I was only one month old when I was abandoned in July 1994 on the doorstep of a family planning clinic in China’s Jiangsu Province. Workers there called the police, who brought me to a nearby orphanage, where I shared a crib with two other baby girls. I was one of the lucky ones, because I was only six months old when a family in the United States adopted me.
I was fortunate to grow up with a mom, dad and big sister who valued and celebrated my Chinese heritage, as well as the history and culture of China, from the very first day I “came home.” (In home videos, you can see me swaying in my baby seat to Chinese children’s songs on tape, and we always celebrated Chinese New Year and other holidays.)
Though from the time I was little we always talked about the day when we would take a trip back to see my home country, that didn’t happen until the summer of 2013, when my mom and I did a 10-day “homeland tour” arranged through Children’s Hope International, the amazing adoption and social service agency that helped bring me into my American family. Though we did a lot of traveling during that trip (we visited my orphanage and the family planning center where I was found, climbed the Great Wall, and I even held a Panda bear in Sichuan!), my most important memory involved visiting Alenah’s Home in Beijing for a few hours one morning, and playing with the babies and children cared for there. (For those who don’t know, Alenah’s Home is a private foster home for orphans with medical needs from orphanages throughout China. It is run by CHI, and provides these babies and children with medical care unavailable in their social welfare institutes.)
From the time I came home and all through the following year, I couldn’t get the babies and children at Alenah’s out of my mind. Their little faces popped up in my head at random times, and I often dreamed of them. So in the summer of 2014, my mom and I returned to China. However, this trip wasn’t for tourism; instead, we were volunteering as temporary ayi (auntie/caretaker) at Alenah’s for a two full weeks. The experience was incredible! We lived at the foster home and ate most of our meals with the regular workers in the foster home kitchen. The fact that my mother and I hardly knew any Mandarin did not prevent us in any way from laughing, smiling, and most importantly, bonding, with the children and the wonderfully devoted aunties who care for them day and night.
I admit that, as a Chinese adult adoptee working at Alenah’s, I found myself becoming emotional at times, no doubt because I could relate in a very special way to each of the precious babies and children. Twenty years ago, I, too, was an orphan being cared for in an institution, and needing to rely on the kindness of strangers. Although it seems certain that the conditions at Alenah’s are far, far better than the conditions of my orphanage in 1994, the fact that the majority of the babies and children there are still desperately in need of forever families saddens me greatly. Compounding their need for families is the fact that most of Alenah’s children have some kind of special medical need, from deafness and Down syndrome to spina bifida, heart conditions, cerebral palsy, autism and anal atresia. Though the ayis do their best to provide love, attention and even physical therapy, one cannot help but imagine the difference that a full-time loving family would make in all of these precious little lives.
When the two weeks of living and working at Alenah’s were coming to an end, I felt profound distress and heartache. How could I reunite with my loving family and friends in America while most of the babies and children at Alenah’s home were still waiting to find homes? My time in China left me with a fierce desire to reconnect with my native country in a more profound way. I quickly realized that in order to do that (and in order to really help the children at Alenah’s and elsewhere), I would have to learn Mandarin. A few phrases and a lot of miming were fine for a tourist, but I wanted to really be able to talk to people and to understand them, and have them understand me!
So, later that summer, I made a difficult decision: I wouldn’t return to my university for sophomore year, but would, instead, take a gap year. I would move back in with my parents in Baltimore, babysit children in the area to make some money, and enroll in an intermediate Chinese class at a local college. Then I would return to China, better prepared to communicate.
And that is exactly what I did. In early January 2015, I returned to Alenah’s, but this time for 3 months and this time, all by myself. I moved back into the same room that my mom and I had lived in, and set to work as a full-time caretaker, living and working alongside the Chinese ayis. For three month, my everyday my schedule was jam-packed with holding and feeding children, cleaning up messy faces, changing dirty diapers, playing, reading, talking, drawing, providing physical therapy lessons, singing, and laughing with the loveable babies and children housed there. (I also had the wonderful experience of teaching English to young children at a little private school in Beijing.) Again, I was struck by the fact that each baby and child at Alenah’s radiated the simple human desire to connect with others, and to be loved.
I’m worried that I lack the right words to adequately convey the way I felt about living and working with these children in China. The only thing I can say is that it was a combination of wonderful, fulfilling, exciting, funny, frightening and, sometimes, heartbreaking, all at once. If it wasn’t for the fact that my visa only let me stay for 90 days, and that I had to return to decide on my college for the 2015-2016 academic year, I would have loved to have stayed much, much longer. Before I even left, I was vowing to come back.
So right now, I am doing all I can to prepare for that return. I am a full-time Global Scholar at the University of Oregon, where I am part of the Chinese Language Flagship Program, which helps motivated students reach fluency in Mandarin in four years. If I work very hard (and I am and will!), I will spend my senior year in college studying at Nanjing University in my home province of Jiangsu. My plan is to reach fluency in Chinese, and then enter a master’s level nursing program, to prepare me to work with babies and children, both here in the US and in China.
More about Juliet's travel to China:
Back to Where She Once Belonged Part I
Back to Where She Once Belonged Part II: The Foster Home
Back to Where She Once Belonged Part III: The Orphanage
Back to Where She Once Belonged Part IV: The Finding Place