The FIRST Family
By Ruth Lor Malloy, December 18, 2002
Mei Li leaves a letter to her birth mother
Mei Li leaves a letter to her birth mother

Eight years after she was adopted by an American family, Mei Li Isaacson returns to the town of her birth with a letter to her birth mother

Almost eight years after she had been abandoned after dark under a spruce tree in a police training camp in central China, Mei Li Isaacson wrote a letter to her first family. "I am called Ai Mei Li. I just want to say hello. I want you to know I love you and here are some pictures of me and my new family..."  

Mei and her fatherMei Li wrote the letter in Chinese, a language she has been studying for three years in a bilingual school with daily half-day Mandarin immersion in San Francisco. That day, a crowd of neighborhood children and a few adults gathered to watch as she and her American parents put the letter and some photographs into an envelope and tied it to the tree. Among the photos was one of three-day old Mei Li bundled in the flowered blanket in which she had been found.  

Officials from the welfare institute to which a policeman had taken the infant worried that other children would tear the envelope apart as soon as the visitors had gone, and suggested they left the photographs with them.  

Mei Li's father, Bob Isaacson, insisted on leaving them on the tree, however: "It doesn't matter if they" remove the pictures, explained Bob. "We just want to tell her mother she did the right thing. Her child is alive, happy, living in America, and learning Chinese. This is the most we can do." 

The retired civil engineer felt he had "a karmic obligation to help remove a scar from their souls that must certainly be there." 

Passing children and adults scrutinized the letter. An old woman came by, studied Mei Li's face carefully, and then carried on her way. The police camp was an oasis in the midst of urban squalor in the township of Xiaogan, two hours drive north of Wuhan, Anhui province. The mother must have hoped some kindly officer would find her daughter.  

As they drove back to their hotel, one of the visitors saw a sad and tired-looking woman walking along the dusty road. She looked like an older version of Mei Li. But what could they say to her? No one would admit to abandoning a child. The Isaacsons will probably never know Mei Li's birth mother. There wasn't even a note.  

Visiting Rites

"Our primary purpose for the trip was to open a door for Mei Li to her roots that she can walk through when she is older if she chooses," her father explained later. "We don't want to bring her up Chinese, but as an American who is fully aware and proud of her origins."

"We want her to have familiarity with Chinese culture and friends and feel positive about it," agreed her mother Ginny Stearns, "and have the tools to go deeper into it or walk away from it all if she chooses." 

" Adopting children from China is 
relatively easy - 
there is no upper age limit,
the babies are generally healthy, 
and the process is corruption free.
And there is no question around whether
 the child has been sold "

For Bob and Ginny, China was not their primary interest. They had been trying to adopt a child from a third country, and when that proved too difficult their adoption agency suggested China, where regulations surrounding international adoptions were being relaxed. "Unlike many countries with upper age limits the Chinese find older parents acceptable," continued Bob, who was 62 when they were looking to adopt a child, and his wife 46. "The babies are generally healthy, and the process corruption-free. And there is no murkiness around whether the child is being given up for compensation or sold." 

Mei Li on the Yangtze
After leaving Wuhan Mei Lei embarked on a journey along the
Yangtze River, where she met another child traveling (see below)

Since 1988, over 24,000 Chinese babies have joined American families. Like many other adoptive parents, Ginny has taken an interest in many aspects of China, including learning the language. On their visit to China, Bob obtained a list of other American families who he hopes to contact to raise funds for the Xiaogan Social Welfare Institute, where their children came from.  

Currently, state funds provide for around Y140 in monthly maintenance allowance for those in care, including children, the disabled, and the elderly. The Xiaogan Social Welfare Institute said they still needed medical equipment like incubators and air-conditioning to help keep babies healthy.  

Mei Li's orphanage did, however, have money to celebrate her return with her new family. As the first of thirteen adopting families who planned to return for a visit, the social welfare institute gave Bob, Ginny, grandmother Phyllis Stearns, and Mei Li a first class welcome. Staff put up English signs welcoming them back, laid on a lavish banquet complete with a birthday cake - even though it wasn't Mei Li's birthday. They also provided French fries, hamburgers, and fried chicken for their Western guests.  

" We just wanted to tell
her mother she did the 
right thing - her child is
alive, happy, living in
America, and learning Chinese.  
This is the most we can do "

The day after the visit to her tree, the family returned to the orphanage so their daughter could get a deeper feeling for it. In the nursery, many of the volunteers or workers holding babies kept asking Mei Li if she wanted a sister, offering them to her. Mei Li burst into tears.  

"We're not going to leave you here," said Bob as he consoled her. "We are not going to get another child. We are happy with the one we have."  

Later that day, Mei Li found a friend. Ginny had brought along a jump rope, and before they left, Mei Li asked eagerly when they were coming back. The next morning, even the officious-looking director, in spite of his business suit, was jumping rope with her.  

The visit to the orphanage and around China didn't seem to make Mei Li feel Chinese. Although she corrected her mother on a couple of occasions, she was hesitant about speaking herself. She spoke to Chinese children in Chinese, but as she walked through the Wuhan Iron and Steel Works she listened to English tapes of Harry Potter on her Walkman. She seemed to be asserting her American identity - and her parents didn't insist on pushing Chinese culture on her. They just hoped that some day she would be interested.  

Mei Li and her new friend

Many other adoptive parents are making the journey with their children back to China, and raising money for their orphanages. For more information, visit the website for Families with Children from China at 


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