Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

Why did you write this book? And is it right to publicize your daughter’s story?

Mostly, what is ed I wrote this book so that my eldest daughter would have a complete account of her adoption, generic or at least as complete an account as I could compile. Yes, this is Jin Yu’s story. But it is my story too. Both of us where changed by the experience. I felt a lot of the adoption stories I read lacked the emotional complexity that defines the experience. Or at least that it defined it for me. Three days after she was born, Jin Yu’s Chinese parents — or someone close to them — took her to a street named Guangxin Alley, in the city of Xiangtan, Hunan Province, and then they set her down. Jin Yu lived in an orphanage for more than two years. She came to her new life with memories of her old. Everything else — her friends, her language, her culture — she surrendered. At heart, China Ghosts is a book about gain and loss.

Why the title ‘China Ghosts’?

Most of the abandoned children in China are second daughters, which means that my Jin Yu probably has an older, biological sister living in China. If the desires of her birthparents came to pass, then she has a younger brother there as well. Sometimes I feel that Jin Yu’s Chinese parents are almost standing beside me, watching her grow, checking on whether or not I’m doing a good job raising her. I think about her Chinese aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, and about the children still living in the orphanage. This is the ghost family I have brought home from China.

You uncovered a lot of information about your daughter’s life in China. How did you do that?

Being a journalist, I approached it like any other reporting project. I tried to think about what records might exist, who might have information, and who I could get to help me look. The biggest find was Jin Yu’s “birth note,” the note her Chinese parents left with her on the day she was abandoned. When Christine and I were in China, we were told no such note existed.

How long did it take you to write the book? And was it easy or hard?

It took 2 or 3 years to write China Ghosts. I haven’t done a precise computation because I don’t want to know! Two things were hard. One was simply finding the time to write, given the demands of a full-time job and a busy household. I wrote a lot of it on the train going back and forth to work in Philadelphia. The thing that was much harder, though, was to try to come to terms with the truths of my daughter’s life, and the life she might have led, and my role in both those things. It’s one thing to know on a general level that your daughter suffered, and that you were not there to help her. It’s another to go there every day, for months, to parse the ways in which she was in terrible need and I was absent. On one level I know I couldn’t have helped her when we hadn’t even met. But on another level I feel very much that I let her down.

Why did you decide to adopt?

Christine and I adopted because our defective bodies made it impossible for us to have children biologically. Generally we had always had good feelings about adoption, that the matching of kids who needed parents with parents who wanted kids was a good idea. Going in, I never imagined how important my daughter – later, my daughters — would be to me.

Why China? Why not adopt in the U.S.?

When people think of adoption, they tend to think of a young woman placing her baby with new parents within hours or days of giving birth. That kind of adoption has become rare in this country – perhaps 14,000 a year. There is competition for those children. Against that, Christine and I weighed a pretty well-run, straightforward adoption program in a country where thousands of girls were living in orphanages. Because of the one-child policy, prospective parents have a good idea of why the children are available, and that knowledge was important to us. And we had positive feelings about Chinese culture – the respect for the aged, placing a high value on education, the belief in tradition.

How much did it cost?

It fascinates me that people are so interested in the cost. In our society, people spend thousands and thousands of dollars at fertility clinics and no one bats an eye. It costs a tremendous amount to give birth in hospital, even if that cost is paid by insurance, but biological parents are not asked why they spend so much money to have a child.

What was it like to be in China?

We started in Beijing, and it was amazing to walk on the Great Wall, to tour the Summer Palace. At the same time, our girl was waiting in Hunan, and we were in a hurry to get there. It’s hard to describe China or one’s feelings toward it a few words, but Hunan was China as I imagined China would be. We were granted the privilege of visiting Jin Yu’s orphanage, the Xiangtan Social Welfare Institute. Jin Yu had been with us only a short time by then, and I think she wondered if we were going to leave her there. But Christine and I wanted to be able, someday, to tell her about the orphanage from our own observations. And we wanted Jin Yu to have a chance to say goodbye.

Did you face any difficulties traveling in China?

One: At our hotel in Hunan we somehow lost a drinking glass from our room, setting off the equivalent of a minor FBI investigation.

You now have a second daughter? How do you talk to your daughters about adoption?

The lovely and talented Zhao Gu Gammage joined our family from Gansu Province, in western China. She and Jin Yu love each other madly. Christine and I talk openly to our girls, in age-appropriate language, about how they came to us. To them, for now, adoption is no big deal. That might change as they grow older, and fitting in with their peers becomes more of a priority. At the same time, there are so many girls in this country – almost 62,000. There are four who live on our street. Whatever else may be true, these girls are not alone.

What do you expect from all these children in the future?

I think they will surprise us in ways we can’t yet imagine. And I think China will surprise us too. I can foresee a day when the girls here will be openly able to search for – and find – their Chinese parents. The eldest girls are now in adolescence, a few in their late teens. I can’t wait for the time, and it’s not far off, when the girls themselves start to tell us what they think of their experience.