We were having fun acting like tourists in Qingdao, but I never forgot the real reason for our visit; even as we bought cheesy souvenirs and took bad selfies, there was tension in my gut. I knew I was going to fuck this up.
My daughter was born in Qingdao and lived there until she was three. Now, on the eve of her 11th birthday, she wanted to go back. She wanted to discover what life was like in China and see the faces of the people who took care of her first.
Most adoptive families sign up for Homeland Tours, package trips that introduce groups of adoptive tweens and teens to their birth country through a combination of major tourist sites and customized orphanage visits. I knew from past experience that the prime directive for a Chinese tour operator is to ensure that their charges never interact with regular Chinese. We could never achieve the first goal of the trip as part of a group tour.
In my hubris, I figured I could probably swing an orphanage visit with my travel skills, even though I speak no Chinese and no one at the orphanage in Qingdao speaks English. Hadn’t I read travel stories of independent guides picking up travelers at Chinese train stations? Hadn’t I obtained local guides at Central American airports myself? Once we got to Qingdao, I would find a local guide to help us negotiate the orphanage visit, and the rest of the time we would be free to explore on our own.
Two days before we left, I found a web page describing the process to obtain a permit to visit an orphanage in China. It was slower and more expensive than getting a visa to visit the country in the first place. A swarm of bees settled into my stomach.
Every time we passed through the hotel lobby, I handed the orphanage director’s business card to the one English-speaking hotel clerk and asked him to call for us. He was very patient with us, but no one ever answered the phone. We were running out of time. Nearly a week and fifteen phone calls into our trip, someone picked up the phone. The number had been reassigned, but the person on the other end of the line was able to give us the new number. No one answered the new number.
The next day, our helpful clerk was off work. In his place was a young woman who spoke better English. Her name was Lily. I handed her the card, she made the call, but no one answered. She said, “Why don’t I write down the number, and keep calling throughout the day?”
Finally, she got through. She was told that we needed permission to visit; they would ask the person in charge and call us back. Although I had a cell phone that Lily could call, neither my daughter nor I felt like going out. We sat in our room waiting for the call, our insides buzzing like beehives. Late that afternoon the hotel room phone rang. It was Lily.
We ran down to the lobby. She told us we could visit any time between 8 a.m. and noon the next day. She had thought to ask, and no one there spoke English. I asked her if there was a translator or tour guide service that we could hire for the next day. She conferred with the other clerk in Chinese, but it was obvious they didn’t know – most of the foreigners who stayed there were business travelers who brought their own translators, like the American we met at breakfast a few days earlier.
“Well, I’m off tomorrow. I could come with you,” said Lily.
I would never ask such a huge favor. Not even from a friend. Hadn’t I seen the other clerk at the desk every morning for the last six days? Their days off were obviously more precious than ours.
“Would you really?” I asked breathlessly.
Lily met us in the lobby at 8 o’clock the next morning, looking like a fashion plate in chiffon palazzo pants and a belted peplum jacket, her long hair swinging at her waist. She called a cab and rode in front with the driver, checking her phone most of the way.
I sat in the back with my daughter, both of us holding our breath as we crawled through rush hour traffic to the opposite end of town, finally dropping us in front of the gate. The orphanage almost looked deserted from the outside. But there was a guard in the kiosk by the gate. Lily signed us in. We climbed the hill to the building, then wandered around it until we found the entrance. Then we wandered the deserted lobby until we found the office.
Lily explained our visit to the office ladies, who ran to bring the director, a quiet woman who seemed unsure what to do with us. She was new to the job, the third director since the woman we had met seven years ago, so she had not met my daughter before. But she took us upstairs to visit the rooms where the children were and with Lily’s help introduced us to the women who were working with the children that day.
Through Lily, she explained what we were seeing: the playroom where children with extreme special needs crawled on rubber-matted floors, the nap room filled with empty cribs, the room where snacks were prepared. Most of the orphans in Qingdao live in foster care, in a community over an hour’s drive outside of the city, so only a few very young and extremely disabled children live at the actual orphanage. A little boy about a year old, whose head was almost as big as his body, looked up at us from the playroom floor. His caregiver, who had joined us in the hallway, noticed the direction of his attention and ran to bring him out to us to say hello.
We found three women who remembered my girl. None of them recognized her (no surprise; she has undergone three plastic surgeries since she left them). She did not remember any of them, and for the first time in her life, felt shy and quiet. They hugged her anyway, filled her arms with candy, and when I announced that her birthday was in three days, one of them brought out a wooden necklace of a carved fish.
Lily explained the significance of the gift. The Chinese word for fish sounds like the Chinese word for abundance, so the fish is a symbol of bounty and good fortune. More than a lucky charm, it’s like a blessing.
We returned to the office where my daughter made her donation – a suitcase full of plush toys and about $120 in cash from saved allowances and birthday gifts, which fact Lily explained to the director. They gave me an official receipt and gave my daughter a fancy certificate of appreciation that now hangs above her bed.
We looked through a photo album documenting the last seven years of my daughter’s life. The orphanage ladies best liked the oldest pictures where they could recognize my daughter. Lily helped explain that we wanted to give the album to my daughter’s foster family. The director did not know who they were, but promised to try to find them and give them the album.
In less than an hour we were back on the street. Lily suggested we take the bus (only 3 yuan instead of over 40) and led us to the bus station down the hill. As we settled into our seats for the long ride back to our part of town, the swarm of bees in my belly finally flew away. I took my first deep breath in weeks, just in time to notice my daughter doing the same thing.
Now that we could relax, we could learn a little bit about Lily, the remarkable young woman who gave up her day off and gave us the gift of a lifetime.