Viewed from room 1238 of the White Swan Hotel, the jagged ten-story tenements of Guangzhou, China, are softened by smog. Below, the United States Consulate complex sprawls beside century-old British colonial structures. “Pretty good view, isn’t it?” asks Paul Stueber, an earnest forty-four-year-old drum instructor from Minneapolis. He packs a baby bottle into a blue backpack. Beside him, his wife, Laurel, a forty-year-old schoolteacher, holds their newly adopted daughter, Olivia Ya Qun Stueber, age approximately fourteen months.
“You have our passports, Paul?”
“Yeah, I think I’ve got everything.”
Paul makes a last, quick scan of the room where they have spent four days awaiting Olivia’s immigrant visa. The bed is covered with toys. A crib stands beside it. A folder stuffed thick with adoption-related documents is on the dresser. The Stuebers ride a dimly lit elevator car to the ground floor and join five families with whom they have spent the last two weeks traveling southern China. “Hey, Laurel,” exclaims an exuberant mother from Stillwater, her arms filled with her own infant Chinese daughter. “How’s Olivia?” The Stuebers merge into a mass group status report on feeding times, sleep schedules, colds, parent-child attachment, and current levels of apprehension regarding the transportation of the group’s six newly adopted children on long international flights.
Unnoticed, the elevator discharges a young Chinese businessman and his two elderly parents. At first they don’t hesitate at the sight of white faces (the White Swan is favored by foreign businesspeople), but when the mother notices the Chinese babies, she stops mid-step, mouth agape. She and her family whisper through astonished smiles, and begin a slow circuit of the group, gazing upon them as if they were fine statuary. “Fat and healthy,” the mother declares in Mandarin. “Very good,” she adds in English, with a thumbs-up that is reciprocated by one of the new fathers.
The elevator opens again and out walks Shirley Hu, a diminutive China-based adoption representative for Children’s Home Society and Family Services, a Minnesota-based agency providing adoption services across the U.S. “Everyone have passports?” The families fall behind her in a line out the door and into the lush colonial elegance of Shamian Island. “Families always call me Mother Duck,” confides the thirty-one-year-old Shanghai native, her voice rising into a giggle. “I hate it!” She walks in rapid, evenly paced steps, shoulders back, chin raised, and she never looks back. “They will not let me out of their sight,” she says with a confidence derived from leading hundreds of adoption groups through China.
They pass dozens of American parents strolling with newly adopted Chinese babies and bypass shops with English language signs (Jenny’s Place, Susan’s Place) jammed with overpriced souvenirs and laundry services priced to beat the White Swan’s. At a parkway, they turn left and approach a long line of visa applicants awaiting interviews at the Consulate. Shirley walks right past them and shows the guard her passport and appointment letter. Immediately, she and the group are cleared to continue into a low-slung building where bags are X-rayed and everyone walks through a metal detector before crossing a courtyard and entering the ten-story consulate building.
Inside, past another security checkpoint, a sign announces “American Citizen Section; Adoption Unit; Department Homeland Security.” Arrows point upstairs into a thirty-foot-long room dominated by a service counter and, behind it, the Adoption Unit’s office cubicles. Approximately twenty other families are already in the room, awaiting the oath that completes their adoptions. Shirley’s families are ushered to a small window where a secretary checks their passports against the consulate’s documents. When this is done, an American woman emerges from the offices with a microphone. “You are to be congratulated on completing this process and adopting your children,” she says, her voice broadcast through the room. “There’s only one last hoop to jump through. Please raise your right hand.” She pauses. “Do you swear or affirm that the information you provided the consulate is true and correct to the best of your knowledge?”
The room rumbles with unsynchronized yeses and I dos.
“Congratulations. Have a safe trip home.”
At the far end of the room Laurel smiles at Olivia and coos, “Congratulations, sweetheart.” Paul places his right index finger into Olivia’s tiny left hand. “We’re going home,” he says in a high-pitched baby-talk voice.
