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Black, White and the Cornrow In Between

Katherine's Story

Family Adoption Stories China USA

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  Written by Jerald R. Pendleton on 01 Jan 2006

This is Jenni's best friend, who was left behind in China when Jenni was adopted

Would you consider a slightly older child?" my wife asked one day in January 1999, as I walked in the door after a hard day of bit twiddling.

Naturally the response was, "How Old?"

"Oh about 8 or 9"

"Well", I said cautiously, "we could consider it".

We had been talking about another adoption. Our first daughter Erika (b: July 10, 1996 a: June 8, 1997 Chengdu) was starting to become less care intensive and I had decided that this diaper business was for the birds.

My wife, Claire, was an active participant on most of the China oriented email groups and one day, in response to a posting, loaded the Rainbow Kids web page and read Jenni’s Story. In that story Martha Osborne mentioned Jennis Friend.

We sat down at Claire's computer, fired up Rainbow Kids and there I met for the first time Waiting Child Number 53 who would later become my daughter.

We read Jenni’s story with great interest and how Martha described this girl that was Jenni’s friend. That evening we contacted the agencies and were off on another adoption adventure.

 The second time to China was a lot easier than the first. We had all the papers, birth certificates etc. from our first adoption all set. The "long pole in the tent" was, as usual, our own Friendly Neighborhood, INS. Even with INS delays and a mid course agency change we had a dossier to China in May requesting an expedited referral for the young girl identified in the pictures as Pan Mei.

The paperwork was a lot easier, but the waiting was a lot worse. In our first adoption, we had no idea who our daughter was. We trusted our facilitator and the CCAA matching room to find the right child. With this one, we knew who she was and that made the waiting hard.

We both knew of that oft repeated truism of Chinese adoptions: Don't bond to the picture .

We handled it different ways. I refused to learn any details about her. I referred to her as "53" rather than Pan Mei. Claire would pick up some tidbit of intelligence about her, study it, draw inferences and try to build an image of this child half a world away.

This kept up until the day we got the call from our facilitator. We got the referral picture, the medical report and we would travel in August, a mere 2 weeks away.

I dove headfirst into the intelligence database my wife had carefully built over the months and studied every picture and email about her. For me, she became Pan Mei and I consumed  every bit of information known about her.

Once our referral became common knowledge, I became acquainted with the Kunming Network.

The Kunming Network is simply a loose knit group of people that have children from the Kunming Childrens Welfare Institute. These people care about their children, their past and the children remaining at the KCWI. We (and I now include myself in that group) feel a bond with Kunming and its children.

When the Network heard we were adopting Pan Mei we started getting emails, pictures and stories about our future daughter. I felt like Pan Mei was one of the best-documented kids in China.

It was through the Kunming Network we managed (through some people that have since become dear family friends) to both send a letter to Pan Mei and receive a letter from her in response. In addition we learned her name was actually Wu Mei, though she was known by many in the orphanage as Pan Mei.

We also started to build a picture of this child. We learned how she took care of the littler kids and was thusly adored by a number of them.

I'll never forget one phone call from one of Wu (Pan) Mei's former charges. This little girl gushed over her. You could hear just a touch of China still in her vowels as she talked about her friend and how she like this type of pencil and this type of clothes (projecting a little I think). She painted a picture of a caring, protective and nurturing child. We learned that she fiercely protected those she cared for. We learned what colors she liked. We learned that she didn't like to do housework -- definitly her new mothers daughter!

Due to a last minute snafu, our 3 year old Erika accompanied us to China. One of the funnier parts of this was me at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco trying to get Erika a Visa even though she still had a Chinese passport. (It turns out you don't need one if you are a Chinese citizen)

While in the waiting room of LAX we had the extraordinary luck to hook up with Carol Forslind and two of her daughters, Melody and Jayne.

Carol and Steve Forslind are well known in the Chinese Adoption community. After raising their homegrown children, Carol and Steve were early pioneers in Chinese Adoptions. Over the years they have made numerous trips to China and brought home 6 wonderful kids.

Carol, Melody and Jayne (Steve was staying home to mind the rest) were traveling to China to pick their next son, Stephen Chenglong . I had been thoroughly charmed by Carols stories of her children and found her daughters to be even more charming in person.

I asked Melody and Jayne if they were excited about going back to China. In unison and two-part harmony they promptly answered "No!"

"We've been traveling for 12 hours already." Carol chimed in, noting my nonplussed look. "They are a little tired."

After we boarded the airplane, got Erika to go to sleep on the floor (much to the dismay of the China Southern Flight Attendant) Claire headed aft and spent much of the flight gossiping with Carol about kids, China, personalities on the net and everything else.

When we landed in Guangzhou, we sadly bid farewell to the Forslinds, who were headed to Beijing. We promised to look each other up at the White Swan during the American Consulate phase.

