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"Zhou Jing Ping," the woman announced as another woman walked into the large room and placed a little girl in my open arms.

The black-haired toddler was 15 1/2 months old. Three other babies cried, but this one was silent as she stared in wonder, or perhaps confusion.

She wore a sleeveless outfit with green and white stripes and the English word COACH on it. Her feet were small, yet too big for the jelly shoes she wore. Her black hair was short with pixie-like bangs, and she had a scratch on her nose.

She was our daughter, the child whose only home had been an orphanage in China's ancient Jingmen City. The orphanage stood near a market where a fruit vendor found her at one day old.

Her biological mother had left a note in Mandarin.

"Good people, my family is very poor. I cannot take care of this child. Some good people, take care of her," she wrote.

I will be forever grateful to her for her sacrifice and for allowing this baby to live.

We named the toddler Annie Marie Ping in honor of my grandmothers and the name the orphanage had given her. Ping meant floating flower or blossom, a name her caregivers said was appropriate because they knew not from whence she came.

Two days earlier, I had looked out an airplane window to see Siberia beneath me. But I was more focused on our destination, China. There my husband and I would complete our journey to parenthood, one we had begun more than two years earlier.

We had married late in life. A Chicago journalism colleague and his wife had adopted a baby girl from China a few years earlier. The Far East had long fascinated me, as did this option.

As part of the adoption process, we submitted a boxful of paperwork: birth certificates; medical, employment and marriage records; personal references; credit and religious information; passport and citizenship documents; pictures of our home, our families and us.

We took mandatory parenting classes. We wrote brief autobiographies and welcomed a case worker into our home where she inspected it and us.

Finally, one afternoon in June 2002, I answered the phone. "Debbye, we've got you a baby," the caller, an adoption-agency representative, said. The next day, we got three pictures of a girl bundled in a red sweater and other warm clothing. The orphanage had taken the photos when she was about 6 months old and almost bald.

Six weeks later, we were on a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing. About a day after we arrived in China, we flew to Wuhan in the Hubei province where, along with three other couples, we had lunch, then rode a bus to a government building. The day was sweltering.

As we walked inside, we heard squeaks from a floor above us.

"That's your babies," said Anli Ma, our Chinese guide--an intelligent, savvy and kind woman who died far too young after emigrating with her husband to the United States. We would soon learn that many babies in China sometimes wear shoes that both squeak and delight.

Two orphanage employees had driven Annie the roughly three-hour trip to Wuhan. By the time we got her, the employees, both men, had apparently discarded her diaper--a problem I quickly remedied.

An hour or so later, we took Annie to Wuhan's White Rose Hotel where we stayed with other adoptive parents and let Annie entertain the restaurant's waiters by banging on a piano's keys. We feasted on spicy green beans and other authentic Chinese food one day at a neighboring restaurant. During the two-week trip, I tried the likes of Peking duck, congee, and hot tea, ceremony included, at a Guangzhou tea house.

A day after we first saw Miss Ping--a nickname my father, her Papaw, later gave her--we returned to the government building and formally adopted her. Like many other parents, we later also adopted her in the United States.

"Do you have the right baby?" a Chinese official asked us.

"Yes," we replied. And then we smiled.

I'd known from the moment I saw Annie's pictures that we had "the right baby," no matter what. I didn't care what any medical records might show or how she would look as a toddler anymore than most biological mothers fret over those same things when they become pregnant.

Annie quickly made friends with a pigtailed Chinese cloth doll I gave her, later named it Girlfriend, and wasted almost $50 worth of my perfume to make the doll smell good.

She loved bottles of warm milk--Niunai/niúnai, she called it. Sometimes she wanted sugar in her milk, an ingredient the orphanages often added.

She quickly called me MaMa and her dad BaBa--names she later replaced with Mommy and Bobbie.

More than 17 years later, Annie is a freshman at Arkansas State University's Jonesboro campus, my alma mater. She loves to babysit small children.

Shortly before our trip to China, I took a course in Mandarin. I don't remember much, but one sentence I've never forgotten is simple: Wah ai ni--I love you.

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

Editorial on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: A long journey to parenthood

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