Citizen Nellie

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
On election day I brought my four-year-old daughter, Nellie, along when I went to vote. She watched, mesmerized, as I checked off the names of candidates, and she slid my ballot into the box to be counted. This is serious business for a kid whose awe at the democratic process is still untarnished.

Nellie became a U.S. citizen in February 2001, two years after I adopted her in China. Until that day she remained a Chinese citizen, with her own little red passport and a smaller U.S. green card that vouched she was a legal alien and as such, I suppose, could hold a job. Her naturalization came courtesy of the Child Citizenship Act, which on February 27, 2001, automatically naturalized 75,000 or so newly adopted children—a record number of U.S. citizens created in one day.

Nellie was born in Jiangxi Province, just south of the Yangtze River, and it was there I traveled with six other families in March 1999 to meet our new babies and wait for their paperwork to be processed. During this lull, our Chinese guide arranged for us to visit a nursery school associated with the local university. It was an exceptionally good school, she told us, educating primarily the children of faculty. Still, when I look at the photographs I took that day, I continue to be struck by the chipping paint on the long wooden tables and chairs, the warren of tiny cribs piled high with quilts, the children’s giddy faces, and their bodies bundled in layers of jackets and pants against the chill of the classroom. Our daughters, as orphan girls in a rural part of the province, would have had scant opportunities for education.

Nellie’s Chinese name, Fu Hui Ting, was given to her at the orphanage where she spent her first few days. Fu, which translates as happiness in English, is the family name given to all the babies at the Linchuan Social Welfare Institute. Hui means generosity, and Ting is translated loosely as gracefulness, but it’s a specific kind of grace, the way some women move when they walk. Va-va-va voom, I think of it.

Nellie had it from the get-go. A couple of days after I met her for the first time, we attended a performance of traditional Chinese music, and she swayed from side to side in her Baby Bjorn, arms waving and head bobbing to the rhythm. Three young Chinese women in chic western business suits approached us. “You mother?” one of the women asked. After a moment’s hesitation I nodded; I was new to parenthood, and the question took me by surprise. “You American? She go to America?” When I said yes, the women all grinned and gave the thumbs up sign. “Lucky baby,” they said in chorus, and I responded with a reply that has since become automatic: “No, no. Lucky mama!” The oldest of the three women, after interpreting for her colleagues, fixed me with her gaze and shook her head. “Better for girls in America,” she said soberly. “She get education. Lucky baby.” And the three women moved away, fluttering their hands and repeating over and over: Lucky baby.

I think of those women often, for they knew what I was reluctant to admit. I did not bring my daughter to the United States as a charity case—the notion strikes me as hubristic—but this country is a fine place to raise a girl. We have an embarrassment of both riches and rights: clean water, central heating, education, free speech, the vote. When Nellie announces she wants to be a doctor or an astronaut or a firefighter, I smile. She can do any of those things—as she stoutly informs the boys in her preschool class. And when she slides my vote into the ballot box, or waves the flag, I find myself blindsided by a patriotism I didn’t know I had in me.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.
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January / February 2003