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Parenting: Red Diaper Brigade

They were adopted from orphanages in the Chinese countryside. The challenge for their parents is to bring these girls up as New Yorkers while keeping them in touch with their former culture.


In the hotel room in southern China, the orphanage director pointed in the direction of Roberta Ferdschneider, a curly-haired woman who sat on a bed, hands folded patiently in her lap. She smiled what she thought was her most welcoming smile as the director, a sweet man, introduced her to his 2-year-old charge, Wu Pei Yue. "Mama!" he said, pointing. "Mama!"

It was the middle of winter. Wu Pei Yue had been driven a couple of hours in from the countryside wearing four pairs of pants, two shirts, two sweaters, a knit jacket, a hat with cat ears -- every stitch of clothing she owned. She had red, chapped cheeks; fine, poorly cropped hair; and a face distorted by screams.

Roberta had begun the adoption process eighteen months before, and six weeks ago, the FedEx man had brought to her office a one-inch-by-one-inch photo of the future Juliette Ferdschneider. Roberta, single and almost 50, had converted the guest room in her Brooklyn apartment to a child's room -- she'd had the ceiling wallpapered to look like a blue sky with clouds. She'd read up on attachment theory.

There was also lots of maternal gear to get. She bought a lightweight stroller at Toys 'R' Us, the one on Union Square -- it was packed on the plane with the bottles and diapers (in a couple of different sizes, since she didn't really know how big her baby would be). She was bringing pink-purple shoes in two sizes, a polarfleece coat, pajamas. She'd packed a medical kit with syringes and antibiotics. She was prepared for all the exigencies, she'd told herself -- except one. Her daughter-to-be, Wu Pei Yue, a name Roberta couldn't pronounce, broke into sobs at the sight of her. "Juliette" -- as Roberta called her child from the start -- "wanted no part of me," Roberta quickly surmised.

After all this time, Roberta was a little heartbroken. And yet in some unexplainable way, Roberta found she loved her fitful daughter-to-be at first sight. "I knew in my heart of hearts her tears were a good thing," said Roberta. "I was having the big gain, she the big loss." She set out to win over this angry child. Communicate, she told herself, however she could.

"These parents like to do everything the Chinese do -- I was impressed and moved."

The next morning, when Juliette sat down by the hotel-room door, as if waiting for the orphanage director to return, Roberta sat with her. She touched Juliette's new shoes -- both pairs had been too big, but Juliette seemed to like them anyhow. Roberta offered Juliette a set of stacking cups she'd brought, probably the first toys she'd owned. Then, in the hotel room in southern China, Roberta started singing -- it was easier than talking -- any song she could remember. She sang "If I Fell," by the Beatles, and "Eensy Weensy Spider."

By the end of the second day, a transformation had occurred. The former Wu Pei Yue needed to have Roberta in her sight every moment. "I strapped her into the stroller" -- she'd never been in a stroller -- "and wheeled it next to the bathtub just so I could take a shower," said Roberta.

Walk into any Upper West Side playground or Park Slope day-care center, or visit a pre-k or a play group in the Village or Chelsea, and you're likely to spot Chinese girls -- almost all the orphans are girls -- with white parents. "I was sitting in a park one day on the Upper West Side and my Chinese daughter was playing in the sandbox with another little Chinese girl," recalled one parent. "I looked over for the other girl's parents. It was so surprising. They were Chinese. 'Oh,' I recall thinking, 'I guess that can happen.' "

By the end of last year, some 19,000 young Chinese girls had been taken by American parents. It's a pretty good guess that the largest number has ended up somewhere in the New York area, with people like Roberta Ferdschneider. Most plunked down $15,000 or $20,000 and boarded a plane to China, traveling in groups whose members quickly picked one another out by the stroller without the kid. After they picked up their little girls out in the countryside -- most were likely the children of peasants -- they headed, almost every one of them, to the same hotel, the five-star White Swan next to the American consulate, where'd they'd get their papers. Sometimes the hotel had a couple of floors of new parents with new daughters. The parents traded diapers and information, wondering all the while the same things that Roberta pondered: Would it click? A Chinese child, a white Jewish mother? Or Italian? Or Irish?

"Couldn't you get a white child?" one adoptive parent's father had bluntly asked. It was a thoughtless question. And yet every adopting parent wondered if ties of blood, of race, of ethnicity, of looks, of history -- all the traditional elements of family identity -- really would matter. And if they didn't, then what would it take to conjure up an identity for this new New Yorker, a Juliette-to-be, for this "mishmash of a family," as one adoptive parent put it?

The girls were, of course, New Yorkers, baptized as Catholics or Protestants or, as in Juliette's case, probably headed for bat mitzvahs, and as such fit snugly into other identities. (A joke among adoptive parents is that Jewish women are raising a whole generation of Chinese girls. Sometimes it seems that way. Last year, Roberta took Juliette to a Passover seder with three adopted Chinese girls -- all Jewish.)

Yet the children were unmistakably Chinese, too; it was a fact you couldn't get around. Many of these parents are taking this circumstance as a mission, raising their kids in full recognition of their faraway origins. There are, in these lives, Chinese nannies, Chinese schools, Chinese summer camps, trips to Chinatown, and play groups with children just like themselves. It's an ambitious undertaking, one that's not only about bringing up a child but also about educating and changing themselves.

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