Culture Club - By Patti Waldmeir

Nearly four years ago, four newborn baby girls were swaddled against the chill of a Chinese winter and placed carefully in a spot where they would quickly be discovered. Now those four girls live in America. This is their story. It is a story about adoption - and of course it is a love story - but it is also a tale of two cultures. A tale of four Chinese babies who became Americans in an instant and how they are now learning to be Chinese, in America.

Theirs is an extraordinary story, but in some ways it is as old as the culture they came from.There is even a Chinese proverb that applies: "An invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance," the saying goes. "The thread may stretch or tangle, but never break." The proverb captures the miracle of their adoption, but also the reality of their past: the red thread brought them to America, but it will also tie them forever to China. Those of us who are raising them (one of the girls is my eldest daughter, Grace Shu Min) work hard to preserve that thread. We know it is the work of a lifetime.

Grace Shu Min, now nearly four, often asks to hear the story of her adoption. It goes like this:

"Once upon a time, a very beautiful baby was born in China and her name was Yang Shu Min.

Everybody wanted to be Shu Min's Mummy.

"But only this Mummy was chosen to be Shu Min's Mummy, and she was so happy, she cried with joy. She got on one airplane, and another airplane, and another airplane, and a train and a car and a boat and a bus and a taxi, to take her to her baby girl. And when she held Shu Min in her arms she said: 'You are my baby girl. You will always be my baby girl. I will always love you'." 

But I never get to the end of this saccharine love song, because the real Shu Min always interrupts: "Was that when I pooped on you?"

And then I have to tell the real story: that I was in the bath when she was delivered unexpectedly to my hotel room, and the dear friend who accompanied me to China initially closed the door in her face; that her first act was indeed to poop all over me; that she refused to look me in my two round eyes; that I wept so hard during the official adoption proceedings that I could not answer the crucial question: "Do you promise you will never abandon her?"

But Grace's life story does not begin with the moment she pooped on me. It starts eight months earlier, when she came to live in the baby room of the Yangzhou Social Welfare Institute, in the Yangtze city of Yangzhou, in China's Jiangsu province. She was six days old, and had been discovered outside the local health club. She was taken to the police station, and from there to the orphanage, which named her. And so Yang Shu Min was born.

Six months later, bureaucrats in Beijing made me her mother. They took a stack of baby photos and a pile of applications from would-be parents, and somehow found the thread that binds us. On June 6, 2000, I received a thumbnail photo of a baby whose furrowed brow instantly won my devotion. Within days I had her picture mounted in every room of the house. I even propped a copy in the car seat I had already bought for her. Every night I sat in the rocker in what would be her room, and clutched that picture, and wept. By the time I got to China, I was a wreck.

But the nannies at the Yangzhou orphanage knew their charge well. At the age of only eight months, Yang Shu Min could nearly walk, and she loved to show off her motor achievements. She perambulated ceaselessly around China - through restaurants and hotel lobbies, shrines and government offices, and through most of the countless hours it took to get us home. I came to motherhood long on years and short on energy, and even with my dear friend Julia helping out, Shu Min quickly exhausted me.

But I could not have been more delighted with my little over-achiever. And part of that delight was cultural: never was a child born with a more American temperament. When Yang Shu Min entered a room, she possessed it. I liked her style. So enthralled was I with my little American that I scarcely noticed the three other babies who had been so much a part of her life in the orphanage and have been so big a part of our lives since. 

Yang Xue, Yang Yu Yao, Yang Yi Lin and Yang Shu Min were all born within nine days of each other. They all spent their infancy together in the baby room at Yangzhou. They were all adopted on the same day, in the same ceremony. For their first eight months they shared an identical life story.

 Now they are Maya and Lily and Natalie and Grace, and they all live in America. But the bond between them remains unique and powerful. Together they have celebrated almost every rite of passage in their short lives: birthdays, adoption days, American citizenship, the arrival of new little sisters from China. In their first home, they were like sisters - they even shared a surname, Yang. Now they have their own names and their own homes, and they are more like cousins. But they are still family. And because of them, we - their American families - are also bound together with ties that are almost like kinship. Because of them, we have formed what amounts to a new kind of  Chinese-American extended family - one with nothing in common but the fact of adoption, but we are close nonetheless. 

Adoption experts tell me that it is common for families that adopt together to stick together, but I have been surprised by the strength of that connection. I expected to bond with my daughter from China - I did not expect to bond with the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers of all her closest orphanage friends. 

But now the red thread binds us too: we are a family. We endure and enjoy each other several times a year - more often than some of us see our own biological kin. Recently our Yangzhou family gathered to celebrate a unique new Chinese-American tradition: the "Gotcha Day", the day our girls were placed in our arms inChina. One of the girls was missing: Natalie Yi Lin, whose family lives 700 miles away. But Maya, Grace and Lily were there, and so were their three new Chinese baby sisters.

