From last week’s episode …after 23 hours of travel, we finally landed in Beijing – tired but happy, excited but anxious and scared – one big jumble of emotions.
Forty expectant families from across Canada arrived in Beijing. I believe it was the largest adoption group ever. We arrived a couple of days early to get ourselves acclimatized and do a little sightseeing on our own. We knew once baby arrived, there would be little sleep. We had gotten together with other families from Ottawa beforehand so we looked forward to seeing some familiar faces. We met a couple from Alberta who had also arrived early. They were both Chinese but spoke Cantonese not Mandarin, the language of mainland China. The husband was a hi-tech gadget guy – cameras, tripod, walkie talkies, and even a pocket translator (remember this was before cell phones with Google translate). It came in handy when ordering chicken in a restaurant. The waiter looked at the screen and went ah-hah! After dinner, it took some time to set up the camera and tripod to take what we would now call a ‘selfie’. We joked about how the waiters were probably chuckling amongst themselves thinking, “Why don’t they just ask one of us to take the photo?"
On the way home from a shopping expedition, we all hopped in a taxi. My husband is a fairly big guy with broad shoulders so he sat in the front seat. The rest of us, all Asian, squeezed into the backseat. The taxi driver looked at my husband with disbelief and then started laughing and pointing and saying, “Dà bízi”. We had no idea what he was talking about until later. Apparently Dà bízi means big nose. My husband was so offended and I can’t say I blame him. But I did say, “Welcome to your daughter’s world, a world where she’ll always look different".
Once all the families arrived and met their adoption tour guide (ours was Frieda), we separated into our different groups and headed off to the various provinces where we would meet our babies for the first time. Our daughter was waiting for us in Sichuan province (you know, the spicy food) in a provincial capital region called Chongqing about 1,500 km southwest of Beijing.
The morning of our “Gotcha Day” as it is often referred to, 18 families gathered in a meeting room in the hotel. We were given more paperwork to sign and a recent photo of our babies. In this new photo, our daughter had had her hair buzzed off. I looked at the photo and whispered to my husband, “This is not our baby. There must be a mix-up.” I started to feel panic rising. There were rumours in the adoption world of this sort of thing happening. But, my husband calmly said, “Look into her eyes, that’s her”. He was right.
We then hopped on a bus to the office of the Social Welfare Institute. Picture this - 18 families waiting for 18 babies to arrive all in one big room. You could feel the anticipation in the air, the excitement, the nervousness! I equate this to going into labour without the physical pain, of course. The babies were coming from 3 different orphanages on 3 different buses. I believe our bus was the last to arrive. The nannies filed in, each carrying a baby. There were 6 babies from Hechuan, our daughter’s birthplace, a small village of 1 million people. Each family was called up to the front of the room to receive their baby.
Finally, they called our name. We went up to the front and Fu Zhen was handed to me. I can’t describe the overwhelming feeling of joy and nervousness as I held her in my arms for the first time. I think it must be the same feeling as holding your newborn in your arms after giving birth for the first time. My husband was crying happy tears. Oddly enough I did not cry. It was as if some motherly instinct kicked in and said, “Okay, you’re her mommy now and you can’t freak out because she is totally depending on you so you need to be calm so she can feel calm.” I just held on to her tightly and she clung to my shoulder. She seemed to take it all in stride and didn’t even cry, much to our relief. Little did we know, she was going to show her anxiety in another way.
It was mayhem in the room - crying babies and crying parents, laughing babies and laughing parents, excitement all around. Flashes going off everywhere as we all tried to capture the moment, video cameras recording everything. And in the middle of all this, a man sleeping on a couch. He was Chinese, maybe one of the bus drivers. It was obvious he had done this many times. Funny, the things that stick in your head.
We had decided our daughter’s full name would be Maddison Fu Zhen Kanna de Beaupré. A big name for a little girl. The nannies called her Zhen-Zhen and clapped their hands and made her smile and laugh. So, we started calling her Zhen-Zhen too. We then moved to Maddi Fu Zhen to help her make the transition to her new name. You wonder if you are doing the right thing. Should we change her name, the only name she has known in her life? But, she quickly responded to her new name and after a couple of days, we shortened it to Maddi-Fu. Later it just became Maddi except for Junior Kindergarten when she insisted on being called Maddison because that is what her teacher called her. Boy, that was a hard transition for us! But, a few years later it was back to Maddi, again another hard transition for us, and now it’s mostly Madd. Pretty soon, it will be an M symbol that’s not pronounceable lol!
In our referral package, her profile read: She is active and likes to move around – check; she has a strong curiosity about anything new – check; she is a little bit stubborn – double check; and she is obedient – hmmm, not so much!
In her Development Report, it stated, “When she was 4 months old, she would naughtily kick off her quilt after waking up and wave her hands randomly in the air”. Knowing her so well now, of course she would do this. She is always hot when she sleeps. Poor kid, for at least the first year, I put onesies on her so her feet wouldn’t get cold. We even had a little song about pajamas with the feet attached that we always sang to her. It was when she went to her first gymnastics class that she realized you could go barefoot and that’s the way it’s been ever since.
