Robert L. Sharp: Adoptee's trip to the zoo

February 21, 2009 

Adoption is a complex process, emotionally and legally.

The Human Services Agency in Merced over the past 10 years has averaged just over 48 adoptions a year, with many more in recent years than at the beginning of the decade, according to a Merced County spokeswoman.

Fifty-eight percent of completed adoptions are with former foster parents, while relatives adopt 26 percent. That means few adoptions were the result of people looking for a child without some previous connection.

The experience of our family is quite different, involving our Japanese daughter, whom my wife and I adopted in 1980 while we were residents in Japan.

Several years after our initial application, a child was found for us in an orphanage attached to a Buddhist temple in Osaka.

My wife and children and I took the bullet train from Tokyo to meet the girl and to be inspected by the Osaka welfare authorities. We even met the very solemn head priest of the temple to see if we were acceptable adoptive parents.

No doubt the Japanese authorities were just as enthused about our desire to adopt a Japanese child as the authorities in Dubuque, Iowa, would be to encourage expatriate Japanese living in the United States to adopt a child of the Corn Belt: "I've always admired you Americans -- and we'll take that little blue-eyed blonde one over there."

That we were successful in adopting a Japanese child at all, besides our patience, long residence in Japan and Asia, and demonstrated sincerity by having five other children of our own, is because Shizue was already 5 years old.

Unlike a newborn infant, older children are difficult to place with a family.

In Japan adoptions are not common at any age, except in the case of adult sons-in-law who sometimes take the wife's surname to preserve the bride's family line.

In order to get acquainted, we all set off to the Osaka Zoo, where we saw the lions, tigers, giraffes and all the other animals.

We got along fine together, although the little girl was naturally rather shy.

We had some trouble communicating, as our Japanese was minimal and Shizue spoke no English.

Later, over numerous cups of green tea with the priest, we were surprised to be told she had never before seen a foreigner in her life.

A couple of years later, when we could better communicate with one another, we were surprised to hear our new daughter tell us she had some vague thought when we had met in Osaka that she was being given away to "animals."

It seems the exciting experience of meeting a new size, shape and color of human being, going to see the lions at the zoo, and my wife's hairdo at that time, a '70s-style blond and curly Afro style, all combined to create that confused but understandable impression.

We weren't offended by the remark, as she didn't mean it in a negative sense.

In fact, she seemed to like being with strange new "animals" that day, whether two- or four-legged, as she had happily skipped along and hummed a little tune as she held our hands to and from the visit to the zoo.

(This article is adapted from one that was published in the Japan Times Weekly International Edition 15 years ago.)

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a naval officer in that part of the world.

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