The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done

The best thing I’ve ever done was not intentional.  In fact, I was acting surreptitiously and somewhat disingenously to avoid it.  It led nevertheless to opening my heart in a way that had not been previously available to me, and it also grew into the most powerful benefit I have ever been able to bestow on the world at large.  As I slowly came to realize these things, the story helped to plant within me a sense that I am being cared for, that the lot I am handed is better than I deserve, and that my various stories will end well, despite my folly.

It was the spring of 1985, and Alice and I had been trying to get pregnant for two years, first naturally and then with the latest in vitro techniques.  One day, her gynecologist handed her a leaflet from the Pearl Buck Foundation, which brings in children from Korea for American adoption.  Alice reported that she wanted to punch her.

Alice and I were proud of our genes.  We had met as classmates at Harvard, and we were both aware that we had chosen our partner with a vision of the smart, musical, blue-eyed children we would create together.  Adoption was not part of our family stories, and it was not a possibility that we had entertained in our discussions or our thoughts.

We were both clear in our desire for children.  But Alice was quicker than I to yield with a grace to reason, and had called the Pearl Buck contact to make preliminary inquiries.  I counseled patience.  I was sure that in a few more months we would be pregnant. Half-aware that it was just a delaying tactic, I said to Alice, “I don’t have any relationship to Korea.  But I have friends from China, I’ve been there and I speak the language. Why don’t we adopt from China?” I showed her a current magazine article that reported an unanticipated effect of China’s one child policy: families that wanted a boy to secure their old age had “disposed of” their baby girls so they might have a chance to try again for a boy.  Surely this is an opportunity for us, I said. But I did nothing to follow up.

Alice is resourceful and persistent.  She took up my challenge strategically, with energy and determination.  She was well-connected through her family and through her legal practice.  Of every Chinese person she knew, she asked, “Do you know how we can adopt a Chinese baby?”  But the answer came back uniformly: It is not possible.  The Chinese government is not set up for foreign adoption.  All petitions to the central government are made first at the level of the danwei, the work unit.  If you don’t work in China, you have no standing to apply for an adoption or anything else.  In Korea there are American agencies that are not permitted to operate in China. “You will get your baby from Korea,” said one Chinese advisor.

Unfazed, Alice kept exploring new angles.  One of her clients was a woman from Shanghai who had been given a raw deal at Wharton School, passed over for tenure and promotion though her publications were at a level well above here white, male colleagues.  Alice waited until her case was settled with a six-digit payment and new opportunities in a better department before asking Jun-wei if she might help us to adopt a baby.  She responded, “You have been good to me.  You have not just represented me well, you have also given me confidence while others were insulting me. I never expected a lawyer to talk to me like a friend. I will help you adopt a baby.”

Four months and several trans-Pacific phone calls later, our plane landed in Shanghai in the middle of the night.  The airport smelled like a barn, and we had no idea where to turn. But as we emerged from Customs, there was a welcoming party flashing a hand-made sign with our misspelled names.  A professor from Jiao Tong University, a well-connected English translator, their wives and an administrative aid who had wanted to see the Americans, all gave up a night’s sleep to meet us.  We squeezed into the car they had hired for the long drive to Shanghai’s oldest and most elegant Western hotel.

Over the ensuing months we learned how the Chinese economy functioned before cash became king.  There was an ancient network of family ties, guanxi, and a system of trading favors.  No one was permitted to accumulate money in post-revolutionary China, and almost anything that you wanted required permission from government functionaries.  People kept close, if informal, track of who has done favors for them, and for whom they have done favors in the past. Jun-wei had been in the first wave of Chinese scholars hired at American universities, and she had had lots of opportunities to create contacts and foreign travel for her colleagues back home.  But, having emigrated, she no longer had much need for return favors. Jun-wei transferred some of her guanxi account for our benefit, and thus we had a team of well-connected, powerful people working and advocating for us.

Within three days of our arrival, we were introduced to a week-old infant who had been abandoned by her unwed mother.  We had a baby in our arms.  That was the easy part.  There was no procedure for foreign adoption, and there was still a residue of Chairman Mao’s xenophobia in the air.  The low-level provincial officials were friendly and eager to help us, but none was willing to sign off on our request without approval from Above.  Alice and I went home to Philadelphia, leaving our baby in the charge of a local grandma. It took another four months and untold claims on the favor account before our benefactors were able to secure permission from the highest levels of the Chinese bureaucracy.

We returned to Shanghai on Christmas day, defying a panicked phone call warning us that the approval was not yet accomplished.  We sponsored banquets and delivered speeches about international friendship, but stopped short of offering bribes and paying for the foreign cigarettes much coveted by Chinese officials.  We heated a kettle of water for Sarah’s first bath in two months, and we slept under heavy quilts with her little body nuzzled between our own. Next day on the train to Changzhou, I looked into Sarah’s eyes, gazing back from where she lay on my lap, and I knew this girl had always been my daughter and I had always been her father, decreed in the Akashic record before time began.


Before the adoption, my concept of love had been closely tied to admiration.  To love meant, for me, to be convinced that someone was worthy of love. But taking Sarah into my life as I was about to do, I felt an obligation, as close to sacred as anything I had known.  My commitment was to be her father, to act in every way the role that a father by birth might take on. To do less would be an injustice and a betrayal. I was tasked with giving this young life to feel in every way that she has a father.  

The great lesson, the great gift unfolded gradually from that commitment.  To act the role of someone who loves led me to feel love, to understand love in a way that I previously had not.  Love does not derive from the brain, and it has nothing to do with being worthy. Love is a transcendent connection.  Love gives substance to my being. It is granted to me, a gift of grace, and yet it is enabled by a choice that I make.  My commitment to act the part had had the power to make love happen.

Four years later, we adopted a second Chinese girl, and Maddy was more challenging for me than Sarah had been.  She was less demanding and not eager to be held or cuddled. She didn’t bond readily, and I didn’t so quickly come to feel that she was part of me.  The experience with Sarah helped me to persist.  Maddy was destined to be own daughter, no less than Sarah.

Both my girls taught me to find and recognize love inside myself.  They taught me what love is.


Politics and the Wide World

As it turned out, Chinese-American adoption was an idea whose time had come. Following on the precedent that Sarah’s benefactors had established was a growing tide of adoptions.  Sarah was the first of 100,000 Chinese babies who have come to America, and the vast majority have been satisfying, joyous experiences for their adoptive families.  Everyone knows a neighbor or a cousin with an adorable, docile Asian child. Chinese babies don’t cry or fuss or keep their parents up at night, and they grow to be excellent students in school. There is some truth to the stereotypes.

China is changing and its economy growing at an eye-popping rate.  China is steadily supplanting the US as the 21st Century Superpower.  This is a dangerous situation, and our American government has not been above stoking xenophobia to justify war with foreign rivals.  100,000 lovely young women are a counterforce to prejudice and stereotypes. Well-connected and well-beloved, in every American burb, they are emissaries for a human connection bridging divergent cultures, ambassadors for a peaceful future.

I have no cause for taking pride from my role in this development, but I can feel it as a gift beyond anything I have known how to ask for.


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