We found a hot dog stand for Erika, and then boarded our airplane for Kunming.

Flying into Kunming is...entertaining. Kunming is a mountain city and the airplanes follow a mountain pass through a set of turns finally to the airport. People in the airplane business tell me that it is actually a fine airport to fly in and out of. Its not nearly as exciting as the now-defunct Kai Tak Heart Attack approach to Hong Kong. But I am a white-knuckle flyer and couldn't help but notice the anti-aircraft emplacement on the approach.

[Historical note: The airport in Kunming was laid out by the Flying Tigers prior to WWII and served as their base of operations. During WWII, in addition to being a base for the second instance of the Flying Tigers flying "the hump", Kunming was the end point of the Burma Road. Later during the Vietnam War, Kunming was a major supply route for the North]

We had decided to spend a couple of days in Kunming to recover from the travel prior to meeting our new child. After promising the guide we wouldn't get lost we spent time in Kunming simply relaxing. Since we had been to China once before we were "old China hands" and felt quite comfortable simply walking around, exploring and shopping.

On August 8, our guide, Pan Ting, showed up in the hotel and took us to the Kunming Civil Authority office. There we met a very nice civil servant who had to be the ultimate Elvis fan.

After what seemed to be an interminable wait, a gentleman walked in followed closely by our new daughter. Everyone has their own memory of their first meeting with their new child. I distinctly remember my first two thoughts were: "Gosh, she's big" followed immediately by "Gosh, she’s beautiful".

There was flurry of paper signing (we had to move the picture of Elvis) as we took her into our custody. With her concurrence, Wu Mei became Katherine Wu Mei Pendleton.

We then got to walk together for first time as a family down to a commercial photography studio where our "official" adoption photo was taken. Once we returned with the photos to the civil authority we were through for the day.

Pan Ting took us to the Kunming Flower and Bird market for our initial outing where Katherine instantly bonded with her new little sister. Even though little sister had not time shifted well and was more than a bit cranky.

After the flower and bird market we returned to the hotel ordered room service. Katherine sat on my lap and fed me dinner. Strangely she wouldn't touch the salad I ordered.

The nest day, Katherine was overheard to tell a friend in essence (Chinese doesn't translate exactly to English) "They're ok. But they eat UNCOOKED VEGETABLES!!!".

Uncooked vegetables (salads) are a cardinal sin in China that Katherine had been taught from birth to avoid. I decided to hold on salads 'till I got back to the U.S.

Many people who adopt older children speak of the honeymoon period, where the child is sweet and well behaved. People cherish this period which is invariably followed by what is euphemistically called the "adjustment period".

Well, that was our honeymoon and it was over.

Katherine became very sensitive to being stared at by Chinese (actually I think they were staring at me), and refused to walk with us. Katherine, who is normally a little moody, had wild mood swings which would range from gentled affection to wild anger.

As time passed in Kunming, we experienced "guide bonding" where the adoptive child bonds with the guide rather than the adoptive parents. We had heard of this before with older child adoptions though we weren't quite ready for it. I finally came to grips with it and decided not to let it bother me. My reasoning was that Katherine needed a role model and I thought Pan Ting was a fine role model. Besides Pan Ting would not be accompanying us to Guangzhou.

There was another funny occurrence a couple of days later. We had the requisite paperwork snafu in Kunming and we had to scramble around one day running between the police station, the civil authority and a Notary. During the scramble we skipped lunch. Claire and I and even Erika didn't think much of it. Katherine started talking to a friend that afternoon and rather grumply said "In the orphanage at least I always got three meals every day."

Ok, make a note: Feed the kid on a regular schedule.

Katherine would get me back later on a trip to the Stone Forest where she would order a meal of fried honey bees for me. This is a apparently a local delicacy. She quite proudly shoveled it onto my plate. Rather than offend my new daughter, the smiling guide and the solicitous driver and I quite manfully choked it down. I even managed to smile. Sometimes being a representative of your country is tough.

Katherine also realized that Daddy was a soft touch when it came to buying things for his new daughter. She demonstrated remarkable prowess as a shopper which proved her to truly be her mothers daughter. At the end of the intense wrangling session, she would point the merchant to me and I knew it was time to pay.

The guide reassured me that Katherine was apt negotiator and was not missing a trick.

Claire had gone shopping for Katherine in the U.S. and brought her a collection of clothes. Katherine took one look at the collection and said: "no way." She gathered all of the clothes that Claire brought for her from the U.S. plus a considerable part of the stuff we had bought together in China and announced (via the guide) that we were going to go visit the orphanage.

We had seen pictures of the Kunming Child Welfare Institute and while we were curious I admit to not being that enthusiastic about going there. But Katherine wanted go.

The KCWI is quite a good orphanage. To this day Katherine is very proud of her orphanage and will tell anyone who will listen that it is the best orphanage in China.

