Kara

By Michelle, mom to Kara from China, adopted as an ‘older child’

December 21st marked six-months since we first met Kara. I struggle to believe it has been six months. On one hand, it seems like she has been a part of our family for far longer than that, but on the other, it seems like such a short time ago that we were in China to bring her home.

Kara Family Day 062309 (1 of 1)

Does anyone remember this lovely photo? I look at it and remember how we were dripping under those masks that we were required to wear due to China’s fear of spreading the H1N1 virus, barely able to breath because the ones that we purchased had too many heavy layers of cotton gauze, not to mention we were wearing them in late June in southern China in a non air-conditioned building. It was the memories that took place after leaving this room that were the fond ones for us.

So much has changed since this picture was taken. I often get asked how everything is really going. I can honestly say, it is really going great! I am amazed every day at our daughter who lived 11 years in another country, in a vastly different culture, spoke a completely different language, communicated through complex characters and not our alphabet, ate different foods, lived in a very large city, etc. etc. Her ability to transition into her new world with such ease is beyond comprehension – and truly, EVERYTHING about her new world has been new. I know I will not be able to do this justice, but I am going to attempt to highlight our first six months together. This is probably going to be a long post, but I hope it highlights our journey for anyone who might be interested in older child adoption.

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Kara knew no English prior to her adoption. And I really have no way to explain it, but communication just happens. We didn’t speak the same language, but we were able to communicate through our own little form of charades, just enough so that we would each know what we wanted.

I am sure Kara was processing the changes in her life inwardly, but she was not showing any outward grief or aggression in any way. She seemed to fit into our family with ease, just with a few minor bumps in our first month together as a result of some jealousy and vying for mom and dad’s attention among all three girls – but primarily Leila and Kara. Leila knew that she would be giving up her role as the oldest in the house, but how can one – especially an 8-year old – really comprehend and prepare for this? They can’t. She became very jeolous and hurt by the amount of attention we had to give Kara early on and started acting out with her behavior. In fact, this started while we were still in China. Nothing too drastic, but a lot of negative attitudes and talking back. This lasted less than a month before Leila adjusted back to her sweet self and went back to becoming best buds with Kara.

I had worried about all of the possible “what ifs”, such as violence and severe emotional outbursts, but our biggest difficulties with Kara early on were brief pouting episodes that primarily resulted from saying “no” to her – mostly to her requests to buy her something or to write her name in black sharpie all over her new belongings. These were brief and they were minor. None of the worst-case scenarios that I had envisioned in the months leading up to our adoption every came to fruition. Praise the Lord!!!

Our most heart-breaking moment in those first few days together came not from Kara, but from Leila, who had difficulty sleeping the first few nights home and would come into our room crying. Leila has NEVER had problems sleeping. She is our rock sleeper from the moment her head hits the pillow. I knew something really had to be bothering her, so I put myself in her shoes. Here Leila had just seen us travel to China to bring home Kara at age 11, after Kara had been living with a foster family for nearly five years. In Leila’s eyes, if we could take Kara away from her family, what would stop someone from taking Leila away from us? It just broke my heart to think that Leila had been worrying about this for who knows how long. I sat her down and explained the difference between Kara’s foster family and us, her forever family. From that moment on, Leila went back to sleeping peacefully. This is deeply personal and painful for Leila, but I share this in hopes that it might help another family have this conversation beforehand. I only wish I had.

As I’ve mentioned before, Kara felt uncomfortable with hugs and kisses our first few days together. Openly showing affection is not common in Chinese culture. Kara quickly became comfortable with receiving, as well as showing affection. It took Kara a month or two to become truly comfortable with Nolan, but he has proven time and time again what an AWESOME dad he is and I know that Kara realizes that now, too. Kara wouldn’t even think of getting on the school bus or going to bed without a big hug, kiss and “I love you” – or lots of them. While other 11-year olds might think it is uncool to blow kisses to their mom, Kara waves frantically and blows kisses to me from the bus every single morning. And I love it, and by the look on her face, she does, too.
Our summer was filled with making many fun memories -many of which were firsts for Kara. I am so thankful that our travel dates to China allowed us some bonding time together as a family before Kara had to start school. Witnessing every one of Kara’s “firsts” has been such a joy for all of us. The summer also gave us time to hire an ESL tutor to come to the house and help her at least three days/week. That was a huge help to prepare her for entering school.

Kara has adjusted to American food very well. She loves anything with meat or fish, so it’s pretty easy to find something on the menu that she will like. She is not a fan of most breakfast foods, so I bake a lot of banana bread around here, which she likes. I do look at the school menu every day and if there is something I know she will not like (anything with American or cheddar cheese, brunch for lunch or lunch wraps), I will make a noodle dish for her to take. She only uses chopsticks when she eats noodles or Chinese food. Sometimes she even puts those down and grabs silverware.

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Our decision to place Kara in the fifth grade was not one I took lightly. There were many nights of lost sleep over this decision. She is pretty small for her age and her emotional maturity tends to fluctuate greatly, depending on who she is with. After five months, it has proven to be the right choice. Kara’s classmates have been supportive from day one, just as the school principal had predicted. Never once have I heard that any of her classmates have been unkind because she spoke another language or came from another country. (And there is VERY little diversity in our [public] school.) In fact, it was quite the opposite. Her first day at school left her feeling like a little rock star. She continues to teach the girls in her class Chinese characters and seems to fit in just fine.

Early on in the school year, homework was a nightly challenge. Not because Kara didn’t want to study. On the contrary, she was a very willing student and would sit and do what was asked of her as long as it took – often taking up to two hours every night. (It was obvious she was painfully bored, but she did it without complaint.) As Kara’s language gradually improved, so did the homework. It still, however, requires either my or Nolan’s undivided attention, as she needs us to help read and explain the directions to her.

