When you commit to adopting a child from China, the Chinese government asks you to provide them with a letter of intent. In this letter you get to explain how you will educate your child, how you will attend to their medical needs, and how you will love and cherish them forever. In addition, you are expected to detail exactly how you will keep their Chinese identity and connection to their birth country alive and vibrant. Obviously, retaining their Mandarin is a huge part of this, but until recently it was the part I struggled with the most.
A Visual Letter of Intent
This blog post is a love letter to China, a country that loved us as we were learning how to love our girls. It’s a giant thank you for containing all the pain of our girl’s relinquishment and the hope that someday they will be reunited with their first parents. It’s a letter of appreciation for validating the importance of family and how you must go to any lengths to protect children. It aspires to be a visual example of the letter of intent we wrote when we first committed to our girls.
It is also a giant thank you to JoJo Learning and their partners Ling Technology and Ellabook. Without them we wouldn’t have the ability to raise our daughters as Mandarin speakers. They have given us a priceless gift that will forever shape our girls’ futures.
How lucky are we? In addition to 4 biological children we get to parent these beauties. Mabel Ann Su La, Winnifred Ann An Qi, Frances Ann Yu Qiu and Anelia Ann (Anelia is from Bulgaria).
It’s the People
Right from the start China decided to show us its most precious treasure – its people. All around China I would be called “great mother” (being a mother of so many) and it was a natural topic for people to approach me about. I didn’t feel that great, muddling through jet lag and culture shock, not speaking the language while navigating airports and train stations. But all around China strangers would offer me a helping hand with my children. They wanted to know who we were and what we cared about. Grandmothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers would gravitate over to our family and offer help, a word of sympathy, or a genuine smile. They wanted pictures of our disheveled kids with their beautiful babies, some even wanted pictures with me. I started falling deeply in love with China.
Olive and her little friend in the Beijing airport on our way to Nanchang. We met our daughter Mabel Ann Su La on that same day!
After meeting two of our daughters we took a few days to bond and then we visited their “finding place” (the spot her parents relinquished them.) For Mabel it was a tiny building right outside a hospital called a “baby island” and it is filled with diapers, bottles, and an incubator so babies can be safely relinquished (more on this later). For Winnifred An Qi the area is in the process of being renovated but it is near what used to be a supermarket and very close to the orphanage. Because of distance we were unable to see Frannie’s but we are planning a future trip there.
Su La’s nanny who loved her so much. Can you imagine loving a baby for years knowing that someday she might leave you? This woman is brave and courageous. I want to learn to love courageously just like her.
It is illegal to relinquish your child in China but the Chinese love their children so completely and concretely that even though it is illegal they’ve created these “islands” all over China. Think of that concept for a minute- they have built a safe place, which is AGAINST the law, to protect the children. They situated this “baby island” in sight of a police station (where surely the officers turn their heads when they see a couple approaching with a child) for this illegal act. It takes such a generosity of spirit and practicality to accept that for some families this feels like the only choice they have and so they want to provide a safe place for them to do it. It is heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time and such an undeniable act of love. This is my kind of country.
Can you imagine the tears that have seeped into this ground? Baby Island in Nanchang China.
(I hope those people who flew in the face of convention and built those “baby islands” also find a way to make adoption obsolete - by eliminating poverty and increasing access to resources for all families so they may retain custody of and parent their children. If anyone can do it, the people of China can, they have the talent and the love. Someday it will happen and we can all rejoice!)
Winnifred’s finding spot (now in the process of being renovated) in Nanjing. The last place her first parents kissed her on the head.
That is SO China
But not all of China was sadness and tragedy. For us, China and adoption are fused together. When I think of my girls, I think of China and when I think of China, I think of how much I treasure our girls.
