GJ teen travels to China to find birth family, herself
Her journey begins with a question: Who am I?
There are the things she can see — the glossy black hair, the luminous smile, the dark brown eyes — and the things she feels.
She feels like dancing. And she feels like singing. She feels a kinetic forward momentum, a perpetual simmer that makes her want to fly.
She feels the fence beneath her feet. On one side of it, she’s the American daughter of Marilyn and Peter Robinson, a text-sending, ballet-dancing, homework-doing, shoes-buying teenager who is plugged in and accustomed to having her voice heard. On the other side, she’s a daughter of China.
In Grand Junction, she looks different. In China, she feels different.
Who am I?
She has two sisters who look like her and two parents who don’t. She’s level-headed enough not to let what’s on the outside define her, but she can’t help feeling the subtle itch of questions: Does her birth mother love to dance? Does her birth father sing through his day? Do their eyes have the same almond shape? Are they as uncertain about seafood as she is? Would they laugh at the same things?
Did they want her?
Who am I?
Sofia Robinson, 16, looks in the mirror, beyond her reflection, to the life Marilyn and Peter helped her create, to the foundation of love they laid, to the person she’s becoming. There are blank spaces, and maybe they’ll always exist. Maybe the questions will never have answers. But she had to try.
In 2008, when she was 13, Sofia and her family, including older sister Maya and younger sister Luci, returned to China to try finding her birth family. Their experiences are narrated in “Sofia’s Journey,” a documentary by Changfu Chang that will be screened April 9 as part of Reel Time films series at the KAFM Radio Room.
“I just wanted to know,” Sofia explained.
Marilyn and Peter said they knew from the day they brought oldest daughter Maya home from China that these questions would come.
They’d met somewhat later in life, Marilyn said, and hadn’t immediately thought about having children. When they were ready, adoption was their best choice.
“In this country, adoptions were open adoptions where the birth mother picks the adoptive parents,” Marilyn said. “That reality is hard for older couples, where they’re in a pool with dozens of other couples.”
Marilyn had lived in Hawaii for 10 years and had an affinity for Asian cultures, plus she and Peter wanted girls, so when a friend called her in 1992 and said China was opening to international adoptions, with a preference for mature couples, they set off on the path toward their family. They applied to adopt in spring 1993 — coincidentally, Maya was born April 1, 1993 — and in May 1994 traveled to China’s Anhui Province to meet their daughter.
“There are no words to describe what it’s like when someone puts a life in your arms,” Marilyn recalled.
Back home in Grand Junction, they lived in the happy, woozy cocoon of a new family, a sleepless, energetic world of spills and lullabies and new teeth. Maya revealed herself as a thoughtful, mellow child whose facade of shyness was really just a habit of quietly observing everything around her. She was still water that ran deep. And she wanted a sister.
“We thought, this is so much fun, let’s do it again!” Peter said, laughing.
They applied again, and nine months later Peter, Marilyn and Maya were on an airplane with 12 other adoptive couples, heading for China. On the morning of Oct. 5, 1995, they sat on a floral-print couch in the sunny reception room of an orphanage in Fujian Province. They sat with fluttering hearts until a nanny brought Sofia out. She was chubby-cheeked and fuzzy-haired, and a little horrified by the Westerners. In Sofia’s adoption album, the family has a photo of Marilyn holding Sofia for the first time, and Sofia’s expression clearly says, “Um, help? Someone, please, SAVE ME.”
But because Marilyn and Peter had trod this path before, they knew that getting to know each other happens in steady, small steps — smiles and tickles and gentle rocking as sleepy eyes flutter closed. Maya had the sister she wanted, a sister who looked like her and trailed her like a shadow, and the Robinson family was growing. In Oct. 2002, with the same “Let’s do this again!” attitude, they brought 4-year-old Luci home from Guangxi Province.
In so many ways, they grew and changed in all the usual ways a family of five does. Marilyn and Peter raced between parent-teacher conferences, dance lessons and play dates, and the sisters fought and made up, planned and schemed and laughed like sisters do. The family raised pets and cooked dinners and just hung out together. And the girls wondered.
Marilyn and Peter never had any choice but to be open and honest about the circumstances of the girls’ adoptions. They are tall and fair. Their daughters look Chinese. They made the distinction between the girls’ “tummy mommy” and Marilyn, their “forever mommy,” and every year on the girls’ adoption anniversaries they leaf through the girls’ adoption albums, which document the journey toward family.
