GUANGZHOU, China -- After more than two years of waiting, 20 hours of flying and a two-hour bus ride, Mary Ellen and Mike Koontz of Columbia finally met their new daughter last month in an orphanage in South China.
An 8-month-old girl who had been abandoned by her parents, Jiang Yulan wore a pair of pink pajamas as she sat quietly on a white bench with the other children waiting for their new lives to begin. She remained expressionless as a stranger took her in her arms.
The couple was overwhelmed.
"I had anticipated bringing this girl into our family for so long, I couldn't believe she was so beautiful," Mary Ellen Koontz said.
For the Koontzes and the baby, now named Madeline, their first meeting was an extraordinary moment -- and one that is duplicated dozens of times every week by American couples and little Chinese girls.
Since China enacted a comprehensive adoption law in 1992, foreign adoptions here have soared, with the largest percentage of children going to Americans.
Last year, the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou -- which processes adoptions for the entire country -- issued visas for 4,200 Chinese children. In 1991, the number was 61. This year, China made adopting even easier by lowering the age requirement for parents from 35 to 30 and allowing people who have children to adopt more.
The flow of babies from one nation to another benefits both. American couples are drawn to China because the children tend to be healthy -- although parental medical records are nonexistent. Another attraction: Biological mothers are forbidden from trying to reclaim their children; all Chinese adoptions are final.
A traditional desire for boys and the country's one-child population policy have created an increasing number of unwanted daughters who are overwhelming orphanages. For Chinese girls from poor homes, the benefits of adoption by an American couple are hard to overstate. Many move into middle-class homes with opportunities previously unimaginable.
"Have you decided where you want to go to college?" Madeline's new mother jokingly asks her.
After picking up their children at an orphanage, American parents come to Guangzhou, where the U.S. Consulate issues immigration visas.
Just upstream from Hong Kong, Guangzhou often has served as a meeting point for China and the outside world.
During the 19th century, the famous trading port was called Canton and inspired the name for the waterside Baltimore neighborhood. In an attempt to rid China of imported opium, Chinese ships blockaded 350 foreigners in the city for six weeks in 1839, sparking the First Opium War.
Today, Sino-U.S. relations here are much warmer.
Dozens of newly enlarged American families fill the White Swan Hotel, where they wait for paperwork to be processed at the consulate next door. A five-star hotel whose gift shop sells Pampers and Isomil, the White Swan feels at times like a big, bicultural play group.
Giggling in play
In a cocktail lounge, Rose Hutchcroft, 45, a nurse manager from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, guides her rambunctious daughter Megan, a 16-month-old from coastal Fujian province, across the cushions of a pair of lounge chairs next to a grand piano. Then, cuddling Megan in her arms, Hutchcroft drapes a peach-colored napkin over her head, which Megan promptly pulls away amid giggles.
Hutchcroft and her fiance, computer teacher Russ Allen, say they are delighted with Megan and chose to adopt in China partly because of its less stringent requirements.
"Being single, there are a lot of countries that wouldn't even look at me," says Hutchcroft.
She knows only Megan's birth date and Chinese name -- nothing more of her history. Like many parents adopting in China, though, she wants Megan to understand her heritage.
She has bought books containing Chinese fables and fairy tales. When Megan is older, Hutchcroft hopes to expose her to the large Asian community of students and professors at the University of Iowa, about 20 minutes from her home.
Children whose ethnic backgrounds differ from their parents' inevitably confront questions of identity as they grow older and notice physical differences. When adopted children from China go to college, they may be mistaken for international students or American-born Chinese, but they are neither.
Parents try to give their children a sense of belonging by attending play groups with other adopted Chinese children. Holt International Children's Services, an Oregon adoption firm, runs heritage camps in the summer that include cooking and art classes to familiarize children with the culture of their homelands.
While most families at the White Swan appear quite happy, some become guarded when talking with reporters. News reports in the mid-1990s described terrible conditions inside some orphanages where workers allegedly left frail babies to die. Parents who have visited orphanages recently said they appeared clean and the children well-cared for.
A `sensitive' issue