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Adoption stories

This is Bian and me, taken on June 25, 2005, a couple of weeks after she turned three years old.

Annik Stahl
Denver, CO

Birth Country: Vietnam
Decade of adoption: 2000 or later

Where do I begin? The process? The immediate connection? The love I have for the people of Vietnam and the prize with which they let me leave their wonderful country?

In 2001, I turned 38, meaning 39 was next and then 40. I was a single woman, living in a Seattle suburb, finding success in my work (I'm an online columnist for Microsoft), owned my own home, and found myself turning into a "serial dater." I began to realize that every man I met became scrutinized as possible father material, and after about a year of this, I realized that this wasn't fair to them or to me (or to the possible child we would have together.)

In November 2002, after watching one of those disturbing documentaries about the drought in Somalia, or perhaps one of those "Save the Children" commercials about the plight of the desperately poor and forgotten kids of the world, I went for a walk with my dog to clear my head. As I was walking, one of the songs on my walkman was "Dear Someone" by Gillian Welch. I realized, right then and there (and it truly hit me like a bolt of lightning, just like in books and movies) that I was going to adopt from overseas. I didn't know how, and I didn't know whom, but I had the strongest sense that I was going to do what it took not just to rescue a single child from a life of poverty, but I was going to rescue myself from a lonely, childless life. (So you see, there was really little or no altruism involved at all. In fact, it was more selfish than anything else. Yes, I'd be giving an unfortunate child a leg up in life, but I would also get what I wanted. People who stop us and tell us how "lucky" my daughter is have it all backward. And I have no hesitation telling them so.)

It was really that simple, that fast, and that obvious to me. Immediately, I started researching adoption agencies, reading up on international adoption versus domestic adoption, and talking to various agencies. I chose Faith International, a non-profit agency in Tacoma, Washington, and started the long, long process in December 2001. I initially considered China (it seemed an obvious choice since I saw adoptive families with Chinese girls everywhere), but was told that China had recently instituted a policy that limited the number of dossiers being submitted by single parents to ten percent each year. Therefore, the wait would have been very long. And frankly, I wanted a younger child; most Chinese girls are at least one year old, and having worked with children before, I knew that I wouldn't be prepared to have a toddler dropped into my life.

Faith recommended Vietnam and I jumped at the chance. I was told that Vietnam had a low alcoholism rate, low AIDS rate, good orphanages, beautiful children, etc. It was a quick (if expensive) process, and my parents helped with the financing, as did my company, Microsoft, which contributed $5000 after the adoption was final. Moreover, in January 2002, President Bush signed the "Hope for Children Act," which increased the adoption tax credit to $10,000. Not being a fan of Bush (just the opposite in fact), it is the one thing I appreciate him for.

About halfway through the process (March or so) there were rumors that the American government was going to shut down adoptions from Vietnam at any time due to illegal "baby-trading" (similar to Cambodia). People in the process would be out of luck and the children waiting for them would be, too. My parents were desperately worried for me, but for some reason, I had a strong sense that I would get my child and things would work out. I refused to worry and to fall into the trap of believing unsubstantiated rumors.

My daughter was born in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on June 11, 2002, and I was notified that she had born and that we had been "matched" in late July. I made the first trip to see her in late August, and she was perfect. (Back then, you had to take two trips. Supposedly, things are going to be different now.) I was only able to see her twice in the week I was there. It was the most overwhelming experience of my life. It was my first trip to Asia and I went by myself. The people, and particularly my facilitator Phuc, were wonderful. My daughter was gorgeous, healthy and tiny. Her birthmother had abandoned her at the hospital when she was two-days-old (due, I'm sure, to poverty).

I had to leave her there for six weeks (the most tense time of my life,) and then I returned to get her in October 2002. Her given name was Vu Thi Anh. "Anh" was the name given to her at the orphanage; it means "intellectually bright," which, of course, she is. She had been well taken care of there. She was a happy baby, beautiful to look at, and she had a special caretaker in the orphanage, Pho, who took great care of her and cried miserably when I came to take my daughter home. I gave Pho a framed photo I had taken of her and my daughter on my first trip there.

I traveled on that second trip with my best friend (whom I called my "baby gear sherpa,") and we were whisked, almost straight from the airport, to the orphanage, Tam Binh, just outside Saigon. (The Vietnamese still call Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon" and so do I.) We spent two weeks at the Rex Hotel while I dealt with the mounds of paperwork, the curious trails of American-versus-Communist bureaucracy and the interviews I went through with the American government. We also shopped; ate great, strange, spicy, challenging food; made friends with a street girl (with whom I still correspond) and immersed ourselves in the city life. My daughter was a happy baby throughout it all. She was barely eight pounds at four months old, and had a bellybutton that had not yet healed, due to lack of nutrition. But after two weeks, she had gained weight and her navel was all better.

We arrived back in Seattle on October 20, 2002. I named my daughter "Bian" (bee-AHN), which means, "secretive or hidden" in Vietnamese, because she was born near "Lang Bian" which means "Hidden Mountain." Her middle name is "Baruch," my mother's maiden name, which means "Blessed" in Hebrew. And so my "Secret Blessing," Bian is now three years old, and is an adorable, happy, energetic, healthy, incredibly bright girl, and is the gem of our family.

In April of this year, we moved back to Denver, where I grew up and where my parents still live, so that they could all be together; I couldn't keep them apart any longer. (I was also able to keep my job with Microsoft, for which I am eternally grateful.) Bian is the love, not just of my life, but of my parents' lives. My mother and I have always not gotten along together so well, and the irony is not lost on me that she and my daughter are best friends. They rarely go a day without seeing each other or chatting on the phone.

People stop Bian and I on the street and admire how lovely she is and ask us about the adoption. I am happy to answer any questions, as Bian is a wonderful representative of international adoption. We are starting to do volunteer work at a retirement home. She just charms people so much and looks like a walking, talking dolly. She flourishes in school, is very coordinated, and is a constant chatterbox. I cannot imagine my life without Bian. I'm not a religious person, but I thank God and the Spirits every day for this miracle of love they sent me. If I hadn't adopted her, of course someone else, someone very lucky, would have.

The scary part is that five weeks after we got home from Vietnam, at the end of October 2002, the American government shut down all adoptions from Vietnam and only now, more than two-and-a-half years later, they are reopening it. There are so many homeless and poverty-stricken children as well as overcrowded orphanages in Vietnam. It is a crime that so many children languished there because of slow-moving (and seemingly unfeeling) government bureaucracy.

I am the luckiest person in the world to have found the love of my life so far away. Bian knows she is adopted (although I don't know how much of that she understands). We attend Vietnamese festivals and I do try to stay involved in the culture. We will visit when she is older, perhaps seven or eight, but I don't want to wait too much longer than that. I want it to be just one of the places we travel to. I don't want to overwhelm her when she is a teenager struggling with all sorts of issues, and make her think that she doesn't belong in the United States, that she should have been raised in Vietnam. So, we will go soon and we will go often. I hope, one summer, to spend a couple months at an orphanage in the country or perhaps do some other sort of volunteer work. I want Bian to know where she comes from, and I want us to be able to give back a little of what they have given up. My parents say that if Bian had grown up in the village her birth mother came from, she would already be the queen of the village.

... I'm a better person than I was before Bian came along. I suppose children do that to you, if you let them. It's the most wonderful, challenging, exhausting, humbling experience of my life, and I wouldn't change a thing.

One more thing: As soon as Bian could talk, she would tell me, "Mommy, I chose you. They asked me who I wanted, and I chose you."

And I believe it.

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