Part 2: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[Part  1 was published here yesterday, July 25, 2012.  Lisa had just learned that her new daughter was waiting for her at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home in China.  This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine.]

I screamed and hollered, whooped and cried. Olivia jumped up and down. The agency representative told us that Yu Fen’s photo would arrive by Federal Express the next day. I phoned my husband at work and told him. He was ecstatic. We called grandparents and aunts, uncles and friends.

Less than month later, on December 3, 1994, I set off for China and second-time motherhood from Baltimore-Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport. I was joined by my father, a hearty fellow who loved adventure and who volunteered to accompany me so Patrick could stay home with Olivia and make things ready. (My father had served in the Army in the Philippines during WWII, and loved the idea of returning to the Far East to meet his newest granddaughter.)

Along with us came a suitcase full of paraphernalia – diapers, bottles, snowsuits, onesies, film, video camera, chocolate, gifts for officials, and a sense of anticipation the size of the Forbidden City.

We emerged from the international flight on December 4 into a warm, silky, black Hong Kong evening. There, we met up with our group – six families traveling to pick up babies. They came from all over the U.S. – Arizona, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri and Georgia.

Zonked by travel, many of us hit the sack. I later learned that some of the others had brought sleeping pills and sedatives, anticipating the nerves that we would undoubtedly experience. Not me: I lay in my room, staring at the ceiling most of the night. Tomorrow, I was finally going to meet our younger daughter!

Ready to meet the new baby

Lisa, her father Robert DeNike, and others ready to meet the new babies!

The next morning, the group gathered for breakfast, then boarded Dragon Air for Nanjing, a beautiful city located on the South China Sea on the central southern coast. Nanjing is famous for its broad avenues and lush, ancient trees. In late afternoon, the streets teemed with bicycle riders making their ways home from work under a canopy of trees so large I could imagine them forming an umbrella of shade during the notoriously hot summers.

I can still hear the tinkling of bicycle bells – a sound that will forever say “China” to me. Everywhere I looked, there were the beautiful people I had imagined as a child.

We barely had time to unpack in the hotel before the word came: the babies were here! They would be coming from two different orphanages, my daughter’s in ChangShu, and from another in nearby, and larger, Suzhou. Our videotape shows us pacing the halls like expectant fathers in a 1950s sitcom. No one knew what to do. Chat? Laugh? Cry? One of the biggest moments of our lives was about to happen, and there was no way to prepare. I found myself, ridiculously, putting on lipstick!

At last, we were beckoned into a hotel room filled with babies and Chinese women, who were all talking at the same time. Excited and uncertain, we stood there, our stomachs in knots. What now?

Just then, a small, short-haired Chinese woman stood up and said “Yu Fen,” holding out a bundle. My baby! Jumping forward, I took her in my arms. Packed in five layers of machine-knitted acrylic sweaters and pants with the traditional Chinese split-crotch, my daughter had bright red apple cheeks, a Mohawk of damp black hair, a rosebud mouth that did not look pleased, and shiny black almond-shaped eyes that looked solemnly straight into mine.

What happened next was a blur. The others got their babies. But I was transfixed – under a kind of a spell. Unlike the other new parents, I didn’t ask the “aunties” – the babies’ caretakers – any questions about my new daughter’s feeding or sleeping habits. In a videotape someone took, I watch myself in slow motion, walking across the room, sitting in a chair, stroking the cheek of my new daughter: Juliet Meiying.

Suzhou Garden

Lisa with Juliet in a front pack in The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, PRC

My husband and I chose “Juliet” because we both love Shakespeare and as Romeo said in that famous, eponymous play “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” We picked “Meiying” as the middle name, because it means “beautiful flower:” almost the same as her orphanage name, but decidedly easier on the Western ear. It would also be simpler to spell, should she later decide to use it instead of “Juliet.”

I began to rock her, peeling off one layer at a time, noting that the clothing was soft with wear and washing. Asking permission of our coordinator, I took the baby back to my room, where I did what every new mother does: I peeled her down to her naked body. I counted fingers and toes. I cleaned her bottom and powdered her. I kissed her belly button. I changed her into a new Pamper and snapped her into a fresh onesie and clean sleeper.

