N HOUR INTO THE annual Chinese New Year celebration at Youngstown State University, the girls from Table 16 were getting restless.
Four-year-old Rebecca Choleva had abandoned her mom and was visiting at the next table. Mira Mikan, 11, was getting exasperated, or at least pretending to be, as she tried to keep up with 5-year-old Remi, her roadrunner of a little sister. Lacey Ickes, "almost 4," was still sitting with her mother, but was fidgeting big-time. And Margaret Faur, 21/2, was trapped in her high chair, so she resorted to playing with her chopsticks -- and her food.
Giggling and chattering in Kilcawley Center the night of Jan. 30, these fast friends shared more than impatience and a bit of innocent mischief. They were all born in China, abandoned as an unfortunate consequence of that country's one-child policy, but are growing up as Americans after being adopted by Youngstown-area parents.
Those parents have something in common, too. They're part of an ever-widening network of local families who have adopted little girls from Chinese orphanages, forever changing their own lives and those of their children. Collectively, and over time, their experiences are affecting the cultural diversity of the community -- one family, one neighborhood, one classroom, one ballet class at a time.
With an estimated 1.3 billion people, China is the world's most-populated country. The government enacted a one-child policy years ago in an attempt to harness its population growth, and with its people's cultural premium on sons to carry on the family lines and traditions, orphanages and other social services in China have been overwhelmed with infant girls abandoned by their parents.
Since the Chinese government began allowing international adoptions, Americans looking to adopt a child have turned increasingly to China and the orphanages teeming with young girls. More than 41,000 adoptions from China to the United States have been recorded since 1985.
Americans adopted 6,859 children from China between October 2003 and September 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration Services. Ninety-five percent of them were girls. Forty-nine percent were under a year old, 48 percent were between 1 and 4 years old, and only 3 percent were older than 4. The average age was 11 months.
China does not allow private adoptions. All must be coordinated by the China Center for Adoption Affairs, a government agency in Beijing. American parents work through any of several adoption agencies in the United States approved by the Chinese government.
In some foreign countries, a sizable percentage of the children placed for adoption have substantial physical or emotional problems, stemming from rampant alcoholism and poverty, lack of suitable health care and neglect. In China, however, youngsters in the orphanages or foster homes tend to be healthy and well-cared-for by social services there, according to the local parents who were interviewed.
The Chinese government sets stringent guidelines for international adoptions -- parents must be older, financially secure and from a stable home environment. As a result, those who do adopt tend to be highly motivated because they have so many bureaucratic regulations to clear.
That's certainly the case among families in the Mahoning Valley who have done so. Individually, their stories are compelling. Collectively, as their ranks increase each year, they represent a community-within-a-community.
Every adoption is unique, so none can be characterized as typical. But the following handful of local case studies offer an overview of a range of experiences for both the children and their new parents.
Roy and Patricia Faur were married in 1980. He was a retail manager for Ames department store chain; she was a nurse at Northside Medical Center. When the Ames stores went out of business, Roy switched careers, went to nursing school and eventually joined his wife on the nursing staff at Northside.
They never had children.
"It wasn't going to happen, so we did other things in our lives," Patricia said.
But Roy worked with Marlene Mikan, who had already adopted one daughter from China and was going back for a second one. Marlene prevailed on the Poland couple to look into it for themselves.
That was early 2003. Patricia was 55 at the time, Roy 49. Two years later, their lives revolve around little Margaret, whom they adopted last June.
Now the toddler stays active with a "Mommy and Me" music class on Wednesdays, a tumbling class on Thursdays and swimming at the Y on Thursday nights. Next year, she'll start preschool.
"These children are loved so much because their parents have gone through so much," Roy said. "There's nothing you can have but love for these children once you go through it, and they just love you right back."
When she was just a day or two old, Margaret was found on the doorstep of a shop in the town of Shui Bian, in a box containing some clothes and a bottle of milk. Authorities placed her in an orphanage, and the staff there named her Zou Jiang Li -- Zou for the name of the institution, Jiang for the local river, and Li meaning "precious."
When Roy and Patricia adopted her, they retained Li as her middle name.
MIRA AND REMI MIKAN
Inspired by a television program, Marlene Mikan was 50 and living alone, her only son already grown and on his own, when she adopted the first of her two daughters from China seven years ago.
"I was sitting on the living room sofa, and it hit me," she said. "I'm not religious, but this was a calling."
Mira was 11/2 when she was abandoned in a train station. She was 4 and living with foster parents when Marlene adopted her.
Four years later, Marlene returned to China and adopted another child, bringing a little sister home to Canfield for Mira.
"We talk about our lives joining," Marlene said.
Mira likes horseback riding, and Remi takes ballet. Their relationship reflects that of many sisters their age.
"Sometimes, my sister is a pain in the butt," Mira said. "She doesn't want to give me any privacy. I can never get her to stay out of my room."
Remi just laughs. So does Marlene.
"Parents do this to try and make a difference in these children's lives," Marlene said. "But the difference the children make in yours, you can't touch. It's priceless."
Sharon Ickes never married, but that didn't stop her from yearning for motherhood.
