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Three Happy Families
by Heather Spears

REIKO AND OMI KUBO are not the first couple to adopt a baby from the United States, but they are the first the press got wind of, and the first article about them appeared in the Tokyo Herald October 17, 2022. Their baby, Minoru, now 18 months old, is quickly learning to speak. For a while he would still try out an occasional English word - and both parents are fluent in English -but they would respond by repeating the correct one, and he is now chattering away as rapidly as any other child, in spite of his fair skin and hair.

The original article made much of the generosity of the young couple in adopting an American baby, but Reiko and Omi do not consider their motives as primarily humanitarian. "It was more tenacity than generosity," reflects Omi, a chemist with Trans-Nissan Plastics. Denied, because of his profession, by national agencies here, they had almost given up hope, and the trip to America seemed the last chance. One of Omi's associates had mentioned the idea; he knew how long the Kubos had been trying to adopt, prosperity in the Brasils and the stringent laws in Europe having long placed these formerly available regions out of reach.

"Try America." So they had taken a three-week charter as ordinary tourists, and found their baby among the homeless in Detroit.

"As soon as I picked him up, I knew he was ours," Reiko told us, her eyes shining. "And he seemed to know it, too, he snuggled right up to me." She adds that children in America are now so used to seeing (and begging from) tourists they go to them fearlessly.

"The family had been living, if you can call it that, in a driveway. The area itself was actually well-to-do and most properties had a gate at the road, but this one was open with a sweeping drive and some bushes at the curve, where they had been sheltering." Omi adds dryly, "It is a Christian community, you see many churches, the inhabitants go to church every Sunday, but they'll sabotage any accommodation projects our organizations have tried to start in their area."

Reiko puts in eagerly, the distress evident in her eyes: "Just before we arrived, the owners had discovered the family and hosed them out. They were still dripping wet. A garden hose, imagine. They were sitting on the curb when we drove by. That's how we happened to see them. 'Omi, drive back!' I called out, and he did."

The day after they got Minoru, they read in the paper that the area had been cleared by police. "We just hope the mother wasn't arrested and searched - we had paid her in dollars. Usually, however, the police just herd them together and leave them outside town. These people are quite cunning - we hope she was able to get public transport to a more friendly area, and have an easier time of it because of our help."

The couple refuses to name the sum they paid for their baby, though Omi remarked that it would have paid the rent for such a family for a year, if housing were available. The price of American babies has since escalated.

Reiko and Omi don't worry about the stares their son gets on the street. "People may stare, but they are also kind," says Reiko. "The first time I took the Yamanote line with him, several women and one man came up and asked me if he was from the Brasils or the Ukraine. I said, 'No, you guessed wrong - the United States.'

"They wanted to hear all about it. Two of them told me they knew couples who wanted to adopt. We were thinking of starting a society, but now we hear there is one [The US Adoptive Children Information Centre, Harajuku - ed.], and we wish them luck! There are so many babies just waiting. It's safer now, too - I realize now we were quite foolhardy and we were very lucky, because he's a healthy, lovely, bright little boy. It was only a week or so after we got him home that he began to smile to us and then to chatter away, and now you can't stop him."

Adopting an American-born baby costs more now (about 3,000 yen excluding travel and medical expenses) but is also easier than it was for the Kubos: there is a thriving underground network and likely-looking tourists are approached at the airports and offered assistance for a fee. Our research indicates that at least 270 babies have been adopted to this date but - for what we suspect are political reasons - as yet no Japanese agent or legal organization has gained a foothold, and an ongoing worry for prospective parents is the health of their baby. There is a constant risk of cocaine-related disability which could mean irreversible organic damage or retardation - or undiagnosed HIV infection. Mrs. Kawada at the Information Centre issues guidelines to couples interested, and urges a full medical examination, not just the acceptance of perhaps bogus certificates, in the United States, as well as one when the baby is brought home. "Take nothing for granted. It is worth the extra cost."

Meeting the mother slightly reduced the risk for the Kubos, they feel. Asked whether they had worried about it, Reiko frowned: "it was hard to worry seriously. We knew he was ours and he looked all right and I guess we were just willing to take the chance. Maybe if we knew what we know today - of course we had him tested as soon as we got him home. But even if he had turned out to be - we were pretty much committed by then. We loved him on sight. He looked at me with his sad blue eyes and that was it.

"And Omi-san was cautious - he examined the mother's arms and eyes and sized her up in general, and we were convinced she was neither an addict nor a prostitute. She told us she had been quite highly educated - a high school teacher, I think. Her husband had left them about half a year before, just vanished on the subway. She had two older kids, a boy and a girl, I believe; the bigger one ran off and the other one looked stubborn and withdrawn, she was crying the whole time. But our baby just somehow looked healthy, so that was it."

However, Dr R. Kaburaji, administrative director of the Tokyo Paediatric Hospital, paints a darker picture. The neonatal unit contains two six-cot wards of infected American babies, several with full-blown symptoms, witness to the callousness of American dealers willing to dupe prospective parents for a profit.