Gotcha Day is like the family itself: a new cultural phenomenon. We had to invent it in order to celebrate it. So we made up a few rituals, like dressing the girls in Chinese clothes and making

a rabbit-shaped cake to honour their Chinese zodiac sign, and wove these exotic threads through the fabric of a traditional American summer barbecue. The girls wore embroidered clothing, but munched hot dogs and potato salad. They ate cake inspired by an ancient culture, but topped it off with Popsicles. The result was a new mutation of Chinese-American culture. 

But if Gotcha Day was pure invention, our Chinese New Year celebration was even more of a cultural confection. It was held at the home of the Yang-Waldmeirs and I decorated the house inside and out with traditional banners and signs to celebrate the festival. I even had a Chinese friend drop by to make sure I did not hang them upside down. Unfortunately, she also pointed out that they were more suited to a Chinese take-away than to a middle-class family home. But at least the food was no cheap imitation: I made traditional New Year dumplings (jiaozi) from scratch - something which even my friends in China say they very seldom do. They were a bit burnt, and slightly overdone, but the Yangzhou family pronounced them delectable.  

After dinner, we staged our own toddler version of the New Year dragon dance: with costumesmade from polyester and finger paint and led by a friendly-looking dragon, theYangzhou girls paraded through the house to the whoops and shrieks of delighted parents. The dragon lost its tail when my newly adopted two-year-old Chinese daughter, Lucy Helen Xinke, refused to bring up the rear. It was her first Chinese-American New Year - next time she will have a better understanding of our rituals.

Each child was sent home with a traditional red envelope stuffed with chocolate coins to place under her pillow, just like children in China. Only later did I discover that some of the envelopes offered wedding congratulations rather than New Year wishes.  

The celebrations did not end that night: they went on for four weeks. First we attended the annual Chinese New Year dinner hosted by our local branch of the group Families with Children from China, which packed a few hundred people into a local Chinese restaurant. Then we joined more of our closest friends for a dinner hosted by the local Chinese adoptee playgroup, and capped it off with a dinner just for single mothers of Chinese children in Maryland (not as exclusive a group as it may sound).  

But it was the New Year celebration at Grace's preschool that really made me question the cultural overkill. I had been asked to give a presentation on the meaning of Chinese New Year. So I stocked up on props from websites that target adoptive families. I had my handbook for explaining Chinese festivals to toddlers, a story book about New Year, a toy broom to demonstrate ritual house-cleaning, a stuffed sheep to represent the Year of the Ram and a lot of gold coins in red envelopes.

I prepared my presentation for weeks beforehand. But the mysteries of the lunar calendar were lost on the three-year-olds and nobody seemed to be able to figure out what I was doing with the broom. At the end of the day, a lot of toddlers got envelopes congratulating them on their marriage or the birth of a new baby. It was not one of life's great cross-cultural moments.  

Except perhaps for me: for as soon as I was finished with my props, I handed them over to a Chinese-born friend of mine so that she could give a similar presentation at her daughter's preschool. Shamefacedly, she had admitted that she did not know enough about New Year even to instruct a group of four-year-olds.

 Suddenly I began to wonder: why did I feel driven to be more Chinese than the Chinese? What was the cultural point of hanging New Year banners the wrong way up and extending wedding wishes to toddlers? The point, I consoled myself, is not to teach them culture, but to teach them pride: I cannot tell my daughters how to be Chinese, but I can teach them to be proud of the fact that they are.  

"That message is very, very important," says Linda Lin, the Chinese-born head of Wide Horizons for Children, one of the oldest and biggest Chinese adoption programmes in America. "Don't worry if it's not authentic," she says comfortingly. "The point is to honour the part of their life that is Chinese."

For now, that is my only ambition - to get across the message that being Chinese makes them special. They get that message several times a day as it is: in the grocery store and the dry cleaners, at the pool and playground, strangers praise the beauty of my two toddlers, who are often taken for twins. Everyone notices them. Many give them sweets. It's a grand life, being a Chinese-American toddler. 

But one day, their race will be something more than a novelty to them. And to prepare for that day, they need more than invented rituals and half-understood traditions. They need Chinese culture camp - a programme of language and arts, dance and games, designed to give them back the culture they were born into. Grace Shu Min attended her first culture camp this summer, at a local elementary school. Though it sounds like a Maoist re-education project, CampHappy, run by the RockvilleChineseSchool is actually run by two lovely ladies from Taiwan, Grace Chen and Florence Lin. Nervous that Grace might revolt at the notion of calligraphy and gong fu, I packed her CampHappy lunchbox with treats. Apparently, the gastric inducements worked - Grace adored her indoctrination. She failed to learn a single word of Chinese. But by the end of the week she had mastered the basics of Chinese yo-yo (a traditional game), learned a few gong fu moves and eaten a lot of cloying sweets. Bribery is a small price to pay for self-esteem.

