Oregon Quarterly Winter 2012

Page 38

Childhood photographs show a bright-eyed boy with a winning grin, as fine-boned as a fledgling bird. What the images don’t show are his limbs.

Infant Number 58, from Harris's file at the Ma'anshan City Social Welfare Institute, his home for nearly four years

Cal and Midge Harris couldn’t have cared less. They happily adopted the four-year-old, raising him first in Baker City, then Hermiston. There, he found a good life—a great life, really. Yet deep within Wyatt Harris resided a quiet urge to understand the shadowy beginnings of his own life. Beneath it all, one question: Why was I abandoned? The search for an answer would lead him on an extraordinary journey to a distant culture, a past he never knew, and a future no one could have predicted.


In the Beginning

Everyone has a story. This much he knew: In 1994, Cal Harris arrived at the Ma’anshan City Social Welfare Institute to adopt a son. Back in Baker City, he and his wife, Midge, were already raising a six-year-old daughter, Margie, from Colombia. This time, the adoption agency had steered them to the country with the greatest need: China. Wyatt, they decided, would complete the Harris family. They knew only that Wyatt was about four months old when he arrived at the orphanage, though child welfare officials had guessed at his birthdate. He’d been abandoned, bound in blankets against early spring temperatures and tucked inside a basket left alongside a portable toilet near a soccer stadium. China’s one-child rule was implemented in 1978 to curb growth in a nation that had seen its population nearly double from 1949 to 1976. But the policy cast a dark legacy—an upswing in child abandonments, gender-selective abortions, and even allegations of child confiscation by family-planning officials. No one knew where Wyatt fit into that picture. From the beginning, Cal and Midge refused to see their son’s disability as a barrier—a view helped by Wyatt’s tenacious personality. When an occupational therapist tried teaching the boy to tie his shoes with one hand, Midge recalls, the youngster instead devised his own better, quicker method. “You have to know Wyatt—when he’s determined, he’s determined,” explains Midge, who works for an education service district in Hermiston. When Wyatt tried tennis, he not only mastered it, he won tournaments. Wrestling,


soccer, T-ball, basketball—he did it all. He was a fast learner, adventurous, inquisitive, big-hearted, and open to the world, his parents discovered. “We expected both kids not to let things get in their way—if someone gives you guff, prove them wrong,” recalls Cal, who works at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla. The angles of his face, the stub of his arm—Wyatt knew he was different. But he owned it, even joked about it. “I like to tell people I grew up in a town so small, there were only five Asians—the four people who worked at the Chinese restaurant, and me,” he laughs. Margie Harris had no desire to know more about her biological roots. Wyatt was a different story.


The Past Whispers

It was during his junior year of high school that he heard China calling. Through Rotary International, Wyatt had an opportunity to study in Taiwan, an island of 18 million people that lies just off the southeastern coast of China like a plump yam tossed at sea. The Harris family had hosted students from Mexico and France through the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, and believed in it. They knew Taipei would provide a good experience. Wyatt saw a chance to learn about his own distant culture, to feel what it was like to walk down streets crowded with Asian faces. Once there, enrolled for 11 months of study at a vocational high school, he began learning Mandarin, making no secret of the fact he was adopted from China. Someday, Wyatt knew, he would be back. By the time he returned to Hermiston High School for senior year, Wyatt already knew he was headed for the University of Oregon. Aunts, uncles, cousins—so many relatives had gone there it was simply an accepted rite of passage. By taking college-credit classes in high school, he entered the UO as a sophomore intent on majoring in Chinese and international business. Maram Epstein, an associate professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, recalls Wyatt standing out in her Chinese literature class as an eager student, hungry to learn and willing to dive deep into the subject. Much of the reading that term focused on classic themes, including filial piety, the foundation of Confucian society that speaks to the respect, obligation, and love a child owes a parent over his lifetime. She noted Wyatt’s interest, but wasn’t surprised. “We have a lot of students from East Asia who’ve been adopted in the U.S. taking courses because they’re try-

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