We adopted our daughter from China in 1997, and no one was allowed to visit orphanages then. Too much negative press closed those doors. We received her at a hotel, having no idea what her life looked like before that day. Only 11-months old, she certainly couldn’t tell us, and there’s reason to believe she’s lost all those early memories by now.
When we returned to China in 2012, she said she didn’t want to visit her orphanage even though it would have been possible. Last spring we received pictures of it, but she didn’t care to look at them. She’s moved on. After watching Somewhere Between, the documentary about Chinese girls adopted by American families, she seemed satisfied that some questions have no answers. And that some answers don’t necessarily help.
You are where you are in life. There’s no going back.
For those who are curious, however, Peg Helminski, an adoptive mother herself, has written an illuminating novel, Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold, about a girl’s life in China at the same time our daughter lived there in the late 1990s.
I’m inclined to stop here because it’s hard to comment without spoiling the dramatic story of Mei Lin. I knew nothing about the book, so being uninformed was the great journey for me. The plot’s twists are as amazing as a tale from Dickens. I was horrified and nervous and eager, wondering how such torment and joy could exist in one child’s life.
Then I remembered: I have a Chinese orphan, too.
That has been my important realization: Adoption never goes away. It is a constant that shifts. The tides of an ocean are currently moving, whether I see them or not. My daughter’s sense of her history rises and recedes each day. Some days are effortless. Some days are mysterious.
Helminski’s novel is a significant examination of Chinese life at that time in history. Her extensive research shows us the riveting details of a culture far different from ours. We see the capricious nature of government decrees. We see the struggle people face to reconcile reality with theory. We see the power of the heart, which knows no international boundaries.
As I read, I discovered how much I don’t understand, how much I assume. In the story, two girls discuss the roles of the adults working in their orphanage, and one explains: “A Mama doesn’t go away at the end of her shift. I think they might be different in other ways, too. I don’t know. I never had a Mama.” Simple but breath-taking truths like this roll across these pages.
You have no idea what you don’t know about adoption until you read this novel.
Because this is a self-published book, I feel compelled to address people who avoid non-traditional publications. Yes, there are places where one could question a too-neatly-tied-up conclusion or a thinly developed character or a glitch in proofreading. But whatever your technical quibble might be, let go of it. The power of this story rises above such raised-eyebrow sensibilities if you’re curious about China’s one-child policy and the gates that finally flew open on the issue.
I am. I always will be.
My own life story is an easy one. It started at Point A in a hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was born to my parents who drove me home in a Ford. I have pictures of the day. My daughter Maggie’s Point A will always float in the mist behind her. No matter how many times she looks over her shoulder. Or doesn’t. She cannot find it.
But I can save this book for her.