TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Scott Simon, the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, has written a new book about his experiences adopting two children from China, and how his daughters have changed his life.
He and his wife, Caroline, first tried to have children in what Scott describes as the traditional, Abraham-begat-Sarah manner, as well as through in vitro fertilization. The latest innovations in fertility treatment are pretty amazing, but it's adoption that Scott describes as a miracle.
His oldest daughter, Elise, is now 7. He and Caroline adopted their younger daughter, Lina(ph), three years after Elise. In Scott's book, he also writes about the experiences of friends and colleagues who have adopted children or who are, themselves, adopted. In addition to hosting WEEKEND EDITION, Scott spent years reporting for NPR from war zones. His new book is called "Baby We Were Meant For Each Other: In Praise of Adoption."
Scott Simon, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
SCOTT SIMON: Thanks very much.
GROSS: Because you write so well, I thought we would start with a reading from your book. So would you do a short reading for us?
SIMON: Sure. Well, this is the part when we - our oldest daughter was put into our arms - our oldest daughter, Elise, who had the Chinese name Fung Jao Mae(ph). And we were at the adoption center in Central Nanching(ph), which is in southern China.
SIMON: (Reading) Grinning bureaucrats received us and showed us to a staircase. They took us down a flight and into a room. We saw smiling, middle-aged women in white smocks holding babies, cooing, singing, and hefting them in their arms. We shucked raindrops from our shoes and coats. We checked cameras and cell phones. We looked at the women in the smocks and then realized they held our children in their arms.
We saw Elise. She was five months older than in the picture we had but still recognizably the little girl in the thumbnail portrait: pouty little mouth; tiny, endearing, little, downy, baby-duck's head; fuzzy patch of hair and amazed eyebrows; crying, steaming, red-faced and bundled into a small, puffy, pink coat. We blinked back tears and cleared our throats.
And I go on to explain that we brought her back to our hotel room, and she cried. She was inconsolable, despite my wife's best efforts to coo and comfort her, and my clownish efforts to try and amuse her.
And finally, our trip coordinator, whod been through this many times before, said, well, you know, you should all go downstairs and get something to eat.
I don't remember what we ate, not much of whatever it was. I had a glass of wine; my wife had a beer; and we toasted our daughter. The drinks flashed through us like tap water. We ate and talked and tried to amuse, divert and win over our daughter with songs, food and funny voices, leaving her sullen and unmoved, all the while asking ourselves: What have we done? What were we thinking? We ripped a baby away from the only place she's ever known to bring her someplace on the other side of the world that might as well be the moon. What kind of people are we?
Then Caroline and I realized that in the space of an afternoon, our lives had suddenly developed a few new and indisputable truths: that my wife and I loved each other even more than we had a few hours ago; that we loved no one on earth more than this new, small, squalling, hungry, thirsty and occasionally ornery human being that was now ours. Our baby had opened new chambers in our hearts. And, we realized, our daughter hated us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Scott Simon, reading from his new memoir, "Baby We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption."
So how long did it take until you felt your daughter didn't see you as the enemy?
SIMON: Oh, two or three days. It got a little better every day. I mean, we weren't the enemy. We were feeding her, we were holding her. We bathed her. She just didn't become happy about it for another couple of days.
And you know, looking back on it, the transition is very quick. It was, of course - she immediately became our child, and our identity with her deepened every day, and deepens every day even now. And I'd say that happens with our daughters, too. But the initial reaction is, there's no Hallmark card moment when your little girl is put into your arms under the circumstances because the only world they've known is behind them, and the idea of another change just when they were getting comfortable in a world they knew, in an orphanage, the idea of change is obviously obnoxious.
And it takes a few days but, you know, only a few days - 72 hours. It's nothing in a lifetime.
GROSS: How could you tell during those first couple of days? What was the difference between just ordinary baby crying and baby being torn away from the only home they've ever known, given to strangers crying?
SIMON: Well, I should underscore that since I'd never been a parent before, I'm sure my perception is purely amateurish, and a lot of it just might be sheer projection on my part.
But she was utterly inconsolable. And of course, she didn't know us. I mean, we smelled funny, we looked funny, we were out of a different world. I think my best efforts to kind of amuse her - well, they fall flat with a lot of people, don't they?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: But they certainly fell flat with her in the first few hours. And I don't mean to project too much, but I come back to the fact that she'd already Elise was then 11 months old. When we got Lina, she was 7 months old. By the time we got them, they had already seen an awful lot of history.
They had already been a term I don't like because it seems harsh - but they'd already been abandoned by scared, young mothers, I think something they're not totally unaware of under the circumstances. They had connected, perhaps, with other people in an orphanage, however imperfect the care there can be.
And suddenly, you have a couple of adults who are all over them. You know, they move, they squall, it's - are you all right, are you all right? They're not used to that kind of total attention.
GROSS: You seem to have had two slightly different reactions when you adopted your daughters. For the oldest, it was this immediate sense of that's her; she's ours. With your youngest, the first reaction was: Is this the right one? She doesn't look like the photograph.