There are certain things that will forever remind our family of China. Sure, there are the less pleasant aspects of China such as the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with the gas and diesel and the sounds of spitting and snorting as a way to clear the sinuses that stir up some memories. There are the neutral things such as plastic chairs outside sidewalk restaurants, observations of men with very long nails, and immaculately cleaned highways in major cities. But the strongest impression was made by our positive memories of China. The kindness of strangers, the extreme hospitality of our Chinese companions, the intergenerational bonds of family, and how all of these things are often expressed with incredible food! The food, OH THE FOOD. If you have never been to China, nothing can prepare you for the incredible sensory feast you are in for. Although we have tried to replicate it, nothing can match the food we shared in China. Try to look at the pictures below and tell me that your mouth is not watering! That is SO China.
Chang Fen in Guangzhou! Chang Fen is a thin, steamed rice crepe stuffed with egg and meat and green onions. Most people smother it in soy sauce but we have a gluten allergy.
Candied haws at the Confucius Temple area in Nanjing. The epitome of Chinese sweets – slightly tart and sweet at the same time. (You can find haw candies at any Asian store in the US and they are amazing!) We don’t have this complex taste in the US. Right after this a lovely group of people from a rural area on vacation in Nanjing wanted pictures of our family, they laughed and didn’t believe me when I said I had 8 children – they thought the 4 they could see were enough!
They flavor things in Nanjing with Ozmanthus which is only found in East Asia. I was lucky enough to find single serve Ozmanthus jellies at our local world market. We search high and low to keep the particular tastes of our children’s first homes in our home and our food tastes have expanded since China became a part of us.
Salted duck in Nanjing stacked in a window. That’s so China! I wish I could have stuffed one in my suitcase.
Everything is accessible to you as a shopper in China. Chinese people would not stand for a carton of eggs of fish behind a counter. In China you choose each egg individually for quality and you look in each gill of every fish you buy. These differences become part of who you are when you return home. I find myself thinking “we really have no idea how to shop correctly in the US” when I’m at the grocery store.
Frog? Don’t mind if I do. And as you might have guessed it tastes a lot like chicken.
Have you tried hot pot? Go right now! (Truth be told it’s better in China.) Oh and the plum juice!
China has left an indelible mark on the collective memory of my family and not a day goes by that someone in my family doesn't say “that is so CHINA” with absolute love and longing for a country we now think of as a second home.
Our last daughter Winnifred came with a note from her parents which contained the birth name they gave her. After seeing it, I spent an hour with our guide (and friend) Elvin in the Marriott lobby imagining what their hopes and dreams were for her (from a few simple lines of text). Elvin offered me tissues and tried to hide his tears as mine slid down my cheeks. We laughed at the stares and I smiled through my tears, he fumbled with the tissues and wiped his eyes. It was messy and beautiful and tragic all in one, just like adoption.
We learned so much about family during our visits to China. Here we were, seasoned parents, expanding our family even further and we were learning so much! During our second and third trips we were given the honor of being invited to our friend (and former guide) Anson’s home, which he shares with his parents, wife and daughter (he gave his daughter the English name Olivia after our daughter Olive). We have seen Anson grow from a single man to a married man to now a devoted and loving father. During these visits his father cooked elaborate meals for us as we all gathered around their humble table and tried to understand a few words (Anson was our steady translator). One of the lessons I learned from Anson and his family is that a good rule of thumb is to buy a smaller table and stuff more people around it.
Anson’s beautiful family. What a legacy these parents have! 6 beautiful children and now many grandchildren who all live close. We feel blessed to call them friends. (Anson is on the far right in the picture.)
Anson’s father’s meal on our second trip. He is laughing here because Jericho is eating all his food after all of us are full. The ultimate compliment for him or for any Chinese cook!
This family unity of parents and working adults living together is typical in China. Anson’s parents care for Olivia while he and his wife work. His sister lives next door. Cousins come and stay and play with the babies. Anson’s friendship has changed our outlook on launching our adult children and on bringing the generations of our family closer. We are moving my Dad onto our property and our adult children are welcome (and encouraged) to stay close. This change in outlook on what family looks like allowed us to keep saying yes to children knowing that some of them will never leave our home (because of early institutional living and the damage it does to a child’s development). Another lesson I learned from Anson and his family is the joy of keeping your family close.
