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Getting to Know My Daughters

Rhema Sayers

May 26 9:18 AM

Hi, Harry - I am on the roller coaster ride of my life. I'm totally excited - jumping up and down excited - one minute, then terrified, depressed, the next. I'm flying over northern China now and will be landing in Wulumuqi in about 20 minutes in the far Northwest of China - Xinjiang Province. Then we'll get on a bus and go to the Holiday Inn Wulunuqi to meet our new daughters. I am in a group of people who are adopting from the same orphanage. But I am the oldest and the only one adopting an older child. Jade is nearly twelve years old and I have suddenly realized that I never considered the possibility that she might not like me. Or what if I don't like her? What if our personalities are simply incompatible? Or perhaps worse - what if we're too much alike? My stomach is tied in knots and I feel nauseous. Christ, Harry - what have I done?

May 26 10:30 PM

My God, Harry - she is beautiful! Or at least she will be when the orthodontist finishes with her teeth. And she's so bright! Not only is she intelligent, she shines like a spotlight among candles. She draws everyone's gaze when she walks in a room. I noticed at dinner tonight how many people looked at her. There's something about her - I haven't been able to find the words for it yet. She is constantly on the move, either thinking or doing something, energetic, outgoing and so incredibly thoughtful. I know she's on her best behavior, but I really, really like this kid. When I walked into the lobby at the hotel, I spotted her right away and she saw me. She ran to me and hugged me. I started crying.

Landing at Wulumuqi (the powers-that-be in Beijing changed the name to Urumqi, but everyone still calls it Wulumuqi), I was an emotional wreck, but I did take a long look at the place where Jade has lived. It's a big city (twice as big as Tucson) in the middle of a desert. And like Tucson, there are mountains very close by. But these mountains make the Catalinas look puny! They climb up to 23,000 feet, Harry! There's snow on the tops all the time. They're called Tian Shan (Mountains of Heaven) and they are awe inspiring. We went swimming in an indoor pool at the hotel (on the sixth floor!) with an incredible view of the range.

The city itself is amazing, the third world smack up against the 21st century. Huge skyscrapers, all glass and steel, reach for the sky, while donkey carts carry loads of vegetables (and other, less pleasant things) in the streets below, making their slow, timeless way through the evening rush hour and smog. The city has existed for millenia, part of the Silk Road. Marco Polo traveled through here. They've even got a statue of him. But now the city runs on oil, vast amounts of oil in great pools under the desert. I saw the innumerable oil wells as we landed at the airport.

Built on the foothills of the Tian Shan, there are towering rock formations scattered throughout the city and they've created parks around them. Pagodas perch on pinnacles and gondola cars sway on cables, passing over highways. I saw two Ferris wheels from the bus. And a barber was cutting a man's hair just outside the hotel entrance, while down the street a little way, there were piles of lettuce eight feet high next to a particularly rank display of headless chickens. The hotel, by the way, is a thirty story, white granite edifice with a marble staircase dominating the lobby as grand as any in Versailles. Not exactly your standard Holiday Inn.

Today has been relatively quiet since the emotionally charged meeting this morning. We took a short walk in the neighborhood of the hotel, had lunch and talked. We've been talking all day. My Mandarin is fair to good, as is her English, and between us we can find the words. It's been a wonderful day.

May 27 9:45 PM

We were taken on a tour up into the Tian Shan range to a lovely lake called Tianchi, or "Heavenly Lake." The bus ride took an hour and a half. Jade and I talked the whole way, while watching the scenery. We went through desert and past oil wells, through rolling hills and had to stop for a herd of sheep crossing the road at their own pace. The sheep herder wasn't in any great hurry, either. When we climbed higher, the trees changed rapidly as we negotiated the steep road, which became stunted and sparse. That poor, abused bus. I really didn't think it would make it all the way up. It complained every inch of the way, especially while making hairpin turns up to 6,000 feet.

Jade and I talked about her life. She's been at the orphanage for about four years. An aunt took her from her home, somewhere in Southwest China. where her father was abusing her, and put her on a train to Xinjiang. Her mother had disappeared years before. Jade thinks she ran away but her father never said. The conductors made her get off in Wulumuqi and there she was, all by herself. The station security officer took her to the orphanage and that's been her home ever since.

The lake was indeed Heavenly, a brilliant turquoise jewel surrounded by deep blue, snow capped mountain peaks. Uighur people sell souvenirs and donkey and yak rides and boat rides around the lake. I took a million photos. Someone asked Jade what she wanted when she got to America. She said she wanted her teeth straightened, a dog, and a college education. I think we can handle all that.

May 28 10:30 PM

Emotionally tiring day. We visited the orphanage so that the parents could see the facility and Jade could say goodbye. It was hard on her. We spent hours touring the place, which is quite large. Most of the kids were still at school (they go to the public schools - what must that be like when your home is an orphanage?) when we got there, but there were quite a few special needs children who don't go to school. Jade ran to them and posed for photos with the children who were rejected by their parents, hugging them.

When the rest of the children got home, I met several of her friends. She's already lobbying me about adopting one of them. When we left, there were tears on her face and she didn't talk for a while. She is fully aware that she is leaving for good. This has got to be so hard for her. We leave for Guangzhou in two days. We spent the rest of the day today dealing with bureaucrats, filling out forms in dingy offices. Tomorrow we go to the bazaar!

May 29 11:00 PM

The market was chaotic, filled with shouts and calls, people yelling at one another, bargaining, laughing, chatting, calling out to customers, tourists. Even when they’re just talking, the Chinese sound as if they’re arguing furiously. Two men and a woman were screaming at each other over a table covered with table cloths and lacy scarves. A fruit vendor called out in broken English “Good apple. Try! Taste good!” Another vendor shook a brilliant green jacket in front of my face, braying as loudly as the two mud splattered donkeys behind him.

