EASTON - -The boy was near age 6 when he was abandoned in 1998. Police found him under a bridge in Luoyang, a city in eastern China. Unable to learn how he got there or where he came from, officers deposited him at a busy orphanage in town.
That was the story Julia Norris heard two years later, in June 2000, when she visited the orphanage. That was still the story in April 2001, when she returned to adopt the boy and bring him to America. And it remained the story this spring as Christian Norris finished 10th grade at Easton High School, where he plays lacrosse and has a crew of buddies.
Then, in late May came the e-mail that suddenly recast the narrative of his young life. Christian had not been abandoned. No, he'd simply gotten lost, the result of a tragic mistake. So said the boy's birth parents. And now they very much wanted to meet the young man.
They'll get that chance this week when Julia and Christian Norris journey to China for an unlikely reunion. Christian is excited - after all, it was his idea to search for his birth parents - but anxious, too. Will everyone get along? Are his birth parents telling the truth, or have they changed their story now that they've been found?
"I still don't know what to believe," he said last week in his family's living room. "It's hard for me to trust them after all this stuff."
Julia Norris thinks the visit will go well. She thinks it will enable her son to reconnect with his Chinese roots even as he keeps growing up an all-American boy with dreams of becoming a Navy SEAL. She says she doesn't feel that it threatens at all the mother-son bond she has formed with Christian, 17. She is relieved that everyone seems to agree that Maryland is his home.
Back in 2000, Norris had gone to China on a mission trip through her employer, the America World Adoption Agency. Volunteers painted walls and held babies. One day, 30 kids were chosen for a trip to the local zoo. Norris happened to pair up with Christian, then named Jiacheng.
"He just captured my heart that day," she said, "especially when he finally smiled."
He played with her camera. At lunchtime he acted like a gentleman, refilling her soda and moving her purse off the floor.
Today, Christian can recall the zoo. But he comes up blank on how he'd reached that overpass two years earlier. It's as if a part of the tape has been erased from memory. All he can picture is a bus and a man giving him food and cash. The man might have been his birth father, or maybe just a kind stranger.
"I just didn't know what happened," he said, the frustration evident in his teenage mumble. "It was a mystery to me, what happened to me."
Why did he not tell the police his name and hometown? Time has not filled in that gap, either.
"I can't remember."
Memories of a distant past
According to Julia Norris, the police report described him as being in shock and unable to speak. As required, the orphanage placed ads in the local newspaper before the boy could be adopted. But she said the police are responsible for conducting investigations and they apparently did not try very hard.
"They never, to my knowledge, went back and tried to ask more of him - you know, give him a little time to calm down," Norris said.
Adding to the oddness was his gender. In China, about 95 percent of those put up for adoption are girls. For cultural reasons, boys are prized, and the country's one-child policy has led to the abandonment of many girls. (In 2004, Norris adopted one such girl, an infant she named Madison.) Special-needs boys sometimes end up in orphanages, but that did not apply here.
Could Christian really have been abandoned? Even as a young boy, he had happy memories that predated the orphanage. He ate noodles that were hung to dry. He lived on a farm with a water well and yaks and mountains in the distance. At a minimum, the memory fragments raised questions about what had happened.
Over the years, as Christian spoke of his early recollections, Norris took notes. One day, she told him, you might want to look for your birth parents. She would gladly help. He was in middle school when he announced that he was ready to search.
Norris, a 42-year-old Eastern Shore native, knew a thing or two about finding people. She says on the adoption agency Web site that she spent 10 years as a federal and private investigator and worked for television's "America's Most Wanted."
But her lack of Chinese language skills hobbled her online sleuthing. This year she found the Web site of a Chinese nonprofit group called Baby Come Home, which helps find children swept up in child trafficking or abductions. Using Google, she translated the Web site and fired off an e-mail.
To her surprise, someone at the nonprofit not only replied but offered to put out the word to its army of volunteers.