SIMON: When we got our second daughter, Lina, which is short for Paulina, we had gotten a little photograph, as we had for Elise. And we didn't go to an orphanage center, adoption center this time. They said I think it was 4 o'clock; we'll knock on your hotel room door and bring your baby to you.
And I said to my wife: My gosh, talk about room service. And they knocked on the door, and they came into our suite, and they set this little baby down on the - kind of conference table there, and she did not look like the little girl in the picture.
And my wife and I were, on the one hand, delighted and ecstatic, and on the other hand, it didn't look like the little girl in the picture. Now, we couldn't have cared less, but what we didn't want was them coming back in a couple of hours and say, oh, you know, there's been some terrible mistake. You got the baby that was meant for the Shmoolavitz(ph) family, and they got yours. Let's make a switch right now. Because as soon as they brought that baby into the suite, we were falling in love with her.
And I will never forget that our little girl Elise, our oldest daughter, who herself had been cast aside in life, she just reached out with her little hand, with a kind of tenderness, you know, you usually don't see in 5-year-olds, and she just reached out to her sister, and she said: It doesn't matter.
And I have never loved a human being or a human moment more.
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon, the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION Saturday. His new book is called "Baby We Were Meant For Each Other: In Praise of Adoption." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Scott Simon. He's the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, and now he's written a new memoir about adopting two children with his wife, two children from China, and the book is called "Baby We Were Meant For Each Other."
In adopting two daughters from China, you are very aware of the politics in China that lead to so many female children, so many baby girls, being available for adoption. And I'd like you to...
SIMON: A far smaller percentage are available for adoption than are abandoned. If you - you know, if you take the figure of 15 million orphaned and abandoned children in China, of which - this would be a guess, but I think a pretty good one - that 14,750,000 are little girls. A couple thousand are adopted every year. Its a scintilla of the babies who could be adopted, obviously.
GROSS: What stories did you hear about how women abandon their babies in such a way that they can hope that the babies will be taken care of?
SIMON: Well, for one thing, it's illegal to bear a second child, which would obviously be the case with some mothers. It's also illegal to abandon a child.
So we were told that what commonly happens is a scared, young mother will take a train or otherwise get to a location thats scores or even a couple hundred miles away from where they actually live, so they won't be identified. And they will wrap their baby in a blanket, put her in a basket, and put her in some very public place where she knows that that baby will be found and taken to an adoption center - perhaps first a police station, then an adoption center.
And typically, the young mother waits across the street or hides behind a tree to make certain that her baby is picked up. And I just cannot imagine the anxiety, and I think torture is the proper word, that a young mother must feel looking at her child across the street, traffic whizzing by, wondering, hoping, praying that she'll be picked up.
GROSS: Scott, how old were each of your daughters when you adopted them?
SIMON: Elise was 11 months old when she came into our life, and Lina was 7 months.
GROSS: So you've tried to imagine what their lives were like in the orphanages before you adopted your daughters. And you write that you think your daughters were probably well-fed but not always well-attended-to. What effect do you think that had on them emotionally and on their ability, you know, to cope with, to cope with things in general?
SIMON: Well, you know, it's not just my projection. I think we have the benefit of a lot of professional opinion on this, at this particular point. The youngsters in orphanages are not fed when they're hungry. They're not necessarily they don't hike a blanket up around their shoulders again when they're necessarily cold. And obviously, a lot of these institutions are unheated and have incomplete heating.
What happens is, because of the volume in which theyre working, it has to be done according to a schedule. So kids cry out, and there are not people that then run out to pick them up and love them and coo in their faces, and cuddle them the way we think ought to be done with babies, the way I think they think in China, even, ought to be done with babies. The volume is just too great.
And I think what happens is that orphanage kids and I think, by the way, they develop great strengths, too - but I think that they begin to feel a little bit, you know, they lose a little bit of that lose a little bit of their childhood that way, in that they feel kind of unnaturally responsible for their own survival at a very early age.
And I think a little bit of their childlike innocence is lost that way. And they become just a little bit hardened, accustomed to having to look out for themselves and put themselves across.
Now, I also want to say that I think the people that we saw in the two orphanages, that we saw, are overworked and undoubtedly trying to do the best that they can. But it's the best that they can and, I think, not the kind of lives we would want for any of our children.
GROSS: Now, you were in your early 50s when you adopted?
SIMON: I think I was 50.
GROSS: Fifty, okay. So what are some of the pros and cons of becoming a father relatively late in life?
SIMON: You know, the only con that I can think of is that I'm just aware of the fact that I'm not going to be around for a lot.
But you know, as I say that, I have just delivered the eulogy at Dan Schorr's funeral, my dear old friend, and he was even older when he became a father, and he was told the same thing. And he lived to the age of almost 94. And his kids are in their 40s. And he was around for a lot.
So that's the only con I can think of. I think I am a much better father now than I would have been when I was younger, and I think everybody who knows me would probably agree.
