One for the girls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am

Adopting children from China is a growing social and literary phenomenon in the west. Enlightening tales of the process, the social and political mores involved, and the realities of welcoming a young stranger into a family were once novel, but no more. A cursory trawl of reveals 139 books, guides and manuals, making it almost a genre in itself.

Jeff Gammage admits as much after writing China Ghosts, detailing his emotional passage to parenthood and the journey to America of his daughters - Jin Lu, now six, and Zhao Gu, three. There will be a lot more to come, he suggests. 'I can't wait for the time - and it's not far off - when the girls themselves start to tell us what they think of their experience,' he says. 'The eldest is now reaching adolescence, so we're nearing a time when they'll begin to communicate their own feelings.'

Gammage says he felt the urge to write China Ghosts to record his eldest daughter's life. 'I wanted to write about gain and loss, past and present, to try to explain the way that long-ago events in a faraway land continue to ricochet through my daughter's life, and through mine and that of my wife, Christine.'

The book took him three years, with Gammage writing while working as a staff reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and raising a family. 'I wrote a lot of it on the train to work. The thing that was much harder, though, was to try to come to terms with the truths of my daughter's life, and the life she might have led, and my role in those things.'

Adoption is an intensely personal experience, yet many parents find that they need to relate the experience in a book, so uplifting is their odyssey. 'For me, it was a profoundly life-altering experience, and I wanted to try to communicate that, to my daughters, and to other parents who may find themselves on a similar path. I wrote this book so my eldest daughter would have a complete account of her adoption, or at least as complete an account as I could compile. Everything after that, in terms of publication, has been a happy accident.

'So many adoption stories come wrapped in billowy white bows, everyone happy and everything working out in the end. Of course adoptions are joyful events. But at the same time there's another side, an emotional complexity that I felt was missing from a lot of the stories I read.'

Gammage says he'll never forget the moment when his bus pulled up in front of the Xiangtan orphanage - children everywhere. 'To take one child out, leave 99 behind - that's a very cruel lottery. And as for my own participation in that, well, I don't find it an easy thing to live with. In this book I wanted to give voice to that sense of complication.'

Unable to have children of their own, Gammage and his wife set out to adopt. 'Once you acknowledge the impossibility of biological children, the question becomes, 'What next?' Domestic adoption? Foreign adoption? Generally, we'd always had good feelings about adoption, that the matching of kids who needed parents with parents who wanted children was a good idea. Going in, I never imagined how important my daughter - later, my daughters - would be to me.'

China soon became the obvous choice. 'When people think of adoption, they tend to think of a young woman surrendering her baby to new parents within hours or days of giving birth,' says Gammage. 'That kind of adoption has become rare in the US - perhaps 14,000 a year. There's competition. Against that we weighed a pretty well-run, straightforward adoption programme in a country where thousands of girls were living in orphanages.'

The rules are the same for everyone, says Gammage. The children are generally healthy and because of the one-child policy, prospective parents have a good idea of why the children are available. 'That knowledge was important to us, given scary stories of black-market baby trades in some countries. China required you to come and get the child - which felt right to us. And we had positive feelings about China and Chinese culture - the respect for the aged, placing a high value on education and belief in tradition.'

The process took about 15 months in all, and cost US$15,000 - about the same as giving birth in the US. Gammage recounts landing in Changsha, capital of Hunan: 'the rice fields stretching as far as you could see, everything a bright emerald green'. After a rarely sanctioned visit to the orphanage, he says he was convinced that 'the staff were doing their best under very difficult circumstances'.

'It was a journey, and in many ways I'm still on it,' he says, summing up the experience. 'It doesn't end when you come home with your child. Your life has changed in ways big and small. A river flood in southwest Hunan is no longer some far-off, isolated event, but something to care and worry about. News about relations between Beijing and Washington becomes of personal importance. On a family scale, our priorities have realigned. Saturdays are devoted to lion dancing, not soccer. We try to incorporate as much of the Chinese culture into our lives as we can.'

The experience of adopting from China has polarised Gammage's feelings towards the country, he says. 'I'm completely, eternally grateful to China and its people, because they allowed me to have my Jin Yu and Zhao Gu [adopted from Gansu in June 2004]. They allowed me to have what makes me happiest in life. At the same time, I'm angry - that my daughter would be abandoned, that she would suffer two years of privation in a poorly funded orphanage, that a nationwide system of orphanages filled with little girls could somehow be regarded as normal.'

Despite this, both girls are well and well-adjusted, he says. 'We talk openly to our girls about how they came to us. To them, for now, it's no big deal. This may change as they grow older and fitting in with their peer group becomes more of a priority. At the same time, there are so many adopted girls in the US - almost 62,000. There are four on our street. Whatever else may be true, these girls are not alone.'

China Ghosts: My Daughter's Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood (HarperCollins, HK$208)


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