Adoption: China girl

For childless couples in Britain, China offers a lifeline because of its limits on family size and orphanages full of unwanted baby girls. But the journey from desire to reality is a long one, and the lobby of the Taiwan Hotel in central Peking can be the most agonising place in the world. Teresa Poole follows four would-be families

entral Peking, late Thursday morning. In the lobby of the Taiwan Hotel chain-smoking Chinese businessmen are slumped on four green leather sofas. Upstairs, a musty smell still hangs in the air outside the "Lingering Tunes" karaoke hall. In the coffee shop, two Western tourists earnestly plot the day's sightseeing targets on a map. Nothing would seem to distinguish this three-star hotel from countless others in the city, until one wanders into the sales manager's office. In the corner sit five large cardboard boxes stuffed with toy pandas. "We gave out more than 450 pandas last year," says Richard Li.

During the morning, three jet-lagged British couples and a single woman roll up off overnight flights from London. There are four pushchairs, and bulging suitcases heavy with baby clothes, nappies and toys. But the only child in sight is two-year-old Olivia, who runs exuberantly around the hotel lobby. Ask why she has come to China, and she grins, "To get sister."

The Taiwan Hotel has become an unlikely transit lounge for adults on the brink of parenthood. Last year, 123 Chinese babies were adopted by British families, and many passed through these hotel doors. For this nervous, newly arrived group, the Taiwan Hotel marks the start of the final sprint after a bureaucratic marathon that began around two years ago. Somewhere in each family's luggage is the precious small photograph that arrived in the UK in December, showing the daughter who is now waiting for them in a distant Chinese orphanage. Aside from a brief medical report, they know almost nothing about their

babies. Each tiny girl was abandoned in a culture where, in rural areas, the age-old preference for sons has been exacerbated by rules limiting the number of children allowed per family. In just two anxious days' time, these would-be parents will fly to Nanchang, in the eastern province of Jiangxi, finally to be united with their daughters.

"I went into a mad panic, but it was wonderful," says 43-year-old Janet Fox, a fashion designer, remembering the morning when the Chinese letter and photograph arrived saying they had been matched with a baby. "I blew up the photograph," says her husband Pete Hillier, 45, an IT professional. "It's plastered all over the house, my work, Janet's work." Janet laughs: "He's sent a copy to everyone he's ever met in his life." Lu Huanhuan, soon to be called Esme, is an 11-month-old girl, abandoned outside the People's Hall in Nanfeng city, Jiangxi, the day she was born. Her new home will be Wandsworth, south London.

Let no one doubt that it is possible to bond with a photograph. Names have been chosen, and personalities half-imagined. "For a while I had it as a screen-saver so every time I switched my computer on, this little face came up," says David Keltie, a 52-year-old project management consultant from Edinburgh, who is here with his wife, Lorna Easton, 38, a Scottish Tourist Board senior manager. "You read all kinds of character into the face. So we have a sense of how she might be, how you hope she'll be," he adds. Thirteen-month-old Viola was left at the gates of a factory in Nanfeng when she was one day old. For David and Lorna, this is a repeat visit to the Taiwan Hotel; they stayed here in April 1997 when they adopted Olivia.

Well over 5,000 Chinese babies were adopted by foreign parents last year, an extraordinary twist of fate for an abandoned peasant girl. "It's a two-way thing," says Janet. "Obviously we are helping her to a different life. But at the same time, she's helping us. We're getting a child."

Friday brings sightseeing, to help pass the final agonising wait. There are silent anxieties as everyone climbs the Great Wall. Says Pete: "It is mainly that she should be healthy." Janet adds: "I think my main concern is attachment problems, where the baby is unable to relate to us. Obviously you read as much as possible about adoption." Pete adds: "And what you normally read are the horror stories."

In the UK, an e-mail network now exists to put people adopting from China in touch with each other, with pictures on the Internet of Chinese orphanages and personal adoption stories. What is not spoken of, although it is common knowledge, is that a few adopting parents have had the devastating experience of turning up to find that their baby was too sick to adopt, forcing them to decide whether to opt for a different child.

"There will always be uncertainty before you get there, because the medical report is out of date, and not as comprehensive as you would wish. But our preparation means we are told all the different things that might be a problem. So we would be able to deal with it," says economist Peter Roscoe, 39, from Lambeth. He and his Japanese-born, British-raised wife, Tokiko Morishima, are adopting 11-month-old Ella, from little Olivia's old orphanage, Shanggao. "There is no information about the medical background of the family at all," adds Janet, "You have to accept that."

Tokiko, 38, who works in publishing, remarks: "The one worry I have is that, as Ella gets older, her history will be incomplete. We are concerned about how to prepare her to deal with it. They are all abandoned, these children. And that is a very hard thing to come to terms with." Nor is the agony of the birth mothers lost on the new parents. Sometimes Chinese mothers cut a baby's ear before abandoning her, in the vain hope of later having an identifying mark.

