The Story Behind the Photo: Dancing On Pointe

Growing up in China, Qiulan Henderson wondered if she maybe wasn’t beautiful or smart enough to be adopted. She wondered if she would ever feel trust or love, or ever believe in herself. But when a family in Oregon saw the beautiful soul inside 10-year-old Qiulan, and welcomed her into their home, she began to learn the truth about family, about love, and about herself. Below, Quilan shares her experience of joining a family through international adoption — what she feared, what she lost, and what she became as she opened her heart to healing and love.  


When I look at the picture of me in China, I remember myself and I feel hopeless; I have no hope for my future. I don’t know how I will get trust and love, and ever believe in myself. That photo was a fake happy, but I did have some light to see me through.

When I look at the photo of me in America, I see how much my life has changed in a good way. Holt helped me to turn my life around to find the love and trust, and there is always healing in your heart where ever you go. Life isn’t perfect, but I feel like an inspirational girl — happy, fresh and free. Before I was like a pair of flat, old ballet shoes.  Holt turned my life around, and now I am on pointe.

This is my story.

I got adopted when I was almost 10. I know what it feels like to be adopted and it is not easy. You have to go through new feelings and a new life. You feel like you are jumping from one train to another and going into a new world where you don’t know anyone. It’s not all about happily ever after, there are a lot of lessons to be learned, but it’s worth it. Here are some memories I have of my own adoption…

Before adoption feelings: I grew up with eight other orphans living with foster families in our neighborhood in China. I was the last one to get adopted. I thought it was because I wasn’t smart or beautiful enough, or maybe because I had fat cheeks. I thought I wasn’t good enough to have a mom and dad or go to America. When my foster sister got adopted, I felt like it could happen. My foster sister and I were so close and taught each other how to love and how to take care of each other. When she got adopted, I wondered if I would ever have a family or just live with my foster parents forever. I felt like my dreams would never come true. I had dreams but I felt like it would never happen and I was almost too afraid to hope for it. When the last kid was adopted I felt like giving up — like my hope was lost forever. There was a lot of discrimination against orphans and I got even more mean comments from people at school. I felt like I had no power over who I was. Sometimes, I felt like just crying in the corner.

Two years after that, my foster mom told me I got a family. I felt excited but also nervous. I thought, “My life is changing.” I couldn’t believe it! I knew I only had a year to enjoy China. I told my teacher and friends that I would miss them, but some of them didn’t believe I was really getting adopted. Some of my friends at school who had been mean to me because I was an orphan, they started to like me because I got an American mommy and daddy. They thought it was cool.

When I found out I would be coming to America, I was worried about what food they would have because I was told Americans only eat meat and drink milk. I wondered what my life would be like. I worried about meeting new friends, how I would learn, what it would be like to have American brothers and sisters and cousins. The whole family would be different. I worried about having to do a lot of chores and what would happen if I did something wrong — about discipline. I thought I might get abused if I didn’t get good grades. I questioned a lot. My nerves were changing. Did I need to be perfect, and act good, and strong? I felt like a flower from a grocery store coming to a new family, leaving all the other flowers behind.


I was getting scared to come to a new world. I was also excited because my life was changing in a good way. My life in China was not what I had wanted it to be. I didn’t get to live like a kid. I had hopes and dreams that never came true, even things like playing outside with other kids. I moved back to the orphanage for a month to prepare for my adoption. They thought I was so skinny that they tried to get me healthier. They gave me classes on what it would be like to be adopted, teaching things like what my new family would be like, what holidays in America are like, and what sports they play. I loved being with the other kids and life back in the orphanage was one of the best parts of my life!

