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Sometimes, a thousand words is worth more than a picture. I'm talking about travel diaries. Many people keep them so they can remember the things they didn't photograph...And the things they can't photograph...Like thoughts and impressions they have during a trip. If you're just vacationing, a journal might be just something fun to do on your down time. But if you're traveling overseas to adopt a child, that journal takes on an extra special significance. Boston-area poet and novelist joe torra was keeping one such diary when he was in china last year, adopting his second daughter. And then something terrible, and also wonderful, happened. Contributor Sean Cole tells the story.

Feature: A Poetic Journey

by Sean Cole (5/11/2001)

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On august first of last year, Joe Torra flew to China to adopt his second daughter, Celeste Dan. When he adopted his first daughter, Julia Gan, from China in 1996, Joe kept a journal of the trip, a daily record that he handed around to friends and family when he got back. He wanted keep a journal this time too. But things didn't quite work out that way.

Joe: "The journal I purchased I left on a bus in Bejing
Along with my new $35 copy of Empire. What I saw
I see now I must recollect, allow time and memory
The void. White swans. Dragonfly song..."
This is the first stanza of "August letter to my wife and daughters," a long poem Joe wrote when he got back to Somerville, Massachusetts, and then published as a book through a small press he runs with 2 other poets. The new 35-dollar copy "Empire" he refers to is a book about globalization he was reading. That could be replaced. But the diary could not. The way he tells it, he was pretty upset when he first realized the diary was gone. But then he decided it was an omen - that he was meant to record the journey in another way. For the rest of the time he was there, he didn't take another note. And when he got home, in a trance like state, he wrote the whole poem out of his memory.
Joe: "I think the first day home I started it. But because I was in the middle of jet lag, because I was still on this incredible fantasty from that great country. Deprived of sleep, I mean...these are the ways people put themselves into euphoric states anyway. I had everything going for me and I was in another world. So I used that I let that other world write the poem."
The poem was done in about a week. 35 stanzas of 9 lines each...9 being a magic number in China. He revised it a little bit, but for the most part the poem reads as it came out. Seeing as had nothing but his memory to guide him, the poem is filled with a surprising amount of detail. Some of the stanzas are concise but complete portraits of modern China, a place of contradictions, where ancient history and recent westernization...beauty and ugliness...constantly clash.
Joe: "Mountain ranges cut into sky painters paint thousands years.
Lotus blossoms choke mossy green ponds.
Old truck hangs low its bed dragged down by coal blocks
Big as boulders. SUVs and pricey new cars alongside millions
Of bicyclists. Raindrops size of gold balls in Guangzhou.
Red army guard armed with machine gun stands
At attention guarding bridge over the Yangtze river
In the shade of a Mcdonald's umbrella.
River barges chug endlessly up and down the Pearl river."
Joe spent 2 weeks in 3 different cities that span the coast of eastern China - Bejing, Wuhan and Guangzhou - going through the grueling bureaucracy of adopting Celeste Dan. In each city he had a different task to perform, a different set of forms to fill out. Joe and his wife Molly had decided it would be best for her to stay home with their first daughter, 5-year-old Julia Gan. So he brought his nephew Kevin Murray along, for company and support. They were certainly the most unorthodox pair in their group of 8 adopting families. They were also the most restless. Since Joe had done this trip before, he wasn't interested in the jade factories and temples the guides wanted to show them. Often he and Kevin struck out on their own, into what Joe calls "real China." Of course, two big, white men carrying a Chinese infant through the streets of real China is bound to draw some attention.
Joe: "A lot of people know - a lot of people understand what you're doing. Lots of people come up and tell you through a translator that she's a very lucky girl. People laugh, people are curious it's just a complete mix. Depending on who they are or where they come from, they have a notion that you're anything from a rich white guy coming to buy a little baby for sexual purposes to who knows what."
Joe: "Crowded backstreets, surrounded by curious locals, which one
Of us is the mother? A woman offers her breasts to Celeste Dan.
Everyone laughs. Women pass Celeste Dan around, we snap
Pictures, more people gather, suddenly imagine
Someone run away with her. I take her from a teenage girl.
A man in a kiosk offers me a bottle of mile free of charge.
Everyone laughs again. Good-bye. Hello, hello, hello, hello,
Many say when they see us. The Chinese have names for us translate
To long nose, white ghost. Hello, hello. Ni hao. Hello."
Joe says the cooler receptions came from younger women...women just coming into child-bearing age...who by law can only have one child. They give you some pretty complex looks when you pass them on the street holding a baby, he says. Often he wondered how many women at the kiosks along the road had given away a child. Of course, he didn't mean any harm. He was just trying to adopt a baby, and to give that child more opportunities than she might have here, growing up in an orphanage, perhaps unwanted because she is a girl. But the joy of adopting Celeste Dan was sometimes tempered by remorse as he thought of the circumstances that brought him and his new daughter together.
Joe: "There's a great guilt you feel there, and there's also...you can't help but think of her parents...where they are, very complicated. And that's why I feel now I want China...need a different 'China'...in here to be as much a part of our life as America is...as much as it can be here in America. We talk about China. We listen to chinese music. We cook Chinese food. If there's something related to China that's worthwhile watching, we do...and that kind of thing. And the girls are very much aware of that."
That connection with China isn't just for the girls. Joe was certainly interested in China before he and Molly adopted Julia Gan and Celeste Dan, but not so much as he is now that half his immediate family is Chinese. Joe says, during this last trip, people told him "you're Chinese now. You have Chinese children. This is your country too. You need to come back." And he's really taken that to heart. He and Molly plan to visit China again, with their daughters, when Celeste Dan is 5. Joe wants to learn Chinese before then. He's also been reading more Chinese philosophy...and Chinese poetry.
Joe: "Creatively as a writer it's really opened things up...I was always interested in Budhhism and Taoism when I was younger. I had gotten away from it. But it's gotten back into me in many different ways especially in my writing...in fact my new book of poems now is called 'After the Chinese.'"
Joe read some of "After the Chinese" to me. And one poem sticks out in particular. That guilt he was talking about before? Thinking about his daughter's biological parents as he walked the crowded streets of urban China? He takes that up in this poem, written from the point of view of Celeste Dan's biological mother, whoever and wherever she may be.
Joe: "'Mother's Lament'
Today I squeeze into a girdle.
My prison for the next 4 months.
Only my husband and mother and law know my secret.
My first-born left in a public park.
They say foreigners pay high prices for our daughters.
The weather's unsettled thunder cloud clap followed by flashing rays of sun
Each slight movement I send a prayer."
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for the Savvy Traveler.

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