My eight-year-old daughter wants to know where her mother is.
“I’m right here,” I say, trying to bag her lunch and still have enough time to throw together a PowerPoint for my 10:30 freshman comp class.
“Not you,” she says indignantly. “My real mother.”
We were warned about this by the director of the adoption agency: Eventually your daughter will have questions about her “bio-mom.” Do not vilify this individual. Explain, instead, how China’s one-child policy—with its preference for male heirs—forced a fearful woman to abandon a child she loved.
Usually Sophie’s questions come up at more appropriate times. At dinner, with her father there to fill in any lapses. Or maybe after church, over rolls and jelly donuts, when we can play the God-card.
As a result of these family discussions, the topic of adoption isn’t totally foreign to her. She knows she was abandoned—”discarded” she once called it—and my husband and I have both tried to make it clear that we were all destined to be drawn together as a loving, if somewhat unconventional, family. We’ve explained why we all look different, how ancestors from various parts of the globe have provided an assortment of both physical and mental traits.
“Is that why I love math and you guys don’t?” she’d ask on occasion, and either my husband or myself would answer, “Yep. That’s why.” “Is that why I tan better in the summer?” she’d wonder. And one of us would say, “You got it.”
But she’s never asked about the whereabouts of the woman who dressed her in boy’s clothing, dropped her off in front of a variety store named Red Dragon, and who probably hid herself until the baby was discovered.
“Is she dead?” Sophie asks.
“She’s in China, Soph, you know that.”
“Why haven’t we looked for her?”
“Because she probably wouldn’t want us to. Maybe she’s afraid she’d get into trouble.”
“In China it’s against the law to abandon a baby. She’s probably worried she’d get fined or even go to jail.”
“Just for having me?”
“Honey, the bus is going to be here. We can talk about this tonight.”
“It’s not fair,” she says.
“Nothing’s fair,” I say, and immediately fear I may regret these words.
Part of my problem: Sophie has made friends with another adopted Chinese girl in her third-grade class, Xiao-xing Murphy. Xiao-xing’s mother, an alabaster-skinned single parent who recently moved here from California, sells real estate, dresses in traditional Chinese clothing, takes Mandarin language lessons every Saturday with her daughter, and has unofficially changed her first name from Jenna to Jing. I learned all this a couple of weeks ago when I picked my daughter up after a sleepover.
Most adoptive parents of Chinese children are somewhat like motorcyclists. Even moving at high speeds in opposite direction, we acknowledge one another. Usually it’s no more than a slight smile, a gentle nod. Silently, we look at one another as if to say, Well didn’t we make a good decision. But other APs take adoption more seriously. Like motorists who propose the death penalty for pedestrians who don’t walk against the flow of traffic.
Jenna Murphy—and I refuse to call her “Jing”—was one such person.
“We need to constantly inform ourselves that we are merely representatives of these girls’ true mothers,” Jenna, eyes as blue as Neptune, informed me on that brisk October morning. “And as such we need to relentlessly remind them of the women who selflessly sacrificed.”
“I kind of like to think our kids’ lives began on adoption day,” I said.
“Which is really selfish,” she chided. “It may not be easy, but it’s our responsibility to make sure that our girls have their Chinese heritage reinforced.”
“I imagine that happens whenever they look in a mirror,” I said.
“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” Jenna said with the slow smile of someone who considers herself wiser than most everyone else. “Then again, I’d be surprised to hear anyone say that.”
I admit, like many adoptive parents, I’ve been protective. Overly so, some—my husband among them—might say.
The first picture I saw of our future daughter was taken at the orphanage. She was maybe nine months old and had been placed in one of those wheeled walking chairs. Except for whoever took the photo, she was unattended. She looked toward a low open window and was apparently unaware of a flight of stairs behind her. There was a kitchen in the corner of the snapshot, and I imagined a hot stove and a collection of sharp knives within reach. The image stayed with me, and as I result I vowed to keep her out of danger’s way. No horses from which she might be thrown, no flimsy-looking amusement park Ferris wheels, no gymnastic classes where bandaged children walked around like war veterans.
My husband, from a rough-and-tumble family consisting of a widowed mom and three older brothers, tried to convince me that pain and storytelling were the two most important elements in childhood. “We expand their imaginations,” he said, “and Mother Nature toughens them up.”
Frank makes most of our money as a commercial artist with an advertising firm on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. When Sophie started first grade, I taught a course—sometimes two—at the community college. But my real job, as I saw it, was as a parent, a guardian, a mother who never spent a single second in the hospital’s emergency room while her daughter was poked, prodded, or sewn-up for God-knows-what.
That night, at Bella Pizza, Sophie tells us that from this point on she wants to be called Jade.
“Jade is considered a precious gem in China,” she tells us, “and Jing says that’s what I am.”
Frank, who works half-days on Friday, asks, “Who?”
“Mom of one of the kids in her class,” I say.
“There’s nothing wrong with the name Sophie,” my husband tells our daughter. “It was your grandmother’s name.”
“But it’s not my real name. It’s more like my slave name.”
“And this is also according to . . . ?”
Sophie smiles. “Jing.”
“You might need a word with this woman,” Frank says looking over at me.
“I’ve already tried.”
