'It's complicated having two fathers, she tells me'

6/13/2014

By Jeff Gammage

The Philadelphia Inquirer

(MCT)

One night last summer, I was putting my 10-year-old daughter to bed when she gave me the news:

"Dad, you're the best dad in the entire world . . ."

Oh, I answered, thank you!

" . . . except for my birth-dad."

Oh.

Was I upset? Nah. Any way you look at it, a No. 2 world ranking in fatherhood is pretty darned good.

But I was puzzled, and surprised that at such a young age my child could so focus upon, and so elevate, a man she has never known, met, or seen.

Zhao Gu was born in the west China city of Wuwei, a dry desert metropolis best known as a stop on the ancient Silk Road. Five days after her birth, she was left at the front gate of a local health clinic, alone but for a baby bottle and blanket.

It's a familiar story in China, where birth-planning laws generally limit parents to one child and where boys are favored. That has helped propel more than 80,000 Chinese children to homes in this country _ and created enduring mystery.

In a China where it's illegal to have "extra" children and to place a child for adoption, babies are abandoned in secret, their birth parents unknown.

Zhao Gu doesn't have to look far to find an example. Her big sister, Jin Yu, comes from the southern city of Xiangtan, celebrated as the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung.

Today, almost 14, Jin Yu is far more interested in dance parties than Communist parties, bored by the topic of birth parents or even the prospect of visiting China.

"I've seen it," she says.

But Zhao Gu is different, a girl who possesses a longing to meet and know people she thinks might be important in her life.

A school assignment directed her to pick the five people with whom she'd most like to have dinner. I guessed: Taylor Swift? Demi Lovato? Selena Gomez?

Nope.

First on her list was her grandfather, my father, who died four years before she was born. She knows him only from stories and photos. Yet he has assumed a presence in her life, even as he remains one in mine.

Unlike me, Zhao Gu has two fathers, one known and one unknown, one here and one there. Like my daughter, I'd like to meet that stranger across the sea.

I think we would have a lot to say to each other, not all of it pleasant.

I'd tell him I'm angry, furious even after all these years that he so recklessly abandoned Zhao Gu to the fates. Leaving a baby alone on the street is a good way to kill it. And anyone who has seen the inside of a Chinese orphanage knows it's no place for children.

I'd tell him that Zhao Gu is everything a father could hope for in a daughter. That he'd be proud. And that I'm sorry, so heartfully sorry, that he missed out on the joy and privilege of raising this fine and funny little girl. I can guess the size of the hole in his heart.

Maybe he could tell me where Zhao Gu got the dimple that puckers the edge of her chin. Or her striking, translucent brown eyes. Or the intellect that can be scarily sharp.

The other day, Zhao Gu brought me her copy of Romeo and Juliet, wanting to dissect the plot structure. She left disappointed to realize her dad doesn't know much about Shakespeare.

Now, on the edge of 11, Zhao Gu says I shouldn't fret about being the best or second-best dad. It's complicated having two fathers, she tells me, and sometimes she doesn't understand it herself.

But she knows her homeland is changing fast. It may not be long before the government lets Chinese families openly search for their lost daughters, as American families search now for Chinese connections.

Zhao Gu says we must go to China soon. She wants her mom and I to help her search _ and of course we will. "We'll need to bring a translator," she says, ever practical.

Zhao Gu is confident we'll find her Chinese family. She promises that when we do, she'll introduce me to her birth father.

"I'll say, 'This is my dad,' " she says. "I'll tell him you're a good dad."

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