My Girl

The race to save an orphaned Chinese child – by Lao Ye


Another emergency phone call. This time, a child needed to be accompanied to the hospital. Abby was maybe three years old, I guessed. She had what looked like severe eczema covering her face, eyes forced shut from the crusty skin. Someone hailed a taxi and we were on our way.

The first minutes were calm, but halfway across town that changed. She began crying hysterically, then screaming. I tried to talk to her but she was too far gone. I settled for holding her on my lap while the taxi driver complained about the noise. We stopped to see if she needed to use the bathroom – she did not. After much too long, we made it to the hospital and Abby had some tests, revealing the source of the reaction. They gave us a cream, and we headed home.

I still interact with children in care at the government-managed home, next door to the long-term care home where I work. I like talking with the teenagers, learning new slang. I love copying characters, even if the elementary schoolers write better than me. But I can’t let any of them become too important to me. They‘re part of my job but they aren’t part of me.

After the trip to the hospital, during my next visit to Ward 5 in the government home where she lived, I sought out Abby. Without the allergic reaction she turned out to be a rather cute six year old girl. Her growth was stunted heavily and when I inquired I found out she had a tumour in her throat that kept her from eating solid food or speaking clearly, and she had been waiting years for surgery to remove it.

It took time, but on my fifth or sixth visit Abby ran to me. She held up her hands, surprising me with her sudden openness. She was toddler-sized, just a couple of feet tall, but with the mind and energy of a six year old. Usually I maintain some physical distance, but there was no denying a tiny kid demanding to be picked up. I grabbed her in a hug, swung her around, and for the first time heard her delighted, rasping half-laugh, half-cough.

One day I saw Abby making vigorous motions as she sat next to me, watching a cartoon that had been looping for the last thirty minutes. I realised she was communicating with a child across the room – first running her finger along her chin, then folding her arms and vigorously flapping them. The boy, his hands tied behind his back to prevent self-injury, wanted to respond but couldn’t.

I learned she was using a pidgin sign language created among the children. It doesn’t follow the rules of actual Chinese sign language, just the esoteric equivalent in Ward 5. Abby mainly used it to make proud signals at rivals for my attention, or to angrily tell people grabbing her to leave her alone.

I asked Abby to teach me it. She responded with a grunt, and taught me how to ask someone how old they are. It was such a bizarre series of motions that I had a hard time believing she wasn’t joking. Since she thought it was fun to joke about her age, she answered with whatever number she felt like, usually to much hysterics – that croaking, gasping laugh which was now one of the noises I looked forward to most.

She was not the only focus of my work at the hospital, and since she wasn’t a baby I didn’t hold her often. I spread my attention as equally as I could, but she wanted more. Once, when I was doing a colouring activity with another little girl, Abby clambered onto my lap and grabbed my face to make my eyes focus on her.

I set Abby’s picture as my laptop’s wallpaper. In the photo, Abby is on the right side of a table, one hand resting flat on its surface. She’s squinting just to the left of the screen, her other arm up to gesture at someone who can’t be seen, her face a mask of frustration. It was a funny expression, which was why I liked it. My colleagues commented on the girl on my desktop. Against my better instincts, she was becoming more than just another part of my job.

I experimented with what foods she could eat beyond the mash she was confined to. One day at the supermarket I discovered a soft bread that seemed easy enough to swallow, and I bought a few packs. When I presented the greasy paper-wrapped cake to Abby she peeled it open, took the daintiest of bites from a corner and then set to work liquefying it. Each bite took a few minutes, and the cake was still only partially eaten by the time I had to go. But it was a new experience I had been able to give her. It made her happy, and that made me happy.

Not every interaction came with some new big gesture. Mostly she would just sit in my lap with her arms around my neck, for as long as I would let her.

When we had the funding to bring in more children to our private care home, Abby was the child I advocated. I saw huge developmental benefits for her, a brighter future, and a sense of family, of continuity and connection. Officials were against her moving, arguing that she was going for surgery “any day now.” A month later, surgery had still not been scheduled.

Seeing this girl lead a full, happy life became more important to me than anything. There was only one thing I could do to guarantee that for Abby – I had to take her in myself.  Deciding to become a father was not a light decision to make. I struggled with the idea for a while, then finally asked an official in the relevant department if I could take guardianship of her myself. But it was the same answer – no.


Half a year passed, and finally Abby’s international adoption paperwork was filed. To make her more appealing for adoption, her surgery was scheduled. It was a small, minimally invasive procedure to remove the tumour.

When I saw her after the surgery, Abby looked pale and weak, and even more petite than usual. She wasn’t talking yet – either there were more tumours on her vocal cords or she hadn’t learnt properly yet, though she could still say hoarse single-syllable words. I held her again.

The roadblocks to my caring for her grew stronger. Now that Abby could be adopted internationally, there was no way she was moving to the private home. Logic dictated that she would be leaving so soon it would be pointless to sign over temporary guardianship, only to immediately renege it.

Time wore on. Abby stayed in Ward 5. I brought up taking guardianship of her one more time, and was met with a shocking “maybe”. It had been long enough that Abby was no longer assumed to be a case for swift adoption.

Suddenly I had a pile of paperwork and the possibility to take a child into my full-time care – a temporary setup that could be turned into full guardianship if I got married. The next time I saw Abby I had to push down the thought of her moving in, of being my daughter.

The following autumn, after a summer working in another part of China, I went to Ward 5. Abby was happy, though a bit more shy than usual. We played a bit, and I talked with the other children about where I had gone. She sat on my lap.

While watching television, Abby draped one arm around my neck. Her shyness had worn off and my heart swelled when she pulled herself closer. A staff member asked her if she was ready to go home with me – the first time anyone had been so direct about the possibility.

Abby buried her head into my shoulder, other hand coming up around my arm, a big smile splitting her face. I’d never seen her look so happy. She sat up, turned her delicate hand inwards to point to herself, then to me, before hugging me again.

Another week passed before I went back to Ward 5. Abby wasn’t there, but was at a post-surgery checkup.

On the morning of September 19th, an official in charge of the government-run children’s home called me over to the main building. A foreigner was there and no one could understand her. This was a common 7am wake-up call, and I stumbled over to address the situation. After speaking to the foreigner and sending them on their way, I saw a caretaker who knew Abby. I asked about her, wondering if the doctor had any news.

There was a pause while she looked at me.

“Abby died.”

The caretaker gave some vague details about an accident at the hospital the night before. Abby’s body was already gone.

She was supposed to be mine. I was going to change her life. I was going to do something real. And she was going to do something real for me.

Abby was dead. That future was blown away in an instant.

How dare I usurp this tragedy to be about me losing a story of my future I had created? Abby had never been mine, had never lived with me, had never been the daughter I had made her in my head.

I was reeling. But could I justify feeling anything at all?

This story is not about what I thought it would be. Not about the world I’d envisioned for myself and my family. Rather, it is about a six year old girl.

Abby is gone – and no one will remember her.

Except me. And now you.

Lao Ye is the pen name of an American in China who worked with orphaned children within a government department in cooperation with an international humanitarian organisation. He first came to China in 2005