WKU student connects with Chinese heritage

Aug 11, 2021 | Spotlight

By Alexandra Sandefur

On almost any given Sunday afternoon during Angie Willemsen’s childhood, one could find her and her family at China One, a buffet-style Chinese restaurant in their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Angie’s parents, who are Caucasian, started this tradition when Angie and her sister, both of whom are adopted from China, were very young.

Angie said she loved getting in touch with her native culture through food when she was younger.

“I loved it [eating Chinese food] when I was a kid. It was all really good. It’s just something we always did growing up,” she said.

Craig and Sparky, Angie’s parents, originally began eating at China One, their favorite Chinese restaurant, to help keep Angie and her sister Melody in touch with their native Chinese heritage. The couple also cooked traditional Chinese dishes at home for their children. This included having friends over for Hot Pot meals at their house, a traditional Chinese meal where meat and vegetables are cooked in a boiling broth in a pot at the center of the table. Sparky, who was also adopted, knew what it was like to grow up feeling like there was a blank space in your family tree and wanted her daughters to feel as connected to their native culture as they could be.

“We wanted them to have as much information as they can have [about their culture],” Sparky said in a phone interview. “I think adopted kids always want to know their roots or feel like there is a missing link.”

In 1997, the year Angie was adopted, there were about 3,500 adoptions from China to the U.S. In 2015, the number was around 2,300, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs. This number is decreasing due to efforts from China to increase domestic adoptions.

Since 2004, international adoptions have been declining in the U.S. In 2015, there were just under 6,000 foreign adoptions coming into the country, a 74 percent decrease from the almost 23,000 international adoptions in 2004. Not since 1981 have international adoption numbers been so low.

The numbers are low, not necessarily because Americans are no longer interested in adopting from other countries, but because of political reasons. The U.S. stopped adoptions from several countries because their adoption procedures don’t meet the necessary regulations. In 2008, the U.S. entered into the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption treaty, which increased ethical standards and protections for adopting children from international countries where human trafficking is a problem. This made it almost impossible for poorer countries to get their children without families adopted to good homes outside their country.

The process of international adoptions is also a lengthy and expensive process, which is another reason for the decline. The average independent adoption, like the Willemsens did when adopting Angie, costs around $35,000, according to the Independent Adoption Center. An independent adoption is one where a family does not go through an adoption agency but are instead advised by a lawyer.

It was 1993 when Craig and Sparky decided to start the process for adoption, after not being able to have their own biological children. The couple lived in Guam at the time because Sparky was in the Army Reserves. They hired a lawyer and began the process of expanding their family.

It took four years of sending paperwork back and forth from Guam to China through their lawyer before Craig and Sparky were notified by an orphanage in China that there was a child for them — a little girl who was almost a year old. They were to receive a picture of the little girl in the mail before they traveled to China to pick her up. However, when they received the picture, half of it was blacked out. So without knowing what the little girl looked like, Craig and Sparky agreed to bring her into their family.

The couple arrived in Nanjing, China after five months of making arrangements with the orphanage to pick up the child. They already had a name picked out for her: Joy Lee. Excited, but also a little nervous, the couple sat in their hotel room and waited for an orphanage worker to bring in the baby. The time had finally come to meet their daughter.

“Honestly, my first reaction when I first saw her was ‘well, she’s not very cute, but I don’t really care because I’ve waited so long, and she’s mine,’” Sparky says about her first meeting with Angie. “In 24 hours, she was the cutest baby in the world. She was like a little stuffed bear.”

Craig says Angie was a little hesitant with him at first.

“I doubt she had ever seen a man before,” Craig said in a phone interview. “She cried just about every time I held her because of my beard.”

Upon seeing the baby for the first time, the couple agreed the name they had picked out did not suit her. They decided to name her Angie Ling. The couple would get to bring Angie back to Guam after two weeks of bonding in China. They would spend those 14 days getting to know each other and taking Angie on day trips around Nanjing. On their adventures around the city with Angie, they bought her traditional dresses in a range of sizes for Angie to wear as she grew up.

After the two weeks, the couple returned to Guam with their new daughter. They lived in Guam for two years and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in late 1999. Craig said this is when the couple began to become more concerned with assimilating Angie into American culture, but also keeping her in touch with her native culture.

“We didn’t want to her to forget where she came from, but we also didn’t want her to stick out in America either,” Craig said. “She kind of blended in in Guam, which was good. But when we got to America, we wanted to teach her what it was like to be an American kid.”

