Romel's adventures in wonderland


Donna Butt
Focus on Adoption magazine

One of the most fascinating and enlightening aspects of international adoption is the chance to see and experience the world where your child was born, and to show them a new world. In this story of international adoption, a family brings a new child and a new culture to their family and to Canada.

In the fall of 2003, after two years in the international adoption process, my husband and I got a call from our social worker informing us that she had a picture of our prospective child. Unfortunately the fax was so blurry that there was very little information and she couldn’t tell us the gender.

The boy/girl’s name was Romel and he/she appeared to be wearing shorts or a skirt. He/she was five years old. It would be several days before a clearer fax arrived with more information and a better picture.

Receiving a picture and information about a child typically means that in a few weeks you're flying to the country of adoption to meet our child. In our particular case, Canadian Immigration was especially backlogged and it would be six months and many phone calls later before we boarded a plane for the Philippines to meet our son.


In April 2004, we arrived in Manila, a frantic, bustling city of thirteen million. The plan was to spend a couple of days relaxing and recovering from jetlag before flying to Cagayan Province to the orphanage. After a few hours of sleep, we made a call to the local airline and were informed that the only flights into Cagayan were scheduled on Sundays. This was a Sunday and if we missed this flight, we would be waiting an exra week in Manila. Realizing that taking a bus or train would entail almost 24 hours of dusty, bumpy travel over windy roads, we were determined to make the flight. After frantically repacking our suitcases we managed to get to the airport with an hour to spare. After several hours, we were finaly on our way to Tuguegarao, the capital of Cagayan Province.

The orphanage

Romel was sitting on the front step with a group of friends when we drove into the orphanage’s parking area the next day. They all jumped up and began to shout at us, “Romel, there is your new mummy! There is your new daddy!” We soon found out that the kids loved adoptions because new parents brought toys, candy, and clothes for all the children. We put our travel case on a bench and Romel tore into it and began sorting through the contents.

He was the centre of attention, with the kids hovering around him, doling out the Canadian loot.Taking not the least interest in Ken or I, Romel was very intent on his role as bearer of gifts.

The orphanage’s workers were referred to as Aunties and the manager was Uncle Mark. The Aunties took us on a tour of the facilities. It appeared very functional and clean. The floors were concrete, the benches were wood, and there were food guides and hygiene posters in the kitchen.

We saw the baby room with babies ranging from newborn to two years old. We saw the playroom with toys and a television, the boys’ dormitory with wall to wall bunk beds, and the kitchen. The girls’ dormitory was across the courtyard with a swing and slide.

During our tour, Romel and his entourage followed behind us, clutching their new toys and crunching on their candy.

A huge mango tree grew beside the boys’ bedroom and the Aunties gathered a few mangoes for our lunch. Romel and his friends ran back and forth from the table, taking a few bites and then scampering off to play. After lunch, we handed Romel a set of new clothes and shoes to change into since his clothes were to remain at the orphanage to be used by other children. We were handed a package of photos and papers for Romel to take to his new life and we said our good byes.

A whole new world (for everyone)

Romel awoke the next day full of excitement over his new surroundings. He especially enjoyed the novelty of a shower with running water and spent hours playing and dancing under the shower mist. The orphanage had a bucket and pail bath system and he had never seen anything like this amazing water from the ceiling. He was a squeaky clean boy by bedtime.

Not speaking a word of English, communication was difficult and we resorted to some rudimentary sign language. Romel was teaching us a few very necessary phrases in Tagalog, such as “I’m hungry”, and “I need to use the washroom”. Other than this very basic communication, we drew pictures or made gestures to try and understand each other. He was often very frustrated with his two not very smart parents, and let us know when he had had enough.

When we returned to the big city, we spent most of the remainder of the week in offices filling out papers. Romel was, and still is, a very active and inquisitive child. We brought colouring books and crayons, but after a few minutes, he would be checking out everything else around him. He loved to touch anything that looked remotely electrical and was fascinated by phones, buttons, switches, and doors. Disciplining a virtual stranger in a foreign language is not an easy task.

Language isn’t the only cultural barrier

Reading a portfolio about your prospective child, and learning about that child through everyday interactions are two profoundly different things. He was described as shy and quiet with easily hurt feelings in his write-up. Huh?

Maybe they gave us the wrong write-up because these were the exact opposite traits from the Romel were were getting to know. He was confident, loud, and scolding him had no discernable reaction. I had raised two girls and I would have a sharp learning curve before understanding Romel’s very distinct personality.

Romel also had a very keen sense of humour that crossed all language barriers. The first morning in Manila, he spotted Ken’s glasses sitting on the nightstand and put them on. He began walking around the room imitating a businessman with the glasses perched at the end of his nose and was rewarded with our laughter. He was on a voyage of discovery and everything was new to his five-year-old mind.

Welcome to Canada!

After ten days in the Philippines, we flew back to Vancouver. Romel spent most of the twenty-hour hour flight staring at the television screen and doing somersaults in his seat. None of us got more than a few hours of sleep. We stopped at a playground in Calgary on our drive back to our home. Romel was completely amazed that there were so few children on the equipment. In the Philippines, there were line-ups for everything and kids everywhere. Most families had at least six children and often more, and crowds were a fact of life. Canada was so big and empty.

Romel began kindergarten five months after coming to Canada. He had to learn the language, culture, and to make friends in a foreign country. These have not been easy tasks and he has had many ups and downs. He continues to struggle with English at school, but loves everything else about his new life. He plays soccer and we soon found out that he is a natural athlete for almost any sport. He is learning guitar, and hates weekends because there is no school and he has to stay home.

Our family is planning a return trip to the Philippines this spring and we hope that this will go some distance towards helping Romel understand where he came from and where he is now. Striking a balance between two cultures is something that most foreign adopted children struggle with, and Ken and I are hoping to help him find this balance in the years come. We have some minimal information about his birth family and if he decides that he would like to locate his mother or brother in the future, we will fully support this choice.