Crossing the Rainbow Bridge, by Kimberly Howarth

Kimberly, mother of daughter Emily from ZhuZhou, Hunan province, has traveled to China for four times since she adopted Emily in 1995. While in China, Kim worked with Emily’s orphanage and met with local people while staying there. Kim is also the coordinator of Zhuzhou Adoptive Families and its website. She contributed this article to ChinaSprout’s visitors.


n south central China’s Hunan Province, there is a city where I have left part of my heart. It is a city that is not often visited by westerners.  It is known for it’s industrial resources such as steel, coal, transportation products and firework production. It is also known for the kindness and loyalty of its people.  Above all, it is the birthplace of my daughter Emily, a city where she lived for the first eight months of her life, until I came to adopt her in 1995. For several years, I have shared the dream of many adoptive parents of returning to my daughter’s birthplace. In February I was able to realize this dream while escorting several adoptive families for Journeys of the Heart Adoption Services.

The week before our group left on its journey was filled with a flurry of activity as I contacted 40 other families who had adopted from the same orphanage. (We stay in contact through an annual directory and email list). Many of these families were enthusiastic about my journey back to Hunan, and flooded our mail with donations, letters, and photographs for the orphanage. Many hours were spent on the phone and computer tracking down contact information for the orphanage director only to be told that a new director had assumed the position and was out of the province for training.  I hoped to obtain permission to visit the orphanage before I left the United States. 48 hours before I left I received an invitation to visit the orphanage, meet with the new director, and learn more about Emily’s life before she came to be my daughter.

As our flight made it’s descent into Hunan Province, I could not help but be overcome with emotion. The day was sunny and warm and the light danced off of the sparkling waters of DongTing Lake and the meandering Xiang River. Exactly four years ago, I had made this journey to become a mother and the reality of returning was slowly sinking in.  I glanced at the other families around me feeling their excitement (and perhaps their nervousness). This too, would be the province that will always remain in their hearts—the birthplace of their daughters.  While I was unsure of what would take place on this journey, who I would meet and what I would experience, I was ready to meet our Chinese guide and begin the journey back to Hunan.

The first two days in Changsha were spent uniting six beautiful little girls with their forever families, shopping, and watching as parent and child moved through the incredible bonding process. It was a rewarding feeling to be accompanying these families as they realized their dreams.

The day of my much-anticipated return to my daughter’s birthplace finally arrived. As I packed all of the families letters, photos, and donations, my Chinese guide and friend Mark, was obtaining last minute confirmation of permission to visit the orphanage. I was clearly more nervous to be making this journey than the day I adopted Emily. So many thoughts were going through my mind as I wondered if I would recognize the city, the orphanage, or any of the workers that helped care for the children.  It was a comfort to have a friend make this journey with me.

Our 2 hour drive to the small industrial city of ZhuZhou, took us past farm land where water buffalo grazed in fallow rice paddies, children raced after one another, and the thunderous din and rolling smoke of firecrackers punctuated the air with the excitement of the coming Spring Festival.

Arriving in the city,  we drove along the narrow lane to the orphanage that I remembered from my first visit. I kept expecting to see the familiar wall and gate of the orphanage around every corner.  Both Mark and I were astounded when the lane abruptly ended and we were unsure which direction to go . We were sitting at the intersection of a new road and facing an enormous white tile building directly across from our van. Soon a young man could be seen standing on the roadway motioning for us to drive in to the courtyard of this new building. It was at this moment that I realized that one can truly never go back in time.

As we stepped out of the van, I was astounded at how little remains of the original buildings and grounds. I remembered two older buildings arranged around a circular drive, trees and a wall separating the complex from the narrow lane.  Only the original orphanage building remains and faces the new five story building that will soon house the 200 children who reside at the orphanage.

With Mark’s help, introductions were made all around as the new director, Mr. Xu, warmly received me with a strong handshake and a broad smile. The assistant director and other women on the staff greeted me with hugs and smiles as they led me by the hand into the building where I first met Emily.

