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OPINION | DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: A long, loving journey to parenthood

by Debra Hale-Shelton | August 30, 2020 at 9:03 a.m.

Not long ago, on July 23 to be exact, we took our daughter Annie out to eat to celebrate Forever Day, the anniversary of the day we adopted her in China in 2002.

Her dad and I are separated. But we both love our now 19-year-old daughter, the solemn-faced, curly-lipped toddler we first met on a miserably hot day in a Wuhan government building.

We had begun our quest for a baby about three years earlier with fertility treatments that involved a long needle and my husband injecting it into me. That didn't go well, and we moved on to checking into foster care as a path to adoption.

We soon realized that because of our ages we'd probably not get a baby or a toddler. I admire anyone who adopts older children and does a good job raising them, but neither of us had ever been a parent. So the idea of starting out with a teenager didn't seem wise.

Still, like most expectant parents, we had no idea what lay ahead before or after we got Annie.

We had to complete a "dossier" for the adoption. Documents we had to gather, usually in multiple numbers and often notarized, required dealing with several government agencies: the State Department, the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, the newly created Department of Homeland Security, the Illinois, Arkansas and Tennessee secretaries of state, the local police for a criminal background check, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

And we had to get fingerprinted.

We also had to submit notarized letters from our employers stating our titles, length of employment and salaries, and a health-certification form completed by our physician. Our HIV tests and urinalysis had to be negative. We had to provide extensive credit information.

We chose Catholic Charities to handle our home study and other pre-adoption steps. This involved a couple of visits by a representative who examined everything from Annie's future bedroom to my vintage dinnerware collection (for which I said I was prepared to accept the fact that a toddler might break something). We also worked with Cradle of Hope, a Maryland-based agency that dealt directly with Chinese adoptions.

At some point, China noticed that I was a journalist. So I had to sign a form saying I would not be reporting while there.

We also had to submit two sets of photos of ourselves, relatives, our home, playgrounds and schools Annie might later attend.

About six weeks before we left for China, we got our first pictures of our daughter, then named Zhou JingPing. The pictures had been taken when she was about 6 months old. She was 15 1/2 months old when we got her, had much more hair, was walking and was starting to talk. Her caregivers had taught her to say Mama and Baba, which she later changed to Mommy and Bobbie. The orphanage also advised us in the letter of her sleep habits, love of music and favorite toy, a doll.

The letter included a summary of a medical exam Annie had undergone in China. A pediatrician near us reviewed it and said she seemed healthy. I didn't care: I already loved this little girl. So when a Chinese official later asked us if we had the "right baby," the answer was certain: yes.

Our journey to China lasted about two weeks, starting with a 13-hour plane trip from Chicago to Beijing, where we visited the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, enjoyed a Chinese opera and ate Peking duck. We toured the Forbidden City, then visited a Starbucks where I ordered an ice-cold drink, not hot tea on a hot day as our Chinese guide did. We visited a schoolteacher's modest home and talked with her at length.

A day or two later, we flew to Wuhan and within hours held Annie for the first time. Two employees had driven her 140 miles from her orphanage in Jingmen to Wuhan in the Hubei province. The other three babies in our group had been in foster care.

In Wuhan, we visited a department store where we bought a lightweight stroller, baby clothing and some food. We visited the Yellow Crane Tower and saw our first panda at the zoo.

We usually dined in our hotels where most of the servers spoke English and Mandarin. We ordered congee, a rice porridge popular in China, for Annie, and I tried it, too. One night we ate in a nearby restaurant and feasted on the spiciest green beans I've ever eaten. Annie liked them as much as I did.

The restaurants served milk warm, and the orphanages routinely put sugar in the babies' milk-- cheap calories, though not good for children's teeth. We let Annie take her milk with sugar for a time to ease her transition, though she eventually drank it without sugar.

In Wuhan's White Rose Hotel, the waiters invited Annie to play--or rather, bang--a restaurant piano. She has always loved music, perhaps because the orphanage often played music to entertain the children. She spent much of her first year in America listening to songs like "Old MacDonald" and a tape of Chinese children's music.

Next, we flew to Guangzhou and visited the U.S. Consulate to get travel approval for our daughter. We stayed at the luxurious White Swan hotel on the banks of the Pearl River, where Annie and I admired a beautiful indoor waterfall and played in the baby swimming pool.

I walked to a nearby tea house, where a worker performed a formal tea ceremony as I sipped tea and Annie took a taste as well.

We ended our journey in Hong Kong, where I never left the hotel or adjacent airport but bought a mahjong game set in a gift shop.

Annie became a U.S. citizen upon our arrival in Chicago, sleeping through the process. We soon hired a Chicago attorney and re-adopted her in a Cook County courtroom. The move wasn't required, but we were told it would make life easier for her and us. We also got her a passport, proof of her citizenship.

Annie is in college now. She works part-time and will vote for the first time this year.

I hope to travel with her someday to visit China, especially Jingmen. I corresponded briefly by email several years ago with a young woman who grew up in the orphanage and remembers Annie. I'd love for them to meet.

I am grateful to so many people for helping me become Annie's mother. But mostly I'm grateful to Annie, our Miss Ping, for without her that gift would not be.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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