65: Now I Know

65: Now I Know

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Now I Know

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

~Albert Einstein

It is almost twenty years later. That is how long it has taken for me to truly understand why a woman would leave a baby girl, just a few days after her birth, on a desolate, wintry street in a forlorn, bleak city called Hefei, in Anhui Province, China.

“How could a mother ever do that?” well-meaning friends and acquaintances would ask, incredulously. “Just leave a baby on the street, to freeze to death.”

My response in the early days after my late husband Gregory and I first met our daughter Lili was always from my own selfish perspective. We had been desperate for a child, after years of infertility treatments, miscarriages, and two ectopic pregnancies. As far as I was concerned, that mother left the baby there for ME. Somehow, whoever she was, she knew I would be a good mother to her girl child.

“China has a one-child policy,” I’d remind people. “It’s against the law to have more than one child, and people need boys to work in the fields and take care of them in their old age.”

“But to just leave a baby on the street?” the more persistent ones would ask. “Couldn’t they take the baby to an orphanage?”

“Yes,” I’d inform them, “sometimes babies were left outside orphanages. But the mothers had to run away, because if they got caught, they’d be arrested. It’s against the law in China to abandon a baby.”

Truth be told, we had no idea where Lili was left — in an orphanage, at a police station, or on a street. We were given a piece of paper showing the name of the street, but it was most likely fake. Some adoptive parents were given notes that were found pinned to their babies, but most were skeptical about their veracity.

“How much did you have to pay for your baby?” less tactful people would ask. After all, we were living on the Upper West Side of New York City then. I’m reminded of a wonderful article by Joan Acocella, a staff writer for The New Yorker, in which she attempts to explain to non-New Yorkers why New Yorkers can seem rude: “People on the bus will say, ‘I have the same handbag as you. How much did you pay?’ ” (“My Kind of Town,” Smithsonian magazine, May 2008)

Were Gregory and I guilty of buying a baby on the black market? We had worked with a reputable adoption agency in New York City, a pioneer in the field of international adoption. It’s not like we put an ad in the newspapers in China saying we were looking to buy a baby.

But there was the matter of the thousands of dollars in cash that Gregory was instructed to bring, in a money belt, and the payoffs made by our Chinese guide to local officials. Best not to think of the darker aspects of what we were doing, or the harsh realities of life in China in 1994, pre-boom.

And Lili was never one to ask about her birth parents, unlike many adopted children. Didn’t she care? Wasn’t she curious?

After Gregory died from melanoma in 2007, when Lili was thirteen, I decided it would be a good idea for her to go back to China, to connect with her roots, so to speak. She was amenable to the idea, so in the summer of 2009 she went on a superb program called China Prep.

“What was it like,” I asked her, “to see all those people who looked like you?”

“It was fine, Mother,” she responded. “It was China, and duh, they were all Chinese!”

She is unflappable, resilient, wise. And inscrutable. She must wonder about her birth parents. She must feel like she was abandoned. She must have attachment issues. All adopted children do, the experts tell us. And she must know that girls were unwanted, discarded, in the country of her birth.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that I decided, at age sixty, when Lili left for college, that my cause in life would be helping other girls born into misogynistic societies.

And boy, did I ever find one of the worst places on earth to be born a girl — Afghanistan — for my volunteer work. I signed on as a mentor with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), founded in 2009 by American journalist Masha Hamilton. Today, 160 Afghan women across five provinces are enrolled in AWWP’s workshops.

One of the young writers I mentor is Zahra, a sixteen-year-old from a Taliban-controlled province in Afghanistan. She is one of nine children, the daughter of uneducated farmers who place great value on education for their children in the face of disapproval. Here is what she wrote:

I became a feminist because I could not tolerate seeing my neighbor beat his wife. I could not listen to my teacher call me a bad girl for working on a project with boys. I could not tolerate injustice towards women. I could not see women stoned for choosing their future. I could not stand to see a man who raped a young girl walk freely in the street and not even be ashamed.

Zahra stayed at my apartment in New York City during spring break from a New England boarding school, which she currently attends on scholarship, and I was amazed at her courage. Wearing a hijab, blue jeans, a cropped blazer I bought for her at H&M, and sneakers, she looked like any high school kid on the streets of the Upper West Side.

When she showed me photos of her family back home in the wheat fields, it hit me how far she has traveled to obtain an education. She is here because she feels she can learn enough to return and help her country. There’s a small group of girls like her, scattered across boarding schools in the northeast, far from home and loved ones. How do they do it?

Once when another young Afghan student, Sabira, stayed with me, she asked me to say hello to her mother back home. With zero preparation, I suddenly found myself face to face in that creepy Skype space with another mother, on the other side of the world. She is illiterate, married at a young age to a man who went to college but then had his hopes of becoming an engineer taken away by constant war. Now he works several menial jobs in order to send his daughters to school.

“Liz,” Sabira told me, “she wants to thank you, for having me stay with you.”

“Tell her she is very welcome,” I said. “Tell her I admire her. I know how much she misses you.”

It hit me then that Sabira is the same age as Lili, and this woman in black could be the same age as my child’s birth mother.

And now I know. I have seen the face of a woman who could let her daughter go for a better life. I have looked into her eyes. She thanked me, when in fact I should thank her. She has given me the greatest gift of all, which is understanding.

~Elizabeth Titus

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