The girls said they’ve always known they are cherished and loved. But they’ve also always known that they look different from most of their classmates, that they weren’t born at St. Mary’s Hospital, that heartbreak and then healing marked their infancy in a way their friends couldn’t understand. They always knew a part of their heritage wound through the Middle Kingdom. They felt American, and they felt Chinese.
When Sofia entered middle school, she started asking aloud the questions that had always floated through her subconscious: What about my birth family? Where are they? Who are they? Why did they give me up?
Marilyn and Peter were reminded that to be adoptive parents is to assume a certain humility, to know that there is room in a child’s heart for both families.
“I felt that’s what a mother would do is love (Sofia) so much that I would bring her home,” Marilyn explained in “Sofia’s Journey.”
Having spent decades in marketing, Marilyn launched a campaign to find Sofia’s birth family. Fliers with baby photos of Sofia said, in English and Chinese, “I lost my parents in June 1995.” She and Peter called the orphanage, called government officials, called everyone who might be able to help. With only sporadic success, they nevertheless planned to go to China in June 2008.
From a Yahoo! group she’d joined, Marilyn learned about Chang, a documentary filmmaker and professor of video production at Millersville University in Pennsylvania who specialized in documentaries about adoptees returning to China to search for their birth families. Marilyn emailed him to ask for advice, and discovered he’d be in Xiamen, Fujian Province, at the same time as the Robinsons.
“When adoptees come of age, they start to deal with real mental identity issues,” Chang said. “Not just the need to know, but the need to fulfill emotional voids or needs.
“The Robinson family’s story represents what happens in many adoptive families. It reflects a larger picture, and through their story we can reflect on various issues: the need of a teenager with a hole in her heart, her need to understand herself better, how she constructs her identity with new pieces of information, how the family grows and changes.”
Chang contacted friends in Xiamen, where he’d worked as a TV journalist, and two of them were able to find not Sofia’s birth family, but the family that claimed to have cared for her between the time she was found by the road and the time she went to the orphanage. It might have seemed a little too perfect had they not mentioned Sofia’s palms: Rather than curved lines, her palms have a straight line across the middle. It couldn’t be coincidence that the Ouyang family of Xiamen, China, knew that.
The Robinsons and the Ouyangs arranged to meet. There were a few holes in the narrative, Marilyn said, a few big, unanswered questions, but Sofia was so excited.
The Ouyangs fell on her like a lost daughter. They told her they had wanted to adopt her. Her birth mother had given her to them, and they had nursed her and loved her, they said. When her birth mother came to their home, a peasant woman, they told her, they all lived together.
For whatever reason, the narrative grows murky. They couldn’t keep her, the Ouyangs told Sofia, for unclear reasons that they said broke their hearts. They took her to the orphanage and said they’d found her beside a road.
Regardless of what had happened, Marilyn said, Sofia clearly had been loved and cared for when they met her. She was at the orphanage a little more than a month, and in that time she owned the place. On the day the Robinsons met her, she was just 9 months old but cruised between the couches like a pro, Marilyn said. Some of the other children who hadn’t received such nurturing couldn’t even crawl.
The Robinsons’ time in Xiamen with the Ouyangs passed in a blur. Adopted children who grow up in Western homes tend to romanticize China, Chang said, creating a fantasy of what they think or hope it will be. Sofia and Maya confirmed that China was amazing, but also overwhelming. The crowds are mystifying, and the food sometimes involves eyeballs. Everyone assumed they spoke the language, so they felt American in a way that mirrored how they sometimes feel Chinese in Grand Junction.
“When you’re in China, you’re acutely aware of what your daughters must go through every day,” Marilyn explained. “There were moments when, if I could push a button and be Chinese, I would have. It was such a good learning experience. I saw the world through their eyes.”
It was a maelstrom of emotion, but it also soothed something in the girls. Sofia had just a portion of the answers she craved, but she had a sense of connection. She didn’t resent her birth mother for giving her up, she said, but understood that the woman must have had her reasons. She repeatedly implored the Ouyangs not to feel guilty that they, too, had given her up. Instead, she called them “mama” and “baba” and treated their daughter and son like her siblings.
“I had peace about things,” Sofia said.
Sofia’s journey inspired Maya, who graduates from Grand Junction High School in May, to plan for a gap year in Anhui Province studying Mandarin, maybe volunteering in an orphanage and beginning the search for her own birth family.
They still are girls, still getting to know themselves, still creating their own place in the world. Like anyone else, they look in the mirror sometimes and don’t recognize the person they see. But other times, when they ask, “Who am I?” they can say with steady knowledge, “I’m me.”