Spaniards lead the field in adopting Chinese children
Hui Min Bei is now called Paula and the few words she can speak are in Spanish. She was born in Huizhou , southern China, but recently celebrated her second birthday in her new home, Barcelona.
Paula, abandoned outside an orphanage a few days after birth, has travelled more than 8,000km to start a new life with her adoptive parents, Nuria Boqueta de la Fuente and Fransesc Olive Pifarre.
Her story is a reflection of a growing phenomenon in Spain, which last year alone adopted 1,547 Chinese children - 90 per cent of whom were girls. Spain now adopts the highest number of Chinese children in the world.
As Paula's mother, Ms Boqueta, played with her daughter, she said: 'We have taken her to Chinese restaurants to see if she has retained any of the language, as some small children do, but there is no response. We will take her back to show her where she is from when she grows up.'
Paula's story is typical of thousands of Chinese children who have started new lives after being adopted by Spaniards in recent years. In a country whose birth rate is one of the lowest in Europe, all the signs are that the demand is steadily growing for infants from a country few Spaniards have visited.
The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. More Spaniards want to adopt as their birth rate is now 1.3 children per woman and the country now depends on a large immigrant intake to stop its population going into decline.
In the past 30 years, women have started to enter the workplace in large numbers. But now many have put off having children until it is biologically too late, making adoption the only option for many.
Changing social attitudes also have meant adoption is now acceptable. Manuel Grandal, president of Spain's Association for the Defence of the Child, has adopted four Chinese children. 'There has been this surge in interest in adopting Chinese children because what's new is adoption itself has become socially acceptable as a way to become a mother,' he said. 'Before it was taboo.'
Others were inspired to adopt by a groundbreaking Spanish television documentary, which showed undercover film of the way Chinese orphans were mistreated.
The production, which was shown eight years ago, changed attitudes overnight and inspired thousands of Spanish couples to adopt in an effort to rescue infants from what they believed was an awful plight.
China also is more popular than any other country for very practical reasons. Its procedures are thought to be the quickest, most straightforward, and contain no nasty hidden surprises for couples who have already undergone the emotional rollercoaster of adoption.
Ms Boqueta, 42, a university administrator, said the Chinese government-run process took little more than a year for couples and up to three years for single people who want to adopt. It stipulated couples must only visit the country once to pick up their child, unlike other countries such as Russia which insists couples must visit twice.
She said the procedures couples went through to prove they would make good parents were clear and professionally administered.
Applicants undergo sociological, psychological and financial tests and are checked for any criminal convictions. Each partner has to show they each earn at least HK$248,000 per annum. The whole process, including flights, costs about HK$89,700.
When they have satisfied all the conditions, parents are told the name of the child who will be theirs and sent three photographs. Finally, two agencies linked to the mainland government, called the Women's Agency and the Bridge of Love Adoption Service, organise trips to pick up the children.
For Paula's adoptive parents, who were unable to have children of their own, this was the hardest part. After the 24-hour trip, they arrived at a hotel - with 30 other couples - armed with photos of Paula. 'We had to try and find her with the photographs,' Ms Boqueta said. 'We had a brief meeting with the foster parents, which was emotional for them and us. Then we took Paula with us.' After 15 days, their experience of China was over.
Back in Spain, their new life as a family has proved to be a steep learning curve. Paula is a 'charming child', says her mother, though she appears timid with strangers, possibly as a result of her difficult start in life. Her parents are determined she should share both their own culture and share experiences with other Chinese adoptees.
They speak to her in Catalan, the language of northeastern Spain and she now has Spanish citizenship. At the same time, the couple are spending time with other parents who have Chinese children.
'We haven't learnt Mandarin, but have watched videos and read books about the part of China she comes from,' Ms Boqueta said. 'It's important she knows about her country.'
Merce Canals Ferrer, 36, an illustrator also from Barcelona, is single, and faces the more difficult task of bringing up her adoptive child on her own. She has yet to be approved as a prospective parent, though she has completed most of the tests.
Ms Ferrer expects to hear the decision of the adoption board before the end of the year. If she gets the go-ahead, she will travel with a cousin to China next year to pick up the daughter she has wanted for so long. 'Adopting a child is something I always wanted to do. Sometimes I'm scared and other times I'm very excited,' she said. 'I had my doubts then decided I'd go ahead with it.
'I chose China because the process is clearer and takes less time. I would like a daughter. I have even chosen the name, Sara.'
Only 8 per cent of adoptive parents are single and the tests for suitability are tougher.
For Jesus Palacios, professor of psychology at Seville University, the boom in the popularity of adopting Chinese children is proof Spain is moving away from the traditional large family, typical of the once strictly Catholic country.
'These new families are now connected with two cultures; the Spanish and the Chinese,' Professor Palacios said. 'The child's country and personal history form part of that.'
As Ms Boqueta plays with Paula, another couple carrying their Chinese daughter arrive at the playground in Barcelona. 'We're just so grateful for what China has given us,' said Ms Boqueta, smiling.