Then I grabbed up Yu Fen (it would be days before I felt comfortable calling her by her new name) and went back down the hall to see how everyone else was doing. Some babies were sleeping; some were cuddling; some were crying. The aunties were laughing, giving jolly and  brisk advice in Chinese, telling us “If she wakes at night, don’t feed her! Just change her.” They showed us what the babies had been fed on: one scoop of formula, one scoop of ground white rice, one scoop of sugar per 12-ounce bottle.

I only half listened. I took Yu Fen (who had fallen into a very deep sleep) back to my room, and made a nest of blankets and comforters for us on the floor. I didn’t think a five-month-old could roll off the twin bed next to mine, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I curved around her like a spoon. She was warm and smelled of Johnson’s baby powder. Her long lashes curled cunningly against her red cheeks. I nestled closer and her little head with its bristle of hair fit perfectly into the crook of my neck. She was mine.

The rest of the trip was irrelevant. I had our new baby. We traveled from one province to another, seeing notaries and officials, going before tribunal where we had to answer questions.

Amy and Olivia at the airport awaiting Juliet's arrival

Lisa’s sister, Amy DeNike, and Olivia unfurling a banner in December 1994, the day Juliet/Yu Fen came home on a flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport

How had my family prepared for the baby’s arrival? Why hadn’t my husband come along? Why did we want to adopt a baby girl from China when we already had one daughter at home?

But how to account for a matter of the heart? How to describe that single moment in which fate grasped me by the gut and led my family in a direction we’d never dreamed of going? How to explain the inexplicable – how, like a cord, my very soul drew me halfway across the world to a tiny girl lying alone and abandoned in a crib somewhere in China?

Chinese is a wonderful language, full of expressions and words that often go far beyond our own in describing matters of emotion, fate and destiny. Maybe there is a Mandarin word that would have made it all made sense, but I didn’t know it.

So as I spoke to the officials in that small, unheated room, I simply held Yu Fen tightly against my chest. Our hearts beating together provided the answer.

Part 1: How a New York Times Story Brought Us a Daughter from China

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

[This article was originally published in the November 1996 issue of Maryland Family Magazine]


At the age of five, I dug for China so tenaciously in my family’s garden with a bent, scratched old stainless steel spoon that I exposed the roots of a fledgling maple tree.

The tree died weeks later. But the time I spent scraping and clawing at the clods of dark earth brought to life in my imagination a whole different world — one inhabited by beautiful, black-haired people, rivers teeming with fish and exotic boats, mountains shrouded in mysterious mists, green rice paddies swaying in the breeze – images that up until then, I had seen only in encyclopedias or the occasional children’s picture book.

It’s part of my family’s folklore that I always fervently desired to be Chinese. Tugging at my pale blonde braids, I’d pester “Am I Chinese? Am I Chinese?” until my mother – exasperated that her blue-eyed, French-Dutch-Irish child wouldn’t let go of an idea once she had it – would say “Yes, yes, you are Chinese.” I was temporarily appeased, even when the mirror did not concur.

No one – not even me – understands where that longing came from.

But the attraction for things Chinese grew with me into adulthood. When my husband, Patrick and I married in the June of 1988, we offered our wedding party a Chinese banquet for the rehearsal dinner. With my gleaming sapphire engagement ring, a pair of chopsticks, a bevy of close friends and family and a steaming platter of dumplings and Szechuan chicken before me, I was in heaven.

The birth of our daughter, Olivia, in September 1989 put my Chinese fixation on hold. The joys and struggles of pregnancy and giving birth, breastfeeding, maternity leave, learning the best way to kiss boo-boos, managing on four hours sleep a night and reading Goodnight, Moon ruled our lives. I’d drop into bed exhausted and sticky with peanut butter and jelly, but the glorious girl with giant, soft brown eyes and honey hair had become the light of our existence.

Olivia, Lisa, Patrick

Lisa and Patrick with their daughter, Olivia

As Olivia grew from a baby into a little girl, we’d sometimes talk about having another child. But the time never seemed right. The truth is, we were satisfied as a family of three.

Sometimes, though, fate taps you on the back so lightly you can flick it away like a pesky fly. Other times, it sucker punches you in the gut, leaving no question that something is demanded NOW! That’s what happened to me one sunny Sunday morning in April 1994, as I leafed through The New York Times Magazine.

The article in question described one writer’s journey to China to “adopt one of the tens of thousands of baby girls abandoned in China each year.” By the second paragraph, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that was what we were going to do, too.

