The Moment I Met Nathan: Adopting From China
It was twelve-thirty in Hohhot, China, the desert wind tossing my hair in bundles under the overcast sky. My parents and I had just landed there, about a hundred miles south of the China-Mongolia border. We had come partly as tourists, having already visited Beijing and its signature sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the ancient Hutong district -the overcrowded downtown area where traffic lights are recommendations instead of enforced law. But we hadn't come just to enjoy the country's high-rises and ancient relics. We came to adopt a child, a boy that we would eventually raise as a member of our family.
As soon as we boarded the minivan to our hotel, questions started bombarding me, appearing and vanishing with each building and pedestrian that passed in and out of sight: Would he be fond of me? Would he want to play with me? How would he react to us, his new family? I had always wanted a younger brother, someone to tackle, a little buckaroo with whom I could share my Legos. But still, I did not know the answers - no one did. Nor could I until I got to hold him at the hotel, calling him by his new name: Nathan-Nathan Jia Chao Bergquist-or his nickname, "Chao Chao."
I kept asking these questions silently to myself as I watched office buildings and Mandarin signs pass us on the highway. I tried to watch closely for pedestrians, for more Mandarin inscriptions; I tried listening periodically to our guide, Kaige, talk about the region and answer any questions that my parents had. I learned that the city of Hohhot recognized four languages on their signage: English, Mandarin, Arabic, and Mongolian. I had also found out that the region had forty-four recognized ethnic groups, including Han, which is the dominant ethnicity in China. But no facts could answer or even preclude the questions I had about Nathan. My struggle would ensue for the entire ride, not stopping until the moment I met him.
In mid-January of 2006, we got word from the agency that we had been matched to a child -Qian Jia Chao, one of the boys we were asked about two months prior. Pictures came, along with full descriptions of his condition. Mom and Dad even let us look at them! His fatcheeked face blushed red against his orange overalls, his jet-black, paper-thin hair twisted and scraggly on his round head. In one picture, he was holding his favorite stuffed animal, stained and tom from dirt and overuse, his legs straight out in front of him - unprepared for a photo shoot. In another one he was standing, leaning up against a low stool from the side, straining with his eyes to maintain balance on his pudgy legs. Also, his defected right ear - folded and sealed closed from birth - was hidden from the camera, head turned to conceal it from viewers.
My parents then gave us his bio from the adoption agency. Fortunately for him, they said, his biological parents had obviously left him in good condition: they had put him in a car seat and bundled him up in a thick jacket and blankets, with a bottle full of milk for nourishment. They had left him next to a sport stadium the day after he was born - a public place where anyone could see him and report him to the authorities. Apparently, his parents wanted him to be found, to stay warm and healthy; they probably hoped somebody who could afford to care for him would find him and take him in to someplace safe, probably an orphanage. Many abandoned infants in China die due to undernourishment or exposure, and still others are taken by gangs or beggars and used for dealing. Luckily, he was picked up that very day by orphanage officials in Hohhot, and he would stay in their care for the next two years, nourished and protected from any physical harm or dealings for money.
Still, that begged the question of why they would abandon him. If they really cared about him, wouldn't they have just kept him as their son instead of risking him harm by abandoning him in a public venue? Well, for one thing, his parents may not have had the resources to give him the care he needed for his defect. They also may have abandoned him because it was considered bad fortune to take in an unhealthy son, or at least a child with a noticeable defect. This social taboo runs to the very core of Chinese culture. Because of the one-child policy enacted in 1979 and China's condescension toward girls and disabled children, Chinese couples prefer healthy boys when the woman gives birth. Thus, if someone gives birth to a girl or a disabled child (regardless of gender), it's considered bad luck. For that reason, some abandon their "undesired" children to the streets, not wanting to be associated with such a social taboo of misfortune.
That said, the fact that Nathan was found so soon after he had been abandoned is providential. He could have easily been aborted or prevented through birth control, granted that they had found out his gender beforehand through ultrasound or some other technology. Or he could have been stolen by a gang wanting to deal for profit or a beggar demanding money on the street. In any case, his given Chinese name ("Jia" means longevity; '"Chao" means good fortune) could be dubbed a self-fulfilling prophecy: not only did his parents leave him with loving care - he'd also live to see an orphanage the next day.
It was four o'clock when we arrived at the New City Hotel, the five-star plaza towering thirteen stories into the arid, polluted sky. In spite of the pollution, however, I was excited to meet my soon-to-be legal little brother - chubby legs, brown eyes, puffed up Asian cheeks. Suddenly, a strong gale ripped the grin off of my face, making me squint my eyes for protection, the thick, mid-polluted air scraping my face as sandpaper on clean-cut wood. No one should ever have to endure this, I thought to myself as the wind cut across my face once again. And right away I wondered to myself how any little boy left on the street - a newborn. no less - could ever live to see another day in such miserable conditions. Good thing his parents had given him so much care when they left him at the stadium - and that the orphanage found him before anyone else did.
Once we got inside and checked in to our room, we found that the orphanage was running late due to other stops it had to make in the area. Great, I thought, eyes rolling. How much longer would it take? But two hours quickly became two minutes. Soon three officials, one older gentleman and two women, walked into our room, sporting semi-formal attire with their advanced age. And then Nathan came in, resting in the arms of his female caretaker. He looked exactly as I had remembered from the pictures: thin hair all twisted and mangled, small round face trying ,o force a smile at me and my parents. Mom then walked forward, holding out her arms to take him. Smirking, he quietly uttered his first words: "'ma-ma." Laughter filled the room, Nathan's ace beaming with pleasure. Then it was Dad's turn: going to Dad, Nathan uttered his next word: "ba-ba." Nathan, his grin growing ever wider, loved making people smile, though by now he had said no more than a simple "ba-ba" and "ma-ma." A quiet comedian. A humble entertainer. His reputation was already starting to shine.
Now it was my turn to make my move. "Hey, Chao Chao!"
He giggled, his brown eyes looking directly at mine and flashing under his eyelids. I stroked his paper-thin hair, hands crawling along his tender scalp. I panned out for a better look at his face: a perfect circle, baby cheeks on both sides. And his legs: so muscular, though he couldn't quite walk yet. I asked him if he wanted to play on the table, offering him the wind-up mouse toy we had bought for him. He grinned at me, and I motioned for the table, winding up the toy to let it move around on the wooden surface. His hands quietly folded at his chin as he watched it spin.
It was then that I saw his right ear, folded closed underneath his hair line, just a line of skin protruding from his chubby round head. Then I remembered the pictures, with his head turned sideways to hide the folded ear. I remembered his bio, the description of him when he was found - in a car seat, wrapped in blankets, dressed in thick clothes, at a sports stadium where everyone could see him. And, I remembered his name - longevity and good fortune - my new little brother, adopted, legally ours.