An infant was left in front of a government building in Maoming City, China when she was a few weeks old. A woman going into work that day found the baby in a cardboard box wrapped in a light quilt with a red note which read her birth name and her birthday: Sept. 8, 1997.
Twenty years later, Joanne Sidote would come to learn that this was the story of how she was found before she was adopted by a loving woman from New Jersey.
Sidote is now a junior and a nutrition and food science major at Montclair State University. She was adopted when she was a year old. As a child, she knew of her adoption, but she was oblivious to the physical differences from her mother. It was never pointed out to her that she is Chinese and her mother is white until she reached middle school. Classmates would ask if her mom was her nanny or caretaker, and it started her curiosity surrounding her adoption.
The main thing Sidote wanted to know was information about her biological mother, health records, if she had any siblings and most importantly — how she was found. During the spring of 2017, Sidote’s mother disclosed all of the information she could to her.
“I was born Sept. 8, and then I was put up for adoption on Sept. 26,” Sidote said as she thought about this relatively new information. “So that means my birth mother had me for a couple weeks, so I guess she wasn’t sure at first.”
Sidote never held it against her mother for telling her years later. If anything, she could understand why her mom withheld the information from her.
“I think she might’ve thought it would have been too much at a younger age,” Sidote said.
Sidote’s mother, Barbara Sidote explained why she decided to answer her daughter’s burning questions.
“I knew who my parents were,” Barbara Sidote said. “And that fills a lot in, in terms of who you are, and you want that for her on a variety of different levels. It’s important to her and to me, too.”
One can imagine how learning all of these details can be life-changing. However, this was just the beginning for Sidote.
In May 2017, Sidote and her mother took a trip to China because they felt it was time for them to go back to where it all started. After touring cities, they arrived in Maoming and went straight to the orphanage.
It was hot and humid outside when they arrived at the orphanage. They were greeted by all of the foster mothers who were waiting for them under a bright sign with Sidote’s birth name on it.
“I teared up right when I saw it,” Sidote said. “It was very emotional. I didn’t expect it to be that emotional.”
Sidote and her mother were given a tour of the building. They showed her where she was put as a child. At the time, there were hundreds of cribs because of the one-child policy. Now, it was a facility fostering teenagers with mental health issues. While there are not as many babies, it is still run as an adoption orphanage.
They departed from there and went to find the government building where she was left by her birth mother. Sidote and her mother asked around the area with their tour guide if anyone knew anything about her while holding up a sign that summarized her adoption story in Mandarin. A police station nearby gave them the hope that they would find some clues, but they had no luck on that street.
Eventually, they went back to the government building and talked to a woman who was in front of the building. Sidote took Chinese throughout high school and for two years in college to connect with her roots, but she was not yet fluent in Mandarin. In fact, only Cantonese is spoken where she is from. Even though it helped while she was in China, Sidote still needed the tour guide to do most of the talking.
The woman informed them that she was on maternity leave at the time, but she knew of a woman who was there the day Sidote was found. She called the woman who was at work on that day, leaving Sidote and her mother to wait in intense anticipation. After talking for a bit, the tour guide explained to Sidote and her mother that the woman on the phone said she was the one that found the baby and that she was in the government building.
Sidote’s mother expressed how surreal the experience was.
“The tour guide is translating for me and he says, ‘She saw the baby,’” Barbara Sidote said. “I still get chills when I think about this. I was thinking, ‘My God, I’m here halfway around the world, and someone’s here upstairs who knows Joanne.’ It was an incredible feeling.”
Meeting the woman who played a hand in Sidote’s journey was a significantly heartwarming event for Sidote and her mother.
“She hugged me and put her hands on my face,” Sidote said. “What I could get was that she was nice and cared all these years — I think she was very relieved. And I was shy. I didn’t know how to react.”
The woman explained what happened on Sept. 26, 1997. On a daily basis, all of the government building workers arrived on a shuttle bus at 7 a.m. Originally, there was a wall at the entrance, so the woman’s assumption was that Sidote’s birth mother was from the area and therefore knew what time the bus came. She believes that Sidote’s birth mother waited behind the wall to make sure her child was found. The woman explained that when she found Sidote, her eyes were wide open and she was not crying.
Sidote felt comforted knowing she was not just abandoned. Some girls who were adopted alongside her in the orphanage had different stories. She was grateful to know that her mother probably cared and wanted the best for her.
“I felt a connection to the woman [who found Joanne], but I feel more of a connection with Joanne’s birth mother, especially on her birthday,” Barbara Sidote said. “There’s no doubt in my mind [that] there is a woman halfway around the world who is thinking about her on her birthday. It’s a very odd feeling.”
After they left, Sidote and her mother could not believe what had just happened. It opened up a realm of possibilities for them.
“I never expected to find this woman who had specific and concrete details about Joanne,” Barbara Sidote said. “It’s almost like a detective story. Joanne hears stories where people connect through a variety of different ways and you hope that this will work for her too.”
Looking back, Sidote is grateful to have experienced this. However, she does think about the what-if’s.
“I regret not leaving that sign there at the building, because I don’t know if my birth mother actually comes back to that spot every day, like how people go to grave sites,” Sidote said. “I do think she wonders about me. It’s a decision she had to make on her own or with someone else in secrecy. That probably made her distraught and still wondering where I could have gone.”
Despite this, Sidote has used this life-changing experience to inform those who are thinking about adoption and those who have also been adopted. She has done a presentation on her experience at her public library in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She also hopes to widen the adoption community, specifically for children adopted from China, through social media like Facebook.
Sidote’s close friend, Megan Lupo, is a junior journalism major at Rider University. She expressed a deep sense of esteem for Sidote and her journey.
“I admire Joanne for her courage of going around the world to explore her origins,” Lupo said. “I can’t even imagine not knowing if you had brothers or sisters or what your blood type is. She is such a strong person, and she has such pride about her adoption history and where she came from.”
Sidote’s adoption story is still a puzzle with missing pieces, but her journey to China added a huge piece to it all. There is more she would love to know, but what she has found out so far has made her stronger and only increasingly motivates her to discover new details about her life.
– This article was originally published in HawkTalk Magazine.
– Published in The Montclarion on Feb. 22, 2018