Climbing those familiar cement steps, I expected to meet with Mr. Xu in the reception area where I became a mother. I was sadly disappointed to see that small crowded room has been turned into a storage area.  Around a corner I was led into another room that I vividly remember from that cold February day in 1995.

The room that Emily once slept in with many other babies has been turned into the new reception area.  I was able to show Mr. Xu exactly where her crib had been behind the door and against the wall. He was pleased and happy that I had such good memories of Emily’s first home. We talked about her life in the United States, her interest in China and her love for the Monkey King.

We also talked about the many other adoptive families who have adopted from this area and how we remain interested in what happens to the children who reside at the orphanage. Mr. Xu was clearly pleased that so many families continue to think about the children and staff.  He hopes many families will return to China and Hunan Province one day so the children can learn more about their birthplace.

Sharing the letters and photos from other adoptive families brought many smiles and much laughter to the staff. Each item was carefully laid out for everyone to look at and all are delighted to see that the children are happy, healthy and much loved. The staff is proud that "their children" are thriving with their forever families.

Several children, about the age of four, quietly wandered into the room to sneak a look at the foreigner who had come to visit and bring gifts. To see the longing in the eyes of these children nearly broke my heart as I realized that many of these kids may never know the joy of having a home outside of the orphanage walls. Before sending them outside to play, Mr. Xu tousled their hair and hugged them with genuine affection. It is clear that he truly cares about these children and does not take his responsibilities as director lightly.

After presenting Mr. Xu with the families donations and exchanging gifts, it was time to leave.  I expressed my sadness at not having the opportunity to visit with the one member of the staff who so clearly cared about my daughter. We said our good-byes and thanked the staff for sharing their morning with us. It was then that Mr. Xu  asked if I would like to visit the place where my daughter had been abandoned. He said he would be happy to accompany us there as he had information he wanted to share with me about how Emily came to the orphanage in the summer of 1994.

We traveled across the city to the Zhuzhou glassworks factory gates where Emily was abandoned at four weeks of age. All was quiet since it was Saturday afternoon.  Only a factory guard could be seen as he looked out to see a foreigner photographing the grounds. 

Quietly Mr. Xu related the story of Emily’s abandonment, which was then translated for me by my friend Mark. As I listened to the story about how she came to be found and those who cared  for her, I felt such a strong connection with the people of my daughter's birthplace.  While I will never meet her birthparents or know the exact reason why she was abandoned, I believe that her family loved her very much.  To be able to stand at the place where Emily’s birthparents said goodbye is an enormous gift that I shall always cherish. With tears in my eyes, I took in as much of the surrounding area as I could. I wanted to imprint the sights, sounds, and smells forever upon my memory.

I soon said goodbye to Mr. Xu and thanked him for taking so much time from his day to meet with me and share this precious information. Mr. Xu asked me to stay in touch with his staff. He promised to work very hard to take good care of the children and make them happy until they can be adopted. He then invited me to come back to this city bringing Emily so he can meet her. I promised him that I would. As I watched him walk away I could only reflect on the kindness of the special people I had the opportunity to be with on this day.

My friend Mark recently wrote that in his duties as a guide, he feels like an "engineer" of sorts helping to build a rainbow bridge between adoptive parents and China. I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to cross that bridge, to give back to Journeys and the people in China who worked so hard to bring Emily into my life.

I will never forget the faces of the young children at the orphanage who crowded around us, the kindness of the officials and orphanage staff, the adopting families, and the many new friends made on this incredible journey. For in south central China’s Hunan Province I have left my heart. It is scattered across the vast landscape of the countryside that lies along the Xiang River, across the rice paddies, the rolling hills and low mountains. My heart will forever remain with those who cared for my daughter and those who I now call my friends.

To take a look at the ZhuZhou Adoptive Families web site, click here.