When I was only a few days old, my birth parents abandoned me. They left me in hopes a passerby would find me and place me in an orphanage.
For the first year of my life, nannies cared for me, along with 150 other babies. Before I was old enough to remember any part of it, however, the Chinese government matched me with a woman 8,000 miles away who wanted to adopt a baby. Exactly 17 years ago today, my life changed in the best way possible: I became a part of a family.
When my mom and grandma flew over to bring me home, they were part of a travel group with other families who were also adopting from the same orphanage. Even though each family was from a different state, we have managed to keep in touch. Since being adopted, every other year we have a week-long reunion hosted in a different family’s home state to catch up and spend time together. This past summer, it was in China.
Over the course of two weeks, we hit some of the famous destinations like the Forbidden City and Great Wall in Beijing, a Panda reserve in Chengdu and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. We took a cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo and experienced a cultural pageant where actors performed on water. Then we returned to Guilin for the closing dinner of the main cultural tour. Afterward, most people would be going our separate ways to visit our own birth cities. Our giant travel group of 15 families shrank to five.
From Guilin, my mom, four other families and I took a three-hour train ride to Guangzhou then sat on a bus for another three hours to Yangchun, the place where our lives began.
Our hotel was on the outer edge of Yangchun. One side overlooked the vast city, and the other had a view of a lake and hills with luscious greenery. It was only 4 p.m. when we checked in, but none of us could even think of doing anything but falling right into bed. For nine days, we were constantly on the go, keeping to a tight schedule with not enough rest. This was our chance to get caught up on sleep. We all said our goodnights and stayed in our rooms for the rest of the evening.
After a much needed quiet night to ourselves, the next morning we were all re-energized and ready for the day. The first item on our agenda was to visit each of our finding spots (the locations where our birth parents abandoned us and where someone found us). Each of our birth parents left us in different places: a hospital, a middle school, a vacant hotel, outside a government building, and mine, a train station.
We drove around the city for an hour, stopping at each location, which gave everyone a chance to get off the bus and look around. My stop was the last of the five. When I stepped out, I felt like I knew the place. Maybe it was all in my head and I was just trying to connect dots that weren’t there, but the ambiance of the station felt so familiar to me. There were barely any people around, a person here or there, but not as busy as I expected a train station. Visiting the spot was an odd experience that evoked a multitude of overwhelming emotions in me ranging from calmness to curiosity.
More than anything, though, I felt closure. As the day went on, I continued to find answers to questions I’ve been carrying around about the first year of my life. I was able to feel the energy of the city and breathe the same air I did 17 years ago.
After we were each able to spend some time at our finding spot, we were on our way to our orphanage, the Yangchun City Social Welfare Institute. The exterior of the main building looked like a castle with two tall circle towers and colorful flags. The staff hung a banner for us that read, “Welcome back to your birth country,” and there were nannies standing at the door waving as we pulled in. As we approached, they welcomed us with warm smiles and hellos. They led us up the stairs in the main building where we played with some of the babies.
Unlike the lively and crowded nurseries when we were there, the quiet institute now consists of children with special needs who are unlikely to get adopted. There were only a handful of kids, maybe 20, compared to the 150 I lived with. They easily fit into the main complex, and the building that used to house us now sits empty. Only faded painted murals and extra metal cribs remain. Toward the end of our tour of the orphanage, we met the director, Yu Hong Ying, who was also in charge when we were there. When she greeted us, she addressed each of us by our Chinese names and commented on how tall we all were. We spent the rest of our time sitting and chatting with her. She admired what young ladies we had become and gave us each a traditional Chinese wall hanging to bring us luck.
After our visit, the orphanage staff treated us to dinner. It was the largest meal we had eaten so far on the whole tour of China. We sat at a round table that held 16, and in the middle were all of the dishes. Our servers would bring one out after the other, and just when I thought they were done because there was no room left on the table, there would be three more. I thought it was never going to end. To my surprise, by the time our feast concluded, we had eaten most of the food. It was getting late, so we finally had to say goodbye to Yu, knowing that we would most likely never see her again.
