(#4 in the Annie series)
She was up at 6, as she has been every day for the past three years at The Lighthouse, the International China Concern (ICC) orphanage in Changsha, Hunan province, in south-central China. Her ayi (Chinese nanny and the word for “auntie”—pronounced “i-ee”) had gotten her up, wiped her face with a wet washcloth and dressed her in her going-away outfit—a pair of turquoise long pants with a sleeveless white blouse-dress with embroidered flowers on it, as well as a pair of shiny pink sandals with a sparkly fake flower on each of them. Her ayi would have lifted Annie into the child-size wheelchair specially made for her several years ago. They would have put Annie and her chair into a vehicle for the ride to the civil affairs office where Annie would be delivered to a woman who has spent the last four years preparing to bring a Chinese child to Sacramento.
And when her ayi wheeled Annie into the third floor reception room of the civil affairs office, Nikki Cardoza became a mother. It was June 20, 2016, and two lives were changed forever.
Nikki’s eyes got big and a little watery when she saw Annie wheeled in. She’d last seen Annie four years ago, just before leaving China as an ICC volunteer. Nikki spent 10 years volunteering to help orphaned kids in China and for three years supervised short-term volunteers for ICC in Changsha and Hengyang. She knew she wanted to adopt a Chinese child when she came back to Sacramento in 2012 and, as a single person, set about doing so. She had to do three major things: complete her bachelor’s degree (in government at Sac State), get a job (working for an education lobbyist) and buy a house (a condo in Sacramento’s Greenhaven area). Then, she told me, she wanted to go to China and adopt a child.
I remember taking her out to eat when she came home, and in my memory she told me then that she wanted to adopt this little girl named Annie, who was then about 3 and had cerebral palsy. Nikki says she didn’t know which child she specifically wanted to adopt at first, but when she saw Annie listed on the ICC website as a candidate for adoption, she knew this was the child for her. Nikki had been at Butterfly House, the hospice, when Annie arrived in 2010, then in very bad shape.
So to see the two of them look into each other’s eyes—Annie from her wheelchair, Nikki bending over to greet her daughter—was the sweet moment that I had traveled nearly 7,000 miles to see.
“Hello, Annie. I’m really happy to see you,” Nikki said in Chinese.
Annie’s ayi was saying, “Are you happy to see Mama?”
Annie grinned and made a sharp “ah” sound, which is her version of the Chinese word for “yes.”
When she was found abandoned on the side of a busy Changsha street on May 22, 2010, the state welfare center gave Annie the name Long Xin Zi. She’s been known as Zi-Zi (roughly pronounced zuh-zuh), her Chinese nickname by her Chinese nannies. Her last name, Long, is given to honor the year she was thought to be born, the year of the dragon. It was decided that she was about a year old, so her birthday is May 22, 2009, but no one truly knows when she was born or who her parents were.
She was dying then, a tiny thing unable to eat, and the Chinese welfare center shipped her to Butterfly House, a hospice founded by Nikki’s good friend Lyn Gould. It was Lyn and another nurse, Katie Hill, as well as volunteers, who saved Zi Zi’s life and named her Annie, who figured out how to feed the little one gone rigid with cerebral palsy. That’s where Nikki met Annie. She lived there for about three years and then, because she was not dying, was transferred to The Lighthouse.
My iPhone was burning up with all the photos I shot of the adoption proceedings that took nearly five hours. We spent a long time with Annie’s ayi, a motherly woman who talked to Nikki a lot about Annie’s schedule, food preferences and medications. They got Annie out of her chair, put her on a thick mat on the floor and moved Annie into her favorite sleep positions (propped up on her side) and exercise positions (on her tummy so she can practice lifting her head). I took notes as Nikki asked questions and Wendy, the translator, translated exceptionally well. (We were deeply impressed with Wendy, who is from Changsha, went to university here, majoring in tourism, and used to work for the civil affairs office. Now a mother herself of a 7-year-old boy, Wendy translates for English-speaking adoptive families.)
We moved to a different room to complete the paperwork where Nikki and Annie had a photo taken against a red backdrop (is that by government decree?). The photographer suggested taking Annie out of the wheelchair, which Nikki wisely nixed. “They don’t want her to look disabled,” she said, crouching by the wheelchair, her face near Annie’s.
China always wants to put its best foot forward, to save face, Nikki says. People with physical disabilities are rarely seen in public here.
Wendy took Nikki and Annie to the bank next door to the civil affairs office, where Nikki had to pay her adoption fees, and we got a lot of puzzled looks from patrons, some of it stink-eye, as they say in Hawaii. People clearly had no idea why that odd-looking child strapped into the wheeled contraption was with two foreigners, both of them white women. People with disabilities are hidden here; kids often die young from malnutrition or maltreatment, Nikki says. There is absolutely no future for someone like Annie in China. That’s not to say that people aren’t compassionate here (look at the Chinese nannies, among others), but we westerners who think that people like Annie can have productive, happy lives are odd to most Chinese.