It’s as if the last piece of a difficult puzzle had snapped into place. My heart was overwhelmed with a sense that “This is what we have been waiting for. This is why we couldn’t seem to decide to conceive.” There was a sensation of fullness and rightness – an “Ah, yes!” that was almost audible in my soul.

Waving the magazine, I rushed downstairs, where my husband was watching TV. “This is it!” I shouted. “We’re going to China to adopt a baby girl!”

My more cautious mate barely looked up. I was blocking the screen, dontcha know.

But I knew this was what we were supposed to do. Call it God. Call it destiny. Call it whatever you want. I had my directions and I planned to carry them out.

Strategy #1: Clip the story and hang it prominently on the refrigerator. It got moved to the side, with the pizza coupons. I moved it back. A dance ensued – back and forth, forth and back.

Eventually, though, like all halfway civilized couples, we sat down and discussed adopting from China. Well, he discussed and I begged. I enlisted Olivia as my ally. “Daddy, please let’s adopt one of the babies from China who needs a mommy, a daddy and a big sister,” she’d plead.

For weeks, we dissected the issues. Could we love a child not of our blood? Yes, of course! We loved each other – and we weren’t related. Did we realize that we were bringing a whole different culture into our home? Olivia solved that one. “Now, we’ll all be a little Chinese!” Did we understand that by adopting an Asian child, our family would become a minority family? That bothered us least of all. How to handle the questions of strangers went into my court: since when didn’t I have some kind of verbal answer for everything?

Ultimately, my conviction that a certain child waited for us won. We agreed. We would build our family by adoption.

Every night when Olivia and I said her prayers, we added something: “Dear God, please take care of our baby in China. Let her know her Mommy, Daddy and her new Big Sister love her so much, and we are trying as hard as we can to come and get her.” (I’ll admit that, once in a while, annoyed by all the talk about a baby, Olivia would slyly add with a sigh: “God, please make it so no new baby comes from China.”)

By this time, we had contacted numerous agencies dealing in international adoption, and had recovered from the shock of the cost. We also had adjusted to the fact that because Chinese law restricts the adoption of “healthy” infants to single people or couples ages 35 to 60 who are childless, we would need to be open to the possibility of adopting a child with some kind of minor, correctable need.

(To deny this frightened us would be to lie. An unhealthy child was not what we had imagined. But as time passed, we remembered that even giving birth ourselves has its risks. Somehow, we knew that the child meant for us would be perfect for us, whether she was “perfect” or not.)

I began our paperwork the week of June 12, 1994, by filling out an application for a social worker to visit us to do a “home study” – the requisite family history that would assess our fitness to raise a child. Besides conducting numerous interviews, our social worker also needed income tax returns, bank statements, a health inspection, copies of our birth and marriage certificates, a statement by our doctors that we were healthy, a fingerprint check through the Maryland State Police and the FBI and more paper too tedious to mention.

Once we were approved, we had to garner even more papers from the Chinese. I struggled for most of the summer to obtain all the official stamps and seals needed. We applied to the local bank for a home equity loan to cover the costs.

By October, our dossier was ready. Told by our agency to expect at least a six-month wait before hearing about our newest daughter, we tried to forget about it. But every time the phone rang, I’d jump up and say “Maybe it’s the agency!” Olivia would roll her eyes and sigh in an exaggerated manner.

But one day – November 11, 1994, at 4:30 in the afternoon – the phone rang. It was the call we had been waiting for! The agency’s China coordinator calmly told me that we were the proud parents/big sister of a baby girl named “Yu Fen” – Chinese for “Fragrance of a Flower.” She weighed 10 pounds and was waiting for us at the ChangShu Social Welfare Home (orphanage) in China.

Arrival announcement

The Arrival Announcement

Oh, yes, and one more thing: her birthday was June 12, 1994, the same day I had started our paperwork. The hair on the back of my arms stood straight up.

[Look for Part Two TOMORROW!!!]

Why I Forgive

by Juliet Meiying Ercolano

[Juliet is our first guest blogger.  She was born in The People’s Republic of China and joined her “forever family” in the United States when she was six months old.   A rising senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, Juliet is a dance major.]

