Children Adopted from China to Visit as Government Guests
When Hannah Pendleton returns to China this week, it will be like seeing her native country for the first time. While Hannah was 10 when she was adopted from China by an American family, she saw nothing in her first decade beyond the walls of an orphanage. Now, Hannah and her two adopted sisters will be among 42 Bay Area children invited by the Chinese government to see the famed sites and wonders of their birthplace, from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square to iconic pandas — things Hannah knows only from pictures. “I think it will be much better to see it up close and real,” said Hannah, 17, of Castro Valley.
Hannah is among more than 50,000 children, the vast majority of them girls, adopted in the United States from China since the country opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. More children are adopted in the United States from China than from any other foreign country, and the number continues to grow, with nearly 8,000 last year. Many adoptive parents are working to ensure their children grow up with a connection to their heritage. They arrange toddler play dates with other children born in China. They enroll them in language classes and cultural camps. They travel to China. And as the first wave of adopted children enters adolescence, China is reaching out to its native daughters. “We really think with their coming they will be able to understand China much more,” Li Jian, director of the legislative affairs office of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, which oversees adoptions, said through an interpreter. “This will only help the relationship between the United States and China.”
Organizers believe the trip is the first time the Chinese government will pick up all the expenses, except airfare, for adoptees to return to the country where they were born, although the government in recent years has been partially subsidizing trips for adopted children and often pays for travel for visitors, such as the recent trip by San Francisco school officials interested in expanding Chinese language programs. Families taking the adoption trip are paying the airfare.
The trip came about through the efforts of Bay Area businessman Kenneth Yeung, a native of China who adopted a Chinese child, his daughter Melissa, who is now 13. In 2003, a foundation headed by Yeung became the first overseas organization to open an orphanage in China. It serves disabled children. Yeung, who owns Prince of Peace Enterprises Inc., in Hayward, which manufactures and imports products including the analgesic Tiger Balm, said he talked to Chinese adoption officials he knows about sponsoring the trip. “If these kids know the Chinese government is interested in them and supports them, it will make a big difference. Otherwise, they may have a bitter feeling: ‘My own country abandoned me, gave me away,’ ” said Yeung, who arranged the trip for children adopted through Mountain View’s Bay Area Adoption Services, which helped him adopt his daughter. More than 100 local residents will take the two-week trip, which will include official banquets and cultural exchanges with Chinese students.
Napa photographer Norma Quintana, 51, who is in the process of adopting a baby from China, also will be going with the group. Quintana will help the children photograph their trip and hopes to create an exhibition, called “Returning Swallows,” of their photography in China and the United States. “Swallows, these beautiful birds, are all over Chinese poetry. They’re very fast and tenacious, and they always come back,” Quintana said. These children “are going back to their symbolic nest. What I hope for them is a really positive connection and a visual connection to their birthplace.”
Of the 42 adoptees ages 8 to 18 making the trip, three are boys. While it is illegal to abandon a child in China, the country’s “one-child” policy, introduced to curb population growth, still results in a disproportionate number of abandoned girls. Parents want a male heir to carry on their name and care for them in old age, as is the traditional role of sons in China.
Peggy Scott, president of the Northern California chapter of Families with Children from China, said China trips for returning adoptees are increasingly popular as parents try to help their children maintain their roots. She said parents of adopted Chinese children have tried to learn lessons from the experience of children adopted from Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. “Many of those children, the older ones, did not get exposure to Korean culture. When they got to be teenagers, they were having identity crises,” said Scott, of Berkeley. “Now we know better.” Scott took her own adopted daughter, 12-year-old Abigail, back to China in April for a trip that included a visit to her orphanage. “She got to fall in love with China,” Scott said. “It filled in a lot of blanks for her.” It also demystified the orphanage, a place that seemed so scary to Abigail that her mother couldn’t even say the word “orphanage” for years.
Following this week’s official trip to China, Allison Ng, 13, also will visit the orphanage where she was living when her parents adopted her as a 7-week-old baby. “I want to see all those babies and think back and imagine myself there,” said Ng, of San Rafael. She said she expects it will make her happy because “I actually got chosen, but a little sad because the babies there weren’t as fortunate.” Her father, Allen Ng, who is of Chinese descent but was born in the United States, said he hopes the trip will help Allison get to know herself better. “I want her to get a better sense of who she is and where she came from and maybe help her answer her own questions about herself,” he said.
Claire Pendleton has similar hopes for her daughters, Katherine, 18, Hannah, 17 and Erika, 10. Erika was adopted as a baby, but Hannah was 10 and Katherine was 11. “Since I was born there, I have a very strong connection to China. I really miss the culture,” said Katherine, who traveled with her family to China in 2000, a year before they adopted Hannah from another American family when her placement didn’t work out. Katherine is most looking forward to eating Szechuan hot pot, a spicy soup she said just isn’t the same in the United States. “It’s really exciting to me that the Chinese government cares enough about their children to bring them back,” said Claire Pendleton. “I’d like (my daughters) to take away a renewed pride in the country where they were born and a greater cultural understanding.”