Riveting Reunion

Md. Teen Adopted From China Completes Unlikely Quest, Reconnecting With The Parents He Had All But Forgotten

August 31, 2009|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,Tribune Beijing Bureau

The father fell to his knees weeping in a dramatic display of grief and contrition. The mother quietly buried her face in her hands.

The 17-year-old boy, returning to China for the first time since he was adopted by a Maryland woman eight years ago, stood upright and motionless - whether out of shock or stoicism - with the only dry eye in the room.

The interpreter stood quietly on the sidelines waiting for what seemed an eternity in which nobody spoke an intelligible word in any language. There were only sobs and the clicking of the cameras.

"Honey, are you OK?" the boy's adoptive mother, Julia Norris, finally piped in. The boy nodded affirmatively but said nothing.

The reunion between Christian Norris, entering 11th grade at Easton High School, and his birth parents took place Saturday in a Beijing hotel room, crowded with well-wishers and media. A recent article in The Baltimore Sun chronicled the online sleuthing that made the reunion possible, and the American family's nervous excitement about the visit.

It was a nearly unprecedented event. Since the early 1990s, an estimated 75,000 Chinese-born children have been adopted abroad, and although they increasingly visit China on heritage tours, Christian is one of only a handful who has managed to track down his personal history.

"I'm not sure yet," Christian answered with a teen's characteristic reticence, when asked what he hoped would come of the reunion. "I want to move on."

Christian's case is also unusual in that he is male (most adoptees are girls abandoned because of the Chinese preferences for males and government limits on family size). He lived with his family until he was nearly 7, leaving him with fragmentary memories that became vital clues in the search.

It helped that his American mother, employed by an adoption agency, is both a firm believer in open adoptions and a tenacious investigator who once worked for the television show "America's Most Wanted."

Though hindered by a lack of Chinese-language skills, Norris had spent hours and hours searching online for clues. Earlier this year she stumbled across the Web site of a Chinese nonprofit, Baby Come Home, which helps Chinese parents search for lost children. She translated the Web site into English and sent an e-mail. Almost immediately she received a reply offering to enlist its army of volunteers.

"This is the first case we've handled where an adopted child came back to find birth parents, but I expect it is going to happen more often," said Yang Guan, one of the agency's founders. "I hope that China can move to a more transparent system where orphanages are more able to make information available."

Like many families, Christian's had their secrets and silences, which contributed to the boy's disappearance.

The boy was born under the name Jin Jiacheng in 1991 in Yinchuan, a city in the Ningxia region, to a couple who both worked in a hospital and already had an older son. As a newborn, he was sent for some reason to the father's home village to be raised by his grandmother and 23-year-old uncle, who pretended he was the boy's father. When he turned 6 and was ready to start school, they sent him back to the city.

He lived only briefly with his birth parents when he somehow got lost. His father, Jin Gaoke, said they were on an excursion by bus and that he got off for a few minutes to buy food at a market, returning to discover that the bus had driven off.

The family was wrenched apart by the boy's absence. The mother went into a deep depression. The brothers stopped speaking to each other, the younger one blaming the birth father for losing the child.

"He was like my son. I felt so bad when he was lost, I would drink liquor to take away the sadness," said his uncle, Jin Xiaowang, who is now 40, still farming wheat, potatoes and corn in the village home.

Jiacheng himself somehow ended up 350 miles to the east in Henan Province, where he was found wandering under a bridge and brought to an orphanage in the city of Luoyang.

In 2000, Julia Norris was touring the orphanage on a business trip when she met the boy and developed an instant bond. She returned the following year to adopt him, becoming a single mother. She adopted a Chinese girl as well in 2004.

While living in Easton, Christian grew increasingly frustrated by his hazy memories, which compounded the mystery of his personal history. He could remember only a house in the country, mountains in the distance, grazing yaks, a few names. How he had gotten lost had been erased from his memory, perhaps by the trauma of it all; he remembered only a man buying him food and giving him money.

He was nagged by the sense that somehow his birth family had thrown him away.

"He wanted the peace of mind of knowing what happened," said Julia Norris.

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