U.S. citizens adopt more Chinese orphans than children of any other nationality except their own, and it is a growing phenomenon. Since 1995, more than thirty-three thousand Chinese orphans have been granted visas to immigrate to the United States; in 2004 alone, 6,910 Chinese orphans, including Olivia Ya Qun Stueber, were granted immigrant status. “It seems like everyone I know happens to know somebody who wanted to talk to me about what it was like when they adopted in China,” explained a mother who was part of the Stuebers’ adoption group. “This is just not so weird anymore.”
Paul and Laurel Stueber are not unusual adoptive parents; Ya Qun Luo is not an unusual Chinese orphan. The process by which they were declared a family was long ago organized into a set of steps, particularly in China, that can be precisely charted on a timeline. But just like a healthy pregnancy, that predictable process inevitably acquired its own unique narrative and personality.
Around the corner from Southwest High School in Minneapolis is a tidy white bungalow. Solar lanterns line the straight front walkway, and directly in front of the house, hostas and lilies poke out in symmetrical rows. Though close to a school, the yard is unmarred by plastic toys or stroller wheels or sidewalk chalk.
There is, however, one small sticker affixed to the front door, reminding firefighters of the pets inside—two pampered cats. Laurel Stueber gently brushes them from the couch before joining Paul on the love seat with a cup of hot coffee and soy milk. On the coffee table are two photographs of the little girl whom the Stuebers have yet to meet but are already beginning to call their daughter. “That’s our baby, that’s our child,” says Laurel. “Now she’s real. You see her face, you know who she is,” she continues, becoming tearful. “The waiting is so much harder because you know she’s there, you want to see her and hold her and find out everything about her and all you have is what’s written on the paper. So we look at her picture every day, and we miss her. It’s hard. It’s hard to wait.”
That same anticipation permeates the small corner bedroom that awaits Olivia Ya Qun. The walls are a glowing salmon color, and the sheer appliquéd curtains grazing the oak floor are pulled back to allow the sun to shine through white mini-blinds. Two antique wooden dressers are polished to a gleam, and in the corner near the window sits the fully dressed crib. Despite the loving appointments, the room is, more than anything else, occupied by emptiness.
“We had tried for a few years to have a child,” explains Laurel, “and then I was diagnosed with endometriosis. I was thirty-eight.” After a dizzying introduction to all the options for fertility treatments, potential surgeries, and the attendant odds and risks, the Stuebers turned away. “You’re considered high-risk for pregnancy at my age, and so you’re told about everything that might go wrong,” she says. “We considered all that, and the fact that fertility treatments don’t always work. We knew it wasn’t for us. We felt more comfortable with adoption, and we were drawn to international adoption right from the start.”
The retelling is so matter-of-fact it makes it sound as if the decision to forgo childbirth was easy and painless. It wasn’t. “I didn’t have to grieve, exactly, over deciding between fertility treatments and adoption, because I did have—I did have a child that was stillborn several years before that,” says Laurel. She is staring to her left, beyond the picture window, and her eyes are filled with tears again. The cat jumps up beside her. “I just didn’t want to go through—.” Laurel stops and waits until she can speak again. “I was twenty-six or twenty-seven at the time. I had to go through birth in my fifth month, knowing. We just let it go after that, we didn’t really try. I wasn’t ready. We wanted to make sure we were stable in our careers. We just said for now we’re going to go on with our lives and so forth. Then when we were finally ready to try again, nothing happened.”
Doctors determined that the stillborn child’s kidneys had failed to develop due to a rare abnormality. “They said it wasn’t genetic, just one of those odd things. But it was such a devastating blow, and then when you hear all the scary statistics, all the things that can happen when you get pregnant at an older age—I just didn’t want to go through that again. We were ready for a child and it wasn’t that important that it be a biological child. We just wanted a child to complete our family.”