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Yixing Journal

by Robin Reif

Since the day my daughter was placed in my arms, I’ve been the narrator of her past; my version, the scaffold on which she’s built hers.

But as we set out today for her first home, a small, ancient city in the Yangtze River Delta, I know she’ll take in color and light, scene and mood, that will speak substance to fantasy, answer questions yet to be asked.

From this, may her own version take root and grow by the light of new understandings throughout her life.

Mr. Peng's Peugeot

We leave from Nanjing with our driver, Mr. Peng, and translator, Denise. Mr. Peng’s Peugeot is a far cry from the wreck that dragged us over muddy roads, dodging flatbeds heaped with caged chickens, feathers flying, 10 years back. Now, we speed over highways, navigate by GPS, cutting the trip from four hours to two.

It’s a gray, cold day; it may snow. Speeding past the frozen Jiangsu landscape, its squat dwellings suspended in winter fog, Denise tells us of her bound-footed grandmother who, at 86, toddles in baby shoes and of her father who earned $10 a month as she was growing up. With her clipped, travel-guide English, she is third in this link of generations accelerating toward a future that little resembles the past.

She wears “cheerful” well; seems less shaken by China’s cataclysms than others I’ve known: a friend who was left to raise her brother when her father was shipped to the Hebei coal mines during the Cultural Revolution; another who was sent from University to the Mongolian border with other city boys whose dreams were crushed by Mao’s last folly.

Still, collective trauma has selective effects. Last week I met a woman, tough as Mother Courage, running an unheated noodle shop in ShangLi. Unless something was lost in translation, the Communist and Cultural Revolutions were the glory days, the best of her life, perfectly attuned to her combative, patriotic spirit.

Exceptions aside, given this history, I’m aware that most adults I meet have known things I could never imagine. Feeling vaguely guilty and somehow at a disadvantage, I wonder if, in seeming deferential, they’re simply being ironic.

The Cave and the Burial

Approaching Yixing, we stop to visit an underground world hollowed out of Luoyan Mountain a hundred million years ago: the Shanjuan Caves. That water could slice through rock, sculpting what look like stone cascades, flowers and draped figures would ordinarily inspire awe.

But it’s all lit ‘70s disco style — orange, green, purple, yellow. The strange mashup of natural wonder/tourist kitsch leaves me slightly off balance. I can’t imagine what the cave keepers had in mind. When we exit via underground stream where boatmen ferry you back to the world as we know it, I breathe easier, at least for the moment.

We drive to lunch along a desolate stretch and soon spot a ragtag parade: folks with heads wrapped in torn white cloth, crossing the highway carrying a coffin. On big drums and tarnished brass they play an eerie tune with a festive oom-pah undertow as they start up the mountain. Have I walked into a Fellini film? Every time I think I’m on solid ground, it seems to shift beneath my feet.

We Eat

Mr. Peng pulls up at a woebegone strip mall maybe four storefronts long. This is the restaurant, Denise tells us. We follow her into what I’d swear was a garage. It’s unheated and seems deserted ‘til Mr. Peng summons a square woman from the kitchen that opens to a yard. It’s 15 degrees and there’s no door.

She ushers us into a white, windowless room, its table draped in plastic sheeting. I’m not optimistic. But soon the wall heater flips on and dishes, trailing fragrance, pour in as from some magic stove: egg and tomato soup, sweet potato noodles, sautéed river ferns in a brown sauce. How could one person whip up this feast — indescribably fresh and delicious — from that cold kitchen?

After the country funeral and ancient caves in kitschy lights, this meal is one more astonishment. The stranger things get, the more poignant the knowledge that this is probably my daughter’s birth place and had Fate forked one way and not the other, she might have been as foreign to me as the red-faced chef or the townsfolk climbing the mountain with their dead. I’m glad for the paper napkins, quickly dab my eyes and head to the loo, Sophie in tow.

Of course, it’s a squatty-potty. Sophie remembers to grab a napkin; there’s almost never paper in these toilets. Not only do you have to squat, you have to provide your own amenities.

Preparations and Surprises

Denise tells us that the only children left in Sophie’s orphanage are severely disabled, so in hopes of finding a way for her to connect, I suggest we buy cookies she can hand out. “You okay to do this?” I ask. “Yes,” she says, in that uninflected tween-y way which leaves me guessing whether she’s being compliant, is terrified, or just playing a Katy Perry song in her head. Probing will trigger annoyance, so I don’t.

