Recently, in a creative writing class, I was given the task to write a memoir. By definition, a memoir is a self told story about an impactful period in one's life. For me, the most impactful period in my life centered around the adoption of my baby sister, Shan Shan, our journey to the furthest point on the globe away from home to get her, her amazing life saving surgery and recovery and our emotional and spiritual growth as a family during that time.
Today, Shan Shan and I are about to celebrate our 5th fall season together which is our favorite time of the year. So, it seems like a good time to reflect on all that we've been through, and to reflect on just how good life is, and to remember why we are thankful.
Here is our story....
Although I don’t clearly remember when either of my younger biological siblings were born, I vividly remember the day my family adopted my little sister. This day marked an incredible milestone in what my mother calls “her six-year gestation”. The process of adoption literally had taken six years of applications, paper chases, finger printing, financial record reviewing, FBI checks, and completely revealing and exposing interviews with a social worker before we could bring my sister home… along with a trip to the furthest point from our home on the other side of the world to China. My adoption journey with my sister, Shan Shan, was full of emotion, fear, sadness, and ultimately hope and joy.
With paperwork complete, and an adoption approval in hand for a family member we had never met, our family of five headed to the airport. After two separate flights and over 18 hours of flight time we arrived in Beijing, China. While we had originally left Dallas, Texas at 5:30 pm one day, we arrived in China at 11:30 pm the next day to see a deserted airport that was spacious, with the highest vaulted ceilings I had ever seen. It was lit up beautifully with lights that looked like sparkling stars in the “sky” of an incredibly futuristic and ultra-modern facility. My body was numb with anticipation combined with jet lag. My eyes were wide with disbelief as the primitive conditions of China that I had prepared myself to see were nowhere to be seen as I marveled at the amazing and impressive architecture that enveloped me. Following this unexpected and surreal introduction to China, a guide met us and ushered us to our hotel where we expected to rest for a day, see the Great Wall of China, and then travel on another plane to reach the town where I would finally meet my new little sister. After a small late supper of a bowl of rice once we arrived at the hotel, we rested for a few hours, and woke up to my youngest brother vomiting from the onset of what was the worst migraine headache he had ever had. We all felt terrible, but he was clearly the worst off of all of us. Our plans of seeing the Great Wall quickly faded as we all tried to adjust to our new surroundings and find food we could eat. After all, if you ordered “wrong” from a restaurant’s menu written in Mandarin, you might be served a live fish in a bowl of hot water as your meal. Our day became focused on survival and rest to be ready to travel on one more flight to get us to the place where we would finally meet Shan Shan.
Finally, the day to meet Shan Shan came. It was hot outside, and humid. We were nervous and sweaty. Yet, even if the temperature outside would have been freezing, I think we would have been cold and sweating at the same time. After we took yet another airplane flight to finally arrive at the region to meet Shan Shan, we were loaded into a red bus. Just like the bus color, I was wearing red too, for the color red symbolizes good luck in China. My clothing choice was carefully planned out weeks in advance. Knowing it would be hot, I wore a simple but neat cotton red t-shirt with a red and pink floral silk skirt. On the bus we joined 11 other families from across the United States, all waiting to meet their newest family member. It was comforting to find this new circle of people who had walked in our family’s shoes in this crazy adventure to the other side of the globe. We shared the same hopeful anticipation as we travelled to an odd Chinese government building in the middle of nowhere. The building looked institutional, worn and stark. We entered and stood and waited in an open room for what felt like forever. Eventually, a van arrived delivering two young children from an orphanage remotely located. Two families then made joyous connections with their new children. One female child had a large pigmented black hairy area over 1/3 of her face, and the other male child was missing an arm and had only a thumb protruding from his left shoulder area. I was saddened by the medical issues of these children, yet all of us were there knowing we would accept special needs children into our hearts and our homes.
The meetings seemed to be going well, and both the children and the adoptive parents seemed happy. Slowly, one by one, families and children joined together as more vehicles brought other children to the Chinese government adoption building. We stood and waited. At last, after 10 of the 11 families who were with us had connected with their adoptive children, Shan Shan finally arrived! We expected a happy meeting, yet when Shan Shan was placed in my mother’s arms, something looked unexpectedly different about the structure of her face even though she looked beautiful at the same time. Her name, Shan Shan, means beautiful coral in Chinese. I think she must have been given this name because of her lovely, perfect skin color which is olive with rosy cheeks. Even though her coloring was beautiful her skin was marred with sores and welts from bug bites and her head shape appeared very different from anything I had ever seen before. Her forehead was narrow and bulged forward and her cheeks were wide. The shape of her head looked like an upside-down light bulb. Additionally, almost instantly, Shan Shan began kicking, writhing and emitted a blood curdling scream followed by soulful wailing as she reached toward her “ayahs”, or Chinese nannies, as they retreated while smiling tense smiles and nodding as they backed out of the room. While the other children appeared joyous, Shan Shan continued to cry relentlessly. My mother smiled stiffly, rocking Shan Shan all the while. My father’s face looked painful, and my youngest bother blurted out, “well Mommy, this couldn’t possibly be going much worse!” Meanwhile, my other brother and I stood numbly, unsure of how to respond to or process this overwhelming event. Shan Shan’s heartbreaking crying continued for just over 3 hours until she finally collapsed in my mother’s arms and fell sound asleep. My mother reassuringly reminded all of us that her crying was a good thing. It meant that she was unlikely to have “attachment disorder” which occurs when babies are so neglected that they cease to cry because no one ever comes to comfort and care for them. The babies with attachment disorder grow up to have difficult lives and are unhappy, fail to develop bonds with their families and may even be violent toward other people.
It was difficult to believe that her intense sadness could be good, but when Shan Shan awoke, it was clear that she was my mother’s daughter. She became inseparable from my mother, almost as if she knew she was there to comfort and care for her, no matter what. Over the coming days, it was clear I was her sister too. We were meant to be together, and our connection is equal to or beyond anything biological.
In the days that followed, we travelled throughout China together, and then returned home to the United States where Shan Shan would have surgery to correct a condition called scaphocephaly. Shan Shan’s surgery was completely successful, and involved the removal and rebuilding of the top 2/3 of her skull, by the world leader in this type of surgery in Dallas, Texas. Because of our bond, I was allowed to stay with Shan Shan in the ICU until she could come home. Today, my sister is almost like any other American 7 year old. She loves Frozen, and can’t decide if she would rather be a mermaid or a fairy someday. For me, I am just happy she is the sister I never had before now. She is a part of me, and I her. Our connection is unexplainable, yet, was meant to be… A love and a journey this incredible leaves no doubt in my mind that things do happen for a reason and that God exists.
“A sister is a gift to the heart, a friend to the spirit, a golden thread to the meaning of life”
A Memoir by: Anneliese Aeria