By Siyi Huo
An ancient Chinese story states that “an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break.”
People who click on the website of Red Thread Tours & Services, a company that offers China heritage tours for Chinese adoptees raised in the U.S., see those words prominently on the site.
This kind of tour is a tradition in Chinese adoptive families community in the U.S. Its popularity is as enduring as the widespread “red thread” story. As the story goes, an invisible “red thread” links American parents to the children in China who are meant to be theirs and therefore is the bridge between two nations and two cultures.
Open to Chinese culture
“My parents just immersed me in my Chinese culture, ever since I was little,” said Alana Wu, a 16-year-old Chinese adoptee who has a pair of Asian-American adoptive parents. “They sent me to Chinese school, which I hated, but this year will probably be my 11th or 12th year of learning Chinese.”
Melissa Ludtke, the mother of a 19-year-old Chinese adoptee girl also said it was important to expose children to their cultural roots at their early age.
“Her book shelf is still filled in by early books. Some of them were written specifically about adoption from China,” said Ludtke. “We hired a Chinese language instructor and every Sunday afternoon, we had classes with other adoptive families. It is really a social occasion as much as her learning language.”
Ludtke’s daughter, Maya Xia Ludtke from a rural Xiaxi town in China, studied Mandarin all through high school and is still learning in college.
Along with sending adoptees to learn Chinese, other activities also play a dominant role in this special cultural connection.
“Every single year, we used to go to Chinatown, and we go to the New Year’s celebration with the adoption agency. The kids would make the lanterns and dance. They enjoy doing all these activities,” said Molly Minervino, who has adopted two girls from China.
Moreover, most American parents will take their children back to China when they think the kids are old enough to understand and accept all the challenges in terms of where they were from, why they were abandoned and what life is like in their real homeland.
Ludtke’s daughter Maya has been to China three times: once with her high school Mandarin language class, twice with her mother.
They first travelled when Maya was 7 years old, which Ludtke called a mistake. “She wasn’t ready for it and it was uncomfortable for her,” she said.
“Because people would approach her, they tried to speak Chinese, she couldn’t speak Chinese,” said Ludtke, “People were staring at me. When a woman with blond hair walked into rural China, it is as though an alien had landed. So people came to you and speak a language you don’t understand, and you are 7 years old.”
For their second visit in August 2013, Ludtke said they were more prepared both in language skill and mentality. And in some sense, it was a more unique journey. Maya and her Chinese adoptee friend Jennie Yuchang Lytel-Sternberg spent nearly three weeks in the rural town in China where they were abandoned and stayed with six Chinese girls who grew up there as only-child daughters. Ludtke titled their experience on her website: Touching Home in China, In Search of Missing Girlhoods.
“By having these girls as her guide, they could explain to her what their life was like, they could show her, tell her and as she was moving through her teen age, it would be a way for her to find peace in her own search for identity,” said Ludtke.
Yet for these Chinese adoptees, it is not easy to deal with their dual identity.
“The hardest part is when you get older, you have more questions about biological roots, about your medical history, about truth, about your birth parents. Many Chinese adoptees are searching for Chinese birth parents and very few are successful cases,” said Iris Chin Ponte, the co-chair of Families With Children From China New England (FCCNE), a volunteer nonprofit, which organizes gatherings and events for Chinese adoptive families to build up a strong and united community.
Ponte has supported adopted children privately for almost 16 years and has worked in Beijing to help a local orphanage. She is not only the mother of a 7-year-old boy adopted from Kunming in China, but also a researcher on the issue.
“These children will grow up and will not have answers to some of their life’s most important questions, said Ponte. “For example: When is my real birthday? Why did my Chinese birth parents leave me? Do I have siblings in China?”
She said she respected her son’s option whether to seek for his birth parents, but her role, as a adoptive mother, “is to know how to do it and then have a chance for him to answer these very deep questions that he will care about his whole life.”
Get together to help
FCCNE is only one of the several organizations supporting Chinese adoptive families. China Care Fund (CCF), student-run groups based on colleges and universities all over the United States, also provides support.
The idea came from a Connecticut’s Matt Dalio when he was 16 in 2000. He personally witnessed the living conditions of orphans with special needs in China and was desperate to do something. He founded the China Care Foundation to offer these children a brighter future.
Later, after realizing that he could not do this alone, he began the Youth Empowerment movement to inspire more young people to experience the same sense of empowerment that he had discovered and support Chinese adoptees in the U.S. The Harvard CCF started in 2003. In Boston, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology joined Harvard ‘s to be among the 60 high school and college clubs doing this work.
The president of Boston University CCF, Xueqing Li, said the group organized two big events each year and all collected donations will directly go into One Sky, the partner of China Care Foundation and also a nonprofit to support orphans in China. “Every dollar of our donation will directly sponsor an exact special-needs orphan in China.”
In addition, BUCCF also offers a free Chinese class every Saturday afternoon to teach Chinese adoptees language and culture.
Clarinda Blais volunteered to teach Chinese. “I teach them Pinyin (the method to read Chinese characters),” she said, adding, “I tell Chinese stories and during the holidays, we will also have Jiaozi (dumplings).”
She said, “the teaching experience has changed me a lot. In the past, I thought it was ridiculous to abandon a child, but now I have more musings on this complicated issue.”
As a BU student learning Chinese, Blais has studied in Fudan University in Shanghai as an exchange student. She plans to go to China again this spring.
Why we are unified?
Linda Seligman, the author of “Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption across Race, Class, and Nation” and a professor of anthropology, explained Chinese adoptive families are so strongly unified and open to Chinese culture because there are so many of them. “There is a substantial number of people. There is a capacity to have gatherings,” said Seligman, who also adopted a daughter from China in 2000.
Source: Totals of IR−3 and IR−4 Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans (Fiscal Year: 2000)
(IR-3 visa: If both parents have met the child before the foreign adoption was finalized, the child can be issued an IR-3 visa. IR-4 visa: If only one or neither of the adoptive parents has met the child before the foreign adoption was finalized, the child must be re-adopted in the United States. In such a case, the child is issued an IR-4 visa.)
Data published by Bureau of Consular Affairs, in the fiscal year 2000, which runs October 1 to September 30, showed Chinese adoptees were the greatest percentage of children adopted by Americans from other countries, with 5,053 of 18,477 as a total. And 10 years later, in the fiscal year 2010, China remained at the top.
Source: Totals of IR−3 and IR−4 Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans (Fiscal Year: 2010)
One more important reason for what is considered successes in Chinese adoptees is “what we learned from the Korean adoption,” said Ponte. She thinks that most U.S. parents of Chinese adoptees are “highly educated in this area and have a lot of thinking and research about modern international adoption and their success.”
Ludtke agreed. “The wave of adoptions from Korea happened in a very different time much earlier than the wave of Chinese adoptions,” said Ludtke, “It happened in a time when there was still a sense that America was a country where we wanted all to sort of simulate, to drop whatever culture we came with as immigrants and be American. There was that notion that didn’t do any good to try to hold on to your culture. That was the overall notion of what America was about in the ’50s and ’60s and some of them into ’70s when Korean adoption was happening.”
In fact, in the 1990s, returning to Korea to search for their cultural roots became a distinctive trend among adult Korean adoptees. Seligman said “there is a growing nationalism and many Korean adoptees are forming groups.”
Therefore, when these Korean adoptees “talked honestly about what they missed in not having their culture, not having their sense of identity,” said Ludtke, one of adopted Chinese parents who have learned lessons from Korean adoptees, “they told us valuable lessons about what as parents we ought to be doing and we are deeply grateful for them to sharing that.“