We drove up and went up to the Director's office and obtained permission to visit. We were given a tour of the facility. We asked and we were given permission to freely take pictures -- even pictures of the baby rooms. We also met Katherine's orphanage teachers (Katherine refers to all adult caregivers as teachers) and wonder-of-wonders even managed to get her Chinese public school report card.

After the tour, we went over to the dormitory building. Katherine showed us her room which she shared with 8 girls and a full time adult caregiver. She showed us her bed, locker and her stuffed animals. Then the adults were unceremoniously hustled from the room.

When the door opened all the girls came out clad in the clothing Claire had so carefully picked out -- and I had lugged half way around the world. We shrugged and smiled, happy that Katherine’s unwanted clothes could be used by the orphans of Kunming.

We would make 3 trips the orphanage while in Kunming and the children quickly got used to us. One morning while I stood around listening to Katherine chatter with her friends (Pan Ting told me they were talking about last nights T.V. show), a girl walked by wearing a pair of pants that I knew had come from the clothes we brought from the United States. I stopped the girl and through Pan Ting asked if I could take her picture. The little girl smiled and assented. I posed her against the wall and snapped her picture. As I thanked her, a little boy took her place and the next thing I know I was taking pictures of all the kids in the area.

Ah well. I had lots of film and it was memories for Katherine.

On the last day we stopped by the orphanage to bid a final farewell. We met with her dear friends and she gossiped some more. When it was time to leave, I expected tears. I gently told Katherine it was time to leave. She said "Ok" and headed for the car, tossing a "Zai Jian" over her shoulder. Her friends went back to playing with their toys. So much for emotional goodbyes.

I left the orphanage with a generally good impression. I found the orphanage to be clean, well run and the standard of care given to the children quite good given they were in China. As a data point, I have been in U.S. boarding schools where the facilities were not up to the standards of the KCWI.

At the airport we bid Pan Ting, our wonderful guide, farewell and flew back to Guangzhou.

The Guangzhou portion of the trip was fairly routine. Katherine gave her only expression of surprise to date when she saw the luxurious room at the White Swan. Because of our travel arrangements we were not on the infamous baby floor and the room was much nicer (believe it or not) than the room we enjoyed 2 years previously.

Claire and I worried that maybe we were mis-setting this kids expectations.

Since we had been to Guangzhou before, neither Claire or I felt a burning need to leave the hotel except on necessary business. Katherine was perfectly content in one of the hotels pools where she was nervously getting her first swimming lessons and Daddy got to do some water-bonding.

We managed to get hooked back up with the Forslinds as well as the Lambs; Denise, her daughter Aimee and her new daughter Emily.

The Lambs were on the tail end of their stay and too soon we had to wish them farewell. The Forslinds were on the same schedule we were and we started hanging out together. Jayne, Melody and their new brother Stephen quickly befriended Katherine. They all hung out together thoroughly exercising the White Swan game room.

We also had what came to be known as the Infamous Guangzhou Card Game.

One day after the daily game token ration had been consumed the kids ended up in the Forslind room with a deck of cards. As their bemused parents watched, these four kids conducted one of the most raucous, outrageous card games in the history of man. Even though parents understood not a word of language being spoken it was perfectly obvious who was winning, who was ganging up on who, who was losing and who was cheating.

The kids had a rollicking good time as did their parental observers.

As with all adoptive parents we were ready to go home when the package finally arrived from the American Consulate.

The Forslinds were on our long, routine flight to the U.S. After going through Immigration at LAX together we sadly said our good-byes and I offered Carol my sympathy. We were an hour and a half from home but she had another eight to go to the East Coast.

We were met at the airport by a good friend who warmly shook Katherine's hand and greeted her with "Ni Hao?". This was important since I had not thought to arrange transportation home. We arrived home around midnight, we were beat. We dumped Katherine's bags in her room, and stole off to bed.

After everyone settled down, I got up and snuck a peek at Katherine.. Before going to sleep, she hung her posters and pictures, put her clothes into the closet, stored her toys and rearranged things to suit her.

Katherine Wu Mei Pendleton was home.

When people ask me how it is going with Katherine, my standard response is "It’s easy when you adopt someone more stable than you." There is more than a shred of truth in that statement.

We would go through the adjustment, doubt, trials and tribulations that seems to accompany every older child adoption. I may write about it someday (working title: Adolescent Dragon), but we endured and Katherine has become attached to us every bit as much as we are to her. She adores her little sister, excels in sports, is a good student and I daresay we have become the envy of a number of parents.

These older kids are a tough, sometimes heartbreaking challenge. It is also one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. When it comes time to turn Katherine loose on the world, I am confident she will rise to whatever challenges are placed before her with the courage, common sense and perseverance I has thus far seen her demonstrate.

Jerald R. Pendleton :  our website: October 2000




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