Child of 2 worlds struggles to put down roots
Associate Press

Custody battle is over; Anna's is just beginning

By Anita Chang

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

CHONGQING, China Nine-year-old Anna He stands quietly amid the chaos in her boarding-school dorm on a Sunday night, a frenzy of little girls chattering in Chinese as they change the linens on rows of wooden beds.

Anna is an outsider here. Her parents are Chinese, but she cannot talk to her schoolmates because she grew up in America.

This small girl with watchful, dark eyes was at the center of one of the longest custody battles in the U.S. in recent times, a high-profile, seven-year dispute marked by racial and cultural undercurrents. On one side were the Bakers, a white family in suburban Memphis, Tenn. On the other were the Hes (pronounced Huhs), immigrants scraping by with low-paying jobs before they returned to China.

The legal fight is finally over. And a new story has started for Anna.

Last year the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered her returned to the Chinese couple, and the family moved to China in February. Since then, Anna has lived in two cities and attended three schools. After her parents' marriage fell apart, she was sent to boarding school this fall and goes home on weekends.

"I really don't like living at school," Anna murmurs in English, buttoning and unbuttoning her sweater absently as the other girls flutter bedsheets.

A matter of health insurance

Anna was born Jan. 28, 1999, a few weeks after her father was accused of sexual assault by a fellow student at the University of Memphis. Shaoqiang He lost his scholarship and graduate-student stipend, although he was found not guilty.

With little income and no health insurance, the Hes asked an adoption agency to find a foster family until they got back on their feet. Anna went to live with Jerry and Louise Baker when she was less than a month old.

That June, the Hes signed court papers that transferred custody of Anna to the Bakers so she could get health insurance. The Bakers eventually sought to adopt Anna, saying the Hes had abandoned her.

Anna's parents wanted her back, and the case wound through four courts. One judge suggested the couple wanted to keep Anna only to avoid getting deported, calling Anna's natural father deceitful and the actions of her mother "calculating, almost theatrical." For five years, the courts did not allow the Hes to see Anna.

The Bakers questioned the quality of life for little girls in China, where families have a traditional preference for boys.

By the time Anna returned to her Chinese parents last year, she was no longer a baby but an 8-year-old American girl. She was unable to speak or understand Chinese, and American classmates told her the country would be "weird."

Anna's parents, also known by their American first names Casey and Jack, fell out just five months after returning to their native country. Her mother, Qin Luo, took the kids from the city of Changsha, where He had found work, to her hometown of Chongqing in southwestern China.

The mother and children Anna, 8-year-old Andy and 6-year-old Avita now live in a simple, two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town.

"I never understand"

On a recent Friday night, Anna and Avita huddled in one room, dressed in matching Hello Kitty tops and whispering to each other in English on a bed strewn with a Chinese checkers board, marbles and miniature plastic figurines.

Here at home, everybody talks to Anna in English. Her brother and sister are fluent in English and Chinese. Everyone calls her "Anna," instead of her Chinese name "He Sijia."

After nine months in China, Anna still does not speak much Chinese, a notoriously difficult language to learn. She says she can understand some things "if it's really easy."

"At class, I never understand," she says, with her childish manner of speaking, pronouncing 'R's as 'W's. And Anna is reticent about communicating with other kids in Chinese because, "Well, they never understand me."

Anna didn't tell her classmates about Halloween "because I don't know how to say Halloween in Chinese." Nor could she alert her teacher when she spotted "a big black bug" in the vegetables at lunch one day.

Anna is short for her age but has a round tummy that she and her mother attribute to her "meat-atarian" diet.

Like many other 9-year-olds, she has front teeth too big for her face.

At first, Anna says she is "scared" to answer questions about herself, but soon she's eager to talk.

"Well, I liked America. I liked to be at school, I liked math and science," she says. "I have, like, a lot of friends, and I get to be with everyone that can speak English."

And what are three things she likes about China?

"Well, let me think. . . . Well, I have made a friend, but now she is gone. Her name was Sarah. That's one thing. I'm trying to think of a second thing. Second thing I like about China . . . is . . . well, I don't really know. I don't know. . . . There's so many cars and a lot of people smoke. I really hate that."

Anna should be in fourth grade but was placed a grade lower because of her language difficulties. She says school in China is "five times harder" than in the U.S. She has a backpack filled with papers from her American school, most marked with a perfect score.

"At school, on my report card, I always had A's, never one B," she says. "In China I maybe got too many B's and C's."

