"I look like I'm going out dancing!" my husband said.
"All I have is black pants," I moaned. "Kids like color!"
"Just wear a bright top," my husband said. "Do you think she'll notice I'm losing my hair?"
"You look great," I replied, perkily applying lipstick from the credit card–size makeup palette I had packed in lieu of my normal arsenal of beauty supplies. "Oh, damn it!" I said.
My husband looked at me and burst out laughing. "Honey, your lips are blue."
"I put eyeshadow on them!"
"You're just nervous!"
"Well, obviously I'm nervous!" I said, scrubbing my mouth with soap and water. I looked over at my husband, who had finished shaving with a trembling hand and was now applying tissue to the multiple bloody nicks he'd inflicted upon himself. "And you cannot meet our daughter with toilet paper all over your face!"
Our costume drama served to distract us from the enormous affect welling in our throats. We had spent a solid year and a half preparing to become Willa's parents—months of paperwork, shopping for every imaginable baby item, getting fingerprinted to prove we weren't wanted criminals, and a lot of staring at the ceiling at 3 A.M., wondering if the little baby daughter we called Willa, whom we already madly loved but knew only from a health report and two black-and-white photographs, was safe and sound. One of the very last bits of advice our adoption agency gave us as we set out on our 18-hour plane trip to China was, "No matter what, when you meet your child, do not cry. You'll scare your daughter if you cry." So here we were, doing everything possible to keep our minds off the emotion beating like a tom-tom in our chests.
When the phone rang and Mrs. Chen, head of Willa's children's home, told us our baby daughter was waiting in a hospitality suite, we held each other for 20 quiet seconds, then screamed for joy, jumped up and down on the bed on the way to the door, and ran for the elevator. We knew it was the best day of our lives so far, and when Willa hears her story, she knows it, too. "Tell the part again where Daddy had toilet paper on his face! Tell the part where you jumped on the bed and almost broke it! Tell the part where you looked into my eyes and felt like you had known me forever, and you reached for me and held me, and I pointed to my nose because I was sick and I wanted you to know. Tell the part where you were afraid that you were going to cry but then you didn't because you were too happy."
Ours is the remarkable story of how two luminous girls born across the world in the southern portion of rural China became our daughters. But it's also our private story, our own family history, and sometimes we choose to share parts of it and sometimes we don't. So if you approach me in public and I don't want to discuss personal details of my daughters' lives, I hope you'll understand.
Interracial adoption becomes a public event because it's obvious: My children are racially Chinese; my husband and I are not. Sometimes people stare at us, sometimes they smile, and sometimes—when we're with our children—people ask us questions they would be unlikely to ask any other parent.
The staring part I understand. In my early 20s, I often stared at what I thought to be interracial adoptive families. I would want to follow them. I can't explain why, except that imagining myself in a family like theirs made some kind of bone-deep sense to me. Sometimes they would catch me staring, and I would smile warmly in an effort to convey my support. Now I realize that they didn't need my approval, or my enthusiastic smile. What they needed was for me not to notice, or at least not to make a big deal out of noticing. The thing I didn't understand at the time is that frequently what interracially adopted kids and their families long for is privacy: just to be treated like any other human being whose history the public doesn't assume it knows or assume it has the right to know.
The first time I was approached by a curious stranger was in Babies "R" Us. I was looking for a teething ring for Willa. "Where'd you get her?" a voice said, and I turned to find a woman staring at my daughter sitting serenely in her stroller.
I was startled. "Excuse me?"
"Where'd you get the baby?"
"Oh," I said. I touched my daughter's foot. "You mean where was she born?"
"Yes," she said. "Where's she from?"
"She was born in China."
"I thought so—so cute. Do you mind my asking how much she cost you?" I mumbled something like the name of my adoption agency and pushed the stroller in the opposite direction. Luckily, Willa didn't comprehend this exchange, but she's 9 now, extremely alert, and, like all of us, never more so than when someone asks intimate questions about her or her sister. She has also absorbed some of the negative theories people have about adoption. A few weeks ago, having lunch, she looked at me and casually asked, "Did you buy me and Josey?" I took a deep breath.
"Why are you asking that?"
"Because that's how you got us, right?"
"Did somebody at school ask you if you were bought?"
Willa wriggled in her chair. "I don't remember."
