While we waited to travel for our almost-four-year-old son, XiXi, I worried. He had not spent most of his life in foster care, as we’d been told, but was in the orphanage, an orphanage with a reputation for secrecy, deception, and at times even outright cruelty. At night, I wondered how damaged this child might be. I worried that he’d struggle with the concept of family, never having known one for himself. And then an amazing thing happened. I met a woman online who had just adopted a 13 year-old girl from XiXi’s orphanage. She said that her daughter was doing wonderfully well, was kind-hearted and empathetic and had blended seamlessly into their family, and had spent her whole life in the orphanage. With 600 kids under this orphanage’s care at any one time, I knew it was a long shot, but I sent this woman our son’s picture. Did she happen to know him?
Almost immediately I got an email back. “Our daughter is jumping up and down and clapping and crying, Di Di!! Di Di!!” Little brother! Little brother! With the use of a handheld translator, she told her mother that the children were sorted into “families” in the orphanage and that she’d known XiXi since he was infant. She loved him, played with him, taught him to walk. She said “Tell his mother to not worry. He is an obedient boy with a cute smiling face.” She told a story of a nanny who was universally disliked by the children, and how XiXI had his own way of pushing her buttons. At lunchtime, he refused to eat his food when Mean Nanny was in the room, but as soon as she left, he’d scarf down his rice, only to toss his chopsticks back on the table right before she reappeared, making her fume. The other children struggled to stifle their laughter.
Big Sister, like all the children adopted from this orphanage, left abruptly. Most children hear about their adoption on the way to the Civil Affairs Office. Sometimes the night before. Without so much as a goodbye, our boy’s Big Sister, a constant in his young life full of change, was gone.
As our time to meet XiXi drew closer, we received a card in the mail. Big Sister, knowing more than anyone what would be going through XiXi’s mind in the days and weeks to come, sent him a card. Rather than send it to the orphanage, where he’d probably never get it, she sent it to our home. One afternoon, I took it to a local Chinese restaurant for translation. Once it was clear that I did not need a table for one, I was escorted to the back of the restaurant where the owner and his elderly mother sat down with the card. They oohed and ahhed at the beautiful characters, hardly believing that a girl who’d grown up in a orphanage had written it. Then the translation began.
The man read aloud in Mandarin to his mother, and then repeated the words in English. “Dear XiXi, How are you? Did you have a good Chinese New Year?”
More Mandarin and then he paused. He paused long enough that I wondered if he was struggling with the translation. “I am telling you good news, XiXi. Your family is coming–a loving father, a loving mother, loving brother, and loving sisters.” The man’s words were catching in his throat and his mother dabbed her eye with a napkin.
“You are going to have a good life and happiness forever. You are going to have a nice home and then you will grow healthy, breathing fresh air. There will be a brother and sisters to play with you and you will not be lonely because they will love you and you will be part of their family. Congratulations, XiXI. Be a healthy and happy little boy, full of promise. Now you are still little and I don’t know if you still remember me, but I am always your big sister.”
Napkins all around.
We brought the card with us on Gotcha’ Day, along with a picture of Big Sister posing with her new family. XiXi was escorted into the Civil Affairs Office, pushed toward us, and then he fell apart. He wailed and screamed and kicked. He shook his head no and said things that our guide wouldn’t translate. Then he abruptly left the room. I panicked, wondering if he’d run out into the street. The Ayi who’d brought him motioned for us to sit down and to leave him be. We could see him outside in the hall, breathing deeply, trying to control his sobs. In his hands he held a photo book of our family. He slowly looked at each page, tears streaming down his cheeks, his chest heaving. When he got to the end of the book, he closed it, took another deep breath, and walked back into the room. The bravest little boy we’d ever seen.
At this point, we showed him Big Sister’s card and the picture of her with her family. A smile spread across his face. It had been over nine months since Big Sister left for America, but he yelled, “Jie Jie!!” Big Sister had started a new life and he would too.
When we got home, we called Big Sister. Acting like a teenager who didn’t want the rest of the family to hear his conversation, XiXi went into another room, phone glued to his ear. I heard lots of giggles. Afterward, I asked Big Sister’s mother what they said to each other. She wasn’t sure, but said her daughter was smiling and said, “Oh, sweet XiXi. Oh, funny XiXi.” Both kids home. Both kids safe. Both kids loved.
I am convinced, that even in the darkest places, there can be rays of light. I will be eternally grateful that Big Sister was that ray of light to our boy.