My sons play baseball at the fields on Gano Street. I recently ran into a guy there I’d known in graduate school, whose name is Thom. I’d never associated Thom with Providence. I knew him in Missouri; he is from Virginia, but he said he’d married a woman from Rhode Island and had moved here. On this afternoon he was tending a plot at the Fox Point Community Garden, right near one of the ball fields. With him was a smiling girl in a school uniform. Her name is Elizabeth Li, and she is his daughter. Her nickname is Li Li.
On this glorious spring day, the cherry trees adjacent to the garden were in full bloom. I made some portraits of Li Li, and then we parted ways. When I had a print I went to see Thom and Li Li, in their big house off Elmgrove Avenue. Thom’s wife, a pediatrician, was out of town, so they were alone. He poured me some lemonade and puttered around the kitchen, preparing their dinner. On the cabinets all around him were magnets printed with the Chinese alphabet.
I often use my phone to record the conversations I have with people regarding the portraits I’m making, and as I later listened to my conversation with Thom I heard myself stumble: “When did you … ? When did … ? Tell me about Li Li.” Thom says he knows that as soon as people see his family – two white parents and an Asian child – they make assumptions. He says there’s a language that adoptive families learn, as in you don’t talk about the adopted child’s “real” mother; you refer to her “birth” mother. And people have asked Thom if he and his wife would like “a child of their own.” “We have one” is Thom’s reply.
Thom says he knows that the complexity of a transracial adoption will be a big part of Li Li’s life, and he and his wife have focused on Li Li’s learning Chinese as a bridge back to her native culture. When they first brought her here, when she was 11 months old, they hired a Chinese nanny who spoke no English. And they have since hired Chinese graduate students to tutor her. In the fall, they will travel as a family to China, visiting her orphanage and trying to meet the foster mother who cared for her.
But at this moment, it’s another gorgeous spring afternoon in Providence. We are in the family’s back yard; Thom is working the grill and Li Li is playing on her swing set. She asks me about my boys, tells me that her best friend’s name is Julia, and says that she loves to read Percy Jackson books. Her dog, which she named Ji Ji – after Jiangxi, the province where she was born – has made a mess in the grass, which she has to clean up (“It’s my responsibility”). Somewhere in the neighborhood a flute is being played. The windy notes of “America the Beautiful” are floating through the yard.