We were also told she liked to play with her little companions and toys, and liked to listen to music. She was fond of racing around in her walker and chasing other children sitting in their walkers. That is so her, it makes me laugh. They said she was not afraid of strangers. If anyone sat down beside her, she would immediately rush over and attempt to be held in arms and then smile happily if she was amused. I believe she was a fighter, a survivor in the orphanage. She knew how to get the attention she needed in amongst the many other babies with so few nannies to care for them. They described her as a lovely, smart, and sensible little girl.
We eventually boarded the bus with our new babies in arms and headed back to our hotel. We got our first glimpse of what her profile had told us. She was glued to the window looking out with wide eyes, fascinated with the world passing by. It was as though she was thinking, “Wow, this is what I’ve been missing. I had no idea!” Her head must have been exploding.
Her bio also said she had a good appetite and pooped regularly. Both proved to be true but not right away. In our parenting class, we had learned about how babies typically react to their new parents, their new circumstances. Some cry and cry for days on end, some shut down and won’t eat or drink. Maddi-Fu’s reaction was the latter. She would not eat or drink anything from us for the first 24 hours. We were so worried. On the advice of a nurse who also happened to be the grandmother of one of the other babies, we force fed water to her in a dropper. That did the trick. She sucked back her first bottle of formula in about 30 seconds flat. We also realized the hole in the nipple of her bottle was way too small even though we thought we had made it much bigger. Again, we were warned about this in our parenting class. Babies in orphanages were used to having a large and steady flow of formula when sucking on their bottles. It was probably an efficient method of getting all the babies fed with so few arms to get the job done. Honestly, the hole was so big she might as well not have had a nipple.
Shutting down was Maddi-Fu’s way of controlling her world when everything had been turned upside down. As my husband describes it, she must have felt like she had been abducted by aliens. These strange looking people swooped in, spoke a strange language, ate strange food, smelled strange, and whisked her off to a strange hotel. Her life as she knew it, had changed forever.
We later came to realize this when we took her on her first trip to Barbados not too long after we arrived home from China. We opened the door to our hotel room, she ran in, stopped dead in her tracks, and then turned around and tried to hightail it out of there. We quickly realized it was the same thing that happened to her in China. Her whole world had changed in a flash. Now that she had gotten used to having two doting parents, she didn’t want that to happen again.
Over the first few days, we discovered many wonderful and not so wonderful things about Maddi-Fu. She was sick. She had a bad cough and a wheezy chest. We didn’t realize how sick until she was better and we saw how active and alert she normally was. Thankfully, there were two doctors amongst the families travelling with us. They thought she might have a touch of pneumonia and gave her some antibiotics. She quickly learned that when Baba (Daddy in Chinese) went to the bar fridge and pulled out the pink bottle, it meant she had to swallow that awful pink medicine and she would start crying. On a happier note, I unwittingly discovered her ticklish spot. I brushed under her chin and she giggled in delight. Her favourite game was peek-a-boo. She would throw her head back in laughter and show her toothy grin. She had two front upper teeth and two on the bottom.
We got our first taste of her “little bit of stubbornness”. We were told she normally went to sleep at 9:00 but one night she would not settle down and wanted to play all night. Finally, we put her in the crib for the first time. Up to that point, she had been sleeping in the bed with us. She didn’t cry but stubbornly stood in the corner of the crib and finally fell asleep upright with her head pressed against the bars.
We had the privilege of visiting Maddi-Fu’s orphanage, the Hechuan Social Welfare Institute, about a 1½ hour drive away. We were very fortunate to see where she had spent the first year of her life. Many families did not get this honour because their orphanages were too far away. Her orphanage was small and formed part of a nursing home. It was a nice setup because the elderly residents would come and help out with the babies. The Chinese love their children. The babies got some extra love and attention and the older residents got love and attention back.
It was a very moving experience and one we will never forget. We got to meet the Director of her orphanage and the nannies that cared for her. We could immediately tell which nanny was her favourite. They were happy to see each other and cuddled and laughed together. Then her nanny gestured towards me and said “Mama” and handed her back to me. Much to my relief, Maddi-Fu was happy to come back to my arms. I believe it gave her closure. She got to bridge the gap between her old world and new, and say good-bye.
It was hard to see the other babies lined up in their little wooden chairs. We hoped all would soon be adopted.
We got to see the metal crib Maddi-Fu had slept in, one of many lined up in neat rows.
To our surprise and delight, we also got to see how they bathed the babies. Picture this small round blow-up baby pool about 4 feet tall. Put a floatation ring around the baby’s neck, inflate, and drop baby into the pool. Watch baby happily float around.