The bank also took far longer than we are used to because it was not as if you wait in line for a teller. You take a number and sit. And sit and sit and sit, in this case for a good hour. This apparently is not unusual. A kind man let Nikki go in front of him after he watched us interact with Annie in her chair. Even after the wait and Nikki paid her fee, Wendy waited for a receipt for another 15 minutes.
“Everything is difficult in China,” Nikki says. “Nothing is easy. You can’t just run an errand.”
She also frequently says, “That’s China,” about things that seem odd or don’t make sense to us. Yet she loves China and its people. I asked her on the plane what she loved most about China, and she said, “I have to think about that.” It occurred to me that’s not because Nikki doesn’t feel great affection for the place but because she doesn’t know where to start. And I thought again how amazing she is—to work in this country for a decade (though, to be fair, some of that time was in Hong Kong, which is “not China,” as everyone tells me, and a much easier place to live), spending time with dying kids at Butterfly House, traveling throughout the country with volunteers, doing missionary work, too.
Neither of us had eaten breakfast, and by the time we got back to our hotel with Annie, it was 2:30. Wendy kindly took me to the grocery store down the street to buy diapers (Annie didn’t come with any), bananas, yogurt, milk and apple juice for our new roommate. I could not manage a Chinese market without help (almost no English on packages), so Wendy hailed a taxi and we rode the five blocks to the market. It was my third Chinese version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and I heeded Nikki’s advice to close my eyes and not look. (The van driver who took us all to and from the civil service center drove very smoothly and gently, taking into account his special passenger in the wheelchair.)
I assured Wendy that I could walk back to the hotel by myself—she had to go pick up her son by 4—and made my way up Chegnan Avenue in the thick air feeling very accomplished. Though it wasn’t far and I wasn’t hiking up any major hills, I still had to stop a couple of times under trees that provided only thin shade and rest a bit. I think the only times I’ve sweated this much were when I was in a steam room. On purpose. There is no need to apply daily face moisturizer here.
But I came back to room 601 to find Nikki and Annie and Lucy, who is a teacher at The Lighthouse, Annie’s computer teacher, actually. Lucy is from Singapore but has volunteered for ICC for 20 years. She plans to retire and return home next month. She brought Annie’s medications that had been forgotten earlier. While we were still at the Civil Affairs Center, Wendy had called ICC and told them about the missing medications. Lucy volunteered to bring them to our hotel. She’d been waiting for us in the hotel lobby for two hours.
Lucy was patiently going over the meds—for sleep, for relaxing the muscles, for seizures—with an overwhelmed Nikki. She and Lucy worked together; they’re old friends, which was just what Nikki needed. Lucy, with her patient voice and long experience with Annie, could reassure Nikki in ways no one else could in that moment. I wanted to hug Lucy.
And Wendy called to say that she’d found an easier way to purchase train tickets for the trip to Ghangzhou on Friday. (There sometimes is an easier way to do things in China, if you know whom to ask.) She found someone who would go buy the tickets for a small fee so we wouldn’t have to get to the train station and do so.
We felt delivered by two unexpected angels—Wendy and Lucy—as well as the kind, thoughtful van driver and the young man who went to buy our train tickets. I am reminded of this again and again: Help always arrives when you need it.
And after Annie’s nap and a painstaking round of spooning mashed-up pills into her tight-lipped mouth, Nikki went downstairs and got food from Quan Deli where we’d eaten at the night before. It’s our place, we decided. It’s right here, it’s easy, and it’s good. Never have simple noodles and vegetables, rice and soup tasted so good.
So we took turns eating our dinner at the long desk in the room, Nikki stopping to feed Annie bits of noodles and rice and meat, me standing behind Annie in the chair, holding her floppy head more or less straight so she could eat without choking. It is a tiring procedure for all of us, and we greatly admired Annie’s ayi who could shovel yogurt so quickly and efficiently into Annie’s open mouth with one hand holding her chin and the other pressing her forehead back into her wheelchair. We have a lot to learn about how to feed this child, among many other things.
We are all exhausted by 8 p.m., and Annie is propped on her side in Nikki’s bed, eyes closed, mouth open, her head cradled by my squishy neck pillow decorated with brightly colored Hawaiian words on it. Nikki is very close to sleep, too. Tomorrow I will point out to Nikki one of my favorite Hawaiian words on the pillow—ohana. It means family. Annie, who has had fine ohana of caretakers and volunteers in China, has a new family eagerly awaiting her arrival in California. Nikki has enlarged her family by one, by extraordinary means. She does not see herself this way, but I do—as one of the heroines of this story, scooping up this princess with the fancy shoes to deliver her to a future of possibilities unavailable in her native land.
The other heroine, of course, is the strong little girl who survived and thrived against heavy odds with the help and love of many people, both Chinese and foreigners—Long Xin Zi, now Rosie Suzanne (Annie) Cardoza—asleep on her new mama’s bed, dreaming, I hope, very sweet dreams.