UPDATE: As of December 2011, Christina has a family! Thank you to everyone who shared her story.
Christina*, this week’s featured waiting child, is 13 years old. All she wants is a loving family. She urgently needs to find one before she turns 14, next March.
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
I remember 12. Vividly.
The pimples, the braces, the overall awkwardness and misery of puberty. I don’t know about you, but most of my “most embarrassing moments” occurred between the ages of 12 and 15. How intensely you felt everything – the thrill of your crush making eye contact in the hallway, the humiliation of forgetting the notes during your trumpet solo.
During those years, you began to decide who you would be – an athlete, an intellectual, an artist, a movie star.
You didn’t feel like a kid anymore. But you didn’t feel like an adult either.
And though you probably wouldn’t admit it – and likely found it decidedly “uncool” to be seen with them – you still needed your parents. Around this age, they loosened their grip and allowed you to explore, to experiment with your identity. But they also provided an anchor to somewhere safe and familiar and supportive. When some bully spread mean rumors about you or a so-called friend made fun of your outfit, you could always go home to good old mom and dad. They might not know what to say, but they knew how to make you laugh. They knew that grilled cheese and tomato soup always made you feel better. And, through their eyes, you would always be the coolest kid in school – no matter what you wore.
Your parents gave you the courage to face another day in the social war zone known as middle school.
So what if, in the twelfth year of your life, your parents told you they wouldn’t always be there? What if these people who had loved you and raised you from the time you were in diapers told you they might not be able to care for you much longer?
They were just your foster parents. They were getting too old. And their commitment to you was temporary.
What if they gave you two choices? You could either stay in their care and risk returning to the orphanage, a strange and sterile place full of children fighting for attention. Or you could leave everything familiar and safe to you in the world and go to another world – a world where you would have a family forever, but it would be a different family, with parents who don’t speak your language, probably don’t know what makes you laugh and definitely don’t know how you like your grilled cheese sandwiches.
It would be a tough decision – the toughest you’d ever had to make.
When 12-year-old Christina’s foster parents recently posed this question, her immediate response was “no.” No, I am not going anywhere.
* * * *
Christina lives in a southeastern province of China with her foster family – the same foster family she’s lived with since she was 2. Christina is tall and a little shy and when she’s nervous or embarrassed, she hunches her shoulders and laughs, revealing a dimple-cheeked smile worthy of a Crest commercial.
When she was only eleven months old, Christina was found in front of a community center in Wuxi, an industrial city near Shanghai. Attached to her sweater was a note stating her date of birth – March, 2 1999 – and that she had epilepsy. Unable to locate her parents, the local authorities determined Christina “abandoned” and sent her to the Wuxi Social Welfare Institute – a sprawling compound that cares for the elderly and sick as well as orphaned and abandoned children.
For a year, she lived in the “nurture area” of the center, attended to by caregivers. Then, in January of the following year, Christina went to live with a foster family.
As she grew, Christina’s epilepsy began to act up. About twice a year she would suffer an extended seizure, the longest lasting six hours. Despite her condition, she grew tall and strong. A good eater, her foster mom calls her – a trait prized in Chinese culture.
When she turned 7, she began taking epilepsy medication. Two years later, her seizures stopped – and haven’t recurred since.
In school, she struggled in basic courses, but found a love for music and art. The person she would become began to take shape.
When she turned 10, Christina’s foster grandparents told her that her foster parents weren’t her biological parents. But it didn’t matter to Christina. She didn’t see them any differently. They were her parents, her home.
* * * *
We met Christina in Wuxi last summer at the Journey of Hope camp, a gathering of children from nearby orphanages and foster families. Many of them, like Christina, were older children, and most of them had special needs. All had journeyed to Wuxi in the hope of finding an adoptive family.
The children all performed dances and songs for the visiting social workers. Except, when it got to be Christina’s turn, she started laughing and refused to sing into the microphone an orphanage worker held up to her face.
She felt too old to be doing this, she said. This was for the little kids.
Later in the day, Christina and her foster mom sat down for an interview with Jessica Palmer, Holt’s waiting child program manager, and Chris Zhen, a member of Holt’s in-country China staff. Christina seemed quiet and shy, but spoke the few English phrases she knew – “my name is” and “I’m 12 years old.” She counted five best friends on her fingers, and drew an anime picture for Jessica and Chris. She said she liked to surf the Internet, watch T.V. and do household chores. Homework, however, was not her favorite.
Her foster mom then began talking about the possibility of Christina returning to the orphanage. She was getting older, she said, and wouldn’t be able to care for Christina for many more years.
Chris and Jessica proposed an alternative: joining an adoptive family in the U.S.
Catching Christina’s eyes, Chris asked her directly: “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t want to say,” Christina responded. “It will make my foster mom mad.”
Eventually, Chris persuaded her that it was okay to speak her mind.
She did not want to go back to the orphanage. But she didn’t want to go to America either. She wanted to stay with her foster family.
This is not a decision a 12-year-old should have to make. But here it was, weighing heavily on Christina – a girl who just wanted to go home.
Her foster mother made it clear, however, that this was not an option. Not for much longer.
Christina seemed confused. She had no concept of what life would be like in the U.S. She worried about not knowing English, of having trouble communicating.
It was the end of the day, and they talked a long time – Christina, Jessica and Chris. Gradually, Christina began to understand a little better the alternative Jessica and Chris proposed. As they were about to leave, Christina asked whether she could join a family in America, if she wanted to. They told her they would try, but it all depended on her wishes and whether they could find her one.
The next day, Christina came back to the Journey of Hope camp with her foster father – a sparkly, smiling guy who held a supportive arm around Christina’s shoulder as she spoke. She wanted Chris and Jessica to know she was certain now. She wanted a family. And for that, she was willing to go to the U.S.
* * * *
Christina’s story is the story of a generation – a generation of girls abandoned in the three decades since China instituted its one-child policy. These are the children of poor working class people who, as tradition dictates, depend on their sons to support them in old age. In a country with no legal way to relinquish a child, many of them – like Christina – were abandoned in public places, where someone would find them and take them into care. Many have started new lives in adoptive families, creating a diaspora of Chinese children coming of age in lands not of their birth. Others remain parentless, coming of age in a culture so traditionally bound to family relationships that they have no place in society.
Even if Christina could stay in her foster family for the remaining years of her childhood, her adult life would be difficult.
Although many social and cultural beliefs in China are changing, long-held prejudices continue to affect the lives of orphaned and abandoned children in China. With social structures long established around family name, these children remain on the margins of society. They will likely earn a second-class education, and have few opportunities to succeed on their own merits.
Perhaps Christina’s foster parents, who have loved her as their own, privately wish for her a better life – in a family that will love and care for her forever, and in a country that will afford her every opportunity.
A year has passed since the Journey of Hope camp, and Christina is now 13. Recently, we wrote to ask her what she hopes for in America.
“I hope for nothing except a family adopting me,” she wrote. She hopes for grandparents in that family, and maybe a sibling.
But mostly, she just wants a loving mother and father. And somewhere safe and supportive where she can always go home.
For more information about Christina, contact Erin Mower at email@example.com.
* name changed