05/23/2014 06:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Daughters' Mothers

Hanni Beyer Lee

My three daughters were all adopted from China at older ages. Despite the immense losses each of them have carried, they have loved me and accepted my affection and care without question.

It doesn't mean they have not hurt inside or pushed back at me. But they have called me Mama from the get-go and always reached out when they needed me.

My second daughter has a different story. We found her family early on. Her life in a state-run orphanage in the historical city of Nanjing ended at age 7 when I flew there to get her. I presumed she had been one of countless abandoned infants and spent many years with her orphaned peers.

I met Jiawen on an unusually warm evening in March, 1999. Although the flight was predictably excruciating, I was ecstatic. I was pulsing with adrenaline and I felt very confident, having done this the year before. I spoke Mandarin, and China was no longer a wildly foreign place.

Soon, my little daughter danced into the polished lobby of our hotel. She wore the little pink, ruffled jacket I had sent her. I commented on how nice it looked on her and she said, "This dress is way too short." Little buster! I laughed and told her it was actually a coat, but she looked doubtful.

I beheld her adorable and smiling self and asked if she was hungry. Score! We found a noodle shop in the hotel and she beamed when a bowl of steaming and very spicy noodles was set before her. She chattered away and called me Mama. These were the first precious moments of getting to know Jiawen, my sweet Spice Girl.

Upstairs, she chirped on as I prepared her first bubble bath and she donned soft pajamas dotted with little white polar bears. Suddenly, she leapt to the phone and announced that she was calling her Mama and Baba. I followed her and gently placed the receiver back into its cradle.

"What mama and baba?" I asked her. She looked at me but said nothing. I tried again.

"Where are they?" I queried.

She pointed a small finger out into the neon-lit darkness many stories up.

"Over there," she said.

"What is your mama's name?" I tried.

"Da Ma," she said immediately.

Da Ma? I thought. We were conversing in Mandarin. One character for da means big. Was my daughter saying Big Ma? I decided this woman was probably an auntie who worked at the orphanage. I told Jiawen we would see Da Ma the next day.

In the night I was awakened to the sound of Jiawen softly crying in her sleep. Would I ever learn what pained her young and tender heart?

We did not find Da Ma at the orphanage. Once home, Jiawen continued talking about her family until finally, a college student was returning there and we gave him everything Jiawen remembered and a letter from me explaining who I was with some photos. He found them right away. Not long after, we flew to China and Jiawen was reunited with them. Some people doubted the wisdom of allowing this, but when they entered our hotel room, Jiawen's Baba picked her up and sobbed. Da Ma and I held hands and both wept as I learned that they had not been allowed to keep Jiawen as she was an "overquota" (second) child. She was 6 when she entered the orphanage.


Jiawen goes to China every year. She recently celebrated her 22nd birthday with them. She is a remarkable person; loving and so generous. She has kept her Chinese language and culture close to her and remains devoted to both her families. She jokes that one day she will have a giant house so she can take care of all of us together. I wouldn't put it past her.

Mother's Day remains bittersweet. People have often said I was brave to adopt older children, but if I am brave, it was modeled to me through them. I remember looking at their faces as they gave me their Mother's Day cards and seeing the questions behind their lovely, dark eyes. Their mothers in China were never far from our thoughts and dreams and we spoke of them often. We still do. I hope my other two daughters might also one day find their Mamas. Until then, I watch as they gracefully make their way in the world with only me to send a card to.

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