Patti Waldmeir’s decision to move to China with her two Chinese daughters, whom she had adopted as infants, was for the most part intellectual: Get-togethers with other families who were Chinese-American through adoption seemed to entail what she termed the “faux-cultural ambiance” of Chinese zodiac birthday cakes and Chinese clothing at holidays. 

They offered the girls only a veneer
of Chineseness in the very American lives they were living near Washington, D.C.

When she learned that her gig in the U.S. was ending and a position in Shanghai was open, the move seemed the next logical move for both her professional and her family life.

Grace, then 7, and Lucy, 6, already steeped in Americana, could experience first-hand what it meant to be Chinese.

Ms. Waldemeir writes she had always been “fascinated with culture and how it shapes society. It was just never in the cards that I would treat my Chinese children like they were boring old white people. To me, they were ever so much more, and I wanted to make sure they knew it from the start.”

As a writer and later an editor for Financial Times, she had already lived in 10 countries around the world. The transition to China, however, was initially rough for all three.

Ms. Waldmeir writes, “Little did I know that advance planning is a skill I might as well have left at home. The middle kingdom [China] knows just how pointlessly anal we Westerners are (none more anal than me); and China is never unwilling to demonstrate that fact, especially to newcomers.”

The food was strange, the apartment was tiny, the air was dirty, the language – despite lessons in Mandarin before they moved – was difficult.

Moreover, many were not hesitant to comment on the family – white mother, obviously adopted Chinese children –
often remarking what a wonderful thing Ms. Waldmeir was doing.

In China, Ms. Waldmeir was told by the family’s Chinese nanny, “children can be thankful for their parents, but that is not reciprocal. It’s not possible for a parent to say they are thankful for a child. …This was China’s attitude toward Grace and Lucy from the moment we set foot on mainland soil.”

All this and more Ms. Waldmeir chronicled. During their final year in China, Ms. Waldmeir spent most Sundays “trying to write the book” that she eventually published, called “Chinese Lessons.”

She had plenty of time, she said, because by then the girls were teenagers and loved to sleep late. Grace and Lucy knew she was writing a book about their experience.

“I said, ‘You have 100% veto power. I’m going to write it for the family, so there’ll be a record.’ I wanted to process the experience for myself,” Ms. Waldmeier told the RoundTable.

But they all grew to love the food, the people, the culture – and the country that at one time had not seen fit to welcome baby girls. Two summers ago, Grace and Lucy returned, on their own, to work at the Yangzhou orphanage, where they had spent part of their infancy.

Ms. Waldmeir adopted the infant whom she named Grace Shu Min and immediately put in an application for a second child, who became Lucy Helen Xinke less than two years later.

Both girls came from the Yangzhou orphanage, where several other Chinese infants became part of American families at the same time as Grace. The bonds among many of the Yangzhou girls, as Ms. Waldmeir calls them, and their families stretched across miles and years.

Visits to the orphanage also entailed visits to the “place of abandonment,” where the abandoned child was found. This, Ms. Waldmeir soon saw, was the essence, the tragedy and the beauty of adoption. In most cases, someone had taken great care in packaging up the child for, it seemed, rescue. There were diapers, food, carefully stitched clothing and blanket, 
and in some cases a talisman to serve as
a poignant link to her birth family.

The places were carefully chosen: a street with a lot of foot traffic, a communal bath or a police station, as examples.  

The fact of adoption took hold of Ms. Waldmeir much more than it did her young children, whose memories began with her as their mother.

Ms. Waldmeir, however, chose to face the ugly side of adoption – the circumstances that would make a family give up a child.

Poverty, marital discord and the government’s one-child policy were the main reasons she found, but there was nothing specific to be learned about the early days of Grace and Lucy.

Ms. Waldmeir’s investigations led to a family question: What, if anything, does an adopted child owe to her birth family? Is the answer money, support or something as comforting as letting the family know she turned out healthy and happy? And what is the price for looking so closely into one’s origins?

While those questions are unanswerable at the theoretical level, they could color the decision to look for the birth family.

She met a friend at a local Dunkin’ Donuts (in Shanghai) one day and he mentioned that he had seen a baby outside.

She ran outside and found a scene “that spoke of maternal care and anguish: the multicolored quil, bright, new, a corner laid over the child’s face to protect her from the weather; two plastic carrier bags beneath the angry bundle [the screaming baby, who, it turned out had severe medical problems], bulging with pastel baby clothes cans heavy with infant formula, crinkly packages of diapers and chap baby bottles smelling of new plastic.”

She tracked the baby’s fate as much as the government would allow and is in touch with the Louisiana family that adopted her.

After the stint in China, Financial Times offered Ms. Waldmeir other positions in Asia. When neither of those worked out, the family, now fairly steeped in Chinese culture, returned to the U.S. where they welcomed the return to quasi-familiarity, all of them now part-Chinese and part-American by birth, accident and choice.

This assignment brought the Ms. Waldmeir to Chicago and the family to Evanston. The girls are now in their late teens and conscious and accepting of their unique cultural blend.

“Chinese Lessons” is available to the public, thanks to final approval from Lucy, who also served as proxy for Grace. “It did end up being more about me,” Ms. Waldmeir said. “I couldn’t write their story – they were too young. … We’ll probably know in 30 years whether it was a good idea for me to write it.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...