Editor’s note: Abigale “Abbey” White’s plans to visit China were chronicled in a June 2 Life section story. Here, White, 17, who was adopted from a Chinese orphanage, describes her return to the place of her birth.
I am told they found me next to the gate of the orphanage, wrapped in a blanket and tucked into a small cardboard box. Of course, I have no memory of the moment when I went from being my birth mother’s baby girl to becoming one of China’s many orphans.
Memory is a funny thing. One of my earliest childhood memories is of blowing bubbles in a lush green garden, the Dallas Arboretum.
Yet I know that earlier memories exist.
My mom recounts one time during a family outing when I, only 22 months old, patted a bale of straw and exclaimed “nite-nite time China!”
My mom was told that I often was taken home with one of the orphanage workers where I did, in fact, sleep on a straw bed. She was shocked that I remembered sleeping on straw and that I even knew China was a place, considering I was adopted when I was 10 months old.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I felt compelled to return to China for the first time since my adoption. I was joined by 12 other teen China adoptees, each selected by the Half the Sky Foundation, which sponsors the program in conjunction with China’s Children International (CCI).
We came from around the world, strangers to each other, with a common goal: to bring our gifts of love and compassion to orphans residing at the China Care Home, a facility which prepares children for medical procedures and takes care of them while they heal.
Most of the time, we fed, played with and taught basic skills to the children, the majority of whom were toddlers and infants. Depending on their age and development, we crawled around on the floor with them, helped them learn how to feed themselves and showed them how to blow bubbles (much to their delight).
They loved for us to sit them on the windowsill so they could look outside; this was a particular joy for them because they are not allowed to play outdoors. I taught English lessons to one of the teens there, helping her with her English pronunciation while she helped me with my Mandarin.
I was struck by how happy and content the children appeared. They all seemed to enjoy us spending time with them. A baby boy with big brown eyes especially captured the essence of contentment. Not once did I hear him cry. When the nannies turned on music, singing while waving their hands back and forth, this baby swayed with the music, rolling side to side on his tummy with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
In a beautiful letter to the student volunteers, one of the nannies wrote, “Though some children can’t express it in words, I can tell from their eyes and expressions that they love you. The children sat in your arms, acting for all the world like children who had always been happy and loved.”
This letter gave me confirmation that we had indeed made an impact on the kids. That we were able to bring them so much joy and show them love made my heart glow.
‘Would I remember?’
Although spending time with the children was our main focus, I had hoped to glean some early childhood memory of my time spent in China.
Would I remember the straw bed now? Would I remember an orphanage filled with sunshine, attentive nannies, toys and bubbles, like what I observed at the China Care Home? Or would it be crowded and dusty? Would I suddenly understand Mandarin, even if it were only a few phrases? Now that I reflect back on these thoughts, I realize how trivial these details may seem, and to my disappointment, my trip did not trigger any insightful flashbacks.
However, I did gain so much in the memories department.
Now that I have returned, I remember playing “Giddy Up Pony” with the children. This is a delightful game for the little ones in which they are bounced up and down and then swung upside down. For me, it is a workout, but worth the smiles and giggles it induces.
I remember nicknaming the babies based upon their quirky personalities. One baby boy we nicknamed “Clark” because of his habit of holding his arms out as if he were flying like Superman.
There was one child in particular who holds a special place in my heart. The nannies called him Jia Jia. Entering the facility on the first day, unsure of what to expect, I was greeted by his cheeky grin. I spent a lot of my time with Jia Jia, going on excursions through the hallways on plastic cars, the kind in which you swivel the steering wheel to generate motion.
Culture and connections
I connected to the other teen adoptee volunteers, diverse in not only geography, but hobbies and aspirations as well. We discussed the ebb and flow of life, where we were and where we hoped to go. We were bargaining buddies. When a vendor grabbed my arm at the Silk Market, pulling me to his station in the hopes I would buy a knock-off designer purse, they came to my rescue. Together, we experienced the agony of paying $15 for a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Although most items are cheaper in China, American imports are certainly not.
We were immersed in Chinese culture.
I fell in love with Chinese cuisine, and I am talking about real Chinese food. Fresh steamed greens were always plentiful. Several dishes included potatoes, which I had not expected. I learned that soy sauce is used for cooking, not as a condiment. Instead of dumping soy sauce on my rice, I learned to mix in sweet and sour sauce from the pork dish.
We visited historical sites around Beijing. The Great Wall is magnificent and totally worth the hour trek up seemingly endless stairs.
My favorite place we visited was the Temple of Heaven. The temple itself is stunning, with its bright colors and massive structure, but what I enjoyed most was the park area surrounding it. Even though the Temple of Heaven is a tourist destination, it is a place where Chinese people come to exercise and socialize. I witnessed a man practicing tai chi and several people dancing together. A few of us, including myself, joined in on the fun. In China, being outside and being active are the norm. I saw old men doing the splits and even the monkey bars. It was quite the scene.
True, our common roots are what brought us teen adoptees together, but our memories are the glue that holds us together.
One lesson I learned, albeit not the most important, is that no matter where you go, children are fascinated by bubbles!
In her letter to the student volunteers, a nanny observed, “When (the children) blew bubbles, the rooms became like a fairyland. I know the happy times you spent with them will become a cherished memory in their hearts.”
I think bubbles are synonymous with love.
Perhaps that is why bubbles are such a vivid early childhood memory for me, and I can only hope that they will be a treasured memory for the children I met at the China Care Home.
On the Web
Go to NewsOK.com to see a slide show Abigale “Abbey” White created to send out to individuals who made donations to help make her recent trip to China possible.