Last spring my daughter, Bethany, was 15 years old and loving “all things Asian.” It seemed a good time to visit her birth family in China. Armed with a powerful appetite for dim sum, and a shopping list of Anime titles (Japanese animation) she hoped to find in Hong Kong, Bethany joined me on her first visit back in 10 years.
On the earlier trip to China when Bethany was five and her brother Darian was six, we had kept to the larger cities, and invited Bethany’s birth family to spend three days with us in Guangzhou. Bethany was very comfortable with them, and loved having them carry her as much as possible. We met for meals, took all the children to a nearby park and took the family shopping. Communication was limited to smiles, hugs, laughter, gestures and a few words of Mandarin, even though they spoke Cantonese and the Kaiping dialect.
This time, we wanted to go to Kaiping, visit the family at their home, and see the village where Bethany had spent the first few months of her life.
"I had been prepared for emotional swings but Bethany just soaked up the total experience, completely unperturbed by any difference in lifestyle. She was comfortable referring to her birht parents as "mom" and "dad", and referring to me as "mom"."
I had spent six weeks in Guangzhou in 1990 with two-year-old Darian while Bethany’s adoption was being completed. Canadians had not yet begun to adopt from China’s orphanages, and ours was the first adoption completed by non-Asians in Guangdong Province. It was a private adoption, completed with the permission of the chief notary public for the province. We had met the family, including the paternal grandmother, a few times during that stay. We made it clear we wanted to keep in touch, and that we would take Bethany to see them again.
There were letters, photos, and Chinese Christmas cards exchanged over the years. Communication and trip-planning became much easier when the family got a computer and an e-mail address a few months before our trip.
Travelling with Bethany was more like travelling with a dear friend, rather than a daughter. She has travelled a lot with me, and has never complained about food, accommodation, crowds, pollution, or any travel-related irritant. There is only an eagerness to absorb as much as possible from each experience.
Bethany loved the energy of Hong Kong. The Star Ferry, Victoria Peak, Stanley Market, the Bird Market, Flower Market, Jade Market and fireworks in the harbour were all approached with gusto. She also loved the food. From the first meal there, and all through the trip, she wanted nothing but Chinese food, including congee, noodles, and dumplings for breakfast.
I had spent months planning the details of the trip, reviewing my Mandarin lessons, and trying to ensure everything that I could control was taken care of, as I had no idea what to expect from Bethany emotionally, once we met the family. We had gifts for Bethany’s birth parents and sisters, and I had prepared a photo album of Bethany’s life in Canada for them. Being tourists in Hong Kong was great fun, but now it was on to Kaiping and the long-awaited reunion.
Kaiping is a city on the Pearl River Delta and there is ferry service from Hong Kong. We took the early morning ferry up the Pearl River, arriving four and a half hours later at the port of San Bu. Through the doors of the customs office, I recognised Bethany’s birth parents peering into the darkness of the room looking for us. All three of her sisters had left work and school to meet us. Tears, hugs, smiles as big as they could get, and more tears - such joy!
Fortunately, Bethany’s oldest sister, Shuling, had a sufficient command of English to translate for her family and explain things to us. The other two girls had some English, but for most of the eight days we were there, they were too shy to use much of it. They understood Mandarin, but we understood no Cantonese, and certainly not the dialect. With my stilted Mandarin, Shuling’s serviceable English, and Bethany’s permanent smile and laughter, we did quite well with communication. I know we all would have liked to have had some more profound conversations, but that would have required a much greater proficiency of language than any of us had.
It was a dream week. We stayed at a new luxury hotel 10 minutes walk from the family’s home. At dinner in a restaurant that first night, we were surprised and very pleased to meet a great-aunt and great-uncle and several aunties, uncles and cousins.
In a blessed coincidence, we had unknowingly arranged our trip to be in Kaiping, not only for Bethany’s birth mother’s birthday, but also on the weekend when everyone honours their ancestors, referred to there as “Climbing the Mountain.” Relatives had come from Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Jiangmen to take part in the ceremony. I had particularly wanted Bethany to see the village where she was born, so to be there for this ceremonial occasion was remarkable. As an added measure of good fortune, one of the cousins from Hong Kong was fluent in English and walked along with me, explaining the family history, and who was buried where, as we moved among the graves. He said very few Westerners ever see this particular ceremony.
We followed along, as the men hoisted the poles supporting a tray carrying a roast pig. At each gravesite, food offerings were left, and incense and ceremonial money burned. Afterwards, the pig was shared about and eaten in the house Bethany had lived in for her first few months. She took a souvenir picture of the bed she was born in.
As the week went on, it was a joy to see Bethany with her sisters, laughing and joking and walking arm in arm. One of my favourite moments was hearing one of the girls say to Bethany, in English, “You should have your mother teach you Chinese.” Not that I would be a great help in that regard, but I was a bit sorry that Bethany had forgotten all the Mandarin she had learned when we took lessons together.
The extended family was so excited that we had come, and overjoyed to have Bethany with them. We went one day to visit the aunties, uncles and cousins in Jiangmen and were warmly welcomed, fed and toured. Bethany’s paternal grandmother, whom we had met twice before, had died two years before our visit. Bethany had the opportunity to pay her respects before her shrine in one of her uncles’ kitchens, and later offered a prayer for her grandmother, at the temple where her name was inscribed. I felt honoured to be so welcomed by all members of the family. When they all started calling me “Auntie,” in English, it was a mark of acceptance and respect which I treasured. I had been prepared for emotional swings, but Bethany just soaked up the total experience, completely unperturbed by any difference in lifestyle. She was comfortable referring to her birth parents as “Mom” and “Dad”, and referring to me as “Mom.” I was so happy to be in their midst and said to Bethany, “I feel like part of the family.” She said, “You are part of the family.” The only hard part was saying goodbye to them.