LET US MEET ON THE BRIDGE

It broke the young couple’s heart that they had to give up their infant daughter to save her life. They never stopped loving her

Robert Kiener Updated: Jul 2, 2021 23:50:34 IST
2021-06-25T15:53:30+05:30
2021-07-02T23:50:34+05:30
LET US MEET ON THE BRIDGE Illustrations by Nicole Xu

Be strong,” Xu Lida whispers to himself as he walks along Sanxiang Road in Suzhou, China, a picturesque city some 96 kilometres west of Shanghai. It is early morning on 24 August 1995, and the slight 23-year-old shopkeeper is fighting back tears as he dodges pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles on his way to an outdoor market.

In his right arm he is carrying a basket that holds his tiny,three-day-old daughter Jingzhi. After crossing a busy street he peels back her blanket and checks that she is still asleep. His heart pounding, he reminds himself what he and his wife have decided:We have no choice. He blinks back tears and wraps her up again.Perhaps, one day, she will understand and forgive us.

He reaches the popular market just before 5 a.m. and is relieved to see that it is nearly empty. He can leave his daughter here without being seen.He spots a small tent outside a bicycle maintenance shop. She will stay warm there and someone will surely find her.

He hasn’t slept in more than 24 hours, and as he carries Jingzhi to the tent he begins crying again. He kisses her gently and tucks her basket into the tent, knowing that this is his final farewell. He walks away but doesn’t get far before he stops, compelled to go back. But as he nears the tent, he notices people gathered around it and realizes she has already been discovered.

He hears her cry and knows she will be rescued. But he feels horribly guilty, saddened, devastated. What have I done? Reluctantly he walks away, knowing he will never forget the sound of her crying.

In 1995, China’s strict one-child policy,which sought to control the nation’s soaring population growth by compelling Chinese couples to have only one child, was in full effect. Couples who disobeyed were harshly punished with government-forced abortion,sterilization, steep fines and destruction of their homes.

*Because Xu and his wife Qian Fenxiang already had a daughter, one-year old Xiaochen, they were forbidden to have another child. Xu and Qian met in 1990 when they were both 20. They fell in love and married, and Qian gave birth to Xiaochen a couple of years later. Although Xu had little education beyond middle school, he was a hard worker and ambitious.

He soon left his job as a trash picker and opened a shop in nearby Hangzhou, where he refurbished and sold refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances. Despite working seven days a week, they struggled to make ends meet.

One day Xu said to his wife, “Our daughter is so lonely. She needs a brother or a sister to keep her company.” They often discussed having another child but knew the government forbade it.

Still, the couple couldn’t get the idea of having a second child out of their mind. Then, in late 1994, Qian fell pregnant.

She hid her pregnancy but family planning officials learned of it when she was seven months along and demanded she undergo an abortion. One late spring evening, as Xu held his wife,he felt their baby moving within her.“It’s like our child is already alive,” he told her. “We cannot kill her.

”The couple decided to offer the baby for adoption to a couple who could not conceive. Qian tried to reason with the local family planning officials, telling them, “I want to save a life.” But they were adamant; she must abort her child. 

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When Qian and Xu refused, village leaders tore down the couple’s house.Terrified, they escaped 160 kilometres north to Suzhou, where they hid on Qian’s sister’s small boat. They planned to deliver the baby on their own because going to a hospital without a government-issued birth permit would result in a forced abortion.

When Jingzhi was born, Xu cut the baby’s umbilical cord with scissors he had sterilized while aboard the small boat. They had hoped friends would adopt their newborn daughter, but no one could.

Village leaders were still pursuing the couple, threatening to tear down Qian’s mother’s house as well as her brother’s. She confessed to her sister,“We have no hope.” In desperation,the couple agreed: They would leave Jingzhi in the nearby market, where she could be found and adopted.

Before Xu set out for the market with Jingzhi, he placed a small bag of powdered milk, a bottle of milk and six (a lucky number) yuan in her basket to wish her good luck on her journey to find a good family.