“Do you want me to talk to the dad?”
“‘Sophie’ means ‘wisdom,'” Frank says, taking menus from the middle of the table and passing them around. “I think it fits you perfectly.”
“I only want a salad,” Sophie says.
We both look over at her.
“No pizza?” I ask.
“Chinese people don’t like cheese,” she declares. “Jing says we’re all lactose tolerant.”
It’s lactose intolerant, I almost say, but instead I just finish my wine and wave the waitress over.
“I think we should call her Ms. Murphy,” I tell my daughter.
“She told me to call her Jing,” Sophie insists. “Auntie Jing.”
Frank and I exchange a glance. When the waitress arrives and reaches for my empty wine glass, I’m tempted to tell her to just bring over the bottle.
On the drive home, Sophie again brings up her birth mother.
“Maybe she just lost me. Maybe I crawled away and she’s looking everywhere.”
“That’s not what happened, Soph,” I tell her.
“But you can’t know that,” she states. “Maybe she was busy taking care of a bunch of other kids and she took her eyes off me for one second, and then I was gone. Maybe she didn’t want to give me up at all.”
“We need to take down her stuff,” Frank says.
“What stuff,” a voice from the backseat asks.
“Your stuff,” Frank says looking into the rearview mirror.
At home Frank hands down a small plastic tote from the shelf in the hall closet and has me bring it into the dining room where Sophie sits in wait. It’s been up there for over seven years and, truth be told, I’d hoped it might stay up there for at least another seven.
Sophie has taken her chair at the oval-shaped dining room table. “Is that my stuff you were talking about?” she asks.
“That’s it,” Frank tells her and takes a seat himself. And to me: “Do the honors.”
I stand calmly in front of students all the time. Teenagers, adults sometimes older than myself. I appear confident and well prepared. But tonight my hands shake and my mouth feels dry. I clear my throat, and finally unclip the clear plastic lid like an archeologist unsealing a time capsule. I take out a folded sweatshirt, a “hoodie,” hold it by the shoulder seams, let it fall open. It’s crimson, with the logo of the Chicago Bulls basketball team on the front. UNBELIEVA-BULLS, it says in white block print, and it’s big enough to fit a ten-year-old.
The words come.
“These are not the clothes you were wearing when you were delivered to us at the hotel. These are your ‘finding clothes.'”
“From when I was dropped off?” Sophie asks.
I nod. Sophie comes over, takes the shirt, smells it, holds it at arm’s length for inspection. “Cool.” she says. “Can I wear it again?”
I look over at Frank, perhaps a child psychologist in another life, who says, “You can, but don’t you think it’s kind of boyish?”
Sophie slowly nods, places the shirt carefully on the table.
I go through the rest of the clothes: the grey woolen pants with the stretched elastic waistband, the thin white socks, the clear plastic shoes. There’s also a small white blanket.
“I was bundled up.”
“You were bundled up,” I say, “and this was pinned to your shirt.”
I take out one of those plastic, resealable sandwich bags, inside of which are two folded pieces of paper. I spread the first, with some Chinese characters in pencil, on the table. Next to it, I place the translation, provided by our in-China guide, written on the back of a piece of hotel stationery.
“Read it,” Sophie says.
“‘Warm-hearted people. I am irresponsible. Forgive me.’”
“My mother wrote that?”
“I remember,” Sophie says.
“I doubt you actually–”
“No,” she persists. “I remember. I was hot and kinda scared and afraid to make too much noise.”
I look over toward Frank who shrugs. It’s his signal to press on. I take out a Chinese passport bound by a red cover with gold Chinese characters. It looks brand new.
“Do you remember your orphanage name?” I ask.
I open the passport, hold it up for Sophie to see. Her referral picture, a small headshot of an infant with her mouth open and her eyes shut, is on the first page. Her orphanage name is typed in both English and Chinese.
“Fu Dao-Ming,” I tell her from memory. “Do you know what that means?”
Sophie shakes her head.
“It means path to happiness.”
“That was my name? Path to happiness?”
“That’s even better than ‘Jade,'” Frank says.
But Sophie’s attention is solely on me, her interest entirely on her mother.
“How come you never showed me any of this?” she says as she comes over to more closely inspect her past.
“I guess we were waiting for the right time,” I say.
Sophie puts the passport carefully back into the tote. After a moment she says, “What if it’s not true? What if my first mom abandoned me because she didn’t like me?”
That’s not how it was, I’m ready to say. Who couldn’t help but like you?
But I don’t. I say instead, “Well I guess that’s possible, in which case her loss is our gain.”
“She didn’t see the path to happiness,” Sophie says.
Sophie returns the finding clothes to the tote and snaps it closed.
I’ll call Jenna Murphy in the morning and inform her, as gracefully as I can, that she is not Lindo Jong from The Joy Luck Club. I’ll point out that she’s as American as I am, and that she might be slightly less angry once she removes the bamboo rod from her derriere and learns to enjoy motherhood the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. Then I’ll ask if she likes coffee.
“Mom?” Sophie asks as her father takes the tote back toward the closet. “Do you think it’s okay if I try out for field hockey?”
It’s kind of dangerous, I think, but I know that’s not the answer. Not tonight, not right now.
“I think it’s fine,” I say.