When I was only one month old, I lost my first family. I lived for five months in an orphanage in China sharing a crib with two other babies. Because of the shortage of food, the nannies or ayis (pronounced “eye–ease”) thickened our bottles with ground rice to keep our stomachs full. (I was so small when my family adopted me that I only weighed 11 pounds at six months old.)  I am told that we were kept tightly swaddled in blankets to keep us warm and to take the place of someone holding us because the orphanage, or “social welfare homes” as they are called in China, were understaffed.  We babies obviously spent many hours trying to entertain and soothe ourselves, because when I was adopted I had a bald spot in the back of my head from rubbing back and forth against the mattress from trying to comfort myself. My parents told me I cried the first time I saw a rattle shaken in front of my face because we did not have toys in the orphanage and seeing and hearing it scared me.

Orphanage babies in China

Babies waiting for adoption at an orphanage in China

Juliet and aunties

Orphanage “aunties” holding Juliet before she goes home with her new mom

Of course, I don’t remember any of this myself because I was so young when it happened, but I’ve heard these stories so many times and each time, they have left me feeling angry and confused. To make me feel better, my parents often reassured me that my birth mother must have loved me very much, indeed, because the orphanage told us that I was left at a crowded train station. This showed that my birth mother wanted me to be found and wanted me to have a better life, they said.

It makes me feel sad that I don’t know anything about my birth mother. I don’t even know the simplest facts that most children (even other adopted children) know, such as my mother’s name or age, or what her favorite food is, or if  I resemble her in any way. I don’t know if anyone really understands how much I wish I knew those things that most children take for granted. For years, thinking about my birth mother caused me a lot of inner turmoil, and I blamed myself a lot of the time for my birth mother abandoning me. Maybe I did something wrong that caused her not to want me, but I will never really know.

Baby Juliet

Baby Juliet

I know that if I ever had a baby, I wouldn’t separate from her for any reason at all. I would make it work, somehow and some way, no matter what. I’d  remind my precious baby girl each day how much I love her and how important she is to me and how I’d never let her out of my sight. The feeling of not being good enough still haunts me to this day. If I am not “perfect,” I fear that people will walk right out of my life. That anxiety – of being left – is something I’m still working hard to overcome. It was particularly bad when I was in kindergarten. From the time one of my parents dropped my off at the classroom to the end of the day at pick up time, I would worry: What if they don’t come back? I remember crying every single school day, terrified  that my mom or dad would forget to pick me up and would end up leaving me and never coming back to get me, the way my birth mother left me that day in the train station.  The other children in my class didn’t understand and couldn’t reassure me. I felt different from the rest of them and thought something must be wrong with me. I made myself feel sick every morning, just anticipating the end of the day. I was taken to a child therapist for awhile, but it did not help much. I was too shy to talk and all I can remember during those sessions was she made me draw and play a bunch of games.  Luckily, a year later, my older sister joined my school and I felt a sudden sense of security knowing she was in the same building I was in and I no longer cried at school. My attachment issues with my parents got better year after year and I no longer was afraid to go to school.

Juliet standing at the wall

18-year-old Juliet today

The good news is that now that I am older, I don’t think about my adoption as an upsetting thing at all. Of course, at times I wish I had more information about what led to my being adopted and about my birth family, but mostly I don’t think about it. I don’t feel any different from a girl living with the parents who gave birth to her. My adopted parents are my parents, not my “adopted” parents.  I have two mothers—one who gave me life and the other who let me live it. My family is the one in America. I no longer associate feeling anger with my birth mother.  I find myself feeling more grateful and happy (that I ended up in a family with parents who really wanted me and could take care of me) than upset.

Though I have struggled with my adoption at times, especially as a young kid, I now honor my birth mother’s choice. If she hadn’t decided to give me up, everything as I know now would be altered dramatically including all the people in contact with me. I would be living a completely different lifestyle. I thank my birth mother as often as I think of her for giving me a loving family and safe place to live.

In short, I have forgiven my birth mother for the hard thing she did.  It was hard for me,  of course, but I am now mature enough to realize that it must have been very difficult for her, too. I realized at some point that I was embracing my negative feelings as a way of staying attached to my birth mother, who I never really knew and whose circumstances I could never really understand.  I recognized that it would be foolish not to let go of those bad feelings, which were hurting me and making it harder for me to appreciate and enjoy the life I had now. Forgiveness was a letting go of the bad and a letting in of the good.  And that is why I forgive.

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