Book review: ‘Wish You Happy Forever,’ by Jenny Bowen
Special to the Daily
Parenting a child is one of the greatest gifts a person can be given, and adopting a child is one of the greatest gifts one can give. Jenny Bowen, author of the recent book “Wish You Happy Forever: What China’s Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains,” has not only given that gift of family to two adopted children of her own, but in the past 15 years, her vision and commitment has also brought better lives to hundred of thousands of Chinese orphans in need of love and nurturing.
Bowen’s own journey into the world of Chinese adoptions began in 1996, which is when she and her husband embarked on what she called the longest “pregnancy” journey ever. Eighteen months later, they found themselves in a dim and uninviting waiting room in Guangzhou, China, awaiting the arrival of their future daughter, little 2-year-old Meiying, soon to be Maya.
Having already raised two children of their own, their decision to adopt came from a chance encounter with a New York Times article exposing the humanitarian crisis in Chinese orphanages, many of which were overflowing with “unwanted” baby girls. Though busy with a hectic life in the film industry, movie director Bowen couldn’t shake the image of thousands of neglected girls languishing in deplorable conditions.
Once the decision to adopt was made, Bowen felt that all her life had been barreling toward that first moment when she met the sad eyes of her beautiful daughter. But within hours of leaving the orphanage, they discovered that little Maya was suffering from dysentery and roundworms; though she ate ravenously, there was little effect. Also, though nearly 2 years old, she was a silent child, speaking no words in any language.
Their careful and loving attention was alien to her. She was clearly an old soul, having seen too much for one so young. She was fearful and unresponsive, unnatural worry lines clouding her young face. But Bowen and her husband, Dick, persisted, maintaining an even and loving presence, and a year on, at Dick’s birthday celebration, Bowen was floored by a glimpse of how far their daughter had come, smiling and laughing with friends. In that moment, Bowen saw her future with an intense clarity, so clear, in fact, that she had no option but to react.
She envisioned warm, loving places in China, where the children would feel wanted and safe — a far cry from the environment in which they had found Maya. Doing all this inside China, and within existing constraints, would be daunting, but it was clear from the onset that a relationship with the Chinese government would be necessary.
Bowen began to research the importance of early childhood development and the value of strong and healthy bonds during the earliest months and years. Physical, loving contact was vital, as were activities that stimulated the rapidly developing brain.
Fueled by a fierce love for her new daughter, Bowen plowed ahead through formidable waters, refusing to accept the impossible nature of her quest, and with an infinitely supportive husband at her back, she made a second life-changing step and decided to abandon her career behind the movie camera, turning her attention to the unfamiliar nonprofit world.
She named her organization “Half The Sky,” honoring a Chinese proverb that says, “The women of the world hold up half the sky.” She knew the greatest challenge would come as she grappled with how to transform the love and attention one child needed into a system that worked for many children.
The exposé that had opened their eyes to the conditions in Chinese orphanages had had the alarming effect of closing the doors on the situation, with the Chinese government hiding the state of affairs more firmly in the darkness. Thus, the process of setting up their plans within China was achingly slow, and all Bowen could think of was the children they were not reaching.
Her first glimpses behind the scenes in an orphanage reinforced her conviction that she was doing the right thing, in spite of the hurdles that persisted. The children — all girls — were sitting in wooden chairs, with their chests and ankles tied in place. Blank stares met her horrified expression, and silence filled the room. There was no laughter, no smiling and certainly no playing, with no toys in sight. Babies languished, several to a crib, bottles propped on rolled blankets and limbs underdeveloped because they had never moved.
Her desperation to help increased, and so, too, did her determination. She began to collect allies in China, people willing to help and who saw the problem. Volunteers from the United States and international donors stepped up to assist, with build teams and organizers assembled to clean and restructure the dull and despairing buildings. Chinese teachers were specially trained in the importance of early and loving contact, which was the main component Bowen felt the Chinese orphans lacked. She removed the “institutional” feel of the institutions, replacing it with a warm and intimate environment, where the children would receive one-on-one attention from “nannies” until they could be adopted by loving families.
While in China on one of her many trips with her husband, they found the child who was to become their second adopted daughter, Anya. As though determined to test Bowen’s resolve, Anya proved herself to be a challenge to love, biting, scratching and spitting at her mother. But Bowen saw the burns on her daughter’s ankles, where her legs had been submerged in scalding water as a punishment, and she was determined to persist with gentle and loving attention, hoping that time would heal her baby’s abused body and her even more deeply scarred heart.
Being so intimately involved in the process of Chinese adoptions through her own children, Bowen found herself struggling against what she called “mission creep,” having to rationalize her choices to her Board of Directors back in the U.S. Still, she persisted as a “quiet thunder,” building centers with a determination and a commitment that won international attention, as well as respect and gratitude from the Chinese government.
Half The Sky has transformed the conditions in orphanages across China, undoubtedly saving the lives of countless neglected children. “Wish You Happy Forever” is a moving testament of the power of a mother’s love and its ability to change the world for the better.
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