For the families, there are no further requirements in Changsha, just optional trips including a silk market, the Provincial Museum (complete with mummy), and a supermarket for last-minute supplies. “I guess the big question is when to start calling her Olivia,” Paul says as he strolls the supermarket aisles carefully holding his daughter. “We’ve been using ‘Ya Qun’ just because she’s been through so much.”
“But she’s starting to get used to us,” Laurel adds as she pushes a cart filled with bottled water and baby formula. Paul slows down and Olivia holds out a hand to grab onto her mother’s sweater. They make eye contact and Laurel smiles just slightly. Behind her, two Chinese store clerks crane their necks around a rack of fruit juices and nearly fall over.
Unlike the families, Shirley’s work continues unabated. Indeed, since arriving in Changsha she has spent a significant time “encouraging” the local government to issue passports for the babies within five days of the adoptions. “I must start right away,” she says. “Because I know what would happen if I did not. If we don’t have passports,” Shirley explains, “we’ll miss our appointments in Guangzhou and the babies won’t have visas.”
There are approximately twelve hundred orphanages in China, but only a small percentage of the best are involved in international adoption. The distinction is important, but it is nearly impossible to characterize. What is certain is that during the last decade China has intensified its commitment to child welfare and as a result conditions within orphanages have improved significantly. There are many reasons for the upward trend, but certainly the most important is China’s ever-improving economic situation. However, due to sensationalized media coverage in the mid-nineties, orphanages and their conditions remain an extremely sensitive topic in China. Foreigners, particularly foreign media, have had very limited access to them over the last decade.
For adoptive parents, a visit to an orphanage is primarily an opportunity to meet and speak with caregivers familiar with the health and habits of their child. Thus, nobody in Shirley Hu’s group wants to miss the optional trip to the Xiangyin County Social Welfare Institute, even though it leaves at 8 a.m. and most of the parents haven’t slept in two days. “You will see the real China,” she says. “The countryside where people live.”
The bus travels north into smog enveloping the newly built Changsha Economic Development Zone. After half an hour, the air clears. Plains open and vast, terraced rice fields sprawl into random patterns. Occasionally, new buildings—always built from shiny white tiles—intrude into the agriculture. Olivia reclines in Laurel’s arms, her head resting against her mother’s shoulder and a tiny hand on her left breast.
Two hours north of Changsha, the highway narrows and storefronts crowd the road with signs advertising mobile phone dealerships. Abruptly, the road inclines into a valley jammed with dirty squat concrete buildings resting in a brown haze. It is the town of Xiangyin, population approximately seven hundred thousand, and as best as anyone knows, it is where the little girls riding in the arms of their American parents were born.
The bus swings left across the highway, passes a gate, and stops in front of Xiangyin County Social Welfare Institute. Girls in their mid-twenties appear in the windows, some holding infants, and look down with giggles at the foreigners. In the glass doorway is a thin, elegant woman in a white doctor’s coat. Above her, painted in bold characters, is a message: “Everything for the children.” She introduces herself as Dr. Yu, the orphanage’s vice director, and she beckons the group into a small first-floor room where oranges, apples, and bananas are set out with paper cups full of green tea on a coffee table. The group sits on sofas and Yu sits on a wooden chair next to Shirley, who serves as translator. “Thank you very much for taking care of our children,” Yu begins. “I hope that they bring much happiness to your family.”