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December 23, 2009

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'We want to give you a hug'

SAM and Hunter Hopkins, both five years old, are playing together next to their parents as a photographer snaps away. Hunter quite naturally climbs onto his father's knee while Sam is held by his mother.

Mom Patti Snyder whispers to Sam, making him smile; dad Andy Hopkins tickles Hunter, making him giggle and squirm.

It's a perfect picture.

The natural interaction and the warmth in this scene make it difficult to imagine that Hunter only joined the family four days earlier (December 14) as an adopted child.

The Hopkins family flew to Shanghai from Orange Park in north Florida to collect Hunter, who was still called Haihui. They met him at the Shanghai Children's Home, the city's orphanage.

The new family of four returns to Florida on Friday, Christmas Day.

China does not release official figures of orphans, domestic adoptions, international adoptions or special-needs orphans. But the number of children adopted each year is said to be more than 5,000.

"We have overcome a lot of hurdles to the end of this journey and it's only the beginning of a new journey," Hopkins tells Shanghai Daily in an exclusive interview in their hotel room at Yan'an Hotel on Yan'an Road M.

"Hunter will change our life completely and we await the changes with excitement. For example, I had never thought that I would learn Chinese one day," the father says.

The couple took Chinese classes for two months before this trip and they listen to audio lessons on their cell phones all the time, trying to communicate better with Hunter.

As Snyder plays the audio from her cell phone, the brothers suddenly run from the other side of the hotel room and show off the temporary tattoos of Spider-Man on their hands and arms. Hunter points to the same tattoos on arms of the couple and says "Baba," "Mama."

The couple are both veterinarians and welcomed their first and only biological child Sam five years ago, when Snyder was already 45. Six months later, they decided to adopt a child.

They turned to China for its good reputation - because there are less concerns that biological Chinese mothers are drug or alcohol abusers.

At first they wanted a baby girl and kept telling Sam he would soon welcome a little sister.

The process was complicated and took much longer than the couple expected - they waited for three years as Sam kept asking about his promised sister.

According to the Shanghai orphanage, it takes longer for international adoptions because there are fewer children to adopt these days.

Fewer Chinese are abandoning female children or kids who have disabilities or deformities. More Chinese people are adopting Chinese orphans (a big change since there is great emphasis on biological kinship and bloodlines).

After the long wait, the Hopkins finally decided to look at China's Waiting Child Program, for children with special needs. These adoptions are processed faster than others because most couples want healthy babies or toddlers.

Haihui was on the list because of minor surgery (removal of a spermatic cord cyst) and because of his age (then 3 years old) - he was considered too old for most adoptions.

When the Hopkins fell for Haihui through the Internet, the process moved faster. Seven months later, the couple was informed that they could pick him up. They didn't wait, they boarded a plane 10 days after they got notice - with anticipation and apprehension.

With the help of online and real-life information groups, they learned some children may become frightened by their new situation and even try to escape their new family. And with only two months of Chinese classes, they were worried about communication.

"It was like, the moment has finally come, and it was so complex ..." Snyder bursts into tears, with happiness and relief. Hopkins too cannot help crying. Hunter goes up to them and puts a small photo album on the table.

It contains pictures of the Hopkins family and pictures of Hunter from the orphanage. On the cover is an early picture of Hunter, with pinyin on the bottom saying, "Wo men yao bao yi bao ni," or "We want to hug you." The first page is a family picture of mom, dad and Sam, with pinyin saying "Wo men hen gao xing you ni," or "We are glad to have you."

Hunter flips through the pages, points to the pictures and keeps saying to me - "Baba," "Mama," "Didi" (younger brother). The couple sent the album, filled with care and hope, to Hunter before they met, hoping that he would get familiar with them.

It worked so well that they were amazed at the first encounter, when Hunter ran into their arms and called "Baba" and "Mama."

"I was so relieved at that moment, seeing that he was comfortable with us. And Sam has definitely helped a lot as they are the same age, Hunter is older by only six months," says Hopkins.

All the hurdles to adoption were overcome. Sam too was thrilled. He was the first to go into Hunter's room in the orphanage, while the couple was still busy with paperwork. He kept running back and forth, saying "I saw my brother. I have a brother now." When the couple stepped into the room, the boys were already hugging each other.

By the time of this interview, four days after they met, the boy and adoptive parents are getting used to each other.

"He's getting more comfortable with us with every passing minute," says Snyder.

The brothers play with each other, fight for toys and get back together like real siblings. Sam has already learned to say "bu" instead of "no" while Hunter has learned how to count in English.

"He has been fitting in so well. Language is our biggest worry now, but many people say that usually it only takes three to six months since kids learn fast," says Hopkins.

Hunter will learn both English and Chinese. The couple is already pondering whether the brothers should study in the same class.

Mom says: "In three to six months, we expect the family to mesh."


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