The China Center for Adoption Affairs licenses approximately one hundred agencies worldwide to facilitate the adoption of Chinese orphans, and many of them work with Chinese nationals like Hu to guide groups through the process in China. It has not always been this way: In the late eighties and early nineties, U.S. citizens who chose to adopt in China did so without the benefit of any governing law or process (in 1991 U.S. citizens sonehow managed to adopt sixty-one Chinese orphans). In January 1994, after the establishment of formal licensing, Children’s Home Society and Family Services sent its first adoption group to the city of Hangzhou, two hours south of Shanghai by train, in Zhejiang Province, with a U.S.-based representative. Demand grew almost too quickly. In 1996, the agency coordinated 134 adoptions in Zhejiang Province and soon decided that it could no longer handle the caseload without local help.
Shirley Hu was one of ten university students recommended to the agency by a Hangzhou music teacher. “At the time it was very unusual,” she recalls with a laugh. “I remember thinking, ‘What are all of these foreigners doing with Chinese babies?’ ” In advance of her interview, a Children’s Home Society and Family Services representative observed how she and the other students related to a visiting American adoption group. The personable Hu did well, but what really impressed were the peculiar skills that she had developed as a secretary to a senior official at a food company. “I had some power,” she explains. “I could give free gifts. Of course, it was done in my company’s name, but the relationship was between you and me.” As a result of her gift-giving at the food company, Hu was able to develop a “good connection in Zhejiang government.” During her subsequent interview with Children’s Home Society and Family Services, Shirley mentioned “that I could maybe make a seven-month wait for passports into a seven-day wait.” She was hired. “Today it is much different and the process is quick and orderly,” Hu concludes. “But in those days, it was very difficult.”
The ten adults and seven children arriving from the United States via Beijing do not need any identification: They are the only white people in Changsha’s airport. Hu, however, clips a red name badge to her coat in preparation for her role as greeter. One couple carries a Chinese toddler adopted on an earlier trip led by Shirley, and they greet her as an old friend. The Stuebers are last, and they walk through the gate with tired eyes but enthusiastic smiles, climb onto the waiting bus and take second-row seats. The driver tunes the radio to new-age Chinese flute music that Shirley demands be turned off. She then grabs the tour guide’s microphone and flips the switch. “Hello, I’m Shirley.”
“Hi, Shirley,” the group drones in response.
“I will be helping you the next two weeks in Changsha and Guangzhou. If you ever have questions or problems, you know, just find me.”
“Shirley?” someone calls from the back. “Babies today?”
“Yes,” she answers. “At four we will go to the Provincial Civil Affairs building.”
Paul and Laurel glance at each other.
The bus speeds down a new expressway and the passengers drop into a murmur as they watch the passing countryside, its concrete tenements fronted by small farm plots tended by hand. The landscape is yellow, brutal, and uniform for half an hour, and then, suddenly, the traffic tightens as the expressway ends at a stoplight. Motorcycles and bicycles weave among the vehicles. Wiry men, weighed by loads hung from bamboo poles that rest across their shoulders, shuffle across the road. It is a crowded, foreign environment, scattered with trash, choked with exhaust, and filled with life. For most of the passengers, it is entirely novel, but the conversations are elsewhere. “In a couple of hours we’ll meet her,” Paul says, his gaze set out the window. “And everything changes.”
“At the hotel,” Shirley says as the bus staggers through downtown’s traffic, “pay the porter twenty yuan.”
The twenty-six-story Grand Sun City Hotel’s rooms are the most Western in Changsha, rendering it home base for the thousands of European and American families who adopt Hunanese orphans every year. The management has learned to cater to the clientele; when Paul and Laurel arrive on the eleventh floor they find a lobby covered with a rubber-padded play area and buckets of baby toys. When they open the door to room 1111, there is a crib beside their bed.
Shortly after check-in, the Stuebers venture into the hotel’s garish red and gold ballroom for a mandatory group meeting with Shirley. Paul and Laurel sit and set a folder of documents on the table in front of them. They are noticeably tense and, unlike the other couples, don’t have much to say. Shirley begins by explaining the schedule and the documents that the parents will need when they meet their children. “Please be in the lobby at three-thirty for the bus,” she says.
“What should I bring for my baby?” A parent asks. “Small toys” Shirley replies without much concern. “Diapers. Don’t worry.”
“Courage!” someone volunteers to nervous laughs.
Shirley smiles, then moves to the topic of gifts. Each couple was instructed many months ago to bring gifts for the government officials they’d be encountering. “I prefer you divide the gifts into three or four bags and keep the better gifts in separate bags for the leaders,” she says. “In China, leaders are very important. They make decisions.” A brief discussion ensues during which the group agrees that all gifts should be delivered to Shirley’s hotel room where she can sort them as she deems appropriate.
“Now we can do some paperwork.” Shirley holds up a Chinese adoption decree and patiently instructs the group on the specific information that must be written in it. “Here, the father’s passport name,” she says, then pauses. “Next, your work unit—.” She stops, smiles, and corrects herself, “Your workplace.” Another pause. “Next, write why you want to adopt a Chinese baby. You know, you like Chinese culture, whatever.” Paul listens with careful intensity while Laurel writes the answers. Her hand is so tight that it turns white around the pen. “I may look like I’m holding it together,” she says. “But inside—.” She takes a deep breath and tries to smile.
By 3:20 the group members are in a nervous cluster beside the lobby concierge desk. They carry bottles, toys, backpacks, and diaper bags. Laurel’s pulse beats visibly in her neck as she shuffles apart from the group. Paul stands beside her and takes deep breaths that rock the video camera hanging from his neck. At exactly 3:30, Shirley emerges from the elevator. Smiling, she exudes calm and ease. The group follows her out the door and into the bus. Boarding last, Paul and Laurel take the same seats that they had occupied earlier, two rows back. The bus departs and Shirley takes a front seat, arms crossed, staring straight ahead. “Excuse me, Shirley?” Laurel leans forward in her seat with the official Notice of Coming to China for Adoption. “How do we say her name?”
Shirley checks the sheet and answers, “Ya chun.”
“Ya chwin,” Laurel answers, exchanging the strange word several times with Paul until they mostly have it.