A writer and documentary filmmaker living in New York City and her husband adopt two young children who were born in Vietnam.
“Tell me,” they’d say. “It was love at first sight, right?”
When my son was placed in my arms in Hanoi as a baby, I fell head over heels. This time, everything was different.
The first time I saw my daughter was on the Internet. Peering out from the Waiting Children website were an infant with webbed toes, a toddler with cleft palate, and older kids tainted simply because blood from HIV-positive mothers ran through their veins. Given the chance, any of them could probably grow up to lead happy, healthy lives.
She was standing in her metal crib. Three years old, brown eyes staring from the computer. “You want me?” she seemed to dare. “Take me, I’m yours.”
I spent boundless amounts of energy trying to persuade my husband that this was the right thing to do. “Can we handle an older child?” he’d fret. It wouldn’t be easy, I knew, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. “How can we not?” I’d reply. I called the adoption agency to say we’d take her.
In the months it took to complete our paperwork, we studied photos of her for clues of her burgeoning personality. Affectionate and curious. Sometimes a vacant stare.
I couldn’t wait to bring her home and love her. We studied Vietnamese and made a photo album to send her. Our 6-year-old son began imagining life with a sister, rearranging his room, picking out toys, choosing her dresses. “Mom?” he’d ask. “When she’s here, will there be enough love left for me?” “More,” I’d say. I was flying blind. Virtual family. Made on a Mac.
When the agency called, we had less than a week to get to Vietnam. Thirty hours, 10,000 miles, a quick shower, and a bowl of chicken pho later, we were headed for the orphanage, on the outskirts of Saigon. We pulled into the courtyard and there she was.
Tiny but tough, she stood barefoot among a dozen kids dotted with odd purple stains, like strange mythical creatures. “Chicken pox,” they told us. I took her in my arms and introduced her to her brother and father.
Poised and charming, she kissed my cheek, dutifully pronouncing “Me”—“Mother.” Taking our hands, she led us around the playground and the room where she slept. Bravely welcoming us into her world. Beaming, my son whispered, “I think she likes us.”
By the next day, her demeanor had changed. Clutching the photo album, she hung back, sad and fearful. Realizing she was about to leave the only world she’d ever known, she became hysterical, putting up such a fight I had to remind myself that this was an adoption, not a kidnapping. The kids reached for her, convulsing in tears. “Chào em!” “Little sister, bye-bye!” She vomited all the way to the hotel.
Two hours later, she was splashing in the pool, eating French fries, and throwing pillows at her brother, laughter filling the air. But at the end of the day she wanted to go home to the orphanage. She ran naked to the door to put on her shoes. She trusted only her Vietnamese-born brother to comfort her, feed her, sing her to sleep. We awoke the first night to find her sitting upright in her cot, looking around in a panic. We were still strangers. I didn’t go to her, afraid it would upset her. Helplessly, I watched until finally she lay down, thumb in mouth, and fell asleep.
Back in New York, picnics, walks on the beach, and playdates were derailed by visits to doctors, labs, and more doctors. Her belly was distended, muscle tone low, ribs bowed by rickets, and teeth badly decayed. She needed general anesthesia, root canal, and five stainless steel crowns.
She spent four years in an orphanage. We knew there would be developmental delays. What caught us off guard was having a 4-year-old and a toddler rolled into one. Fiercely independent—she dressed herself, ate with chopsticks, kicked a soccer ball like nobody’s business—she wanted to explore her new world. But her language delays, even in her native Vietnamese, made her easily frustrated, given to tantrums, often throwing herself down in the middle of Broadway when things didn’t go her way.
At school and in speech therapy, she was resilient and hard-working. An Eliza Doolittle transforming rough-hewn Vietnamese into intelligible English. At home she was a tyrant—stubborn, manipulative, a drama queen. Playdates were a challenge. With limited language skills, sharing was hard to negotiate. One moment, she’d be happily playing or singing Vietnamese songs. The next she’d be dazed, staring into space. Some days she’d wake up crying with a faraway look in her eyes. Others, she’d regale us with her lusty laugh and irreverent antics.
I became short-tempered and irritable, not just with her, but with my husband and son as well. After one grueling day my son looked at me forlornly and lamented, “She’s not as much fun as I thought she’d be, Mom. Can’t we send her back? She’s killing us.” Secretly I had to agree. I was guilt-stricken that love wouldn’t come. I wasn’t a mother; I was a drill sergeant. Exhausted and depressed, I felt shut out from the rest of the world.
She began to look like a regular New Yorker. Crossing Broadway in polka-dot sunglasses, pigtails bouncing, she’d wave and blow kisses to everyone from gray-haired ladies to guys whistling at her from motorcycles.
“I love you!” she’d tell her Dad. And the taxi driver, too. When we’d go out to eat, she’d enjoy embarrassing me with wicked parodies of my most unflattering self. “Don’t you ever, ever, do that!” she’d rant in her Vietnamese accent, finger wagging crossly, just like mine. The speech therapy was beginning to pay off.
One day, at home with a cup of tea, I felt her hand on my arm, her eyes full of concern. “Mamma, you tired?” Her empathy was disarming. In that moment, she stole my heart.
Our son still won’t admit to liking his sister, but will ask, “Mamma, can she sleep in my bed tonight?” and I let them giggle longer than I should before reminding them that it’s way past their bedtime.
The other morning, my son climbed into my bed to cuddle. “I love you sweetheart” came naturally from my lips. My daughter stood spying on us in the doorway. “You love me too, Mamma?” she whispered. I invited her in and told her I did.
To help the children left behind, visit the Worldwide Orphans Foundation online at: wwo.org.