When we returned to the hotel, loud music and bright lights coming from a block or so away piqued our interest. There was a square we could see from our hotel rooms. It was across the street from two of the tallest towers in the city, which had LED lights on the sides that displayed animated, abstract images. The giant screens illuminated the entire plaza. People filled the square. They participated in a variety of activities, like martial arts, playing hacky sack or working out. There were also multiple dance classes — similar to aerobics or Zumba — taking place, so we decided to join in on them. In each group, there were one or two leaders at the front, and everyone else would just follow what they were doing. There was no practice or step-by-step instruction, we just dove right in.
We definitely stuck out like a sore thumb, but we were having fun with it. We jumped around from group to group, trying our best to pick up the choreography. After a while, we decided to start our own group. We did all the line dances we could think of: the “Cha Cha Slide,” “Cupid Shuffle,” “Cotton Eye Joe” and a few others. Nobody joined our group. People stared and slowed their pace as they passed us, but we were too busy laughing and entertaining ourselves to worry about what they were thinking. I would have stayed dancing in the square all night if we didn’t have to be up by 7 a.m. to leave Yangchun.
In the morning, we boarded the bus and returned to Guangzhou. Since we left so early, we still had most of the day left when we arrived. There was nothing specific on our itinerary, but one stop that we all wanted to make was to visit the White Swan Hotel. This was where our parents stayed when they came to adopt us.
Throughout my life, I have thumbed through pages and pages of photo albums from my mom’s trip to China, and even though the hotel has had some renovations, it looked the same. As soon as I walked through the doors, my eyes instantly locked on the two-story waterfall near the back of the lobby. A range of plants surrounded it and the water flowed into a koi fish pond.
Another even more iconic feature of the hotel that was still there was the Red Couch. It’s common that once all of the official paperwork is completed, before returning home, parents and their adopted children take a photo on the couch. So, of course, as babies, our parents posed us on the crimson, velvet couch. Instead of sitting with our new families, however, we only had a photo of all the babies.
They placed us side-by-side on the couch, on cushions on the floor and in the arms of some of the parents since we couldn’t all fit. That may be the photo I have looked at the most in my life. There were seventeen of us all squished into the photo, with parents on the sides trying to keep us from crying. Naturally, we had to recreate it. The couch was much smaller than I thought, but then again, we did grow a lot since then.
Visiting the White Swan was the perfect way to wrap up our trip. It felt like we had come full circle from 17 years ago. Unfortunately, that wasn’t where we were staying for the night, so we had to leave to go to our actual hotel.
Only after checking in and heading up to our rooms did the reality that we would be leaving the next day hit me. One of the families was leaving even earlier than the rest of us on a flight that night. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and not see them for another two years. Although all of our previous reunions have been enjoyable and packed with fun, none of them could compare to this one. I had the opportunity to explore my birth country for two whole weeks with some of my closest friends, my “sisters,” who were adopted at the same time I was. That is a rare and unique adventure that is impossible for most people to experience.
My journey since adoption has always been a wild concept for me to wrap my head around. Not only am I still in contact with people who I have been with practically since birth, but we have also made ourselves a family. I don’t know if my mind will ever completely process how incredible our relationships are, but during those two weeks, I found clarity about the first year of my life.
Before this trip, I had never really talked about my adoption to anyone. If someone brought it up, I would say something vague, but I didn’t have much to tell. I had hundreds of unknown and unanswered questions. I knew my background would be a part of me for my entire life, but I never embraced it. It made me feel different from all of my friends, so I tried my hardest to ignore my origin story.
Only after returning home did I finally feel empowered by the knowledge of my past. I saw places firsthand that completely changed my understanding and perception of my life. I visited the rooms where I lived until I was one year-old. I walked around the place my birth parents abandoned me. I envisioned all of the possible ways my life could have turned out, and none of them were better than where I am right now. The trip helped me to stop getting caught up in the past and allowed me to close that chapter of my life. I can live in the present and look toward the future without unanswered questions about the first year weighing on my mind. Now, all of my focus can be on what will be, not what has been.
Have you ever recreated a photo from when you were little? Let us know in the comments below.