A Canadian Vietnam Adoption Story
By Karen Couture
Vietnam to Canada - An Adoption Story.
My husband and I live near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. On June 16, 1998, we adopted our beautiful son, Marc Thang Trong Le Couture, near Hanoi, Vietnam. It was the end of a very long and emotional year of waiting and hoping.
Our adoption story started when I met, fell in love with and married Jean in 1993. I had a biological son from a previous marriage, Rob, who had been born with Down Syndrome and whom I love dearly. However, for a long time I had wanted to parent another child. Both Jean and I felt that we would be truly blessed if we could have another child. He also had a child from a previous marriage but had little contact with her as she lived with her mother in Puerto Rico.
After four years of marriage there was no baby in sight. I decided to deal with the issue of having a baby while I was taking a personal development course in May/June, 1997. I received much support from others taking the course. In the end, after many hours of discussion with Jean and visits to the gynaecologist, we decided to proceed with adopting a baby. I was menopausal (I was 50 at the time) and we did not want to go to great lengths with the new reproductive technology to have a biological child, especially when there were already kids somewhere who needed families. Jean was at first reluctant about adoption but soon warmed to the idea, especially since he could see that it was something that I really felt was important. During the adoption process he became fully committed and kept us going when I was ready to give up.
Things started happening right away. We went to a seminar on adopting at the Adoption Centre of Ontario, a nonprofit centre supporting people before and after adoption. While there, we spotted photos of some children that were in an orphanage in Vietnam. As part of my search for adoption information, I phoned the contact attached to the photos. She and her husband had already adopted from China and were in the process of adopting twins from Vietnam. We talked for about an hour and got a lot of information about the process. She also copied some photos of children waiting to be adopted from the same orphanage as their referrals. We spotted a most adorable child who seemed to be quite a feisty baby. Although I at first thought the child was a boy, we subsequently found out that the child was in fact a girl. Jean said that his commitment to the adoption came when he saw the pictures and the child became a reality for him.
In early part of June, we started the process of getting provincial approval with the home study. We found and met with a social worker to assess us as acceptable prospective parents . . . quite an ordeal which took the form of four interviews lasting about three hours each. The final interview took place while all the family was in town and could also be interviewed about their feelings concerning the adoption. Everyone was very supportive and positive.
After talking with the facilitator in Vietnam about the baby we had seen in the pictures, we sent a fax expressing our wish to adopt her and offering to provide assistance to the orphanage in taking care of the little girl we started to call Angie (after Jean's grandmother, Angelina) Luh, her family name, until we could go over to formally adopt her. As there was no agency in Ontario that worked in Vietnam at that time we had decided to work directly with the in-country facilitator.
Then came the long wait . . . nine months of suspense, despair, elation. Through it all we were able to support each other and the wait strengthened our relationship. We were very clear that this was something we both wanted to do very much. We are both practising Catholics and our faith was a great source of strength. We also received a lot of support from the three other couples who were hoping to adopt from the same orphanage and from the APV mailing list and our family and friends.
It took nine months to receive the government approval, first because there was a backlog of files at the provincial ministry and second, because Jean had a very minor heart attack and we had to wait until a cardiologist could give the social worker an "all clear" letter about Jean's health.
Getting the approval to sponsor our adopted child to come to Canada as an immigrant involved a lot of paperwork but was received in about three weeks in September 1997. We planned to complete the immigration paperwork in Singapore on our way back from Hanoiafter the adoption (all immigration work for most of south east Asia is done in Singapore).
The referral in Vietnam for the little girl was put on hold indefinitely because she was in a Catholic orphanage that did not have government approval to allow adoptions. When we finally got the government approval in Ontario, we decided we had to look elsewhere for a baby to adopt in Vietnam. The facilitator we had been working with could only give us a referral for an older child but our government approval here stated it was for a child less than two years. With great sadness and a lot of tears we decided we had to move on and look elsewhere for our child. God had decided that this was not to be. He had other plans for our family.
We saw a posting on the Adoptive Parents From Vietnam mailing list for parents to adopt a waiting baby boy in early April 1998. I e-mailed immediately and the next day we got the call from the director of an agency in the U.S. who talked to us at length about their programme in Vietnam and what the agency was looking for in adoptive families. She asked us if we were still interested and we said yes. We got a call from another agency person later that day and it was a go! We had to redo some of our paperwork to suit the requirements of the agency but by mid April we had a referral for a three-month-old baby boy.
We waited until early May when we finally got news of what was happening with our dossier in Vietnam. The baby was apparently claimed by the birth father and no longer available for adoption. And the good news for us was there was another referral for a two-week old baby boy. Were we interested? It took us less than five seconds to say yes! We decided to call our soon-to-be son Marc, along with his Vietnamese name.
There was a flurry of preparations to get ready to travel four weeks later assuming our dossier was accepted for the new referral. We got word by the end of May that we were accepted. I had to give notice at work (I am an elementary school teacher), we had to book flights with open returns and we had to arrange to get Vietnamese visas. We also had to make arrangements with family and friends to take care of my other son, Rob while we were away for three weeks. We asked our agency to have a room booked in Hanoi for us.