Will the risk stop other childless couples from adopting American babies? No, say Reiko and Omi, because the great majority of these kids are basically healthy and intelligent, and capable of growing up into happy, functioning, bright Japanese citizens.

"Minoru knows he comes from another land," explains Reiko. "We've made him a picture-book, with scenes from Yellowstone, Aspen, the original Disneyland, and other Japanese-owned areas -not Detroit of course - and we tell him we brought him to Japan because we love him, that he belongs to us forever."

Seeing little Minoru toddling happily about and talking a blue streak as we drink tea, with his gleaming yellow hair and round blue eyes, we couldn't but agree with them about that.

THE SULTAN FAMILY of Bahrain did, however, manage to adopt a European - an English - child. Actually his parentage is Welsh, explains his father, Dr Hamad Sultan, Wales being a backward southern province of Great Britain and under British rule. Their baby has quite brown-coloured hair, though his eyes are a bright blue. "Of course, there are Arab children as fair as he, especially among the Kurds - my wife Fatmah's mother is Kurdish but he is obviously foreign with his sallow skin, red-rose cheeks, and stubby little nose."

Adopting little Mohammad was not so simple. Dr Hamad, a salesman for the firm Qatar Medical Exports, is a frequent traveller to Europe, and England in particular, where he also supervises hostels for the terminally ill (tobacco -related diseases branch) under AMAE (Arab Medical Aid to Europe). He had been involved in a project in Pontypridd, Wales, and learned of the deaths of Mohammad's father and uncle on a planning visit one year before he was to return with his wife and arrange to adopt the baby. An unmarried sister of the baby's mother returned with them to the Gulf as a maid with a year's contract, and Mohammad travelled on her passport.

The baby was then just over nine months old, a stout-bellied, plaintive little boy with a large head, who could not yet stand alone. Dr Hamad was aware that he suffered from rickets, but never doubted that his backwardness was purely physical, due to malnutrition, and correctable, for he was already speaking a few words quite brightly in English.

Dr Hamad explains that the area is out of the way, and our aid seldom reaches the outlying hamlets. There are pockets of resistance to British rule still uneradicated in the mountains, carrying on an insignificant but occasionally dangerous guerrilla activity; much of the sparse population exists at near-starvation level, and there are many orphaned children. The mountains, when they show occasionally through the mists, are beautiful, but the weather is forbidding. Lung disease is rampant, and four of the young adults in Mohammad's family had died within the last decade. "It is however still an area well worth a visit for those lucky enough - or foolhardy enough - to find their way. AMAE is already arranging study-tours and no doubt the area will be open to general tours eventually. Right now, it is still far off the beaten tourist track, and the natives are unspoiled - shy but hospitable. And in the evenings, when the males get together to drink alcohol and sing, their voices, trained up through years of Christian chapel-going, are rich and strange to the ear as they echo down the valleys."

Out of this background of extreme privation Mohammad was not quick to thrive: he tended to cling to his Welsh aunt, seeming to prefer her to his mother Fatmah, and they found he was picking up more and more English words: the two would chatter away and she would teach him native songs and chants. "He can still sing one that goes, 'Baa, baa, blacksheep,"' laughs Hamad, "and for a while he called me Baba-Blacksheep instead of plain Babe.''

Fatmah adds: "It was necessary to send the maid back, and fortunately the contract was `under the table,' like the adoption, so there were no problems. We gave her her year's wages of course."

Hamad continues: "The aunt had also been teaching the little boy some Christian chants and prayers and for a time he was quite stubborn and angry with us if we tried to stop him from saying 'Now-l-lay-me,' a particularly gruesome one, when he was put to bed."

But Hamad is an understanding father, and by taking time with his son, playing with him, taking him to the mosque and, at home, himself teaching him verses from the Koran, he is gradually erasing these primitive memories.

"The English are very talented poetically as everyone knows, so we are giving him lessons already (with Darwish) and every chance to develop his gifts."

Little Mohammad was too shy to recite a poem for us, but fortunately his proud father had a video on hand, and we watched the little fellow present a slightly flawed ghazal about birds, quite creditably, to the aged bard, who was seen to nod as if pleased with his effort.

Like Reiko and Omi, Fatmah and Dr Hamad have explained to their baby that he is adopted from a faraway land - "a poor country where there is not enough to eat and so cold that dates can't grow on the trees."

"But we don't give him any details," says Dr Hamad unequivocally. "He still mentions his aunt almost daily, and we feel it's better he should forget the sadness of his earliest days."

OUR THIRD happy family is the Nairobi couple Dr Phil Mariammo Nbuto and her husband Njooni. Mariammo and Njooni are in their 40s and this is the second marriage for both - there are four older children from previous marriages, but they both desperately wanted "their" child. Their search led them to the far north, to the little town of Trondheim on the rugged coasts of Neo Norway where they found the little girl of their dreams.