The couple joined a support group in Kansas City for parents who had adopted internationally. They found this helpful for finding ways to keep Angie from forgetting her Chinese culture.

When Angie was 4, the couple decided to make Angie a big sister, once again adopting from China. Sparky and Craig traveled again to China to adopt Melody. While they were away, Angie stayed with her aunt. When her parents returned with her new infant sister, she was thrilled.

“Mom, you did a great job! She’s perfect!” Four-year-old Angie exclaimed when she saw her sister for the first time, according to Sparky.

Sparky would come to Angie’s elementary and middle school classes to speak about Chinese culture around the time of Chinese New Year. This was not only for the benefit of Angie, who got to show off her international culture by wearing the special dresses her parents had bought her when they first adopted her, but also to help the children in her classes to understand the Chinese culture. Angie would also wear one of her special dresses to church sometimes, begging her parents to pull one out of the closet they were kept in.

Sometimes Angie would come home from school in elementary and middle school upset about the kids in her classes making fun of her, not because she was adopted, but because she looked different from them. About 2.5 percent of the population of Kansas City is Asian, so Angie not only looked different from her white parents, but also was a minority in the city she lived in. When she was growing up, she took notice of this.

“It did always bother me that I didn’t have anyone that looked like me,” she says.

To help Angie feel more connected to her home culture, Sparky thought it would be a good idea for Angie to return to the orphanage where she spent the first year of her life. In 2006, when Angie was 11,  Angie and her parents began the paperwork for Angie and Sparky to return to Nanjing. They sent the details of Angie’s adoption back to the orphanage so the orphanage could pull any records they had on her for their visit. They were hoping to find out anything about Angie’s parents or about her first year at the orphanage.

The pair was disappointed upon their arrival in Nanjing after working on a mission trip in Tibet. The orphanage where Angie had been adopted from was under construction. There were no children there. Rooms were gutted. They were rebuilding the orphanage and had not received any of the paperwork the family had sent to prepare for their visit. There were no records from the time Angie had been there, and the care worker who took care of Angie had retired shortly before they had come.

“I wouldn’t mind to reach out to my birth parents,” Angie said. “I just really don’t think that’s possible. We just have very little to go on, and that’s a little disappointing.”

At 12 years old, Angie stopped wearing her traditional Chinese dresses to church and school. She said she grew out of wanting to wear them as much, although she did still have a few left that fit her.

When Angie would get into fights with her mom, she would sometimes yell: “You’re not my real mom!” This never fazed her mom though.

“Because I was adopted too, it didn’t matter to me if she came out of my body or not,” Sparky said. “We’re family because we’re family. She’s still my daughter; I’m still her mom.”

Because Angie was beginning to feel disconnected from her culture, Sparky wanted Angie to begin to learn the Chinese language. She found a conversational Chinese group that she wanted her and Angie to participate in. Angie resisted, so Sparky learned by herself.

“Angie had a friend whose mother was Spanish, and she picked up a little of the language,” Sparky said. “So I would speak to her in Chinese, she wouldn’t understand, and then she would say something back in Spanish.”

Angie did eventually learn Chinese. Sparky wanted Angie to learn the language in high school. Angie conceded. When she graduated from high school, Angie decided to continue learning Chinese in college and majors in it today as a sophomore at WKU, along with international business. She’s also in the Chinese club on campus. She says it keeps her connected to her native culture.

“Who knows what my life would be like if I wasn’t adopted? I come from a financially stable family. That definitely wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t been adopted by my parents,” she said.

Angie joined a sorority this past fall to help get more involved on campus. She said she enjoys spending time with her friends she’s made over the semester.

“Joining Delta Zeta has really helped me feel like I fit in on campus. Everyone has just been so welcoming,” she says while sitting in DSU before a chapter meeting surrounded by other members of the sorority. She talks and jokes with them before the meeting starts.

Angie is one of two members of the sorority who are Asian and the only one who was born in another country. Hannah Hyatt is another member of the sorority who joined at the same time as Angie. She says Angie is one of her close friends now, and the two are making plans to live together next fall.

“I think it [being adopted] makes her a more adaptable person, and it could be an influence on her to be more open to change,” she says.

Craig said adopting Angie has expanded his knowledge on a culture beyond his own.

“When you adopt internationally, you get to learn so much more about another culture,” he said. “You would just miss out on that if you adopted in the U.S. I’ve always enjoyed that about adopting from China.”

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