Kara had attended school through the fourth grade in China. It broke my heart when, on one of our first days together, I told her she was very smart. “Smart?”, she asked our translator. “Nobody has ever called me smart before. I always talked in class and didn’t pay attention to the teacher.” It broke my heart that this bright, inquisitive 11-year old girl did not know how smart she truly was. She does admit to me now that she never learned pinyin in school because she was too busy talking. That may have been the case in China, but she has really been focused on her schoolwork and learning here in the U.S … at least for now. Maybe things will change when her language skills improve, but I have high hopes for our little fifth grader!

Kara’s math skills have improved greatly since the beginning of the school year. Addition, subtraction and multiplication came relatively easy for her, but I do not believe she had ever seen any fractions or any of the other math problems that fifth graders are charged with learning. And to be honest, I am learning again right along with her. I often joked with her teacher, “Yes, I have a bachelor’s degree, yes I have a successful career, but NO, I am NOT smarter than a fifth grader!” Sadly, I wasn’t really joking. :) Kara can now work on more of her math independently, but still requires our assistance with word problems and instructions.

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She is a great reader in her native language. We go to the library and rent a stack of Chinese books and she often has them read before we reach our house. She writes her Chinese characters beautifully. As for English, she is reading at a kindergarten level and writing is a challenge, as she still has difficulty pronouncing many of the sounds that were foreign to her only six months ago, therefore the “sounding it out” strategy is more of a challenge for her than most non-ESL kids. e.g. “Red” is “renda.” I have frequent communication with her primary literacy teacher and we are both impressed with her effort and her progress. She has worked very hard and does the best we can ask of her. Her teachers and her classmates adore her, as do we. Because she is graded on her progress and effort and not based on knowing many of the same things that her peers do except math, she earned a “meets” level on her first report card, and I am very happy with that.

The amount of English that she has learned in just six months is nothing short of amazing. There are many things she still does not understand and we cannot yet hold many complex conversations, but she impresses everyone she meets with her language skills. Not everything has a proper name, but we can understand. e.g. The other day she shouted from the shower to tell me, “Number two is over.” I knew exactly what she meant: we were out of conditioner. She also has problems with pronouns. No matter how many times we have told her, men are always “Mrs./she/her”; never “Mr./him/his”. I try not to correct everything she says. She is trying so hard and I know what she is trying to say. I often try to put myself in her shoes and I think I might still just know a few Chinese words by now. Probably the most frustrating thing for me, however, during the past six months is her constant questioning of “what is that?” and “why?”, when I know she will not be able to understand the answers that I give her, but that is my problem with limited patience and not a problem of hers. She has many questions of God and Jesus, as she is active in Awana and Sunday School, but we do not yet have sufficient ability to explain it for her full understanding. Soon, though. Hopefully, very soon. (And she has a new Chinese bible. Hooray!!)

Kara loves music. LOVES music. She loves to sing, try to play any instrument she can get her hands on and dance. She used to put on dance performances at the orphanage, so I signed her up for Chinese dance class here. She seems to like it and she will put on her first performance during the Chinese New Year celebration next year. I can’t wait to see her on stage! (Mia will be taking stage, too, with her younger class.) Kara also takes an advanced Chinese language class and serves as the teacher’s helper since she is further along than the other students in the class.
Because Kara loves music so much, we signed her up for the band early in the school year. I spoke with the band director and explained our situation and she said she would give it a try. I was thankful Kara chose percussion, as I am able to help her with bells since there is much similarity to piano, which I took for 14 years. She is doing great and seems to love it, except for the heavy weight of carrying the bells to and from school. She sometimes complains that she wishes she would have chosen the flute, as it is small and light. :) Oh, and she has asked Santa for a guitar, too.

Christmas 2009-15

I thought Kara was doing well retaining her language, but just today we went to the Chinese grocery store and then to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. I was trying to get her to speak to the people working at both places, but she acted shy and would only say the basic, “hello, goodbye, thank you, and Merry Christmas!” I told her, I can say those things. Say something more. Later on, she told me she was forgetting some of her Chinese. She said she can read and write it just fine, but she is gradually forgetting how to say some words. She and her two friends from China (now adopted in the U.S.) Skype every 1-2 weeks and speak primarily in Mandarin and I have asked her dance instructor and Chinese language teacher to only speak to her in Chinese, but I will need to step up our efforts to help her retain her language, as that is very important to all of us.

She gets along great with her sisters. I love seeing their special sisterly bond – something I never knew growing up without sisters. Along the way, Kara has gradually changed her once dislike of dress-up and all things “girly girl” to that of much enjoyment, as shown by one of their latest fashion shows below.

Kara (1 of 1)

As a I recently wrote to a friend… during the past six months, there may have been difficult moments within a day, but I can honestly say we haven’t had any truly bad days. All days end with super big hugs, tons of kisses and lots of “I Love Yous”. Although adopting Kara wasn’t our plan, I am grateful that God led us to her. She is our daughter, no doubt. I don’t know if we will ever adopt again. I thought we were done at two, and now we have three, so I don’t know what God has planned for us. Adopting an older child isn’t easy, but in so many ways it has been easier than I had expected. I had prepared for the worst, but prayed for the best. God has been faithful.

I am also grateful to her foster family. I still know little about them, but I believe that they provided her a loving home and showed her the best that they could what living in a loving family was like.

Since we have been working so much on fractions and percentages with Kara at school, I will close with this: Kara has spent 52% of her life thus far in an orphanage; 44% in foster care and just 4% with us. It will take a long time for us to gain the majority in this mathematical equation, but our small, growing percentage is made up of many magical, wonderful moments with our amazing daughter whom we love with 100% of our hearts.

Feel free to visit our family blog here.

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