At about 10 am on June 19, 2003, in the western Chinese city of Wuwei, a man named Ma Guoxing was walking across town, intent on a pending business appointment.
But as he neared the Wei'an Health Center, he noticed a crowd of people at the front gate, and he interrupted his journey to go and see what had so captivated their interest.
Zhao Gu before her adoption, with a caretaker at her orphanage in Wuwei, Gansu Province.
On the ground was a newborn baby, a girl, crying loudly.
Ma Guoxing did what no one else would do: He reached down and picked up the child. Then he turned around and began to walk back the way he had come, the baby in his arms.
Before I knew there was a man named Ma Guoxing, I imagined his existence.
I wondered what he -- or she -- might look like, whether he was married or single, had children or not. Most of all I yearned to know the secrets that he, alone among millions in China, held within himself.
That sort of longing is common to people like me, the American parents of Chinese children. Some 62,000 kids, almost all of them girls, have been adopted into new homes in this country since the early 1990s. But where American-born children routinely have baby photos and bronzed booties, these girls have blank spots.
Abandoned by Chinese parents barred from having "extra" children, the girls arrive with no record of their family origins. The most basic information about their beginnings - day of birth, hour of birth - is usually unknown and unknowable. So the girls' American parents long to know the next best thing -- the facts of their daughter's discovery, details beyond the generalities of date and place. They want to be able to tell their children the name of the person who found them. Whether it was on a particular bench inside a train station, or beside a certain statue outside in a park. If it was hot or cold, sunny or raining, day or night.
Yet these details often pass unrecorded, meaningless to administrators running a Chinese welfare system awash in baby girls. For instance, for my eldest daughter, Jin Yu, the official account of her discovery runs six words: Found in Guangxin Alley, Aug. 5, 2000.
That's all. And that's typical.
So in 2004, when my wife and I arrived in Gansu Province to adopt our second daughter, Zhao Gu, we were shocked to find two bits of tantalizing information - one a hope, the other a mystery - embedded in the paperwork.
The hope was contained in three Chinese characters: A name. Supposedly that of the man who found our child. It sounded like he worked at the local orphanage, but the translation was rough. Was he truly the person who discovered our baby? Or was he merely the worker sent to retrieve her, after she was discovered by others?
When we returned home, I wrote to officials in China, and I wished -- that this man was who he appeared to be, that I could find a way to contact him, somehow pierce the walls of distance and language. That my new daughter could learn the precise circumstances of the most momentous day of her life. That against a backdrop of loss and anonymity, she could grow up knowing there was someone in her homeland who could honestly say, "I remember you."
Two things happened that felt a lot like fate.
The first was the arrival of an official-looking letter from China. It bore no signature. It said: Yes, the man about whom you inquired, Ma Guoxing, is employed at the Wuwei Social Welfare Institute. And, no, he was not sent to recover the baby. He was the person who found her.
The second was the arrival at my newspaper of a Chinese reporter named Sunny Hu. Sunny was as bright and cheerful as her name, full of enigmatic Eastern idioms, come from the Shanghai Star to study American journalism. When I told her I had confirmed the name and workplace of the man who found my youngest child, she offered a forthright Western response: "Let's call him up."
We wait until night to telephone, because of the 12-hour time difference. The number I have for the orphanage is wrong. We dial again, reaching people who have no idea why we're calling. Eventually we get through to the orphanage, and Ma Guoxing's co-workers, who tell us he's off. Then we reach his wife, who says he's out. Finally we reach his daughter -- who provides his cellphone number.
"It's ringing," Sunny says, adjusting the mouthpiece on her headset.
She begins to speak in Mandarin, then turns to me and nods -- it's him.
Sunny laughs, her voice light. I think, This is good. Ma Guoxing is not annoyed that we've called his personal line. He does not insist we obtain official permission to speak with him, or refer us to some faceless government functionary. He's happy to chat.
Sunny starts into my list of my questions, saying "Oh …" and "Ah …," listening more than talking, scribbling down every word, the how and when and where of my daughter's discovery. I feel like I am watching the opening of a lost crypt, that buried secrets are about to be revealed. China has 1.3 billion people, but only one of them found my baby on the street, and now he is on the phone.
I hear Sunny say, "baba," meaning, "daddy." She hands me the headset.
I speak only English. Ma Guoxing speaks only Mandarin. But I want to hear his voice, and I want him to hear mine. I need to say the words: Thank you. Thank you for holding my baby close when she was alone, for taking her to a place where she would be safe, for helping her when I was not there to help her.
"Hello?" I say. My mouth has gone dry. "Ni hao?"
"Ni hao," he answers.
Ma Guoxing's voice is strong and deep.
I say, "I want to tell you how much I appreciate what you did. I want to tell you how much it means and" -- and I am unable to go on.
He says something in Chinese. He must think the line has gone dead. I'm afraid he will hang up, that this man, this ghost, will slip back into the shadows.
"I am so grateful," I manage.
"Xie xie," Sunny whispers to me. Thank you.
"Xie xie, xie xie," I say.
Sunny takes the phone.
Ma Guoxing says the child was swathed in a blanket. Tucked inside the wrap was a baby bottle and some formula. The girl was crying so loud! He remembers that clearly. He says the authorities tried very hard to find her Chinese parents, publicizing her discovery in the newspaper and even on radio and TV. No one came forward.
He tells us about his trek across town, how he noticed the crowd outside the clinic. He answers every question. After nearly half an hour, he has told us all he knows, and Sunny begins to say our goodbyes. But Ma Guoxing is not ready to go. Not yet. It turns out, he has long wondered about the baby he found by the gate. It has nagged at him, how he has been cut off from the story of her future -- as fully as I have been blocked from the story of her past.
Now Ma Guoxing has questions of his own: Where is the girl living? Is she well? Is she healthy?
Sunny tells him: The child is well indeed. She is living in the United States, near Philadelphia, and she wants for nothing. Her parents and big sister love her very much.
Ma Guoxing says he would like photos to be sent to him. And if the child should someday travel to China, he would welcome her to visit his home. He will tell her in person about the day their lives intersected on a Wuwei street.
Ma Guoxing stepped away from the health-center gate, the newborn baby light in his arms.
He carried her to the local orphanage, where she was given a name -- the surname of Wu, for the city of Wuwei, and a first name of Zhao Gu, meaning, “New beginning, beautiful girl.” She was laid down to sleep in a crib beside three other baby girls.
Almost exactly a year later, on a sunlit June morning, little Zhao Gu was bathed in a gray metal basin, then dressed in new clothes of blue. She was driven miles out of Wuwei, across central Gansu Province to the capital city of Lanzhou. A hotel elevator lifted her high to an upper-floor conference room, and there she was placed in the arms of her new parents.
If Ma Guoxing had been there, he would have recognized her cry.
Courtesy of NY Times