This is not going well. The orphanage director folds his hands on the table before him, his back so upright it doesn't touch the chair. His face remains unsmiling, inscrutable behind sunglasses. He is not here, it turns out, because of his love of children. It is his poor eyesight that has doomed him to this position as director of the Chinese social welfare institute where my daughter once lived.
Mr. Li first took his seat without introducing himself or welcoming us, and our interpreter, Grace, immediately fired off a question: can we see my daughter's file, as promised by a previous director almost ten years ago? I lean forward, anxious. I planned to build to this subject over time, after a little friendly small talk. But now the question has bulleted across the table, and Mr. Li responds with what sounds like a firm and final pronouncement.
Neither Sophie nor I speak much Chinese. She has taken classes for a month and can say, "This is my nose." I took a class many years ago and retain little except the sentence, "I am not a doctor": "Wa bu shi daifu." I remember this so well because Gubo, the guy on the language tape, spat out the words as if furiously offended that anyone would dare to mistake him for a doctor. I can still imitate his tones and inflections, which I did a bit hesitantly for our guide in Beijing a few days ago when she asked me if I spoke any Chinese. I half expected her to rear back at my unnecessarily forceful rejection of the medical profession, but instead she looked impressed and made me repeat it for a guide at a silk factory, who also looked impressed. "We can understand you," they both said approvingly. Since then, Sophie and I have been proudly throwing around our Chinese, getting endless mileage out of this one sentence: "I'd help people who are suffering, but wa bu shi daifu," Sophie might announce casually, to which I'd reply, "I would have started us on the antibiotics sooner, but wa bu shi daifu."
When it comes to Chinese, it's not just the words that I don't [End Page 27] understand. I also have trouble deciphering moods and attitudes. Falling tones often come across to my American ears as vehemence, decisiveness, even anger, while rising tones sound like hesitation, uncertainty, or anxiety. The speaker could be saying, "Look at the beautiful white geese winging overhead," but if falling tones are involved, I am likely to tense up and even feel mildly insulted. And if in rising tones someone would say to me, "This is a stickup. Put your hands in the air and don't make any sudden moves," I might very well be seized by an overpowering urge to pat him reassuringly, and possibly fatally, on the arm. So when Mr. Li utters a few harsh syllables and shakes his head fiercely, I am instantly discouraged. Not Grace. She machine-guns back a string of phrases. Mr. Li responds at length.
My daughter sags in the leather seat next to me, her mouth a network of wires and bands that are red this month in honor of China. She loves being in a country where she blends in, where no one stares at her. She tries not to smile too much, showing the braces that announce, in a country where dental care is often prohibitively expensive, that she is American. Her gaze drifts to the elaborate grates over windows that look out across a courtyard to the baby room where she once slept. She is zoning out at this important long-awaited meeting, still recovering from the stomach bug that stranded us in Chengdu an extra day.
Trying to stay alert for both of us, I listen intently as if I can follow the conversation. Grace speaks, Mr. Li, Grace, Mr. Li. I have become adept at watching Chinese soap operas and making up dialogue for Sophie's entertainment. Yesterday, a woman in a red negligee was clearly angry at her handsome bedmate. She delicately brushed a tear from her cheek...