THE FLIGHT AND HANOI
What an exciting time! On June 11 my sister drove us Toronto International Airport and we were off to Hanoi. We had an eight-hour stopover in Hong Kong which was a bit tedious and then we boarded the plane to Hanoi. We caught our first glimpse of Vietnam from the plane and then the rice fields as we drew closer to Hanoi. We knew we were definitely there when we stepped out of the plane into 35 degrees Celsius weather with high humidity. It had been 18 degrees Celsius when we left Toronto. We got through customs and were greeted by the assistant to the in-country facilitator for the agency. On the drive into Hanoi we were told the baby was very healthy and his Vietnamese name was Thang, which means Victory. Goes well with Marc, which means Warrior! We went to the Huyen Trang Hotel and were told the adoption would take place the following Tuesday and we would travel to the province to get the baby and complete the adoption.
Our hotel was very good and we had a clean, spacious room with huge double bed and wardrobe. There was a bathroom with a bath with a shower off the main room. The air conditioning, essential in the intense heat, worked well most of the time except when there were "brown outs" in Hanoi. There was a machine that provided boiling water at all times as long as we kept filling it up with tap water when it got low. It was great for cleaning the nipples on the bottles and making tea and coffee. There was also a small fridge, useful for keeping made formula and other food. The hotel staff was very friendly and helpful. A rocking bamboo cradle and small bath were put in our room the day before the adoption. They provided fresh local fruit in the room daily and the food in their bar was very tasty with both European and Vietnamese choices. We ate most meals at the hotel, either in the bar or our room, especially after we had the baby with us. It was also very hot to eat out and air conditioning did not work very effectively in most places we visited. We were able to send and receive faxes which were useful for our contact with Singapore immigration.
We were located near shops and restaurants and there were two European style grocery stores across the street from the hotel. We found one restaurant, Mama Rosa's, across from the Hoan Kiem Lake, that we enjoyed and ate there three time with two other adoptive families we had met while in Hanoi, one from Colorado and one from Belgium. Mama Rosa's was very welcoming (and air conditioned!). They held our baby while we ate and we used the "Mama Rosa" hold on the baby for many months after to calm Marc. The Green Bamboo was another restaurant which we enjoyed and we met a French woman there who had just adopted a tiny baby girl. Jean's fluency in French, his first language, provided very useful on several occasions and many of the older Vietnamese spoke French.
There are many small shops where we were able to bargain using crisp, new American dollar bills for lacquerware, chopsticks, needlework pictures, children's musical instruments and artwork that would give Marc some idea of his heritage. We found a beautiful silk outfit for Marc's baptism and some gorgeous, handknit sweaters for him as well. We also bought some gifts for people back home.
We were able to walk to Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral only two blocks from the hotel on the two Sundays we were there. The Cathedral had been built when the French were in Hanoi and reopened in 1992 when freedom to practise Catholicism was reinstated. It was strange to experience the same Mass celebration in a different language and place but the prayers and readings were the same. Everyone bowed instead of shaking hands for the Sign of Peace. The women sat on one side of the cathedral and the men on the other. Before mass what we believe to be the rosary was chanted in Vietnamese. All the women had fans (sold on the steps outside the cathedral) to keep them cool even though it was only 6:30 in the morning. It was a moving experience to go with Marc to Mass and say thanks to God for our wonderful new son and have the priest bless him.
We had time to recover from jet lag for two days and get a sense of where we were. We had a chance to see the famous Water Puppet Show, the Museum of Ethnicity and the Temple of Learning. We did some shopping as well for artwork, beautiful needlework scenes of the country and other items such as lacquer ware and musical instruments to bring home for our new son so he would get some idea of his roots. We walked most places but took a pedicab to the Singapore Embassy for visa information and the Museum Art. As many others have noted in their adoption stories in Hanoi crossing streets requires some courage but once one started crossing it was important to continue at a steady speed so the vehicles could drive around the pedestrian. We saw only one traffic light in the city. People just honked their horns to let people know they were coming through. There were mainly motorbikes for transportation, with a few cars, mostly taxis, and bicycles. The street vendors were constantly trying to sell us postcards, phrase books and other items and were very persistent even though we bought nothing from them.
THE ADOPTION AND LEAVING FOR SINGAPORE
We were very excited when we were picked up at our hotel just before 6:00 A.M. on June 16, 1998 by the taxi to take us to adopt our son. We had a two-hour drive after picking up our facilitator to the town where the adoption was completed and we got a good chance to see the country side and the people as we travelled. Our facilitator was with us as we entered the meeting room in the Justice Department in the province.
Then an absolutely beautiful 6-week-old baby was handed to me. There had been no time to get photos of him before as he was so young and I only knew beforehand that he was a "large" baby by Vietnamese standards. I thought that meant he was chubby but he was not, just very long. He was wearing light cotton pants and shirt and no diaper. Jean was busy video taping the event as I held Marc for the first time and cried with happiness. The facilitator said we should get a diaper on him quickly. We diapered him and put on a little sleeper I had brought for him to the Giving and Receiving ceremony. Jean held him and I took pictures of them together. We met the foster parents and were told Marc was being fed every two hours! Get ready for sleepless nights! The foster mother looked sad at losing Marc.
