Terrorism stranded new adoptive parents in China

For toddler and adoptive father and mother, going home was put on hold

Posted: Sunday, September 30, 2001

When you have a newly adopted toddler in your arms, all you want to do is get home quickly and safely.

But ripples of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast reached as far as China, where Tom and Wendy Leisener of Juneau had just adopted 18-month-old Zoe - and kept them in a state of anxiety, unable to fly home.

The Leiseners' reservations to Los Angeles were for Sept. 12, but airport shutdowns kept them in China until the 16th. "I had no clue how to get in touch with them," said their older daughter Christa, worrying in Anchorage. "I figured they would call."

During their four days stranded in Guangzhou, a port city about 100 miles from Hong Kong, the Leiseners visited McDonald's and Pizza Hut and introduced Zoe to French fries. As they explored the city, Wendy wore a sign with Chinese on one side, informing readers that they were adopting Zoe and would keep her culture alive for her.

Chinese citizens reacted positively to the trio, in terms of the adoption and the terrorist crisis.

"They would come up to us and give us thumbs up. Or they would practice what little English they knew. They really won our hearts," Tom said.

"Sometimes we couldn't even shop," Wendy said. "We would have 12 or 15 people gathering around in very narrow aisles."

They noted guards and blocked gates at the American Consulate. They kept up with what was happening back home via CNN in their hotel room.

"For days, the only news we could get about the U.S. was the stock market. But (on the 11th), they stopped talking about money. I thought at first (the attacks on the World Trade Center) were a movie," Tom said.

Finally, they were able to board China Southern Air's first flight out of the country. "Otherwise we might not have made it back for another week," Tom said.

The Leiseners decided to adopt a child from China three years ago while living in a one-room log cabin in the foothills of Alaska's Mount McKinley.

When they arrived at the stage where a social worker visited their home, they were assigned one from Wasilla who knew the ropes of impressing adoption agencies.

"Her study described our 'large, detached bathroom,' which was our two-holer, and the 'sewing area' was my treadle under the window," Wendy Leisener said with a laugh.

The couple wound up living in their vacation cabin because Tom, currently pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, had resigned from the church he was serving in Wisconsin. The couple maintained a minimal cash flow by building a couple of rental cabins, and by Tom's working as a construction laborer. Tom described idyllic evenings, reading by generator light and basking in the radiant heat of the wood stove.

"It was a time when we could think about things," Wendy said. "We were not so busy with life. I realized how much we have in this country and how blessed we are. It felt like we needed to share that."

That's how Zoe came into their lives.

The couple has two older children, Christa, 21, a student at Alaska Pacific University, and Tom, 23, working in Anchorage and engaged to be married. Christa is visiting Juneau to get acquainted with her new sister.

"We have always wanted more children," Wendy said. "We took care of special-needs foster babies, and (adoption) was always in the background."

Wendy found that the plight of unwanted girls in a society that encourages one-child families drew her sympathy. In addition, communist China lacks Christianity, she said, and "We can bring her to Jesus." Also, Wendy is 48; Tom, 56. Some countries would reject them as adoptive parents because of their age, but not China.

They applied through New Hope, a Seattle agency that places children from Russia and Romania as well as China. Two years later, now living in Juneau, they flew to Guangzhou (the former Canton), and then north to Hangzhou.

When Zoe realized her caregiver was leaving her with strangers, "It was really tough," Wendy recalled. "There were big tears in those big brown eyes."

In their hotel room, Zoe would eye the door as if thinking of escape. "It took until the second night to get a smile out of her. The next day, I lost track of (the count of) smiles," Tom said.

Zoe uses a sidelong glance to inspect strangers while she considers their intentions. It gets a rise out of everyone. Bapa (Chinese for Papa) has adopted this as a signal to rush over and kiss dramatically. So Zoe regularly turns her glance on him.

Since returning home, the couple has taken Zoe hiking. Rain doesn't phase her. She licked her first mixer beaters Wednesday, wipes the dog's nose when it's wet, and uses the TV remote control as a cell phone. In other words, she's settling right in.

"There's a need in China, and it's very fulfilling to adopt Zoe," Tom said. "Life is about relationships - not things. Relationships are where the pleasure is."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

Trending this week:


© 2016. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us