The door of our hotel, a $70 a-night hunk of hastily built cement, opens onto what looks like the Emerald City: silk murals set in mahogany walls, rare birds singing from cages, gold leaf inlays vining along the Ashford marble counter. Ten years back, we had nowhere to sleep in this town. The place seemed covered in ancient soot. Now, there are over 30 hotels. Per capita income was up 22% in 2011 alone, though from a base of $10,000. Still, and pardon the expression, a great leap forward.

A low-key dinner seems the thing as tomorrow is the big day when we’ll go to the bridge where Sophie was found, the police station where she was brought and the orphanage where she was placed. Aside from ensuring she has scenes to anchor the part of her story she’s had to imagine, I’m hoping we might find some crumbs that could one day lead her back to her birth parents, should she ever wish to search.

The Stranger

As if on cue, enter a handsome stranger who seems in a position to help. With tiny, smiling wife and toddler in tow, he shows up while we’re trying to order from a waitress who covers her mouth to giggle. It turns out he’s a local Yixing boy who became a banker, works in Tokyo and is here to see his sick father.

We flirt with his 3 year old who wants to practice English. Crocodile! he declares. We flap our hands, wrists together, miming big jaws. Now you’ll be in trouble! he says triumphantly and we feign terror.

I reveal our mission to his father who leaps into the fray — which seems very un-Chinese. He says it’s possible that Sophie was born in a hospital here and offers to seek her birth records since he’s become friendly with the hospital director. His thinking: If we learn which children were born there on that day, then any who can’t be counted as living with their families, might lead us to her biological parents.

We exchange emails and he promises to pursue this as Sophie looks on and I (guiltily) wonder whether he’s for real.

Bread Crumbs

Why, I ask myself, am I sleuthing for Sophie while she, neck-deep in latency, shows more interest in her math homework than in her birth family? Maybe because I vividly remember the four-year-old who straddled my lap, grabbed my face in her little hands and ripped my heart, pleading:

“Mommy, I always, ALWAYS think: How was I borned? How was I made? Who made me? WHY was I borned? Why am I alive? What was I made from? Was I made from WAX? Was I made by SOME one?”

This wasn’t just that existential blink of disbelief, that unbidden astonishment at being embodied on this earth. It was bewilderment; it was grief.

A year later, as I knelt to tuck her in, she asked:
“But WHY did she give me away?”
“My birth mother. Did she not like me?”
 “I’m sure that she loved you.”
 “WHY didn’t she like me?  I was only a little chy-uld”.
 “I’m sure she loved you. I think she wanted you to find a forever Mommy.”
“But WHY did she give me away?”
 “I don’t think she gave you away. We just know she couldn’t keep you.”
“But WHY Mommy?”
“We can only guess.  It might be because they have a law in China saying that you can have only one child."
 “That’s why she gave me away? Because you can have only one child???"

These memories drive me, as does the belief that everyone deserves to know where they come from. Sometimes when I hold my daughter close, the words “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” come to mind before I realize the phrase is not mine to say. There is a woman walking this earth that can say it. I want my daughter to know who she is, if she ever wants to. So I decide to get what I can before the trail goes cold.

January 4, 2013: The Bridge

Today is the day. First stop is the Yuedi Bridge, where a 7-week-old infant girl was found at 5 am on August 4, 2001.

When I first learned this, I imagined a crescent bridge I’d seen in ancient Chinese paintings. In dreams, I saw an uncombed woman with hands too old to be hers, setting down a basket in the dark, steeling herself against the child’s thin cries as she crouched at a distance, anxious as Miriam praying for a stranger to pull Moses from the Nile.

Bridge: a euphemistic, even cliché, metaphor for the moment when…the place where…she was set down, diverting the direction of her life; cleaving her roots, family, language, nationality, trajectory in a single act. An act of brutality; an act of love. An act of severing; an act, ultimately, of connection.

Yuedi Bridge turns out to be the one right next to our hotel. “It can’t be,” I say. My guide 10 years back took me to a different bridge, an industrial eyesore with green arches over a muddy canal.

I’d taken a rock and soil from the riverbank so Sophie would have objects from the earliest known part of her life. Like a cherished vial of martyr’s blood, later found to be a duck’s, I realize our rock was a fake when Denise insists that this is the Yuedi Bridge, showing me the sign in Mandarin, which, of course, I can’t verify.

It’s a neat, concrete ledge over what she says is the Yuedi River, which I also can’t verify, as the city is everywhere veined with canals whose names I can’t find on Google Maps.