The Giving and Receiving Ceremony went smoothly and we were asked to say a few words to the officials. Both Jean and I gave little speeches thanking them for our beautiful son and that this was something we had wanted for a long time. We also promised to raise him to respect his culture and be a good citizen of his new country. We signed the Proces Verbal. Then everyone toasted our new son's life in Canada with 7-Up (it was too hot for the beer provided) and ate fresh lichees. We gave a small gift to the foster parents and some cookies to the officials. Our facilitator left with the officials to complete the paperwork and we waited and got to know Marc. My big fear at the time was that the officials would change their minds and we would not be allowed to leave with Marc.
We drove back to Hanoi with me holding Marc the whole way as he slept in my arms. The taxi honked its way through the traffic almost the whole way back. Marc was obviously used to being held a lot and to noise and snuggled into my arms right away. He drank some Isomil shortly after the G & R before the ride back. We used Gerber nipples and holders with disposable liners and Marc was fine with them.
After the adoption we settled into a routine of feedings and sleeping with some forays out during the day, first to arrange to get Marc's passport and photo for the medical required for Immigration Canada and, of course, to eat and shop. Marc stretched to three to four hours between feedings within a day or so. He loved being carried in the Snugli or in our arms and slept most of the time when we were out in the intense heat. He woke up mainly when we were in the room where it was cool. Unfortunately he developed some sort of digestive problem, possibly from some bug he picked up, and a cough. He started throwing up some or most of the bottles he was fed and developed mild diarrhoea which continued until well after he was home in Canada. We tried switching to milk-based formula bought in Hanoi but that only made matters worse. He was best on the powdered Isomil mixed with boiled bottled water. The mild diarrhoea only cleared up shortly after I gave him a teensy bit of yogurt.
The day after the adoption we went to the Clinic in the diplomatic compound which did the medicals for immigration to Canada. Marc was checked and the blood tests for HIV and Hep B were done. Marc was pronounced very healthy and the blood tests were negative. The receptionist at the clinic said the medical would be sent that day after we said it had to go to Singapore immediately. Little did we know that the clinic normally waits until they have a batch of medicals for Immigration Canada before they send them which could take weeks. They apparently did not understand what we were trying to say because the medical form just sat at the clinic. Jean called the clinic to see if it had been sent the next Tuesday after we received a message from Immigration in Singapore saying they had not received the medical. He went to the clinic and sat in the clinic until a courier came to pick it up and he got a tracking number so we would know when it arrived in Singapore.
We had picked up Marc's Vietnamese passport and exit visa on Friday, June 19, and had all the necessary adoption and other Vietnamese documentation faxed to Singapore from the Canadian Embassy in Hanoi. Our contact there was very helpful.
We decided to go to Singapore for the immigration on the Thursday, June 25, despite no meaningful communication from the Canadian Immigration people in Singapore. The medical had been delivered to them. What was most frustrating was there was no telephone contact, only fax and they did not respond to our fax questions. We got a fax from on Wednesday telling us not to come until all the paperwork was in order but we could not find out what was missing as everything that was requested should have been there. We felt that at least if we were in Singapore we could at least talk to real people! The embassy in Hanoi also could only fax Singapore and could not help us. They knew as much as we did.
We said goodbye to the hotel staff who gave us a parting gift of some lacquer boxes for Marc. The assistant to the facilitator had also given Marc a little pop-up picture book with a Vietnamese fairy tale in Vietnamese so he would have something from his country. It had started raining as the cab drove us to the airport. Despite the intense heat we had experienced in Hanoi we were sorry to leave.
We had been fortunate that it had only rained the last two days we were in Hanoi. We had been able to see quite a bit of Hanoi both before and after the adoption. We had seen the Museum of Art and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake in early morning with Marc before it got too hot where we saw groups of people doing Tai Chi to taped music and small children playing soccer. Old ladies would stop us to show us how to hold the baby when I had to dispense with the Snugli because it was just too hot and just carry him. Everywhere we had experienced a gentleness and genuine caring for children that I had not experienced in North America. The streets had been surprisingly clean considering the dense population and greenery could be seen everywhere, even cascading from balconies at the tops of buildings. We had also seen the poverty of street kids. We had seen people improvising when they lacked the modern technology such as patching the sidewalk in front of their shops by hand. For us it had been a city of contrasts. Computers in the hotel and people using bikes to transport things and cooking food both for themselves and to sell on the sidewalks outside the shops. People watching the World Cup Soccer Finals on televisions in the heat in the late evening in the backs of shops open to the street. Watching CNN in our hotel room and going out to see chickens running loose in the back streets. We felt like we were in a different time and place but with connections to the world with which we were familiar.
Read Part 2 (Singapore & home)