The longtime principal of C.H. Campbell Elementary School in Canfield spent years thinking about it and exploring her options. After her brother and sister-in-law adopted a child from Kazakhstan, she began leaning toward an international adoption.
Concerned about a possibly increased risk of fetal alcohol syndrome in babies from the former Soviet republics, she instead began the process for adopting from China. That was almost five years ago, when she was 47.
The bureaucratic process of forms, interviews and more forms lasted from May to December 2000. Then she waited a full year, until the next December, before authorities in Beijing informed her they had matched her with a 9-month-old girl who had been abandoned at the gates of an orphanage in Anhui province as a newborn.
Two months later, Sharon flew to China. She came home with a daughter, whom she named Lacey.
Typical of young children in orphanages, Lacey lagged a bit in her development for an 11-month-old, but it didn't take her long to catch up once she got into a routine at her new home.
"We bonded instantly," Ickes said. "She was a really good baby. She didn't fuss much, she slept all night, and she was always a good eater."
Now approaching her fourth birthday, Lacey is "kind of a homebody, happy to stay home with the dog and the cat," her mother says. She takes ballet lessons and likes anything musical, and it doesn't take much prodding to get her to make funny faces.
"She's kind of a little ham."
Avery was about 13 months old when Tom and Kelly Doctor and their daughters Dana and Camryn arrived in China last October to adopt her out of an orphanage in the same rural province where the Faurs had found Margaret.
The transfer was traumatic for Avery, as it tends to be for most babies leaving the only home they've ever known to go with a bunch of strangers who will become their new family.
"She was just very somber," Kelly said. "She had that blank stare, almost like she was in shock, what I call that 'orphanage look.' She slept all night that first night. The next day, she clung to me and didn't let go for two weeks."
On the third day, she gave Camryn a big belly laugh, and the family saw for the first time that little Avery had a mouth full of teeth.
The return flight from Hong Kong to Chicago included 22 newly adopted babies. The first few days in her new home were rough, but by the fifth day, "It was like we'd had her forever," Kelly said. "She adjusted so well."
Avery now is almost 17 months old. Dana, 14, says it's pretty cool that she's the only one in her circle of friends at Poland Seminary High School who has a baby sister.
"My friends really, really like her," Dana said. "She's so entertaining. She'll do whatever we do."
Camryn, 6, has adjusted, too, to no longer being the baby of the family.
Eventually, Tom and Kelly plan to have Avery attend Chinese immersion classes in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. In the meantime, Dana is learning a bit of Chinese on her own. So far, she can say "hi" and count to 10.
"It was just a great thing for our family, such a blessing," Kelly said. "People say, 'She's so lucky,' but she's brought so much life to our family, we feel we're the lucky ones."
Adoptions can be emotionally challenging under the best of circumstances as potential parents wait and hope for the process to successfully end, but international adoptions are saddled with added layers of complexity.
The bureaucratic hurdles leading up to the adoption are many. The process can be frustrating -- and costly, ranging between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on the circumstances, according to U.S. adoption agencies and international adoption support groups.
Once completed, parents face the dilemma of how far to go in incorporating the child's native culture in their American upbringing. As the children mature, they could find themselves conflicted by their own issues of personal and cultural identity.
Adoptions that transcend racial boundaries also can portend a lifetime of unsolicited inquiries from family, friends and strangers, from innocuous to hurtful, from innocent to mean-spirited.
There also is an ethical debate about the cumulative impact of Westerners -- Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Australians -- removing so many children from their native land and culture.
"You have to see it in the context of international adoptions as a whole," said author Cheri Register.
Register, of Minneapolis, has two Korean-born daughters now in their 20s. Her 1990 book, "Are Those Kids Yours?" was a watershed work on the complex issue of "transcultural" adoptions by American parents. Her second book on the subject, "Beyond Good Intentions: A Mother Reflects On Raising Internationally Adopted Children," will be published this spring by Yeong and Yeong Book Co. of St. Paul, Minn.
"As a kind of measured, immediate response to the situation the children find themselves in, it's a good thing," Register said in a recent interview. "I'm concerned, though, about parents who view the issue as a matter of supply and demand. I don't see it as an unsullied good. The joy we get is offset by sorrow elsewhere."
Local parents of children adopted from China appear to be making efforts to cover as many bases as possible. For example, some have taken classes on becoming a biracial family. They've gone to great lengths to expose their children to Chinese arts, culture and traditions as evidenced by the art, books and dolls in their homes. And, they've immersed themselves in Chinese culture as well.
Sometimes, though, they meet with unexpected results.
"I spent a fortune on [Lacey's] Chinese dolls," Sharon Ickes said, "but she won't play with them. She likes the $3.99 bald-headed ones."
Lacey hasn't started school yet, but most of her friends are of Chinese ancestry, except for the kids at her daycare. Someday, she might also attend occasional lessons at "Chinese school" in places like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The schools immerse the students in Chinese language and culture.
"I realize, though, she'll probably never speak Chinese," her mother said. "On the other hand, she's already picking up Spanish from 'Dora the Explorer,'" a bilingual cartoon character.