One out of three American children who are adopted from abroad come from China. For the most part, these are baby girls who have been abandoned because of the Chinese government’s one-child policy and the deep-seated Chinese cultural tradition that the oldest son is to care for his parents in their old age. This oddly female Chinese diaspora, which began in the early 1990s, has changed the face of many communities in the United States as Chinese-born American girls join other children on playgrounds, at school and in church pews and synagogues. The oldest among the girls, those adopted in the first wave, are now graduating from college, moving on to find their place in the rich diversity of the American tableaux.
In China Ghosts: My Daughter’s Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood, Jeff Gammage, a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, tells the touching story of his own adoption of Jin Yu from an orphanage in China’s Hunan Province in 2002.
Like many American couples, Gammage and his wife, Christine, decided to adopt after being unable to conceive children themselves. Into their life came Jin Yu, who was left as a newborn in an alleyway in Xiangtan, a city just south of Changsha, the provincial capital. She spent the first two years of her life in a local orphanage before she was adopted. A few years later, the Gammages went back to China to adopt a second daughter, Zhao Gu, 11 months, who came from an orphanage in Gansu Province in western China.
Gammage’s beautifully written memoir, which weaves together emotionally wrenching narrative with insightful social commentary, will resonate with any American who has taken the same journey—and there are more than 62,000 of us. There is the thrill of getting the first photo of the baby in the mail; the exhausting trip to China with other American families who are also adopting; the moment the child is placed in the parents’ arms; the anxious first days with the child in China, when every cry, every cough sets off fears of a medical problem; the overnight stay at the elegant White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou where adoptions are processed at the American consulate; and the long flight home on an airplane filled with Chinese infants and toddlers.
If Gammage’s book stopped there, it would be unremarkable. What distinguishes this book is Gammage’s fine writing, his unflinching honesty about the losses his daughters will experience, and his poignant reflection on his own personal journey as the high-achieving professional becomes the engaged father who opens his heart to the small things that ultimately matter more than any assignment at work.
“Having a daughter,” Gammage writes, “has taught me to live at low altitude, close to the ground, where children live, a world where a smooth flat rock is a treasure and a straight piece of stick is a find. It’s taught me to set my body clock—at least on weekends—to child standard time, a time zone where there’s always an extra minute to examine the stem of a dandelion, imitate the google-eyed stare of a goldfish, or stroke the softness of a duck feather found by a pond.”
In an age of busy-ness and careerism, that is a lesson for all parents, not just those who have adopted from China.
At the heart of Gammage’s story is the moral dilemma inherent in the Chinese adoption experience. On the one hand, those who adopt from China provide loving homes for girls who would otherwise grow up in an orphanage and likely end up as factory workers or prostitutes living on the margins of China’s capitalist economy. On the other hand, Chinese adoption, perhaps more so than adoption from other countries, involves a searing break with the past. In being whisked off to America, these girls lose an ancient and rich culture, a language whose tones and rhythms are not found in English, and the possibility, however remote, of some day finding the man and woman who gave birth to them.
These are real losses and, unlike others who would romanticize the adoption experience, Gammage looks the losses in the eye. Particularly painful to him is the likelihood that Jin Yu’s parents loved her and, in a society that had a more rational population control program, her parents almost certainly would have chosen to keep her. Gammage yearns to talk to his daughter’s Chinese parents, to reassure them that she is well, to tell them that he pledges to love and care for Jin Yu forever and to maintain, as best he can, her connections to her homeland. These are the ghosts that will forever haunt Gammage and, in all likelihood, his daughter.
Many Americans who adopt from China care little about their children’s history; they simply want a baby in their life. Not Gammage. He has the emotional sensibility to understand that, at some point, his daughter will want to know where she came from and why she was left. Ever the journalist, Gammage digs for the answers from documents that must exist somewhere in a country that has kept copious records for thousands of years.
When that fails, he fantasizes camping out in Xiangtan and advertising far and wide for any information about his daughter. Ironically, it is the Chinese consulate in New York that finally comes through for Gammage, providing him with the good-luck note that was left with his daughter when she was abandoned. On it, written in crude Mandarin, are the date and time of Jin Yu’s birth. Apart from her DNA, it is likely the only material link she will ever have to her origins.
Of course, the big question is the identity of Jin Yu’s birth parents, who likely wrote the note. Gammage is determined to learn that as well. But somewhere along the way, he has a profound realization: that this is Jin Yu’s decision to make, if and when she is ready, not his.
It would be instructive to know how Gammage came to that conclusion, what led him to change course so dramatically after trying so hard to uncover the facts, but the book provides no clues. Perhaps Gammage wanted to keep that to himself. Or perhaps there wasn’t space. But after taking the reader through his yeoman’s efforts to find his daughter’s past, it seems only fair to help the reader understand how he decided to pass the baton to Jin Yu.
I would like to know not just because I like Gammage’s book, but also because I am taking my own adopted Chinese daughter, who will soon turn 13, back to China this summer. What will she make of a country where everyone looks like her? Where the lessons she has learned in three years of Mandarin at the Delaware Valley Chinese School suddenly begin to make sense?
Although we will visit the province where she was born, I have not decided whether we will visit her orphanage. Like Gammage, I believe this is a decision for her to make.
Huntly Collins is an assistant professor of communication at La Salle University, where she teaches reporting and writing. She adopted from China in 1995.