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Parenting: Red Diaper Brigade


The choices these New Yorkers are making now flow out of ones they'd bypassed earlier. They were generally late bloomers, certainly when it came to families. Many had been career-centered. They'd dawdled on their way to parenthood -- sometimes until biological families were out of the question. "I was like that T-shirt that says oops! i forgot to have a baby," says trend-spotter Faith Popcorn, founder of the consulting firm Brain Reserve, who was in her late forties by the time she got the baby urge. ("Adopting is a trend," she says.)

China, as if intending to appeal to just this group, preferred "mature" parents for its orphans -- until two years ago you had to be at least 35; now it's 30. What's more, while other countries ruled out singles, the Chinese government welcomed them. And also, importantly, China had babies in abundance. To control its burgeoning population, China limited most families to one child, a limit that's enforced with stiff fines. Since Chinese families preferred boys -- boys would support parents in their old age, it was said -- girls were selectively aborted, occasionally left to die, or abandoned at bus stops or police stations or public parks. While Chinese demographers already had begun to ponder another problem -- a surfeit of bachelors -- Chinese orphanages filled up with girls, perhaps several hundred thousand of them.

Roberta Ferdschneider, meanwhile, had been drifting. One day a friend offhandedly told Roberta, "You should be a mother." She had sometimes thought so herself. She was the type to take care of people, to make them feel at ease, but she hadn't found a suitable partner till she was almost 40. Still, her boyfriend didn't particularly want a child, and by the time they'd started trying, she couldn't get pregnant. "For years," she said, "I contemplated the meaningless of my life." Soon, though, Roberta found herself typing a question into an Internet bulletin board: I'm 48, can I adopt? Who knew exactly what prompted her. She stared at the screen.

Someone wrote back, suggesting she look into adopting a Chinese girl.

Now, though, the question had become more complicated: How should she and her new daughter go about becoming a Chinese-American family? Like every Chinese girl, Juliette came with a Certificate of Abandonment, an official document which simply said she'd been found in a village and the People's Government took her to an orphanage. When she was 3, Juliette had one day insisted to Roberta, "We have to go to China today. I know I can find my Chinese mommy." Roberta simply told her the truth -- there was no way of finding her parents -- which Juliette seemed to take in stride.

Some worry: "Are you raising someone who'll always be different from you?"

Still, it was a troubling issue. After her first day at school, one daughter asked her father how people knew she was Chinese, since she hadn't told them. Perhaps their daughters wouldn't be so interested later on, but many parents struggled with how to treat this difference at the heart of their families. "Some people say they just want to be a 'normal' family and ignore the way their family was formed," says Elizabeth St. Clair, who is general counsel to New York City's Health and Hospitals Corporation. "They don't want to emphasize the Chineseness of their kids. But I have this little feeling that all of us in my family have to participate together. And since skin color or culture is important in America, we have to make an effort to honor theirs."

Many families -- St. Clair's included -- initiate the process of honoring their kids' Chineseness by keeping part of their daughter's Chinese name. Georgica Swan Pond Rose Petal Qi Xin Popcorn was the name Faith Popcorn assembled for her daughter, though she calls her "g.g." (spelling it lowercase, like e.e. cummings, as she explained). And Andrea Annunziato, an interactive media developer at AIG, called her daughter Nikki Rose Liu Xingping Annunziato. Roberta's daughter was Juliette Peiyue Ferdschneider -- a Hebrew name would soon be coming. "They made the name 'Whoopi Goldberg' seem mundane," laughed Susan Caughman, an early adopter and now publisher of Adoptive Families magazine.

In many of these families, the most coveted information may be the name of a bilingual nanny: Mandarin-English. Richard Shulberg's wife had managed to find Mary Huang via somebody's cousin. Eventually Mary would take care of a group of four adopted Chinese girls. Sarah Shulberg was one; Roberta's Juliette was another. "Mary was exactly what Nina needed," said Ann Finneran, parent of another one of Mary's charges. "She'd take her and hold her and hug her and say 'I love you' in Chinese and in English."

In fact, Mary Huang wasn't exactly bilingual -- her English was far from perfect -- but she was terrific with the kids. The girls called her yiyi, which in Mary's explanation meant "Mommy's older sister."

Juliette already understood Mandarin and spoke a little -- it was either Mandarin or baby talk, Roberta said. Mary cooked for them and set them to playing games. She brought them to the library and the playground. Sarah didn't really like her Chinese name, but sometimes Mary called her Sar Wah Wah, which Mary told her meant "I love you very much." And Juliette was called by her Chinese nickname Pei Pei. Mary is, said Roberta, "a combination grandmother and Mary Poppins."

Some parents decided they, too, would like to speak Chinese -- for their children, if nothing else. "I would love to learn Mandarin" is the kind of thing you can hear parents say on the Upper West Side these days. Paula Grande, 51 years old, actually took two courses. "I don't have enough years left to learn to read and write," she concluded. All the while, of course, her adorable 6-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Youjing Streeter, who also studied, delighted in correcting her pronunciation.

Still, in New York, there are lots of other things Chinese to participate in. There is Chinatown, for instance. Robyn Stein, managing director of Pro-Media Public Relations, liked to wheel her daughter through the narrow streets near Mott and Bayard. In supermarkets, older Chinese women stopped her, bent over the stroller, and tried to strike up a conversation. Stein laughed, "My daughter thought she was from Chinatown for a while."

For Chinese New Year, the Chinatown community reached out. Roberta helped organize a group of 30 adoptive families to join the annual parade that winds through Chinatown. Each kid carried a little sign with her name in Chinese and her province of origin. A couple wore traditional Chinese outfits. The parents carried a flag that said adopted chinese children knowing their heritage. "People from the province where my daughter was born gave us a hug," said David Youtz, an assistant director at the Asia Society, father of Sophie, and one of the few parents who speaks Chinese. There were t'ai chi schools and kung fu schools marching and the kids loved it -- in part because they got to march in front of a giant paper dragon of a martial-arts troupe, though, as Roberta said, "The parents liked it more."

"We're thinking of a float next year," Roberta said.

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