"Her original name was Margot, which is very close to the Kikuyu name Maho so wecalled her that." Mariammo, immaculately groomed, has greeted us in the couple's ranch home overlooking the city, where she is in charge of Trans-African Academic Exchange at the university. She is holding little Maho, who is as fair as she is black, with almost colourless, transparent skin, and eyes she keeps half-closed.

"When we first saw her we thought she might be partly blind. But she sees fine. She just doesn't tolerate sunlight well and we have to protect her eyes and skin. Otherwise she's a normal kid and gets into the same mischief as her playmates."

We were told that Maho's half-siblings, a girl and three boys, the youngest of whom is 14, dote on this new little addition to the family, and she is "spoilt rotten" when they are home on school holidays.

Mariammo tells the story of finding the baby: "Neo Norway is not really Europe. It's so far north that the borders sort of

melt into the polar ice, if you know what I mean." Mariammo laughs infectiously while Njooni smiles agreement. "We

thought we'd try it, anyway. We took a cruise from Tunis to Iceland with a shopping stopover - the last - at this place

called Trondheim. We didn't dare to fly in - on an ordinary African tour ship we'd be more anonymous."

"If we'd had trouble," puts in Njooni quietly, "We'd probably have been able to hire a fisherman to take us through to Novaya Zemlya and fly out from there - it's said to be a smugglers' run. But we were lucky."

Mariammo goes on: "The natives were in a state of excitement anyway - it's the same as anywhere, when the cruise ship arrives, up go the prices! - so there was a lot of turmoil, and we just spoke quietly to a bright-looking boy at one of the crafts booths. We'd rehearsed our lines in a phrase book! Njooni too, in case I got tongue-tied! We put two of the phrases together so it means 'We would like to buy' and 'a new baby.' Can you remember it, Njooni?"

"I don't think I'll ever forget it -'Vi-vil-gjerna, kjuba ... eet nyt barn!'"

"Then we showed him some money (Ecus) and he immediately seemed to understand and trotted ahead of us up some twisting back streets - it was a very steep little city - to a sort of hovel" -Mariammo pauses to wipe away a tear - "that seemed to be crammed full of people, many children and babies, some adults; some of the babies were crying, pitifully.

"The boy just looked about, almost as if he were deciding which baby I'd like best, and then picked Maho up and put her in my arms.

"Njooni thinks it may have been his sister. But of course you can't tell - all Scandinavians look alike - so we don't know. We had to wait what seemed like half an hour before the father showed up. The boy and a couple of the women were off for a long time and another rather threatening woman placed herself in the door as if to say, 'this transaction isn't over yet,' and an old lady - remember her, Njooni? - kept showing us a tiny little boy covered with sores, but I wouldn't look, I just held on to Maho and gazed at her face and tried to be patient, The old woman was making signs to us the whole time - the little boy was probably her grandchild.

"Anyway the father finally arrived and we concluded things then and there. He looked a bit of a rogue - just turned away from us with the money and went out. We weren't really frightened - these are a docile people - but we were relieved to be back on the ship! Njooni says he saw the man later as we were pulling out, leaning against a wall - I imagine drunk, but Njooni is an idealist, prefers to think he was sorry to be parted from the baby - even though he had the comfort of seeing her off to a healthier climate and a better life. These people, most of the adults, had irreversible skin damage and some degree of blindness, though nobody seemed emaciated, that we saw - they still catch and eat the fish, in spite of all the directives in the world."

Mariammo brushes quickly past the rest of the story: the cruise she spent mostly in the cabin "feeling ill," which ended in Copenhagen, well within the fortified zone, and we are given to understand that the baby was harmlessly sedated, both on the ship and aboard the flight home. Says Mariammo, "I carried her onto the flight in my tote bag, tucked under an Icelandic apron. She was so very tiny, it was no problem at all to conceal her, and my status prevented embarrassing searches." Mariammo giggles. "Njooni's too honest for his own good, so I said, 'Let me do all the talking.' Anyway no one noticed her and it all ended well, and what a relief to be home with our darling.

"Apart from the sun problem we don't treat her any differently than we would any other child. She may have a different skin colour but that doesn't mean she isn't as smart as the next kid. She'll be going to Uplands School like the other children, which is progressive and deeply committed to presenting an unprejudiced view of the world, including Europe and even the Boerstans. Maho may have to be a little tougher than the next kid, but we don't make any differentiations and we don't intend to tolerate any from anybody else. Maho's a true African now."

Mariammo pats Maho's ashy-white braids, and Maho submits with a grin, then toddles over to her father and climbs into his lap, where she sits in the shelter of his arms, peeping and squinting out at us between her delicate fingers.

THREE HAPPY FAMILIES, three good-luck stories from around the globe, three dedicated couples who are ready to care, and won't take no for an answer in a needy world.

Unity Magazine, Spring 2023, by Mariko Kim, reproduced by permission.

This story is from a forthcoming collection of short fiction by Heather Spears.


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