He also included a letter he had penned with brush and ink. It read:“Our daughter, Jingzhi, was born at 10 a.m. on the 24th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, 1995. We have been forced by poverty and affairs of the world to abandon her. Oh,pity the hearts of fathers and mothers far and near! Thank you for saving our little daughter and taking her into your care. If the heavens have feelings, if we are brought together by fate, then let us meet again on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou on the morning of the Qixi Festival in 10 or 20 years from now.”

A New Home in America

It is 17 August 1996, almost a year to the day after Jingzhi had been abandoned in the market, and she’s the centre of attention in the Suzhou Social Welfare Home, an orphanage that has been her home since she was discovered. The little girl with the big eyes is in the arms of her new adoptive parents Ruth and Ken Pohler, an American couple from Michigan who have flown to China to adopt.

“Say ‘Mummy.’ Say ‘Mummy’,’’ says Ruth as she holds Jingzhi, or Kati, as she has been renamed by the Pohlers,and beams into her smiling face.“She’s so beautiful. So sweet,” says Ruth as Ken smiles broadly and looks on. The Pohlers, who have two sons of their own, were anxious to add a girl to their family. They were aided by Bethany Christian Services, a child and family support group that helps arrange international adoptions.

Along with Kati’s official papers,the Suzhou orphanage officials give the Pohlers the letter that Xu had tucked into the baby’s basket. After boarding the bus to their hotel, Ken hands it to his Bethany translator Xian. He watches her reading it and is amazed when he sees tears rolling down her cheeks. She comes over to Ken and Ruth and explains what the note said.

“What anguish these parents must have been feeling when they were forced to abandon their baby daughter,” Ken says to Ruth.

Later, they confess to one another that they are puzzled: How could they ever meet these birth parents,10 years down the road, on some bridge on the other side of the world?It seemed impossible.

Growing up in the midwestern town of Hudsonville, Michigan (population 7,000), Kati is flourishing. She fits in with the Pohlers and her older brothers Jeff and Steve.She has a natural talent for music and sports and, with her parents’ urging,she learns to play the viola, the violin and the piano.

Kati is readily accepted by the close-knit community and has lots of friends. However, by age five she is aware that she is different from them.One day, she asks Ruth, “Whose tummy did I come from? Did I come from your tummy?”

Ruth pauses, takes a deep breath and tells her, “No honey. You didn’t come from my tummy. You came from a lady’s tummy in China.” Holding back her tears, she adds, “But you came from my heart.” That is enough for Kati. The answer seems to satisfy her. She runs off to play with friends.Occasionally, Kati wonders about her mother in China. Ken and Ruth had placed her passport, orphanage records and other files from her past on a high shelf in her closet. Sometimes, thinking about “that woman’s tummy,” Kati stacks two chairs atop one another and clambers up them to look at the Chinese-language documents and pictures. Among them is the poignant note from Xu.

But Kati does not ask again about her birth parents. From time to time,Ken and Ruth talk about when to tell Kati about her parents and the letter.Ken proposes, “Let’s wait until she’solder and better able to handle the news or begins asking us more questions.” Ruth agrees.

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As Kati’s 10th birthday nears, Ken and Ruth begin formulating a plan. They put themselves in the shoes of Kati’s birth parents and imagine what they would be thinking: Where does our daughter live? Is she being cared for well? Is she happy and healthy?” They agree that they would be heartbroken if they had been forced to abandon their child.

They want to reassure Kati’s birth parents. But Ruth is concerned about somehow losing Kati. “She’s our daughter,” she tells Ken. “I don’t want to think anyone could take her away.”One evening, they explain their feelings to a friend, Kirk Northouse,who does business in China. They tell him about the birth father’s letter and his hope to meet his daughter or her adoptive parents on the Hangzhou bridge.

The couple tell Northouse that they wish there was a way to reassure Kati’s birth parents that she is healthy without exposing Kati or themselves. “She’s far too young to handle all this, much less go to China to meet them,” they say.“I have good friends who live near the Broken Bridge,” Northouse replies.“They may be able to help.”