In the UK, the adoption of an overseas child starts with a home study report by a local authority, an ordeal which most parents say is the hardest part. The cost varies wildly from nothing to over pounds 3,000, depending on where one lives. If approved, the study is sent with a US$750 "translation fee" to the China Centre of Adoption Affairs in Peking which - about nine months later - writes back with a medical report and photograph of the baby put up for adoption. For Britain, China is the source of half the babies adopted from overseas. This may increase as a new Chinese law this month will reduce the minimum age for parents from 35 to 30, and further relax restrictions on those with children. All along, the waiting is the worst. "You do live an unreal life for months. Detached from reality, waiting for the letter," says Pete. For Jane Richards, a 36-year-old speech and language therapist from East Lothian who is adopting as a single woman, these final two days are almost unbearable. "Each stage you go through, you think the next stage will be easier. But it just gets harder," she says.

On the bus, the Chinese tour guide says she can arrange traditional engraved stamps for their new babies. But it would be tempting fate to carve the name of a daughter who might yet slip from one's grasp.

By 10pm that evening, most of the group are battling jet lag, as they sit over beers looking down on to the Taiwan Hotel lobby. Attached to the hotel is the "Yuppy" nightclub, but no one is interested in making the most of their last childless evenings. "We've got to see the babies," says Tokiko - three British families who are a week ahead of this group in the baby adoption shuttle are due back any moment after picking up their new daughters from the Jiangxi and Hunan provinces.

They arrive.

Chinese guests in the lobby are bemused at all the commotion. Proud mothers and fathers show off their new daughters to parents-in-waiting. "Mine's a Gap baby," laughs one, kissing her well-dressed little girl. "Mine will be too," says a mum-to-be, with the clothes still unpacked upstairs. "Is anyone adopting from Nanfeng?" asks Beverly Deane, 35, from Guildford. Janet steps forward. "I wanted to tell you, the staff were wonderful," says Beverly, hugging nine-month-old Jenney-Lu.

The adopting parents are back in Peking to arrange the babies' British visas, glowing with relief and joy. These adoptions have all gone smoothly. "They brought her to the hotel in Nanchang," says Beverly, who has two birth sons with her husband. "I had convinced myself it was going to be very difficult, she'd be crying, she'd be underfed, she'd be ill, the people would not be very nice to me. And in actual fact they were really lovely, the people that cared for her. And she was so calm. And they'd fed her. We sat on the bed, and she just looked up at me, she just stared into my eyes. And I just thought, this is brilliant."

Chinese babies for adoption are almost always brought by orphanage staff to a main provincial city for hand-over to the new parents. Like all Chinese babies, Jenney-Lu was overdressed, to Western eyes, with five layers on the top half and three on the bottom. "She didn't smell that brilliant, but I thought, well she's not crying so let's just let her be for a bit," says Beverly.

Kate Hodson, 52, and her husband Nick, 38, from Chester, cradle 20-month- old Georgina, from Hunan. Kate's 25-year-old daughter from her first marriage, Becky, has come along to help. Georgina was handed over in a government office in Changsha city. "The place was quite dingy and dark. And then in she came in the arms of one of the orphanage directors," recalls Kate. Nick adds: "We managed to avoid tears ourselves, and then we had to walk out of the little room to do the paperwork. The corridor was full of Americans adopting, and as we walked out they were cheering and clapping. It was just like being on Oprah! We were really choked up by that time."

Georgina was abandoned at eight months, with a note giving her name and birth date. "But they would not let us see the note," says Kate. "For two days, her eyes were just big and solemn, very sad. And then we had an amazing breakthrough. Becky was holding her and doing `horses'. And I said, `clap hands, Georgina,' and that was it. Every hour she becomes more alert and responsive." Georgina gleefully tugs her mother's blonde hair, and squeals with joy as she feeds make-believe food into Nick's mouth. "When she started really showing her true character, it was worth a million pounds," says Nick.

All of which reassures the first group of parents as they wait for the Sunday flight to Jiangxi. Richard Li, the sales manager, will be standing by at the Taiwan Hotel for their return, with more than a dozen cots at his disposal. There is a group of adopting parents "almost every week", he says. For the past few years, the state-owned China Women's Travel Service, which specialises in handling adoption groups, has put guests in the Taiwan Hotel, giving Mr Li a ringside seat to watch Chinese people reacting to foreign adoptions. "People have different ideas," he says. "Some think, foreign families are full of love, so kind, so nice towards adopted babies; they regard this as a moral story. Others think it is a kind of shame, they think the government should do more work to improve the babies' lives to avoid this kind of thing happening in China."

Thursday evening, and the airport transfer bus arrives back at the hotel. It feels like a replay of the previous week as the hotel lobby is turned into a creche. "We call her the Empress of China," says Pete, as Esme demonstrates a very regal gaze. Pete has a scratch on his Western-sized nose. "She's obsessed by his nose," laughs Janet. The four babies are all healthy, alert and playful, and receive repeated hugs from little Olivia. The parents seem transformed from a week ago.

The adoptions all went without a hitch. "It was quite late by the time we got to Jiangxi, everyone was really tired," recalls Janet. "When we went into the hotel there were these people with two babies. We all started crying," says Pete. These were the Shanggao orphanage babies for Jane, and Tokiko and Peter.