"Willa, adopting you—getting you and Josey—required a long list of things to do, and part of that was to pay a fee to the adoption agency for the work they did to make it possible to bring you and Josey into our family. But there's almost always the exchange of money when children come into a family."
"It can cost a lot of money to have a baby in a hospital, or even at home with a midwife. And there are also other tests and things moms and dads have to pay for before the baby comes. Sometimes parents have trouble making a baby, and they have to pay the doctors a ton of money to help them, and on top of that they still have to pay a big hospital bill." Willa got out of her chair and sat on my lap. "So if anybody ever does ask you that question, you can tell them it always costs money to make a family. And really, Willa, kids who ask things like that are just misinformed and have to be educated. I'm sorry you have to be their teacher. It must get exhausting."
"It's a little tiring," Willa said. "But not so bad."
Since that initial Babies "R" Us incident, I've learned to handle strangers' questions with a breeziness and body language that usually informs the stranger that I'm uncomfortable answering personal questions about my kids, but simultaneously reassures my girls that I'm proud of how we became a family. Sometimes it works better than others. Recently, at the airport waiting for a flight, I noticed a woman staring and smiling at my children. After a while she came over and told me how beautiful my girls were. She asked, "Is their father Chinese?"
"Their biological father is Chinese," I said, "but their daddy is German and Russian."
"Do they speak English?"
Willa sighed loudly and slapped the page of her book. I think the slap was meant to draw the woman's attention to the English words that were clearly written across the page. "Of course," I said.
"How long have you had them?"
"We've been a family for a long time," I answered and turned my back to her.
"Did you get them through an agency?"
I turned back around and looked into her eyes. "Why do you ask?"
"Just curious," she said. "I think what you've done for those children is so great. They're so lucky."
I gathered up our bags. "What I've done for my children is minor compared with the joy they've given me. Come on, girls, we have to use the restroom."
"We just used the restroom," Willa complained, then shut her book, zipped up her backpack, and rolled her eyes.
"You're one lucky little girl," the woman said to Willa. "I hope you know it."
"No," I said, "I am one lucky mama." I guided my girls to another section of the gate.
"Why are people so nosy?" Willa fumed.
"Sometimes rudeness, sometimes racism, sometimes ignorance—there are a lot of reasons, but mainly it's because our family is interracial and that makes people notice us and want to know all about us."
"It's annoying!" Willa said, stomping her feet.
"I know it is," I said, and took Willa's hand. "It's the downside of being so interesting."
"I'd rather be boring."
"Sometimes I'd rather be boring, too, but I wouldn't want to change a single thing about us, so for now, or until the world gets its act together, we're stuck with being fascinating."
Most likely, no one who has approached my family and asked us personal questions has meant any harm, but they do assume that an adopted child's background is available for public discussion, and not subject to the same sensitivity or restraint due any child. My girls are not immune to the self-consciousness all children feel being scrutinized. The best expression of support for my family is to respect our differences by not calling attention to them. There are many adoption agencies and adoption Web sites with tons of information. Unless you are a friend or relative of an adoptive family, it's best to look there for answers.
Someday, I hope, we'll live in a world where racial or sexual or familial differences don't matter because we'll have achieved the understanding that one kind, or one way, is not necessarily better than another. As for now, I fear we routinely call unneeded attention to these differences. For example, why are Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's kids described as their "adopted kids"? Why aren't they just identified as "their kids"? Or why did the press write that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were expecting their first child when they already have a son and a daughter? What's next? "Angelina and Brad's biologically born child joins their adopted son and adopted daughter." Or "So-and-so's donor-egg-born son joins their gestationally carried, IVF-born daughter." We don't refer to how biological children become a part of their families, so why do we point out adoption?
There are exceptions. A few weeks ago, Willa was a flower girl in my sister's wedding. At the beauty parlor where the bridal party was having their hair done, I introduced Willa to the hairdresser. She looked at my daughter and said, "Hey, Willa, are you adopted?"
Willa answered, "Yes, from China."
I touched Willa's shoulder protectively to remind her that, if needed, I was there to help navigate the encounter.
"So am I," beamed the hairdresser. "Isn't adoption the coolest?"
Willa looked at me and smiled. "Yep. It's totally cool."
Elizabeth Cuthrell is a screenwriter and producer living in New York City.