This one’s dedicated to all my friends who live in Texas.
This is Part 3 in a 5-part Book Excerpt Series in the run-up to Orphan Sunday on November 8. Today’s excerpt is from a chapter entitled “Relentless Father.” Stay tuned for details before the end of the series on how you can pre-order your own copy of Lily Was the Valley: Undone by Adoption.
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Tammy and I grew especially close to Yao Shu Ting, a ten-year-old girl that over time we came to call our “gan daughter,” something like an informal goddaughter. Yao Shu Ting was not a girl we could have ever adopted, not that we ever discussed it seriously. None of the orphans we worked with were adoptable, certainly not internationally. None had the paperwork, nor were they ever likely to.
We’d been visiting Yao Shu Ting for almost two years before an aunt in town, who I’d also only just learned about, dropped a bombshell on us when she mentioned that the parents weren’t dead, you know. No, I did not know. Horrified, we strove to imagine what could lead parents to abandon their own nine-year-old to live on her own. We later learned it was a baby brother. They could only keep one of them.
We were never going to be like parents to Yao Shu Ting. It didn’t matter how much compassion and fondness we had for her, two or three visits a year did not make us significant people in her life. Part of us wished we could bring her to live with us. But not really, as that would have been quite difficult on her. What she really needed was a local family to take her in as one of their own. Still, we wished our connections could have been more frequent, and more significant. But in the end we were only two more in a long line of the well-intentioned but ultimately non-providers of all she truly needed, destined to recede into the background.
One time we did have the privilege of hosting Yao Shu Ting for a few days in our home in the big city. She was there for an appointment with an eye specialist, but it seemed like her visit was over almost before it started. She was missing her regular life. Our loud house had to feel foreign and uncomfortable compared to her normal solitude. It was time to take her home. I would accompany her on the ten-hour bus trip the next day.
I have fond, almost fatherly memories of Yao Shu Ting from that trip. Without Tammy and the kids around she did even less talking than usual. I tried chatting for a little while, but it was easy to see we both preferred the silence of looking out the windows. At lunch, we ate our instant noodles squatting side by side in the dirt next to the bus. I am squat-challenged. Maintaining that position for a whole meal worked up an appetite almost faster than the incoming noodles could compensate for.
The farther we got from the city the poorer the roads got. And more mountainous. On one of the stops to add water for the brakes, I went inside the roadside store to find spicy peanuts or spicy dried tofu. Packaged pickled chicken feet caught my eye, and on a hunch I bought one for Yao Shu Ting. Had I had known how fast she’d gnaw it clean, I’d have bought her half a dozen. I sampled a bite when she offered it, but I’ve never been able to nibble those things without having uncomfortable visions of their previous life tramping a chicken yard. I was happier enjoying my gan daughter’s lip-smacking instead. I got pensive as I watched her, and thought about her life, trying to imagine what it must be like. I couldn’t. The dissimilarities between her and me at age twelve were too great. It was those gaps, more than her shyness, more than my standard, unnatural Mandarin and her Sichuan dialect, that hindered conversation. We were from different worlds.
She finished the foot and I offered my headphones for a listen. The flavor of the moment happened to be Bryan White, the Dixie Chicks, Colin Raye. In my youth, such a genre would not have been found in any music device in my vicinity. In fact, in 1980’s suburban Chicago I can recall hearing no answer to the question, “What kind of music do you like?” more often than I heard, “All kinds. Except country.”
Funnily enough, the first place I moved after marrying a girl from Pennsylvania was Texas. I had grown up traveling extensively every summer because my dad was a high school math teacher, but I’d never traveled south. I didn’t even have a frame of reference for a place like Texas. On our move down, we hadn’t even exited the southern end of the state in which I’d spent my entire life before Tammy and I started hearing a dialect of English I’d only ever heard on television. Once we hit Texas the culture shock was complete. I wouldn’t be that traumatized when we went to teach English in Taiwan three years later.
Texas seemed unaware that there were kinds of music other than country. Country music played in the mall, it psyched the stadium, it headlined the fair, it blared from every car. Or would have, had there been any cars. We had a car, but everything else on the road was a pickup truck. And, as we were the Yankee morons who had brought down a car without a working air conditioner, our windows were always open and we could hear everyone else’s music that much better. We had cassette tapes of non-country music, but they caused more rubbernecking than our rolled-down windows, or melted in the heat. We left them home.
Amazingly, we adjusted. Culture shock wore off, my stereotypes faded, and Texas became home. And I’m fixin’ to tell y’all, it changed us more than we changed it, that’s for dang sure. That day on the bus with Yao Shu Ting, the country music I offered her had been put there by me. But now it was her turn to react for all the world like she was from 1980’s suburban Chicago. She took those headphones off in less than five seconds.
“No, wait, Shu Ting, try this next track. How about that?”
Her face politely grimaced a thanks but no thanks.
Maybe it was just foreign music in general she didn’t like. I switched genres. There went that theory. Her eyes lit up at a little-known group playing self-titled “astro rock.” She waved her hand furiously at me to stop, and that was the last I heard from her. She listened contentedly through both their albums until we arrived.
I may have lived seven years in Texas and have twang-appreciative kids of my own, but one unchanging truth had just been established: I would forever have at least one daughter who would never be a fan of country music. We got off the bus and I walked my gan daughter across the parking lot to her aunt. I passed her off with smiles and waves. And more than a little unease about what the future held for her.
I never saw her again.
We’ve never stopped trying to find her.