Over the next few weeks the Pohlers put together a package for the birth parents. They include pictures of Kati growing up and explain that she is a healthy, happy, accomplished, well adjusted American girl. They do not include their names or other details.

A China-based friend of Northouse,Anne Wu, agrees to visit the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou on August 11,the date of the Qixi Festival—often described as the Chinese Valentine’s Day—just as Xu had requested ten years earlier, and deliver the package to Kati’s birth parents.

If only it could be that simple.

“If Is a Very Big Word”

Xu and Qian had returned to Hangzhou a few days after leaving their daughter in the market in Suzhou, but they never stopped thinking about her. The questions nagged at them:Has she been adopted? Did we do the right thing?

They reached out to friends in Suzhou to ask their help in locating Jingzhi, but no one could find any trace of her. Frustrated, Xu drew up a list of orphanages in Suzhou. The couple considered going back to inquire about their daughter but knew they would be risking prosecution.

It broke Xu’s heart to watch his wife cry whenever they spoke about Jingzhi. He often reminded her about the letter he’d written, saying, “Let’s hope we will meet her and see how she is doing when she is 10 … if her new parents bring her to the Broken Bridge.” Everytime Xu said it, he thought to himself,‘If’ … ’If’ is a very big word.

Finally, the 10th-year anniversary arrived. “Even if our child doesn’t come, surely her new parents will,”Xu told Qian. “Our letter will have touched them. Have faith.

”It is just past three o’clock on 11 August 2005, and the Broken Bridge, famed in Chinese legend as the place where lovers reunite, is packed with visitors. Holiday makers on the bridge jostle one another as they search for a better view of the picturesque West Lake for a photo. The sun is beating down; the lake is still.

The three members of the Xu family,including 11-year-old Xiaochen, have been on the bridge since 8 a.m. and are now exhausted. And disappointed.For eight hours Xu has been holding a fan with Jingzhi’s name on it and a copy of the letter he’d left in her basket 10 years ago. But no one among the tens of thousands of people who walked by them has come forward.

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The wait today has been especially hard on Qian. For the first time in a decade she thinks there is a good chance her daughter, or her daughter’s adoptive parents, might appear. She has long hoped to hold Jingzhi in her arms, hug and kiss her and tell her how sorry she is about having to leave her in the market.

Will she, or her adoptive parents,understand that she and Xu had no choice? Turning to her husband, who looks so tired under the hot sun, she asks, “Will they ever forgive us?”

Each time she sees a family with a little girl she is overcome with emotion; from initial bursts of joy to searing, painful sadness. She and Xu watch anxiously as taxis dispatch their passengers at the bridge,hoping one might bring them closer to their daughter. 

Dejected, depressed and exhausted, Xu turns to his wife just before four o’clock and admits,“No one is coming. Let’s go.” In tears, Qian nods, holds Xiaochen tightly by the hand, and the three of them leave.

Remarkably, shortly after the family leave the bridge, Anne Wu appears. She missed the train from her home in Suzhou and arrived late, carrying pictures of Kati,a long letter from the Pohlers to her birth parents, and a photocopy of Xu’s 10-year-old letter.

She looks all over the bridge for Kati’s parents, but they are nowhere to be found. She has missed themby minutes.

Wu is devastated and blames herself. She approaches a television crew on the bridge working a news feature on the Qixi Festival. Did they notice anyone waiting for someone?“

No,” says one of the crew who is intrigued by Wu’s story. “But come to our studio and we can look over the film we shot today.” At the nearby television studio, Wu and the crew scan the footage of visitors to the bridge that day. They see no one who might be Kati’s parents.

“Wait,” says one of the crew. “Let’s low down the film and look again.”Sure enough, in a single 1/25th-of-a second frame, they spot a slight, tired looking man holding a sign and a copy of the letter. The station soon reports the story, asking viewers to help locate the as-yet-unnamed man on the Broken Bridge.

’Other television stations and major newspapers across the nation pick up the powerful human-interest story.The Xu family has no idea that their search for their daughter has become national news.

