I had searched four years to see her face again, always hoping I would not find her. I had comforted myself through the years that not finding her meant someone somewhere had taken the chance we had been too afraid to take. The reality hit me now.I first saw Zoe’s beautiful face while “paperchasing” our first adoption; and through the years, I often wondered what happened to this child. Being very active in China adoption advocacy, I became familiar with many faces of waiting children. I rejoiced as I saw kids matched and felt heartbroken when I recognized faces a year or years later. Yet never again did her photograph show up on advocacy pages. Now here I was facing the reality that no one had brought her home.
Zoe was listed on the advocacy site because an agency was trying to find a host family for her. She was all set to come to the United States for three weeks, when her host family changed their minds. The agency was frantically seeking someone to commit to hosting her. China’s hosting program was new at the time, but it has grown rapidly in a few short years. We quickly gathered the necessary paperwork needed by the agency, and Zoe was here in our home a couple weeks later.
The agency we worked with was on the East Coast. Since we are from the Midwest, I had to fly to the East Coast, pick up Zoe, and fly back home all the same day. This little 7-year-old who had never traveled more than across her city, had to board a plane and fly to a country she didn’t know anything about, immediately leave with strangers, and fly to who-knows-where to live for three weeks. She must have been afraid. She didn’t show it though. She greeted me at the airport, jumping up and down, hysterically laughing. She hugged me big and kept smiling and giggling to the point her face turned red. Now having been her mother for over 6 months, I know what that giggling and red face indicate. At that time, though, I was overwhelmed with how happy she appeared. She freely accompanied me onto the next step of the journey as we flew back to our home.
Zoe’s time with us was full of opportunities and new experiences for her, and I do think she enjoyed it. Swimming, ballet, the zoo, face painting, and just being a family with parents and siblings loving on her. Our agency required the host children be enrolled in some sort of day came while here; but because of our last minute arrangements, they waived that requirement for us. It’s a good thing they did, too, because it would have been a deal breaker for us. No way was I going to send her off every morning to spent time with people I do not know who do not speak her language and have no knowledge of trauma in children. How would that be beneficial in any sense? Just coming to the States and staying with us was enough for her to cope with; and we had so little time to get to know her. We didn’t want to lose a minute of it.
Zoe tried to be brave; but now that I know her well, I realize she was terrified while she was here. The hysterical laughter and red face that I saw at the airport and many times after that indicates her anxiety, fear, and sensory overload. She did her best to cope.
Our time together was much too short, and Zoe and I were soon on an airplane back to the East Coast. She happily greeted the other host children at the hotel and proudly paraded the photo book I made for her to the children and Chinese chaperones. She seemed relieved to see her fellow Chinese and converse in her native language. She was immersed with the familiar, and I faded into the background observing how smoothly she seemed to adjust to coming here and returning to China. I was relieved that there were no tears and grief from her as I left the hotel. Zoe frantically waved good-bye and giggled hysterically as I walked away hiding my own tears. Just as I am writing this, it hits me that in our moment of good-bye, her high-pitched giggle and red face meant she was feeling anxiety and fear. I had again mistaken it for her being exceptionally happy.
Once home, I now faced another side to hosting. My girls, adopted three and four years’ prior, were dealing with their own thoughts and feelings toward this experience. Regression in institutional behaviors was evident in one of our girls. She was sad and scared for her host sister going back to China, and I am sure both of our girls had some deep level of fear watching their host sister come to our home and then be sent back to China.
Although our agency said the host children were told the trip was a vacation, we know that at some point by someone Zoe was told more either before the trip or shortly after her return to China. She waited for us, and I think she must have worried that we might not come. Our adoption had delays for various reasons, and we didn’t get to China for 15 months. One day she will have the language to express in detail what that wait was like for her. The day we reunited in China was spectacular. As I walked into the room, Zoe jumped up and ran to me and collapsed into my arms. She hugged and cried and laughed her hysterical giggles. She seemed truly happy to be with me again, but I know now those giggles also indicated anxiety. Our time in China did seem less challenging with her than our other adoptions. Maybe that was because she knew us and knew where she was going. Maybe it was that she had been moved around between 4 foster homes and considered it normal to be uprooted again. I do know that she did not escape the impact of “gotcha day” and all the fear that comes with that. She experienced that on her hosting trip, outside of her culture and away from anyone who spoke her language.
My feelings toward hosting are complex. I am fully aware that Zoe might have spent her childhood being passed over by family after family that reviewed her file until she eventually reached the age of 14, when all hope of a permanent family is gone. I know that her file was scary enough to keep families from saying yes. It was accurate enough to guess that she does have a syndrome and inaccurate enough to lead families to believe that my chatterbox can barely speak or manage any self-care. I believe hosting was Zoe’s best chance to convince a family to say yes. I am grateful that family was us.
Zoe paid a cost though. The hosting experience is traumatic. We host/adoptive families need to be honest about that. If you think it isn’t, then the honesty needs to start inside yourself. A young child shipped off to a foreign land to live with strangers is traumatic. Children who have been neglected or abused most of their lives who come here and feel loved and valued will be traumatized when they must leave. As much as agencies promise expedited processes, it rarely is. Agencies inform families that children are told the hosting trip is a vacation for them. Please, don’t be naïve. These children are aware, at least on some level and possibly fully aware, that they are auditioning for adoption. Yes, I know. You cringed at my word choice. I tried for another word. The thesaurus gave me try out, test out, test run, experiment, trial run, and showcase. Those aren’t any more warm fuzzy-ish. Sorry. We cannot get around the audition side of this.
What alarms me is that I see hosting becoming a trend. Families who would have committed to a child without the hosting program, are jumping on board to host because who wants to turn down a chance to meet the child first. It’s a luxury for families, but we must consider the cost for the children to know if it is wise. Another alarming aspect is that many children selected for hosting already have a good chance of being chosen for adoption without being hosted. Minor needs, younger children. Toddlers, preschoolers, and children with certain special needs do not have the ability to understand what is happening as they are shuffled from one side of the world to the other. These situations are solely for the benefit of the family, and I am opposed to it. In turn, children who need the hosting program because they are older or have waited years are often being passed over by the orphanages while selecting which children will be a part of the hosting program.
We cannot forget the ones left behind. The children not selected for hosting and the children hosted but not selected for adoption. We cannot ignore the harm happening to them if we want to create a hosting program that is ethical and beneficial. We have to ask ourselves, “What about the ones not chosen? How do we lessen the damaging impact on them? Is there a better way to do this or an alternative for doing it at all?”
I do believe that hosting could have a positive impact and be an answer for some children. If done with thoughtful intent on the part of the orphanages and agencies, children who most likely would have aged out may be matched with a family because of the hosting experience. As an adoption community, we also need to do our part to support a program that puts the needs of the children first. We make a difference and have a voice in shaping these programs by our choice to participate and by the children we are willing to host.