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China revisited

A girl, adopted by Californians after being left at a Chinese orphanage, hopes to get a feel for her murky history there.

June 25, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Each year on the anniversary of her adoption from China, Gianna Mei Li Horak composed a letter to her birth parents. She taped it to a helium balloon and released it into the sky -- sending it back, her mom and dad told her, to the place of her birth.

At age 4, Gianna dictated: "I go to school. I am the farrest reader. Do you miss me? I miss you. I like Cat in the Hat stories. Sometimes I am very silly."

By age 7, Gianna wrote in block letters: "Dear Chinese-Mother and Chinese-Father. I hope it is going okay in China. I miss you. Sincerely, Gianna Horak."

The next year Gianna, who had been studying Mandarin at home in Pasadena, sent a full-page letter, single spaced, in Chinese. At 9, she wrote a longer letter in English listing her hobbies: Chinese dance, piano lessons and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus.

Last fall, Gianna's choir director announced they were going on a two-week overseas tour in June. Their destination: China.

Gianna, then 13, had to decide if she was ready to return.

The phone rang after lunch on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 1994, just as Mindy Schirn, 42, and Jan-Christopher "Chris" Horak, 43, returned to their hotel room in Hefei, a Chinese city about 600 miles south of Beijing.

"Your baby is here," a Chinese woman said and hung up.

They had not been allowed to visit the government orphanage in Tongling, about 75 miles away.

The couple spent months arranging the adoption. Schirn wanted to adopt from China after reading a news story about officials there straining to care for thousands of abandoned girls in a country that limited families to one child and had a traditional preference for sons.

The orphanage sent one photograph: a grainy, underexposed head shot about 2 inches square. A thin girl with tufts of dark hair stared straight at the camera, mouth slack.

Someone had left the baby at 2 days old in the orphanage garden. The garden was one of the safest places to leave a child because she was sure to be found. But it was also dangerous for parents: If seen, they could be arrested.

Yuan Yuan, the caretakers called her -- "Garden Gate."

Schirn and Horak had already decided to name the baby Gianna, after his mother, and Mei Li, Chinese for "beautiful."

There was a knock at the hotel room door. On the other side, a woman stood holding their baby. Gianna was 8 1/2 months old and weighed just shy of 9 pounds. A week and a half later, Schirn and Horak left for the U.S. with their new daughter.

Gianna was 12 and rehearsing with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus to perform "Grendel" with the L.A. Opera when she first told her choir friends the story of her origins.

In a practice room in the basement of Pasadena Presbyterian Church, their choir director explained that Grendel was a monster from the heroic poem "Beowulf," an outsider rejected as a child by his playmates.

As the children started talking about what it felt like to be an outsider, Gianna raised her hand.

"I was adopted," she said in a soft voice.

The other children listened as she explained about the Chinese orphanage and her parents and adoption day.

Gianna, a wispy girl with long dark hair flowing down her back, told them that sometimes she felt like an outsider because other kids would see her with her parents, who are white, and not understand why they were together. But, she said, she had come to appreciate being adopted. It meant that she was a survivor.

That year, on adoption day, Gianna stopped sending the letter to her birth parents.

"I wasn't sure who I was writing it to," she said.

Her parents said they understood. Writing the letter had been their idea. When Gianna decided it was time to write again, or to visit the orphanage in China, they said they would help.

Gianna's earliest memory of music was as much of a hybrid as she is: a Chinese soprano singing a classical Italian aria. She remembers singing along with Ying Huang to "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's "La Boheme," a mournful opera about a beautiful girl doomed to die.

Gianna had thought about visiting China many times -- to see where she was born. She was learning Mandarin, studying Chinese dance. But she knew she would seem American, taking big, heavy strides, smiling wide. She worried people would expect her to speak fluently, to immediately understand and act like them.

Now she was excited for the chance to go as part of an arts festival leading up to the opening of the Olympic Summer Games in Beijing on Aug. 8. If she went, she would sing in Chinese and English for audiences in Beijing and Shanghai, tour historic sites and eat dinner at the Great Wall.

Maybe it was time to visit the orphanage.

In her mind, Gianna imagined the orphanage where she spent her first months as vividly as a photograph: 8-foot ceilings, bare lightbulbs illuminating dirty white blinds, blue-gray carpeting and immaculate white cribs. Caretakers with close-cropped hair and bare faces supervise two babies lying in the center of the room, foot to foot. Caretakers murmur. Somewhere, a baby cries.

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