So my cultural-pride project is well begun. But it does not stop with camp, or even Chinese New Year. Next month I will bake mooncakes for the moon festival and soon after, Grace will start Chinese school on Sundays. Next summer, she will go again to CampHappy, this time with her little sister Lucy. Soon we will meet other Yangzhou families for an orphanage reunion in Philadelphia; next year there is Lucy's orphanage reunion at Disney World. In between times, there will be more birthdays, and more gotcha days, and more moon festivals.  

And then one day, we will go to China. Maybe we will attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Perhaps we will join a volunteer work crew, building preschools with the American charity, Half the Sky Foundation. They provided a special nanny for Lucy in her orphanage, as part of their "hugging grannies" programme. Maybe we can even find Lucy's "granny", and show her how her little Xinke has grown.

If we do all this, will Grace and Lucy ever forgive me? Will they hate China, because I tried to make them love it? Possibly. Probably. But the conventional wisdom is that parents like me should at least try. Amy Klatzkin, who collaborated with her Chinese daughter on the popular adoption tome, Kids Like Me in China, believes that our adopted children should at least be given "the tools with which to construct their Chinese identity". Five thousand adopted Chinese children enter the US each year. This is an issue for all of them, says Klatzkin. 

"We've learned that you can't just pretend that they're American," she explains. Ironically, that is exactly what I had planned to do before I met Shu Min. When I went to China to get her, I categorically refused to buy a single piece of Chinese clothing for her. My argument (which seemed coherent at the time) was that dressing her up in silk and frog closures was offensively inauthentic, that to do so would somehow trivialise her cultural heritage. Better to treat her like a real American than a counterfeit Chinese, I thought.  

Maybe I got it right at the outset; but I do not now think so. An earlier generation of adoptive parents tried it that way, and largely failed. The eldest of their Korean babies are now entering middle age and many say they regret their parents' attempts to ignore differences that, in the case of Asian adoptees, are there for all to see.  

But that was then, and this is now: assimilation is no longer the cultural ideal. All sorts of Chinese-American parents send their children to culture school: most of the children at Camp Happy were not adopted, they were American-born Chinese. For those children, the question of choosing an identity is not easy either. Their situation, however, is subtly different. Many of them have at least a toe in both cultural camps. Most of them take on bits of the distant culture by osmosis: some will hear Chinese at home, others will have at least an echo of a foreign tongueon the inner ear, a half-remembered odour, or a taste that recalls a ritual. Our girls have no such thing - they lost their culture when the were separated from their birth-mothers. All that is left is invention.

They are not even really Chinese-Americans, in the traditional sense: they are Americans who just look Chinese. And one day, perhaps when I am not around, they will have to face that fact. Klatzkin says the moment of truth often comes in college. Students in American universities often self-segregate by race, especially in the dining hall. "Where do our kids sit?" asks Klatzkin. They feel white, but they may not feel they fit in at a white table. 

To deal with that problem takes more than mooncakes and trips to China. "It's not enough to link to that distant culture," says Klatzkin. "They need a link to Asian-American culture." They need role models who look like them in America. They must be able to move between the two communities. For some American parents, she says, accepting that is harder than learning to make jiaozi: "For some parents, it's easier to embrace China than to accept that your child is a different kind of American than you are." 

I certainly find it hard to accept. My girls are special - I do not like to think of them as different. But one day, perhaps soon, they may not want to be either different or special. Linda Lin, of Wide Horizons, says this phase usually hits at about age seven. "From about seven to 12, they need to focus on just one thing: to fit in". To fit in, as Americans. So is all this culture wasted on our toddlers? Not at all, says Joy Kim Lieberthal, president of Also-Known-As, a group of adult adoptees. "Do it while they are young, so they can remember enjoying it," says Lieberthal, a social worker and Korean adoptee. "Then when they are 20, they can come back to it." Memories are what counts, she says. So we Yangzhou parents have at least a few more years to bake zodiac cakes and dress our girls like imperial courtesans. And until they tell us to stop, I plan to keep them well supplied with gold coins and rabbit cakes. That is the best way I know to honour the red thread that bind them to us, to each other, and forever to China.

Copyright @ 2003 The Financial Times

Originally Published: August 15 2003

Patti Waldmeir is the FT's Legal Correspondent in Washington