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Teen explores homeland

Gianna Horak, 14, gains new appreciation for China after visiting.

October 13, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

The lights were so bright at the packed concert hall in Shanghai, Gianna Horak could barely see past the second row.

"Hello, I am Gianna," the 14 year-old from Pasadena said in Mandarin, a language she started studying in elementary school. "I was born in China and adopted as an infant. My parents loved me as their own. This is my first time back to China and it's a very treasurable moment, it is what I treasure the most: being back in my home country."

Gianna looked out at the audience, hoping they understood. She could see they did. In the front row, an elderly woman was crying.

The speech was her first in her tour of China this summer with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus -- two weeks spent singing and sightseeing in the lead-up to the Beijing Summer Olympics. Gianna's decision to visit the country where she was abandoned as a newborn was chronicled in The Times in June.

In the weeks since her return, the 9th-grader said, she has gained a new appreciation for the country where she was born.

After her chorus obligations were complete, she and her parents, Mindy Schirn and Jan-Christopher Horak, spent five weeks exploring the country where, when she was 2 days old, someone left Gianna in the garden of an orphanage.

From the start, Gianna said, her birthplace offered pleasant surprises. She had expected streets crowded with vendors in Shanghai and was greeted instead by enormous skyscrapers. Strangers she had expected to be cold and unnerved by her American choir smiled instead and asked to take photos with them.

But she was also disappointed at not feeling an instant sense of belonging.

"I thought as time went on that I would feel a big bang of belongingness. That never happened. It was just more a slow realization that this was where I might have grown up," she said.

With the choir, Gianna explored Chinese history, touring the ancient city of Xi'an with its underground cache of terra cotta Chinese warrior statues. They climbed the Great Wall and ate dinner at the top.

When her parents met her at the choir's final concert, she rushed up to greet them, tears in her eyes.

Together, they revisited a site that had haunted Gianna's dreams: the orphanage where she had been left. Like the rest of China, the facility exceeded her expectations.

Gianna -- who was adopted when she was 8 1/2 months old -- had imagined a run-down, overcrowded building with chipped white walls and a dirt floor. But the orphanage she saw had a concrete floor, unchipped turquoise walls, 15 children in each room, one child per crib.

Her parents had told her she was malnourished when they adopted her. So she had worried the babies she'd see there would be mistreated. But she watched caretakers feed the babies and felt a bit relieved, although she wondered how much of the visit was a performance for her benefit.

"They told us that they bathe the babies three times a day. I'm not sure that that happens because there were 200 babies and three caretakers," Gianna said. "I don't know, maybe that happens. I'm a little skeptical."

Gianna brought children's books as a gift for the orphanage. Her parents recognized one of the caretakers who had cared for Gianna, and she showed the woman the Times story about her life. The woman and the other caretakers were pleased and proud.

"They called me their little star," Gianna said.

By the end of her trip, Gianna was bargaining with vendors in Mandarin and giving directions to taxi drivers. She was homesick, but after returning to Pasadena she missed China too -- the smells, the language, the people. She hopes to return, perhaps as soon as next summer.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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