose organization is funded by private donations. "At first, we helped them get the surgery but they were going back to places that couldn't necessarily care for them, so I decided to house them in a place where they could get the kind of care they needed to recuperate. I can only have eight kids at a time because it's a family environment. I didn't want to open another orphanage."

The Lattas were matched with Tian Hui, a smiley six-month-old girl who had had surgery on a cleft lip and needed a few months of recuperation before she could have a second operation, to repair a cleft palate. After about three months, they returned her to Ping An and picked up a different baby. When he had health problems necessitating hospitalization, Ms. Woo asked the Lattas if they could take Tian Hui again. She had been unable to have her second surgery due to health complications, leaving her classified as special needs and therefore eligible for fostering.

None of the Lattas had realized quite how attached they had grown to the little girl until she returned to spend Christmas with them. When family friends said they wanted to adopt Tian Hui, Cheryl felt alarmed rather than excited and realized that she wanted to adopt the baby herself. After everyone concurred in a family meeting, they began the adoption process.

The Lattas lived around the corner from us and I got used to seeing Cheryl or one of her sons pushing Tian Hui around, first in a stroller, then in a small tricycle. The child always smiled and waved and I was won over by her sunny disposition. I asked often about their situation. Child-specific adoptions are discouraged, but if foster families meet the normal requirements they are sometimes allowed to adopt the child. In these cases it is considered in the child's best interest to stay with a family to whom they are attached. But there are no guarantees and the family was in a constant state of low anxiety waiting for a decision.

The papers came through on Sept. 4 making the adoption official and Tian Hui a member of the Latta family. It was a week short of one year from when they first brought her into their home. They will rename her Tia Grace.

The Lattas hope to stay here four more years, in part so that Tia is instilled with a strong sense of being Chinese and in part because such a long stint here will allow the whole family to better understand the roots of their youngest member.

The Lattas's four blond children already drew a lot of attention in China and they now receive even more scrutiny with a Chinese baby added to the mix.

"People always ask why we would want another child when we already have four," says Cheryl. "I used to say because we loved her so much and I got blank stares. Now, we say we wanted Emily (the lone girl before Tia's arrival) to have a sister and that seems to be much better accepted."

Similarly practical concerns troubled the younger Latta children. Seven-year-old Jason feared that when Tia grew up, she would only speak Chinese and have trouble communicating with the rest of the family. Instead, they are all learning Chinese even as Tia learns English. If all goes according to plan, they will all have a very solid understanding of where their newest family member comes from.
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Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column, about a home leave visit to Washington, D.C.

I enjoyed your recent article on "home-leave" to the United States. The moment with Eli at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial must have been very touching indeed.

I lived with my family in Japan for almost 11 years and the experience was life-transforming. I will never view myself or the United States in the same way. I've always been and always will be an American. I will always uphold the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. You also see the downsides and risks of your country as well.

--Eric W. Lewis, MD

I've lived in China for three years and also miss it when I go back to the States. That was a touching story about your young man in Washington, D.C. Sounds as if you and the wife are doing a good job with him.

--Mike

Thank you. I was very touched by Eli's behavior at the Memorial. Believe me, I could write other columns about my kids that would have you reconsidering your praise, but moments like that make a lot of pain seem worthwhile.
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I have been living in Vancouver, Canada, for three years and I understood the exact emotions that you were expressing when you wrote, "Being an expat can complicate your feelings about being American." Although Vancouver is extremely similar culturally to my hometown in Southern California there are definitely some distinct differences, for both the better and the worse.

The other day, I was asked if I was going to give up my American citizenship to become Canadian. The answer was a resounding No! Even with all of its problems and issues, the U.S. is still the Land of Opportunity and being one of its citizens is something I would not change..

-- Oanh

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com