For a quarter of a century, many Chinese families were forced into a predicament. They were only allowed to have one child and at the same time, abandoning a child was against the law. So families would bring their baby, under the cover of night, to a public spot where they would be found quickly and taken to the proper authorities. Often the family member bringing the baby to the finding place would hide out of view and wait to ensure the baby was taken care of. I can’t even begin to imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for the birth families. A finding ad would be placed in the local newspaper to see if anyone would claim the abandoned baby. Of course, no one did because it was illegal. Then the baby was brought to an orphanage to be cared for and hopefully adopted.
Maddi-Fu was left outside the gates of her orphanage. She was dressed in two layers of clothing and had a bottle and some powdered milk tucked in with her. The Chinese like to bundle their children in many layers so they look like little Buddha babies. Remember her referral picture?
In fact, many of us would get chastised by Chinese grandmothers while we were out and about. They thought the babies weren’t dressed warmly enough, and we on the other hand, thought they were too hot. Did I mention the sweltering heat in China in July and August? It was literally, like walking in a sauna, it was so humid.
We were hoping there would have been a note from her birth family tucked in with her as well but it was not meant to be. Some families receive a note with their baby’s birth date. She was found on August 14, 2004. She was examined by a doctor and it was determined that she was about 3 months old. This was very unusual. Babies were typically abandoned within a few days of their birth. We think her birth parents had tried to keep her for as long as they could. She was given a birthdate of May 1, 2004. I believe the extra time with her birth mother has been a blessing for her. It helped her develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. She got to feel her mother’s love for a few months. It also must have been heartbreaking for her to lose the warmth, love, and nourishment of her birth mother.
We had a 3 hour flight from Chongqing back to Beijing. The airplane was packed. I felt so sorry for the other passengers when we all boarded the plane with 18 babies in tow. We were seated in the very last row. I squeezed into the window seat with Maddi-Fu on my lap. My husband was in the middle and a very large Australian man was in the aisle seat. It was a tight squeeze but the Aussie was a good sport. Lucky for him and us, part way through the flight, the attendant found him another seat where he had a little more room and so did we.
Maddi-Fu was so ready to walk, after all she had just turned 15 months old. I’m sure they were not encouraged to walk in the orphanage. Imagine the nannies chasing around all these toddling babies. She would grab my hands and want to be on the go.
She was fascinated by the mirror in our hotel room. She would crawl over to it, pull herself up and look into it, probably wondering who that was looking back at her. We would have hall parties with the other families, putting blankets down on the floor and letting the babies loose. Maddi-Fu would crawl over to the wall, hoist herself up, and walk along holding the wall.
The babies had to have a medical examination at the hospital before they were allowed to leave the country. There was a big mat in the waiting room and lots of toys. Maddi-Fu would see something she wanted and literally crawl right over the other babies to get it. More of her personality coming out, a force to be reckoned with, as we would soon find out.
While we waited for the adoption paperwork to be completed and her passport to be issued, we did a lot of sightseeing. We went to the Great Wall of China.
Thinking back, it’s quite incredible, all these families climbing up the Great Wall of China carrying new babies. Fun but also challenging. Long days travelling by bus to get there and back again. We got used to packing up in the mornings and taking everything with us for the day. We also got to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City where I lost my Gucci watch right off my wrist to a very adept pickpocket. I was checking the time one minute and it was gone the next.
My husband created a red thread website and posted photos and stories every day so family and friends could follow along. He posted for other families so their families back home could follow along too. Remember this was long before social media, no Facebook, no Instagram. He kept the website up and running for many years afterwards.
We, of course, went shopping at the markets where haggling was the norm, something we were not very good at, at least in the beginning. I bought about a dozen pairs of shoes for Maddi-Fu, had to get her started off on the right foot. They were so cute, so tiny, and so cheap. We bought other precious souvenirs - purple jade, indigenous to Madd-Fu’s birth province, a porcelain tea set, a wall hanging, and a pearl necklace. Many of these keepsakes are safely packed away to be given to her when she is older and can appreciate them.
At our 'Happy New Family' farewell celebration, there were about 130 people including babies, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, and tour guides. It was the first time, Maddi-Fu accepted solid food from us. She trusted us enough to eat some steamed egg off of my chopsticks. We were thrilled. It was a huge milestone in our bonding process. Our whole table erupted in a big cheer.
It was bittersweet that final day as families were getting ready to leave. We were all anxious to return home and begin attaching and bonding with our new babies. But, these people had become our adopted extended family. We had shared a life-changing experience together. Now it was time to say good bye. We exchanged email addresses and hoped to stay in touch...
I apologize for the lengthiness of this post. It has been a wonderful stroll down memory lane for me looking through old documents and photos. So many wonderful and crazy moments. I wanted to share them all with you. I promise next week’s episode, Maddi-Fu Comes Home, will be shorter. Until then…
Colleen Kanna is a breast cancer champion and creator of coKANna Designs, a line of bamboo knit, Canadian-made wellness wear for women. Five percent of online sales are donated to the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in support of their Head Start Program for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.