The bus navigates a warren of crowded city streets jammed with weaving lime-green taxis. Around a corner, a school lets out and the collective attention of the group turns to the teenagers streaming from the gates in identical blue and white track uniforms. Past a park where seniors are practicing tai chi, the road narrows into a commercial neighborhood where goods ranging from produce to TVs are sold from storefronts. Crowds of people move along the sidewalks and into the streets regardless of the rate or quantity of traffic. “There’s a lot going on,” Laurel says quietly.
The bus slows and turns right, then pauses while a car exits from behind a security gate. Someone asks, “Is this it?”
The bus rolls over the gate track and comes to a final stop. Shirley stands and announces, “Third floor. We’re going to the third floor.” As the group members disembark they squint upward at a dirty, thirteen-story white tile tower. Paul stops to take video before following the others into a dark lobby filled with a nasty, pungent odor. As the group waits, voices become loud and nervous and exaggerated laughter explodes at nothing in particular. Two elevator cars open simultaneously. Paul and Laurel crowd into the left one. Shirley goes to the right and calls out, “Third floor!”
When the doors open, everyone turns to an open door ten feet down the red-carpeted fluorescent hallway. The first ones who reach it stop at the sight of something to the immediate left. Shirley slides past into a stifling hot room fifty feet across and twenty feet wide. It is appointed with cheap wood paneling. A large plastic Mickey Mouse hangs on the far wall next to a clock. Across from Mickey is Minnie, and below Minnie is a bench where five women and one man hold six babies dressed in identical red satin winter pajamas and hats. They look like gifts waiting to be given.
Voices drop to excited whispers as a tittering semicircle forms around the bench, yet nobody dares venture closer than three feet from the babies and caregivers. The caregivers move their eyes between the babies, whom they bounce and coddle, and the foreigners; the foreigners stare back at the babies, some through tears, and some through camera lenses. Meanwhile, the babies stare with shocked, expressionless eyes at the white faces. They are approximately one year old.
The sole man on the bench has a little girl whose eyes are large and match those in the black-and-white photo printed on the Stuebers’ adoption license. “That’s her on that man’s knee,” Laurel whispers to Paul. “That’s her.”
The room quickly devolves into a chaos of picture requests and laughter. The babies remain serene in their shock, but the caregivers begin to shift and look toward the men and women surrounding Shirley at the door. “I want everyone on that side of the room,” Shirley demands, but the group’s attention is focused on the children. She shrugs and continues. “Okay, first I would like to introduce the provincial official in charge of the adoptions, Ms. Zhang.” She nods at a tall woman in a yellow sweater, skin-tight plaid pants, and knee-high leather boots. “And next, Mister Wang, the orphanage director.” He is fifty-ish, in a black suit, and he seems bewildered by that fact that nobody is listening. “We will call the name of your baby and you must come forward with your passport and the Notice of Coming to China for Adoption. If everything matches they will give you the baby.” Still, nobody seems to be listening.
“Okay, Ya Qun!” Shirley calls out.
The Stuebers approach with expectant smiles and shaking hands. Laurel hands over the passports and required documents while Paul films. As Zhang examines the documents, the man holding Ya Qun hands her over to a female Changsha government employee. The red cap on Ya Qun’s head is beginning to fall over her wide eyes. Still, she remains calm, her only expression being slightly parted lips and a shocked stare at the open palm of a hand she holds aloft. The passports check out and Paul and Laurel are directed to stand in front of Ya Qun. Shirley holds up the notification next to Ya Qun’s face and nods at the photo in its lower left corner. “Is it the same face?” she asks the Stuebers.
Laurel starts to cry. “Yes, yes,” she answers, tears falling over her cheeks. “We knew it when we walked in.” She holds out her arms and Zhang signals for Ya Qun to be placed into them. Laurel takes the shocked little girl tightly to her breast as tears fall onto her red cap. Paul stops filming and steps forward. “It’s me,” he says, leaning over wife and daughter. “It’s me.”
Ya Qun looks at Laurel, but the stare is empty. She looks out at the room, but her eyes are blank and confused. Her mouth is parted slightly, but without expression. Her arms hang lifelessly by her side. Flashbulbs turn her, but only momentarily.
“She’s so beautiful,” Laurel says. “I knew it was her.”
Shirley and the others are already elsewhere, introducing another family to another shocked little girl. But the Stuebers don’t notice. Laurel presses her cheek to Ya Qun’s head, and Paul stands back, smiling. “We knew it was her,” they say to anyone who comes close. “We could tell when we walked in.”