From the moment I saw her in my mother’s arms, emerging from the airplane in a Seattle T-shirt and red silk shoes, I was not the same. There was a grief in her eyes that I had never known, a fragility to her twelve-pound body as I dragged my fingers across her skin. I imagined her parents, tiny people with narrow limbs like hers. Arms hanging still, eyes straight ahead.
My mother said from the start that we would go back, but Hangzhou seemed a million miles away. It was a word written beneath photographs in a baby book, not a real place where a plane could actually land or people could stand and look out over the water and shield their eyes from the pulsing sun. But we did go, led by a tour-guide named Bing who popped the collar of his polo shirt and flirted with my father. Bing and I gossiped and listened to music, and when I looked out the bus window there was blue sky.
The rest of the country had been grey, but here the air was clean and, as we soon discovered, thirty-percent of the population were millionaires. The Starbucks on the lake sold thirty-dollar cups of coffee. “I can’t believe how much it’s changed,” my mother kept saying.
Our hotel was dark and humid, though, and clothes washed in the sink wouldn’t dry for days. I wore my last clean shirt and my best skirt on the morning we left for the orphanage. The day was bright and hot, and soon our hair was curling at the backs of our necks. We rode through the countryside, our senses quieted by Dramamine and apprehension.
When we arrived, the merry-go-round in the courtyard was still. A swimming pool decorated with multi-colored tile and a central fountain like a toadstool had been drained. We stepped inside the main building and were greeted by a woman who spoke to our tour-guide. A chalkboard stood in the entryway, and on it had been written in brilliant Technicolor, “Welcome Xu Rong Rong to Come Back.” Xu Rong Rong was my sister’s name before she came to us. ‘Xu’ stood for all of the children at the orphanage, but Rong Rong was her own. It is difficult to translate, but we have been told that it is the feeling you get when you touch a hibiscus petal.
We were lead into another room then, and inside were all of the children, waiting. We sat in child-sized chairs that had been set up for us and watched a performance they had planned. They invited my sister to play musical chairs, but she shook her head without looking up.
We went to the room where she had been as an infant and smiled down at the babies lying on a mat on the floor. One little girl, who had brittle bones and had to be sedated, sat alone on a cushion. I cupped her face in my hands, I touched her arms and the tips of her fingers. She did not blink, and in her eyes was the sadness I had tried so long to forget.
My sister was left in a garden, with a prayer in her pocket that someone with a loving heart might find her. When we returned, she stood very still and would not look at my father when he placed his arm around her. The sun writhed down at us, at this quiet place. I tucked a strand of her hair behind one ear, and she glanced fleetingly at me before turning away.
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