As we walk the embankment, looking up at the bridge, Sophie takes it in, showing about as much interest as she’d have, say, in seeing a classmate she doesn’t much like walking down Broadway. No, less, which is to say it’s got her attention but just for the moment. She’s ready to move on.

But, of course, I can’t restrain myself and ask how she feels seeing the bridge. “OK,” she says, suddenly pretending to chew, all snarky nonchalance like a teen with a piece of gum. I wait, know I’m pressuring her with silence, but, heck, we’ve come half way around the world to be here. “Well,” she says, “there are a lot of people. It’s a good place to be found.” “Yes,” I encourage, “someone really wanted you to be found.”

The Yixing Police

After the infant girl was found that August day at dawn, she was taken to the local police station where she was “booked.” Or so her records say. I hope to see the original report, which might identify the person who brought her or help us find the note I’ve been told was pinned to her clothes but was never produced.

We’re sent from department to department, up and down stairs. In the hall we see the Yixing Police 45th Anniversary poster, listing aspirational attributes: Yixing Police: Self-Motivated. Smiling. Speedy. Satisfactory. This isn’t what I’d learned about Chinese penal culture growing up in the 60s, but that’s for another day.

At the last office we visit, a pretty young woman, hair tied Red Ballet style, says that all records pre-2004 were destroyed. She seems to speak without moving her lips, contrary to the Smiling and Satisfactory claims of the Yixing Police. We leave with nothing and head to the orphanage.

The Orphanage and the Ayis

As we drive up, the scene seems stuck in time. Unlike almost everything else in this town, this place that houses society’s least able and most vulnerable is little changed: the old building, (though soon to be torn down), its dirty white tiles reminding me of Chiclets, the “ayis” or “aunties” in their pink canvas coats walking through the courtyard with tin bowls brought from home and lunches in small plastic tubs. I search among them for Shao Yan, the ayi on duty the morning Sophie was brought here and her caregiver until I arrived nine months later in May, 2002. Denise says she’s still here.

Shao Yan, A Memory

The first time I saw Shao Yan, she looked vulnerable and pale as the infant she carried. Thin and neatly dressed, she seemed to withdraw even as she entered at the tail end of an entourage led by Dr. Hong, our facilitator, followed by the orphanage Director, Assistant Director and the older ayis. Finally, this silent woman slipped in, holding the baby called YiQi who became my daughter, Sophie.

A pantomime of deference followed, its awkwardness heightened by an unfortunate soundtrack: Danny Boy, sung by a 12-year-old Welsh soprano. Having read that high voices comforted infants, I played this for her entrance though quickly realized how wrong it was as the Chinese procession marched in.

Soon I was sitting with Dr. Hong and Shao Yan, working hard to extract shreds of information, overhearing other ayis distracting YiQi in the hall, making sounds I’d never be able to replicate.

Answers to questions I’d prepared seemed, well…lost in translation:

Q: Is it unusual for a girl to be found at 7 weeks vs. at birth?

A: It’s normal, because you don’t know the situation with her bio parents.

Q: Is there anything unusual or important that I should know about her?

A: Usually she wakes up at 6 o’clock and then give her a cow milk bottle. Around 11, give formula and some fish liver oil.

Q: How would you describe her character?

A: She’s a normal baby.

Q: What special behaviors or talents has she shown?

A: She likes the music.

After enduring my determined and deluded effort to confirm that, after years of Sisyphean striving, the baby I’d been blessed with was special, perhaps even the Messiah, it was time for the team to journey back to Yixing.

I went out to retrieve YiQi from the ayis in the hall. Walking my girl away from the most consistent hands, voices, faces she’d known in her little life, I turned back to see Shao Yan in tears. In that moment when my joy crested high enough to lift us all toward a more perfect life, facing the bereaved Shao Yan, I felt accused.

Now I don’t want to overstate this. I know it was a job, a step up, perhaps, from fastening circuit boards in a factory all day. Still, I believe Shao Yan had loved this child for nine months. I can’t imagine what it meant to relinquish her to a stranger whose only advantage was the luck of being born in a place and at a time where forces converged ensuring I left the scene with a child and she left empty handed. It was a zero sum game; my joy was at her expense.

Over the years when Sophie, in a black moment, asked why she’d been “thrown away,” I’d find myself offering the image of Shao Yan as evidence that she had indeed been loved.


Back to the scene at hand…circled by children, some curious, some wary, my heart leaps when I see Shao Yan walk in. At that moment, a girl with two or three fingers is trying to grasp a cookie Sophie has offered. Another, squat and palsied, gurgles as she (or he) approaches then withdraws several times.

