The happiest place

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Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on earth. It’s not. To find the happiest place on earth you need to travel to Guangzhou in southern China. Happiness isn’t found, however, in Guangzhou’s legendary fake watch market with its miles of shinny replica Rolex, Gucci, and Cartier watches. Nor is it found Guangzhou’s gleaming glass towers that mint the city’s millionaires. It is not even found in the city’s amazing food—though gastronomical delight certainly is on hand in abundance. To find the epicenter of happiness on earth, you must go to a generic office building surrounded by a big black metal fence, where officials sit behind bullet-proof glass and talk to you through a microphone.

It’s a rather unusual setting to produce so much joy. And yet, I can attest from personal experience, this plain-looking place in Guangzhou’s business district has generated more happiness than just about any equivalent-sized location on the face of the earth.

This is the US Consulate in Guangzhou. And all 81,162 Chinese children adopted to date by American families had their adoptions finalized right here in this stark office space.

I know the room well because I was sitting in it just two days ago as I write. My wife and I flew down from Lanzhou to Guangzhou with our son-to-be, and were so keen we were client No. 1 on the day our little boy became not only an American, but became our son. And now he is legally our son, he will also receive Australian citizenship, which we also hold. So, from being an orphan who was abandoned at birth in one of the poorer regions of China, he now has a family who love him with all our hearts and access to literally a world of opportunity is now open to him.

Our son, completely underwhelmed by the occasion, played in a corner with other happy children on a little plastic play set thoughtfully provided by the consulate staff. Is he happy to be coming home with us? Ecstatic would be a better word. The smile has barely left his face since he realized that, after almost five years of life, he finally has a mum and a dad to call his own. A lot of our friends have commented on what a lucky boy he is. In many ways I suppose he is. But no one feels more fortunate than my wife and I do to have this wonderful boy as part of our family.

With me in the consulate on the big day were another 12 families. Some we had gotten to know well during the adoption process, many we were meeting for the first time. Talking with them as we waited, however, I realized something very curious. Although we were meeting for the first time, we had something very deep in common: we were all Christians.

Not Christian as a vague inherited family identity. But Christians who are actively involved in their church, pray daily, read the Bible, and take the entire Christian life seriously. One of the families proudly showed the Chinese Bible they had bought their new child. Another talked about the support her church community back home had provided in the adoption. Another said this would be their family’s fourth and last adoption, “unless the Lord has other plans for us.”

And it’s not just the families. Overwhelmingly the adoption agencies facilitating adoptions are Christian-based, as are the entities providing grants to help people defray the daunting costs of international adoption.

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But why are Christians so involved in adoption? I’ve now swum in the international adoption waters for more than a year—that’s how long the process takes from start to finish—and I’ve met many Christians from a wide range of denominations—Catholics, evangelicals and my own faith community, Adventists—who are in the process of adopting. My conclusion from talking with them? Their motivations are very similar to mine.

First, we have loving families and want to share that love with children who don’t have families. It’s that simple. Second, we recognize we’ve been blessed with enormous opportunities and we want to share them with children who would, otherwise, have very little opportunity.

That, of course, isn’t enough for the cynics who see evil in everything Christians do. New York journalist Kathryn Joyce, who has made a career of lambasting “the Christian adoption movement” has three main complaints.

First, she paints cases where children who were not “real” orphans were adopted by naive American Christians as typical cases. They’re not. We know, because while there are nations where war, corruption, and dire poverty may have contributed to adoptions that should not have occurred, those incidents are very far from representative. The bulk of the international adoptions to the American families have come from the nations of the former Soviet Union and China—neither of which are subject to claims of abuse of process. Further, even though cases of dubious adoption do exist, surely the answer to this problem isn’t to discourage families giving children without parents a mum and a dad. Instead, the solution is to work diligently to ensure a clean, transparent, error-free process.

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Second, Joyce and other critics claim people should focus on helping the communities and extended families of neglected children, rather than adopting them. But of course, there is no reason why people can’t do both. Many of the Christians we’ve met during this sojourn are great supporters of Christian aid and development organizations like World Vision, ADRA, Church World Service, and the many other Christian aid and development agencies that bring health, education, and development assistance to many of the most impoverished populations on earth. Adopting children in need of families hardly negates helping in other ways. Christians can do both—and do.

Thirdly, Joyce intimates that Christians are adopting children as part of an evangelistic conversion conspiracy. While it’s certainly true that many adopted children will embrace their new family’s religion for themselves, is this really the most efficient method of recruiting new believers? No. It is a lot easier and a lot less expensive to have your own kids than to adopt an orphan in need of parents. If people simply wanted to grow their church community’s numbers, having large families the old-fashioned way or doing all the regular revival activities is a lot easier and makes a lot more sense. International adoption? It’s time consuming, cripplingly expensive—downpayment on a new home kind of expensive—and altogether an inefficient strategy. No rational person looking for church growth would choose international adoption as the route.

As I chatted another new dad in the consulate office, he casually stated something I’ve experienced myself, “I think God just puts the desire to adopt in our hearts.” My own adoption journey began when, as a young man, I visited an orphanage in Vietnam with my father—he was working with ADRA at the time, which was sponsoring a nutrition program in the orphanage. Even as a young guy, seeing those beautiful kids so desirous of adult attention melted my heart.

So here I am, all these years later, with a life full of experienced that have led my wife and me to the happiest place on earth. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Because love is the one thing that the more we give away, the more we have. The smile of my new son’s face just melts my heart. Taking his tiny hand in mine and hearing him call me “Poppa”—it’s beyond priceless. And yes, the exuberant welcome I get every day is so much better than anything Walt Disney ever dreamed up. That’s a kind of happiness that you won’t find in a hundred years of theme parks.

James Standish is a human rights lawyer, writer and doting father-of-three based in the Washington DC area.

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