Going Back to China in Search of My Daughter’s Secret Past

Going Back to China in Search of My Daughter’s Secret Past


“O.K., we should go now,” the translator said.

Our last stop was the orphanage where Sophie had spent nine months after being found, a place that seemed stuck in time. When I adopted Sophie, Yixing was covered in ancient soot. There was nowhere for a foreigner to sleep. Now, there were 30 hotels. The China that had produced a generation of abandoned girls was quickly being swept into the past.

We were introduced to the new director who said that Sophie looked like “a local girl.” She instructed my daughter to study hard, help others, always love her mother and take care of me when I am old.

Sophie managed a polite smile, though I sensed her eye roll.

As we were leaving, the director handed me a file. I began to leaf through and saw the adoption papers I had signed 10 years before. Then I noticed something stuck between two pages: a torn, weathered bit of notebook paper with ballpoint scribbles.

I lifted the weightless scrap. The lines had faded. There were a few Mandarin characters and numbers. I deciphered Sophie’s date of birth, which of course I knew, and the exact time of her birth, which only her birthparents could know.

This was the note.

I handed it to Sophie, who glanced at it, then gave it back.

She seemed unmoved, but I was overcome. Through tears, I snapped image after image.

Back in the car, Sophie said, “The note said nothing, so why did we even go?”

I, too, was disappointed at how little was there, but I remembered reading of birth mothers, about to leave their girls, who had written pages, only to tear them up in shame and scribble a birth date instead. One birth mother had even sewn her baby an outfit of patterned cloth from which she cut a patch — a precious bit of proof to be preserved, perhaps, until the day they were reunited.



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