The cacophony was almost overwhelming. An irritable camel was tethered with the donkeys near an ancient well and added raucous comments at times, as well as a certain effluvium. Chickens clucked and ducks quacked. A motorbike roared down the lane between stalls. From somewhere came the sound of a stringed instrument playing a lively tune.

A man stepped in front of us, holding up a red hat with multicolored feathers. It was so beautiful that my hands reached out of their own volition. The man’s face lit up. He had a sucker on the line. Screaming at me in Mandarin, demanding ten times what the hat is worth, for that is the way the game is played, he hoped to sell many hats to the foolish American woman. I offered him a tenth of what he wanted in halting Mandarin. He was surprised, but jumped into the negotiations with delight. A few minutes later he was complaining that I would be taking the food from his children’s mouths and I had a new hat. A crowd had gathered to watch our lively dealing and there were cheers and applause when I donned the hat.

The vendor shook my hand with exuberance. My daughter stood nearby, grinning with delight.

“You paid too much.” she said in her best English. “Not bad first time.”

More vendors than ever reached out to me, extolling the many virtues of caps and scarves, vests and jackets, broiled mutton on a stick (at least that’s what they said it was) and persimmons and dates. They tended to ignore the small Chinese girl, strolling beside me.

The smells of hundreds of people, animals, fruits, vegetables, and meat broiling over open fires blurred together into a strangely pleasant pungency, and the dust of centuries overlay everything. However, I didn't want to get too close to the camel, who seemed to have some gastrointestinal problems.

The colors were the best, though. The women wore vibrant scarves, skirts, blouses – embroidered and patterned in emerald green and lime, royal purple, cobalt blue, crimson, saffron, and gold. Caps and vests and pants for the men in jewel tones – some faded and worn, others vibrant, seared the eye. The vendors’ stalls spilled out waves of brilliant hues. Bolts of fabric, silks and satins, wool and cotton, lay on rugs, some patterned with whorls and flowers and fantastic birds, others of pure rainbow shades, almost too dazzling to look at in the desert sun. Skeins of luminous yarn were spread out on tables in abstract patterns. I took photos of everything. Most venders sat on the ground or had tables, but there were sheds as well, decrepit, walls leaning against each other for support, roofs with holes that let in the relentless sun, some structures made of wood, others of corrugated, rusted steel and tin. The market had been here for a long time. A wall nearby built of mud bricks appeared to be ancient, maybe as venerable as the city itself. The wind blew dust down through the aisles and through the years.

A woman was selling vividly colored, sequined caps, worn by Uighur women on holidays. I asked her if I could take her picture. I told her that she was beautiful and she laughed. Her face lit up and she blushed. Yet she didn’t smile for the camera, just giving a slight upturn of her lips, a hint of Mona Lisa. Her face, untainted by modern life, was clear, innocent, unworldly. But not vacant. There was character there, strength and maybe sadness. Her experience was not mine. We were two women, meeting in her world where I had wandered for a little while. We talked haltingly, her Mandarin better than mine, but a second language for both of us. We spoke of husbands and children. I introduced Jade as my daughter and the woman was confused. Jade had to explain adoption to her. Her eyes widened as she comprehended that I had come to China to take a child back to America to raise as my own. Our eyes met and our gaze spoke volumes to each other. I looked at the caps. They were lovely. It was the only thing I could do to thank her. I bought ten of them. Her bargaining was not as lively, but neither was mine. My daughter stared daggers at me.

As we walked on, I looked back over my shoulder. The woman was watching me. I offered a smile and a wave. She raised one hand in a gesture of farewell.

“Why you pay too much?” Jade complained from beside me.

“She did me a favor.” I explained.

She looked at me strangely. We were mother and daughter now, but still strangers.

“She just Uighur. Not important person. Uighur people revolt.” She said with the haughty air of the Han, even an orphan Han.

"Boy, have we got things to talk about," I muttered and again Jade gave me a sidelong glance, flat eyed.

I haven't mentioned the diversity of this place, Harry. Xinjiang has more minorities than all of the rest of China, over 90 distinct ethnic groups. They used to outnumber the Han, the ethnic Chinese, so a few decades ago the government in Beijing imported a lot of people from elsewhere in China and plopped them down here. Most of the minorities are Muslim and almost everything written here is in two languages - Mandarin and Arabic. Jade is teaching me to distinguish between Uighurs and Hui-hui and Kazakhs and Mongols and Ozbeks and Russians. The Russians aren't hard. They're blonde or red headed with freckles, looking totally unlike any other group. Mainly I am learning about their clothes. Otherwise I think it would be hopeless.

Tomorrow we start the first part of our journey home. We'll fly to Guangzhou to get her visa from the U.S. Embassy. Three days there and then we'll board a plane for L.A. and then home to Tucson. I'll keep you informed, my love. You're going to like her. No - you're going to love her, Harry. I'll mail this at the airport tomorrow. I love you. Hug all the dogs for me. We'll be home soon.

All my love,


Rhema Sayers is a retired physician having spent more than three decades in medicine, mostly as an ER doctor. She's been married to the same man for 43 years (and he's damn lucky, too). They adopted three young girls from China - from Urumqi - in 1998 and 1999. They are grown and off doing their own things now. Rhema and her husband have three dogs - adopted from the Humane Society- and they live in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. Rhema has been writing for a little over a year and has had several pieces published.

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1 year, 6 months ago
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