Days before I would meet my new family, I was getting really scared and I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to my friends. I was nervous to see my new family. In my orphanage we had a sleepover the night before I got adopted. My friends told me not to forget them. We promised to send letters to each other or talk on QQ (like American Facebook). I started to pack all my stuff but I realized you can’t take anything with you, you aren’t allowed. They think the American people don’t want you to bring it with you. I wanted to bring my foster sister’s music book from 3rd grade, and the bracelet and letters from friends, and my clothes, but I couldn’t. It was annoying and I didn’t understand. Things like that make kids not want to come to America. My school uniform was old but it was special. When I looked at my small pile of belongings I felt like I was losing good memories forever. It was like a bow-and-arrow shooting right at my heart.

Adoption Day approached, and I was nervous and scared, but my orphanage friends helped me curl my hair and they said goodbye. I started to cry. That afternoon I got on the bus and I rode for a long time. I was shaking, I was so scared, and I started to cry again. When the bus stopped, I forced myself to quit crying. I had a lot of mixed feelings. I was worried my family wouldn’t like me. I worried my family would only want a perfect girl who gets straight A’s and doesn’t have eczema — a perfect face and perfect body with no scars. I went up the elevator to the third floor and I went into the room to sign some papers. The first person I saw was my dad. And then I saw all the kids and Mom. This was only the second time I had seen Caucasian people in real life. I said, “Hello Mother, hello Father, hello sisters and brothers.” I remember my voice went lower and lower as I talked. I was more nervous than I had ever been. They thought it was so cute that I could speak a little English. My mom was crying and my dad was trying not to. My sister Emily wanted to touch my hair and that made me feel nervous but I didn’t want to tell her “no”. She said my hair was so beautiful. (My advice to parents is to not touch your kid too much — no forced touching and hugging on first adoption day or until they’re ready. In China culture, we don’t hug and kiss a lot. Kids aren’t used to that. Let the kids get used to seeing you first.) We took a bunch of pictures then we went to the hotel and to dinner. I was excited to see all the food! I love Chinese food! I wasn’t sure what to order because I thought my family would want American food. I ordered Coke and it was my first time to have it. My face squinted really bad. My mom thought I hated it so she ordered me orange juice. I didn’t know how to explain that I didn’t hate it, I just couldn’t get used to the carbonation. The orange juice did make me feel better! That is a small example of how hard it was to communicate for the next few months. It was weird to be in a family that was opposite from my foster home. My new family were different looking, tall and had different talking. They teased a lot and listened to different music. They liked acting crazy and being goofy.

First few days after adoption:  I was getting used to my new family. My brothers and I made some necklaces and I was so confused when my brother started to eat it — it was a Fruit Loops cereal necklace! There were so many things that were confusing. I was teaching my sister some Chinese words and I have memories of laughing at bedtime saying goodnight in Chinese. “Gwen-un, gwen-un, gwen-un.” I really connected to my sister Emily. She helped me with my shots and to feel better. She would hold my hand and give me piggyback rides. I got five shots in one day! I didn’t cry because I had been taught not to cry. She wanted me to paint my nails but I wasn’t sure about it because I had a bad memory from the past about painting my nails. (Adoptive parents need to understand that sometimes kids might not want to do something because of bad memories).

We had a dance party back at the hotel and I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought, “Wow! This is different from what I saw at my foster home!” Luckily, my family had sent me a video before I met them and they were dancing in one part, so I wasn’t quite so surprised!

I started to feel more comfortable. I was surprised they weren’t strict and the more I was with them, the more I could learn about family love. I wasn’t used to seeing people give each other hugs and love. The parents gave the kids hugs and they told each other they loved each other. This may sound strange, but I found that kind of love scary. There was no abuse, no hitting. Love can feel scary when you aren’t used to it and your mom and dad are trying to open their heart to you — but you aren’t yet ready for it. It’s like teaching a baby bird how to fly.

It has been five years since I was adopted. I’ve learned a lot about family, about love, and about myself. I hope you all have a great adoption as your dreams come true. Be a true mother and true father. It’s going to be hard, but it’s worth it. Be patient. Remember that being scared is normal. Keep loving and keep showing your child family love. You’re the one who’s going to make it happen. Let your new life begin! START THE TRAIN!!

Qiulan Henderson | Portland, Oregon


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