My Chinese "sister" and former guide Susan, her husband John, my son Jericho, my daughter Olive, and my adopted niece Lucky.
Our friend (and former guide) Susan accepted me as her sister on our first trip and I inherited a niece, brother-in-law and mother from our union. Susan and her mother have an amazing relationship built on sacrifice for each other’s wellbeing. Susan’s mother had an apartment that was better suited for Susan and her family so her mother gave it to her, and she moved down the road. They see each other daily and do everything with the other in mind. I want to leave a legacy like Susan’s mother will – a legacy built on care for each other and active love for those who I call family.
My adopted mother in Beijing. She has the most kind and generous spirit.
5AM pick up with our friend Elvin. Winnifred An Qi was having none of it. I was bracing for the never ending plane ride home. I begged Elvin to come with us and keep me sane!
Once we were home from China we turned our attention to helping the girls retain their Mandarin. We had goals for their language learning: to retain the language skills they had at the time of adoption, we wanted them to have the option to live in China and to find and converse with their first families if they ever choose to. And lastly, we wanted language learning to be a family affair, a way of connecting over our love for China and our love for the Chinese language. However, once we returned from China to our small New England town, I have to admit that I was overwhelmed by the prospect of this challenge. I spent hours researching options, (and trying several), but, knowing only a few Chinese phrases myself, the task felt daunting.
Then came JoJo Learning. At JoJo, I met Christine and Caelyn who wrote email after email to share their knowledge about ways to increase and retain my girls' Mandarin (and increase my own and my biological children’s language skills). After hearing our family's story and the work that I do to raise money for Chinese orphans seeking adoptive parents, the JoJo team shared our story with their partners Ling Technology and the Ellabook Company to see if they would be willing to donate their respective products to our family to help keep our daughters' Chinese alive. Both companies gladly agreed and now Luka®, a ton of JoJo books, and the Ellabook App are all daily fixtures in our home.
Additionally, we are able to continue to help share these great Chinese resources with other families semi-annually when we hold auctions to benefit Chinese kids at risk of "aging out" of the Chinese orphanage system (to learn more about how to help the latest child, check Love At Last Grants).
My girls instantly bonded with their Luka®. Even now, they particularly enjoy imitating Luka’s sweet voice and waking up sounds. Ellabook has captured the interest of my biological 8 and 13-year olds. The artwork and animation captivate them while their Mandarin skills, too, continue to grow. We have found a way to make Mandarin a family affair, it’s almost effortless and we all have so much fun!
An Qi and Frannie enjoying books together with their Luka Reading Robot. Jo Jo Learning takes the guesswork out of picking the best language learning books. Every book we’ve purchased from them has been a hit!
So now not only is our front door decorated with door couplets during Chinese New Year, or lanterns during the Mid Autumn Moon Festival, but now Mandarin books are being read and enjoyed as a family. We also have two countries we call home with extra family members scattered throughout both. In addition, cities of Nanchang, Zhengzhou, and Nanjing are etched in my heart and the people of China are like my extended family. As an adoptive parent to a Chinese child, I've found you must make China a part of your heart or you risk alienating the part of your child that is in the marrow of their bones and courses through their blood. So now even I claim Chinese ancestry by love but not blood, and I am the better for it.
Thank you China for our girls, for your people, for your love of your children. Thank you JoJo for the support (and for the excellent books). Thank you Ling for continuing to support blind children in their language learning. And thank you Ellabook for expanding all of our Mandarin skills! We are so glad to have found such great companies in the U.S. and China who recognize the value in creating and maintaining human-to-human connections across the Pacific.
If you are interested in how you can help build more connections, please check my organization's Facebook page Love At Last Grants and donate to help the latest child find their home before its too late.
Thanks for reading.
Kimberly Schildbach is a New England native, mother of 8 wonderful children, and founder of Love At Last Grants--an organization which raises money to help special needs orphans who are in danger of "aging out" of the Chinese orphanage system. (At 14 children "age out" and become ineligible to be adopted.) Kimberly's passion for helping orphans is fueled daily by the love she feels for her four visually impaired adopted daughters.