Orphanage chief found a paternal bond with China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

I was 22 when I won a scholarship to Taiyuan, Shanxi province, from the US in 1982. In those days, it was a particularly daunting opportunity because the mainland's open-door policy was in its infancy. As it turned out, it was to crystallise where my interests lay and later led to the gift of my children.

I'd gone to the mainland to teach English at university and to study Mandarin, but also to understand a completely different part of the world. During my senior year at university I'd studied the history of Marxism and my lecturer was interested in what was happening in China. I was encouraged to write a paper on whether China was Marxist or not.

As it happened, the move to the mainland was a very complicated but electrifying experience. I think there must've been about 20 foreigners in Taiyuan among a population of 35 million Chinese.

I was this incredible novelty who attracted crowds, and I found I was charmed and fascinated by the students, their hardships and particularly their optimism. It was from this experience that I came to realise I wanted to do something with foreign policy and China.

Up until then I'd had happy schooldays, much of it in the northwest of the US, and it was a very American experience if I compare it say, to Europe. I could explore lots of different subjects before specialising, so I was able to find out what I was good at. In addition, I was fortunate to have worldly parents.

In secondary school I went to live in France. I was surprised by the way students there specialised early but it also altered my view of the world and made me eager to explore it.

I gradually found languages interested me, as did international politics, even at the age of 12 or 13.

The first part of my schooling I found not very challenging. Perhaps it was because I was at easy schools. It was at secondary school I encountered difficulties. I found chemistry, for example, beyond me.

With hindsight, I wished I'd learned economics. I didn't do it until later on at university and found it transforming. It helped me to understand how the world works and why countries act in the way they do.

At university in Ohio I elected to do lots of classes majoring in art history. I had this idea I wanted to work in art museums, but after a number of internships realised that although I enjoyed it, it wasn't really for me.

It was also in the last year of university that I became even more interested in international politics and foreign policy, though I still completed my art history degree.

Later, after returning from living in China, I went on to study international relations and economics at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. I think that was the best of my educational experiences.

On graduating I held a series of positions with non-governmental organisations which had connections with China. I found I was a bridge between Americans and Chinese, helping them to understand one another. I came to Hong Kong first in 1991 with the non-profit-making Yale-China Association, helping to develop educational and health-care programmes.

In 1995 my wife and I adopted a Chinese girl from Mother's Love in Guangxi province, which is sponsored by Mother's Choice orphanage in Hong Kong. When we moved back to the US in 2000 we became involved in a growing organisation of families that had adopted Chinese children and who wanted their kids to feel a part of their Chinese heritage. I discovered a passion in this that was partly related to my experience of living in China and went on to become the president.

We renewed our connection with Mother's Choice when we took our daughter back to Mother's Love on a heritage visit. In fact, we saw triplet girls there and ended up adopting them too.

Last year I was asked to become chief executive of Mother's Choice, so my link is very personal and it feels partly preordained.

The organisation isn't just about adopting. We're involved in counselling crisis pregnancies, which tends to involve young women and sex education. We also have an orphanage and child-care centre at which volunteers are always welcome, as well as being involved in fostering.

It's strange that when I look back, I never thought my life would turn out like this. But it feels good, it's fun and now it all seems like a natural progression.

David Youtz is the chief executive of Mother's Choice. He was talking to David Phair.