Now, you can never tell how the presence of a child in your life will rally you and focus your mind and change your thinking because I, you know, observe that even now. But I don't really think of that as a drawback.
I'll tell you something that it does affect, and it's not just I mean, let's put it this way: Children, any daughters of mine will have a lot bigger impediments in life by being my daughters than my age presents.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: I mean, they're my daughters; of course they'll have some problems anyway. But I don't think my age is part of it. I do think when it came to having a second daughter, it sharpened my mind this way.
And look, I was an only child myself, although I had a sister who died at an early age. But I think something that my wife and I confronted was - as any parent should - is that you understand, I think especially when you adopt, that as parents, you're not going to be around forever. And it's certainly something that I feel keenly.
And among the many other reasons why I think we wanted a second child to sort of put the right amount of gravity on everybody in the family, it was certainly on my mind that at some point, I'm going to disappear. I'm going to leave the scene. Even my wife, as young as she is, isn't going to be around forever.
And there's a lot to be said for having a running mate. For all our talk about friends and family and a loving circle, there's a lot to be said for having a sibling, to having a running mate; someone to join you in life, who shares those formative experiences, who shares - for that matter - the same set of parents, and someone that is profoundly attached to you in the way that siblings are.
GROSS: In your book, you write that your daughters are taking classes, learning Mandarin, and also...
SIMON: They haven't been this summer, but yes.
GROSS: Okay, and they're learning how to cook certain Chinese dishes. They're observing certain Chinese holidays, probably in a class with other children who, like them, are adopted from China?
SIMON: Yes, although I think the kid who speaks Mandarin best is Saul(ph), and he's not adopted from anywhere.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: His family has adopted a child from China, and Saul is learning Mandarin, too - and excellent at it, I gather.
GROSS: Why did you want to send them to this school?
SIMON: Well, you know, this is a...
GROSS: It's extracurricular, I know that, yeah.
SIMON: Yeah, it's it's been in hiatus this summer, and we'll reassess it. You know, we want our little girls to grow up with some consciousness, obviously, of their Chinese heritage, and we want to make this available to them.
Now, I think they will go through different periods of their lives when at some point, their Chinese ancestry and heritage is going to be very important to them. At other points - and I think we're at that point right now - it's not particularly important to them.
We don't want to get hung up about it, one way or another. We want to make it available to them. You know, you have to confront the fact that your children, the children you've adopted are not just cultural vessels. They're living, breathing human beings who at some point, will sort all of this out for themselves, and not all at once. They're going to grow up and make the decisions that they want to.
You know, Caroline and I went through a period where she wanted all of our babysitters to be Chinese. And as a result, we weren't getting out much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: And I said to her at one point, you know, we were scouting a three-state area for Chinese babysitters. I said to her at one point: Darling, I think we should stop racially profiling our babysitters.
But we did get a great babysitter, a wonderful woman named Dun-Dun(ph), who was from China. And it was worth all of the time and the effort because one night, Elise said to Dun-Dun - said, what about your brothers and sisters? And she said: I dont have any brothers or sisters. And she said, you know, you're very lucky to have a sister because in China, we don't have brothers and sisters. And Elise said: Well, if you ask your parents, maybe they'll get you a sister.
And you know, suddenly, all the gymnastics we went through I think Elise absorbed something from Dun-Dun that was much more telling than if we'd said it to her.
GROSS: So heritage is important to you. You want your daughters to know their Chinese heritage.
SIMON: Our daughters know they're Chinese. You know, we want to make that available to them.
GROSS: Right. But you also want them to know your family's heritage and your wife's family's heritage. How important was heritage, family heritage to you when you were growing up?
SIMON: Well, you know, I can't I'm the product of a mixed marriage and tha, in a funny way, was my heritage. I was aware of part of me being Jewish. I was aware of part of me being Irish Catholic.
When my parents got married, that was considered a mixed marriage. I mean, in the 1950s, this was a reasonably controversial thing to do. And lots of people in both sides of the family weren't happy about it.
And so I think I became aware of the fact that I was growing up in an ethnically and religiously mixed household. And in a funny way, that mixture became my heritage.
You know, and I find in life, one of the things I treasure is that mixture of heritages as your own identity. It's why I love great cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London. It's why I fell in love with Sarajevo and its mixed background and heritage. And I think it's one of the things that I hope our daughters are absorbing - by being in a French family, an American family, Chinese heritage, Jewish influence, Chicago influence, all of that. I mean, they are, culturally, a mixed bag.
And I find that attractive, and I think that's just the way we're living these days. And I find - I think they're going to be more comfortable in the world that way.
They'll make their own decisions about this because I think in the end you know, the whole idea of getting your identity mixed up or dictated by your ethnicity seems, to me, not an attractive thing.
And I have covered too many ethnic conflicts in too many parts of the world to think that deriving your identity from your ethnicity is a healthy or moral thing.
GROSS: Scott Simon, it's great to talk with you. Congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for being with us on FRESH AIR.
SIMON: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Scott Simon is the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. His new book is called "Baby We Were Meant For Each Other: In Praise of Adoption." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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