The Story Creates a Stir

“It can’t be!” exclaims Lao Guo, a shopkeeper in Hangzhou. As he opens his take-out breakfast of sweet cakes,he notices a grainy photograph in the newspaper that has been used to wrap his meal. “It’s my friend Xu Lida!”When Lao Guo brings them the battered newspaper, the couple is speechless. Xu reads the article and begins shaking. “They say someone came to the bridge the day we were there,” he tells Qian. “And she was bringing us news about Jingzhi!” Qian breaks down crying. The miracle they had hoped for is happening.

From a newspaper reporter they learn that Kati has been adopted by an American couple. Through Anne Wu they soon receive the pictures and news about Kati that the Pohlers have supplied anonymously.

As Qian stares lovingly at one recent picture of Kati, she strokes it as if she were stroking her long-lost daughter’s hair. She tells Xu, “There’s no doubt that is our Jingzhi. She has my eyes.But she is in America, so far away!”Xu replies, “She is safe. I just pray that she is not bitter towards us.”The couple’s story shows no signs of dying down and is picked up by the powerful Chinese Central Television Station (CCTV).When the Pohlers hear of the stir this story is causing in China, Ken is stunned.

“How did this become such a massive story?” Ruth worries that the Chinese might try to take her daughter back.

Ken tells Ruth, “It’s best we back off. Kati is still so young.

”Kati knows nothing of how famous she has become on the other side of the world. The happy, piano-playing fifth-grader living in a tidy ranch home in rural Michigan is safe in the embrace of her adoptive parents.

Without any input from Ken and Ruth, the story begins to fade in China. But it soon takes a twist when an enterprising US-based documentarian and academic, Changfu Chang, hears of it from a friend in China. Chang has produced several stories on adoption and is intrigued by the Xu family. “It has all the elements of a great story,”he tells a friend and travels to China to research it.

He meets Xu and Qian and films them, along with several other Chinese couples, for his documentary, Long Wait for Home, about international adoption. In it, the couple offer a moving confession to the daughter they abandoned. Looking straight into the camera Xu says, “We think of you every day.”

However, as Chang admits after finishing his documentary, “There’s a major piece of the puzzle still missing.Who adopted Jingzhi? Will Jingzhi ever meet her birth parents?”Back in the US, Chang searches for clues about the identity of Jingzhi’s adoptive parents. Drawing on details from Ken’s letter—that Jingzhi had a knee problem and that the family enjoyed spending time at the beach—he starts combing through message boards and adoption-related sites.Eventually he identifies a Michigan family who mention that their adoptive daughter once had knee problems.They also live near Lake Michigan,which has numerous beaches.

Chang finds a picture of Ken Pohler online—he looks like the father in the photograph given by Anne Wu. He locates the Pohlers and reaches out to them.

Neither Ken nor Ruth, remembering the ‘media circus’ in China, have any interest in talking with Chang. But he convinces them that he can act as an intermediary between them and the Xu family, passing along news and pictures of Kati without revealing the Pohlers’ identity. They agree and he does not betray their trust. He hopes that someday, if everyone agrees, he can do another documentary that includes Kati and the Pohlers.

As the years go by, Xu and Qiancherish the bits of information about Kati they glean from Changfu Chang.They learn she is doing well in high school, playing in the orchestra and,later, starting college. Occasionally they receive a new picture of Kati and add it to the others they have framed and hung on their walls.

Hoping against hope, Xu returns to the Broken Bridge every year on the day of the Qixi Festival, praying that his long-lost daughter or her adoptive parents will appear. But they never do.As Xu tells a friend, “My hopes have been dashed time and time again. But I won’t give up."

Reunion on the Broken Bridge

In 2016, Kati, soon to turn 21, is about to start a college semester in Spain and feels her new classmates may have questions about her background.So she asks Ken and Ruth if they know anything about her birth parents. She is startled when they tell her about the Xu family, give her Xu’s letter, and explain how the birth parents’ story spread through China.

Kati is overwhelmed, then angered.“You knew this all this time and didn’t tell me?” she asks her mother. Ruth and Ken apologize, explaining that they were trying to protect her.“Time,” Ruth tells Kati, “just slipped by. We are sorry.