"At the hotel, we saw this little face rubber-necking around the reception area, with bright red cheeks, and Tokiko said, `That's Ella.' Then we suddenly felt really relieved," recalls Peter. For Jane, that first glimpse of her nine-month-old daughter was overwhelming. "I can't begin to describe it. It was such an emotional thing," she says. "She was actually handed to me upstairs in the corridor. We took her back to the room, and she screamed and screamed. We held her, and walked her, and rocked her. Half an hour later, I was lying on the bed and she was lying in the cot, and we were just looking at each other. She'd make a noise, and I'd make a noise. And she smiled. That was our first `conversation'." Jane was never treated differently because she is single: "The Chinese seem to have no hang-ups about it whatsoever, it's wonderful."

Janet and Pete's baby arrived an hour later. "She was gorgeous. I thought it was all going to be terribly emotional, but it was so hectic. She looked at us with that look she's got, a bit like, `Who the hell are you?' " Like all adopting parents, Pete and Janet wanted as much information as possible. "We had a really long list of questions, but there wasn't time to ask them all," says Janet. After that, this couple learnt the error of not swiftly swapping the traditional Chinese split trousers for a nappy. "An instant initiation into the messy side of being parents," recalls Janet.

Back in their Taiwan Hotel room, with toys and baby belongings strewn around and a cot in the corner, Tokiko pulls out the paperwork from Jiangxi. It is in this province that parents formally adopt the babies, doing the rounds of government offices and notaries. Promises are made not to abandon the child, and to give her an awareness of Chinese culture. Parents receive a brief certificate saying the baby was "abandoned definitely". Tokiko explains: "It just says Ella was born on 1 April last year and found on 5 April at the gate of the Shanggao orphanage. We'd hoped we would have more time to ask questions of the orphanage director, but it was all too busy."

Each family's experience is different. Lorna and David were able to talk to the niece of the woman who had fostered Viola. "She told us quite a lot about her routines and what she ate, and about the family that she stayed with. So that was really nice," says Lorna. The 13-month-old is tiny for her age, but alert and responsive.

It is also in the adopting province that the financial transaction takes place, with a "donation" of US$3,000 to the orphanage for each baby, plus a few hundred dollars for notary fees. "We got receipts for everything," says Peter. Western adoption advisors say it depends greatly on the province and the individual orphanage director where that money ends up; in the best cases, funds are put towards improving orphanage facilities or for running costs.

The babies revel in the new attention and affection. All are behind in terms of crawling and walking, but basically healthy. Jane says of Anna: "She does not have sitting balance, because she has been lying down all the time. She is not doing the things that a nine-month-old should be doing, but she'll catch up very quickly. The fact she is interacting and interested is the main thing."

Ella grabs at the rattle Peter is holding. "She's got a great personality. She blows raspberries when she's pleased," says Tokiko. "She eats very well. The only thing is her muscle tone, because she was dressed in all those clothes. She's a bit floppy, but her grip is excellent. I think she used to lie in bed and grip things." Peter adds: "Sometimes it is difficult to know how to handle her, because in the orphanage she was alone in the cot. So when she screams, the question is whether to put her in the cot, but we don't want to do that because ... " Tokiko smiles: "That was her old life."

The babies' new life now turns to sightseeing. At the Lama Temple, in north Peking, busloads of Chinese tourists burn incense and bow before the buddhas. A group of women from Hangzhou city fuss around the babies, insisting they need more clothes. "We've been told off by the clothes police," says Pete. "She must wear two layers of leggings," lectures a Chinese granny, tugging at Esme's outfit.

The interpreter, 21-year-old An Ge, has been guiding families who adopt since 1997, when she first met Lorna and David. She explains the Chinese curiosity about foreign adoption. "Chinese parents think that when the child grows up, she won't love them in the same way as a blood child. So if they adopt they keep it a secret, they keep the baby from knowing the truth."

The British group have encountered different reactions over these past few days with their new babies. "A Chinese man at breakfast thanked me for taking her on. But a lady in Jiangxi, an American-Chinese, was asking me how much it cost," says Tokiko. Out on the streets, Chinese people have been taking photographs of the new families. Says Lorna: "It's quite interesting being that exotic. You can see people taking photos surreptitiously sometimes."

But there can still be a huge gulf, culturally. In the Taiwan Hotel lobby that morning, an old Chinese woman, speaking good English, had asked Lorna if her two children were adopted. "She was convinced that the new baby would be a boy. She just could not understand that we would possibly want to adopt two girls. We just said that we liked girls," says Lorna.

Back at the hotel, the pandas have been handed out to the newly adopted babies, and the parents are thinking about packing for London. Tokiko reflects on the past week: "We're delighted, relieved. It's what we wanted, and she's lovely, isn't she? They said it would change our life, and it has"

A fact-sheet on adopting from China can be obtained from the Overseas Adoption Support and Information Service (Oasis), a registered charity, by calling 01273 382601 or 01792 844329.

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