Anna hates ballet, and her favorite class is piano.

"I like music. . . . It takes the troubles out of my mind."

Do you have a lot of troubles?


Like what?

"Well, I don't like school," she replies.

What do you wish could happen to make it better?

"I wish everyone would speak English," she says, laughing.

When asked about the Bakers, Anna pulls away. She rolls onto her back. She covers her face with her hands. She says she has forgotten what it was like when she moved from one family to the other, and whether she was happy or sad.

"I don't even know," she says.

At dinner in a Chinese restaurant near their home that Friday night, Avita snatches two duck drumsticks while Andy hacks at a crunchy potato dish. Anna closes her eyes and puts her hands together.

"Her teacher asked me, what is she doing? I had to tell her, she's praying," Luo recalls with a laugh.

She doesn't miss Dad

Anna says she does not miss her father, whom she has not seen since July.

"No one knows where he is. One time, this one day, maybe nighttime, he was just gone and we never seen him again. And he took away his computer," she explains.

He, who teaches at a tutoring center in Changsha, says he left the family's apartment after a fight with his wife and that she took the children away.

Luo has accused her husband of infidelity, hitting her and neglecting the children. He denies the accusations. He has filed for divorce and said in court documents he wants custody of all three children.

"It's not my intention to really divorce her," says He, who calls himself a family-oriented man. "It was to intimidate her to not move away from home with the kids without my knowledge. . . . I'm still hoping that she will come back to me."

Luo sent all three kids to boarding school after her brother convinced her that it would be too hard to handle them, the daily commute, the schoolwork and the household duties all by herself. She visits them at least three times a week.

"It was a hard decision," she says. "Thinking about it, I would get so upset and cry."

Like many mothers in China, Luo fills her children's time at home with lessons: piano on Friday evenings, Chinese tutoring on Saturday mornings, art on Sunday afternoons. There is no television in the apartment; instead, Luo bought a new upright piano for the equivalent of $2,200.

"I feel that with the kids, I should do everything possible to give them as many education opportunities as I can," she says. "When they grow up they'll be able to get ahead."

Luo, 40, seems stretched a bit thin trying to keep up with the kids. She folds clothes laid out to dry on a space heater while trying to cajole them into picking up toys. She follows after the girls with a hairbrush, but they play with stuffed animals as if she's not there.

Luo says she would eventually like a job. She is supported by her brother, a successful businessman. He pays for the children's schooling about $1,000 a semester per child and owns their apartment.

The Bakers renewed contact with Anna after her parents separated, and they call every Saturday afternoon. They send packages filled with Anna's favorite things: stuffed animals, macaroni and cheese, chocolate.

Louise Baker wonders if it's common for young children in China to go to boarding school. In fact, many parents who can afford it send away children as young as 5 or 6 because they think a structured setting is better for education or they are simply too busy with work.

"Things have gotten really good," Baker says in a telephone interview. "At first she was real quiet, standoffish, but now she chitter-chatters a lot."

She won't talk about Anna's current situation. All she will say is they're happy Luo has the children and "grateful" to her for allowing the telephone calls. They are discussing the possibility of a visit.

"We just want her to be happy and to grow up and to continue to love the Lord," Baker says, unable to hold back her tears. "We're just happy she's got the love of two families."

"I really hate living at school"

Anna and Avita sleep in adjoining beds on the fourth floor of a large dormitory, sharing a room and bathroom with about 20 other girls. They are supervised by one teacher.

The children are out of bed at 6:30 a.m., back in by 8:25 p.m. The day starts with a morning run and ends with showers, three girls to a stall to speed things along. They wash their hair once a week, on Thursdays.

"I really hate living at school," Anna says. "The only good thing is going home."

Luo is hoping to get enough money to send the children to an international day school in Chongqing. She expects to receive a large compensation package from the demolition of a house she owns there.

She also thinks about moving back to the U.S., although she knows it would be hard to find a good job with her limited English. "They were born there, they're used to the lifestyle there. There's not so much pressure on them at school."

On the coffee table at home is a small notebook pasted with messages on colorful paper from Anna's former classmates. Anna reaches for it.

"Some of them are in cursive," she points out, reading aloud. " 'Dear Anna, I hope you have an awesome birthday and a great time in China. I'll miss you.' "

" 'Dear Anna, have a very happy birthday, I hope all your wishes come true.' "

After looking at more than a dozen notes, Anna turns to a blank page.

"No more," she says. "No more."