”Says Ken, “Honey, we should have told you earlier. But there’s no book about handling these things.We weren’t trying to hide anything from you.”

Ken and Ruth explain how Changfu Chang has acted as an intermediary for them with Kati’s birth parents.“And he has met your birth parents,”says Ken. “He has also done a documentary about adoption that included interviews with them.”

A few days later Kati is sitting alone in her college audio-visual studio watching Long Wait for Home. In raw, heartfelt interviews filmed nearly a decade earlier, her birth parents spill out their hearts, speaking directly to the precious daughter they were forced to give up.

When Qian speaks to her in the video, Kati cannot stop crying. “I love and miss you every day … I hope you live a happy life. I thank your adoptive parents for giving you a new life and taking care of you …

”The camera turns to Xu. He wipes tears from his eyes and says, “Every night your mom and I have been talking about you, thinking of what you look like,where you are living and whether you are struggling or suffering. We thought that our wrong decision might have given you a troubled life … Every day we love you dearly.

”Kati’s heart goes out to her birth parents. She wants to tell them she understands. She wants to tell them that she has no bitterness toward them.They need not feel guilty.After watching the video,she now knows what she has to do.

Kati and Chang keep in touch as she completes her semester in Spain and returns to the US to finish college. She accepts his invitation to fly to China and help him make a documentary about her story. He suggests Kati meet Xu and Qian on the Broken Bridge during the 2017 Qixi Festival.

Ken and Ruth are apprehensive and offer to go with her, but Kati, who has forgiven her parents, explains that “I want to go on my own.” Ruth knows it is Kati’s decision.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she tells Kati.

Kati holds Ruth’s hand and tells her softly, “You are my family. I love you.You raised me. Yes, I have another set of parents but you’re my family.

image-92b_052421042457.jpgAbove: the Pohler family (left to right): Ruth, Jeff, Steve, Kati and Ken. Below: Kati's birth family (left to right): Qian, Kati, Xu and Xiaochen.

”It is the eve of the seventh day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The Qixi Festival starts the next day, 26

August. Kati has flown to Hangzhou to meet—for the first time—her birth parents, Xu and Qian, and her older sister, Xiaochen,on the Broken Bridge.

Xu and Qian have been up all night,unable to sleep because they are so excited about meeting their daughter after 22 years. As he sits close tohis wife, Xu asks, “What can I say toher? Would it help to say I am sorry?”He pauses, takes a breath andadds, “No. 10,000 sorries wouldn’t be enough.

”Hardly able to control her emotions,Qian says, “I will throw myself at her and beg her for forgiveness.”

Kati, approaching the Broken Bridge on foot with Chang, keeps wondering what she will say, how she will feel. It’s time. In minutes her life will change.

The late-afternoon sun bathes the stone-arched bridge and West Lake in a warm glow. Although the Qixi Festival won’t start until the next day,scores of holidaymakers already line the bridge.

Kati, her heart beating fast, scans ahead for the birth parents she has seen only on film. Suddenly she spots a teary-eyed Qian, trailed by Xu and Xiaochen, and a wave of emotion sweeps over her. Finally! Is this really happening?

Xu and Qian spot their daughter. Qian runs free, weeping uncontrollably as she pulls Kati into her arms. Xu,his eyes wide, steadies his wife as she cries, “My daughter! Mum is so sorry!For all these years Mum couldn’t find you. I couldn’t take care of you.” Qian,Xu and Xiaochen all hug Kati tightly.

Kati, back in the country where she was born and reunited with her birth parents, holds Qian tightly. Although she cannot understand what she is saying, she feels her mother’s love.

After years of hoping and years of disappointments, Xu and Qian get the wish Xu expressed so eloquently in the letter he wrote more than two decades earlier: “If the heavens have feelings, if we are brought together by fate, then let us meet again on the Broken Bridge."

Kati, now 25 and teaching English in Prague, has returned to China several times, most recently for her sister’s wedding. Ruth and Ken Pohler have also visited the Xu family in China. Xu texts Kati frequently, reminding her how much he and Qian love and miss her

 

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