David Usborne: Our Man in New York

A tale of two babes in wonderland


The good tidings of 2007 began last weekend with an engagement party for two friends, British boy and Iraqi-American girl. Champagne, real and faux, flowed fast in a friend's SoHo apartment. A Middle Eastern beat ignited feverish dancing and bursts of ululating from the bride-to-be and her guests.

Brought to thick-headed consciousness by the alarm the next morning, we had barely thirty minutes to get ready for our next outing, a celebration that was to be a first-time experience for both of us. Leaping dishevelled into a cab on Third Avenue we directed the driver to Otto, a fancy pizza-and-wine joint near Washington Square Park.

Our destination was a baby shower, an event that inevitably promised more champagne of dubious provenance and more calls upon the sappier of our emotions. There would be at least one speech, the crowding of innumerable oversized gifts onto the table - our offerings included a baby bath big enough, it seemed to me, for a Great Dane - and surely many a tear from the mother-in-waiting.

In fact, the tears came in streams. This was a baby shower happening under slightly unusual circumstances. Celia has been expecting for about three years now, the time it has taken her to negotiate the bureaucracy and politics of adopting a girl from China as a single mother. So long has the process been that while she never lost faith some of us had started to wonder if it would ever have a happy ending.

But now we have seen pictures of her little girl, one-year-old Eve, and we have each fought our way through the aisles of Babies 'R' Us, the baby supply chain. So we know Celia's adventure is real. Next week, she will be on a plane to China. In a town near Shanghai, where Eve was abandoned at birth and then cared for by a Chinese foster family, she and Celia will finally meet.

Watching Celia at Otto I cheered for her but already my thoughts were shifting to Eve. Good fortune is on her side and I am not just talking about the bath toys and fashion accessories being opened before us. Celia, it is plain to see, will be as loving as any mother possibly could be and has family and good friends to support her. Eve is also lucky because of the queue she will be jumping.

In mid-air over the Pacific, Eve will be Chinese. But, if I have got this right, she will become a US citizen the instant her newly-minted baby shoes touch the probably soggy carpet of the jet-way at John F. Kennedy Airport. Begging for permission to stay in America is not something she will ever have to do. She might choose to leave it one day, but you don't generally need permission for that.

By curious coincidence, the same weekend as the shower, New York was abuzz with news of another little Chinese girl and a brief but nasty tangle between her parents and our new favourite shop, Babies 'R' Us and its parent company, Toys 'R' Us. It was a dispute sparked by a promotional gimmick. But it was also another reminder of America's never-ending struggle over immigration. Watch how it will divide the new US Congress again this year as well as homes, classrooms and congregations from Texas to Maine. Which foreigners are worthy of living and working in America and which should be thrown out?

A little before Christmas, Toys 'R' Us pledged to give $25,000 to the first baby born in America in 2007. Hurrah then for baby Yuki, born to Yan Zhu Liu and Han Lin in the New York Downtown Hospital a split second after midnight. But, oops, a hitch. By virtue of her birth here, Yuki was surely American. But there was some suggestion, never fully proven, that her mother and father, both 22 and waiters in Chinese restaurants here, were illegal immigrants. Thus Yuki was abruptly disqualified.

It is not clear that it was compassion alone that persuaded the folk at Toys 'R' Us to perform their flip-flop some days later and reinstate Yuki as a winner of its 'First Baby of the Year Sweepstakes'. Maybe it had more to do with the blistering attacks on it by powerful Chinese-American groups creating disastrous publicity just weeks after the company had opened its first mainland China store.

Anxious to end the ruckus, Toys 'R' Us ended up choosing not one but three winners. 'We love all babies,' it said in a statement. Finally awarded $25,000 in savings bonds to fund university education one day was a little boy born 19 seconds after midnight in Georgia and a girl born to a couple from El Salvador - no word on their immigration status - at roughly the same time on Long Island. And Yuki too.

Yuki and Eve. One is with her parents in Chinatown right now, the other is still in a town outside Shanghai but soon will be cosy with her new mum in a nice flat in Chelsea. Each will face many challenges in life, but at the very beginning of 2007 they are among the luckiest little girls alive.

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