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Interview with “China Ghosts” author, Jeff Gammage

By Iris Culp, Lotus Travel’s Program Director

In conjunction with National Adoption Month, we decided to feature a book and an account of an adoption experience.   In a recent visit with Iris Culp,  Jeff Gammage, the author of “China Ghosts” share reflections of his family’s adoption experiences, their recent return trip to China, highlights of his well-known book and speculation about the future.   Below are summary highlights of that interview.

Iris:  What motivated you to write this book in the first place?

Jeff: Well, for me it was a personal motivation to not only share a bit of our family’s story, but also to provide a different account of many adoption stories that had been published.  Most accounts only mentioned the upbeat and “tears of joy” aspects of an adoption story. In any adoption there is loss; and the emotions in adoption are enormously complicated.

 I wanted my daughters to have a complete account of their adoption story and to share a balanced perspective.   Initially there were tremendous sleep problems.  I wasn’t hearing anyone else talk about the challenges.

Iris:  Whew, yes, I can relate to the sleep problems you mention. What kind of changes did you anticipate fatherhood would bring? Did you walk in with a lot of expectations? 

Jeff: Yes, I had a lot of expectations and none of them good! (laughing)  I expected to be up in the middle of the night, the hassle of helping out, being up at 6 a.m. on Saturday, enduring endless kid movies and the like.  It’s interesting --- these parts have turned out to be the best part of my life.  One of my favorite parts of the day during my adjustment to fatherhood, I would really enjoy make JinYu her breakfast, fixing oatmeal just the way she likes it.  That’s truly a joy – I didn’t expect that.
 The same is true with going to kid shows. The Disney princesses, and particularly “Beauty and the Beast” has reigned strong in our household.   I love watching the kids get so excited, while they watch a show.   

Iris:  That was the favorite one my kids saw during a trip to Disneyworld this year. They were captivated, and so was I.

Jeff:  Yes, and now the princess phase is starting to wane and I’m sad about it.  I want to hang on to that with them as long as possible. 

Iris: In your book, you share a bit of each of what you know of each of your daughters’ early days.  I know some people criticize you for sharing any information.  What is your reaction to that?  

Jeff:  I think it would be a bit of hypocrisy for me to have lived my life as a reporter and now say I won’t tell anything. During my career, I have been allowed entrance into people’s lives, often at very difficult times and they shared their stories.

Also, while this book shares some of my daughters’ beginnings, it is really MY account of our journey as a couple and then a family into the adoption experience and how it has affected me.  So, I think it is fair to say that this is really an account of my journey into adoption and mostly a collection of my thoughts and reflections. 

Iris:  When did you find time to write? 

Jeff; Well, this book mostly wrote itself.  I was trying to capture moments and memories for my daughter’s sake all along, so I wrote the experiences down. It was not a hard book to write. It was a great project to do on the train enroute to work.   

Iris: You say in your book what drew you to China is now something that causes pain to your daughters – the minimal chance of connecting with a birth family.  Do you think others have a similar change of perspective as you did?

Jeff:  Yes, for most people, I think it turns around on them.  When I look back before adoption, I realize all the reasons I had for going to China to adopt, were selfish. I wanted a child.  The anonymity of it appealed to me, etc.   At the time I viewed anonymity as a real plus; now I realize the cost.  
 I think most parents as they see their kids mature over time, want their kids to have a connection to China. I meet a very few families that don’t care so much about it--- that seems strange to me.  

Iris:  In your book you tell of the struggle to recover just a bit about your first daughter’s first two years before joining your family.  Can you tell us a bit about connection to China for your second daughter, Zhao Gu? 

Jeff: Yes, for Zhao Gu, it was almost an embarrassment of riches.  At the time of adoption, we received a note that had been left with her, as well as the finding ad, the name of the person who found her and even baby pictures.   There was also a detailed account of how and where she was found.  I called the person who found Zhao Gu from the US, and with the help of a translator, spoke to him and received many answers.  This past summer we were able to meet with him and make that connection. That was a rich experience.

Iris: In your book, you shared personal account and emotions and weaved those among social and policy issues that have created the China adoption program.   What is your take on the future of adoption and also how these adopted children from China who are US citizens might affect the future or even East/West relations?

Jeff:  Well, originally I didn’t anticipate the dramatic downturn in the adoption program seen in the last couple of years. While the family planning policy is still in place, I think all bets are off for the adoption program. I saw a lot of changes between 2002 and this past summer when we returned.  

I do think that in time as these kids mature, I think a large number of them will be interested in China and connection to it.  They will have a unique blend of China and America, with Chinese blood and an American sense of standards and justice.  They may be able to “push” China in ways that others have not.  They may in fact, want things from China, such as a formal apology or reparations and they may be harder to ignore than other contingents of people.  Time will tell of course, but if my girls are any indication, these kids, once grown, may be a force to be reckoned with.

Iris:  Yes, I agree, my kids can be a force to be reckoned with in my household. I think they’re training for futures as attorneys – the negotiation skills are already quite strong!
Thanks for sharing your story.  Will there be some sequel? 

Jeff:  Well, there may be another book that relates to China.  Right now I’m not considering a sequel about me or my family.  I think I’ve captured the adoption story for my kids.  But I do have another topic in mind…….

Personal Note (Iris):  I convinced myself I would not spend any more money on purchasing yet another book on China adoptions, but then I met Jeff Gammage at an adoption conference and heard him speak.  My copy of “China Ghosts” now sits proudly on display in my book shelf.  I would recommend it as the first book for anyone considering China adoption.  It’s an excellent account which covers the emotions and the social complexity of the experience from an insider’s perspective.    I appreciate it now as  an important contribution to the China adoptive community.

About Jeff Gammage:
Jeff Gammage is a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he often writes about adoption. In 2002, he and his wife, Christine, traveled to Hunan Province, where they adopted their daughter, Jin Yu, from the Xiangtan Social Welfare Institute. Jin Yu, 2 at the time, now attends third grade, where she specializes in scholarship of Hannah Montana.  In 2004, the three of them journeyed to China, this time to Gansu Province, to adopt a second daughter, Zhao Gu, then 1, from the Wuwei SWI. Zhao Gu, now 6, is pursuing her interest in the Jonas Brothers. The Gammages live in Elkins Park, Pa.

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