Shao Yan is so easy to spot that I realize she must have been no more than 19 or 20 when we first met 10 years ago. She is a more fashionable, prettier version of her former self, as though she’s ripened, her outline filled in by time and happiness. Sophie recognizes her immediately from videos and photos I took and hesitates toward her. To my shock, Shao Yan ignores her, passing us, disappearing into a clump of colleagues.

My brain feels like an insect in amber. Sophie’s little face freezes; my jaw starts pulsing. I pull out the DVD made at the time of Sophie’s adoption, having brought it as a gift for the orphanage. Denise quickly pops it into the monitor, which has been babysitting the kids with a black and white cartoon, animated, probably, in the 50’s.

She speaks to Shao Yan in Mandarin and forwards to scenes of her with Sophie. In her brisk, efficient way Denise gets the job done and soon Shao Yan puts a light hand on Sophie’s head and my daughter starts to thaw.

It is not the reunion I’d imagined but Shao Yan seems to warm up and later joins us for lunch where we learn that, in the last 10 years, she has married and has given birth to a daughter. She pulls out an iPhone when we ask for photos. Her daughter is beautiful.

The Director

At lunch we meet Zhou Fang Hua, the orphanage director, who took the reins of Yixing SWI two years back when her predecessor retired. She reminds me of a hyper-competent middle school principal, the kind who saves a failing school through a few simple rules, wisely applied.

Since she doesn’t know Sophie, I can’t say what possesses me to ask whether she has a wish for my daughter to remember as she grows. I guess I’m reaching for anyone who could stand in for Sophie’s Chinese parents to bless her.

Immediately, Mrs. Zhou says she has two wishes. First, that Sophie will grow to be an independent woman, study hard and do something with her life to help society. Second, that she’ll love her Mom, take care of her when she gets old and never forget what her Mom has done for her. I cannot imagine an American saying these things. We’re not a society that charges children with protecting parents. It seems so Chinese in some sense and works well coming from her.

After lunch, we stand for many official photos in front of a rich red velvet curtain. Apparently this is not the first official orphanage visit these folks had received.

Mrs. Zhou says offhandedly that Sophie looks like a “local girl” a comment that comforts me. In being found at 7 weeks, I long ago realized that Sophie could have come from anywhere in China. Many scenarios had crossed my mind. In one, a mother walks for 7 weeks from the North to abandon her in a place where no one will be able to trace her. In another, she is passed from hand to hand so the trail is covered. In a third, a local girl from a neighboring village tries to keep her…until she can’t.

As we were leaving…

As we were leaving, Mrs. Zhou’s assistant brings in a thick, cardboard file and opens it, gesturing me to leaf through it. I see copies of the adoption papers I’d signed years ago, my old application with financial records, fingerprints, FBI clearance, photos of my apartment at the time.

There among the pages is something I hadn’t seen. A torn, weathered piece of notebook paper with scribbles in ballpoint. As I lift it, I decipher Sophie’s time and date of birth. Here was the note I’d been told was pinned to her clothes but had never been produced. Here was…the grail. Was it penned by her first mother? Or father? My gut is yes. Further evidence, I think, that Sophie was left to be found, with hopes she’d be raised by someone who would celebrate her and yearly honor the anniversary of her birth. In that scribble I read a wish for a beautiful life.

And so…

On the way back, Sophie conks out, arm flung over seat, wrist poking from her jacket, sheathed in colored hair bands, neon bracelet from a Zoom Flume trip last summer, a neoprene strap stamped with “No Homework” and another with “Just Breathe,” neither of which would resonate well with Chinese culture. No observant person would think her anything but American.

When she wakes, she quickly inserts iPod-tethered ear buds. When I ask, she shares the song she’s playing. The words go something like this:

This song sounds dramatic…
If you don't speak English
This probably sounds pretty good.

This part's intense and emotional
As long as you don't understand it.
Your foreign grandma
Would love this song…

This song sounds dramatic. The irony is that it isn’t. This scene seems dramatic. The truth is that it isn’t, at least, not to her or at least not now. Maybe later. When she’s a mother. Or when I’m gone. Or when she feels vulnerable and adrift. Then she’ll perhaps have an anchoring memory. A memory of a crumpled note that someone cared enough to write and pin to her, to make sure that her moment of entry into this world at 1:15 pm on June 11th, 2001 was recorded and would always be known.