BEIJING, China: All the boy with no ears wanted was a family of his own. Airplanes were his favourite thing in all the world to draw – “my mum and dad will come and take me away on a plane,” he’d say, having watched yearningly as all the other children he’d grown up with left with new mummies and daddies.
But, as each year went by and he grew older, and it was always some other orphan’s turn to leave the foster care home but never his own, Wu Keyuan’s chances of being adopted grew dimmer.
Then, on July 30 last year – his eighth birthday – a couple from Singapore showed up at Alenah’s Home in Beijing.
They were there for one very specific child.
Mr Yap Vong Hin, 60, and Dr Lim Poh Lian, 52, hadn’t been looking to adopt again. Already with three children in their late teens – one of whom was adopted from China 16 years ago – they were looking forward to becoming empty-nesters.
But one day in March 2017, they heard about an episode on Chinese orphans on Channel NewsAsia’s investigative programme Get Real, and tuned in. The documentary explored the harsh realities for children born with disabilities, who often ended up abandoned by parents who cannot afford to keep them - China has little social security for the disabled. (Watch the episode here.)
In particular, one sparkly little boy with a band around his missing ears – he’d been born without them – tugged at their hearts. Thousands who watched his story on CNA Insider also fell in love instantly.
Given up when he was just a few days old, Keyuan was seven at the time of filming and already considered too old by a number of prospective parents, who preferred a child that was younger and female. In China, children become ineligible for adoption once they turn 14.
It was Keyuan’s poignant quote that did it for the Yaps. “I must be patient,” he said, the optimism shining in his eyes. “We can’t rush it. If we all rush for it, we’ll end up fighting!”
Said Dr Lim: “At the end of the documentary, I was in tears.
I remember thinking: What if everyone thought that someone was going to do something, and nobody did anything, and he just ended up waiting and waiting - and nobody came?
“The human heart can only take so much grief... so we thought - we can’t do everything but we can do this one thing.”
So the couple, who are Singapore permanent residents and United States citizens, flew up to Beijing to meet Keyuan and got the process going. And on Jan 29, 2018, he was officially adopted into the Yap family – with whom he is spending his very first Chinese New Year in Singapore, in a real home to call his own.
For Get Real executive producer Sharon Hun, the aim of the series has always been to create awareness – but making this direct impact on lives was “beyond our wildest hopes”, she said.
“I just assumed that people would be more interested in volunteering or donating money,” said producer/director of the episode, Ms Hoe Yeen Nie. “But for someone to come and say ‘we are going to share their lives with this boy’, it really is a wonderful surprise.”
‘WHEN ARE YOU COMING TO GET ME?’
Two days before his new parents arrived in Beijing to pick him up, CNA Insider met up with Keyuan and his caregivers at Alenah’s Home.
Packing hadn’t taken long: His belongings – a few pieces of clothes, photo albums of his friends at the orphanage, and gifts like a teddy bear from his parents over the months – fit into a tiny bag.
He’d clearly been anticipating the day he would leave with his new mum and dad. Over the months, they’d kept in touch via Skype weekly – though their limited Mandarin kept conversation limited to the simplest topics.
“Are you getting on the plane tomorrow?” he asked in one final conversation. “What time are you coming to get me?”
They’d also been writing him regularly, and he kept their stack of letters neatly stashed in a box. “Read me this,” he would ask one of his caregivers, Ms Zhang Jing, every time he received a new one, and she’d oblige.
“Dear Keyuan,” one letter from his mum read. “Waiting must be so hard. It’s hard for us too, but we both have something beautiful to look forward to, don’t we?”
His drawings, too, have been of more than just airplanes – they show him with his family against the Singapore skyline.
On the last Sunday, his friends at the home gathered around him, and Keyuan held up an album of his adoptive family’s photos. It was meant to be the customary show-and-tell every time a child is about to leave – he or she shares about their new family.
But the usually bubbly Keyuan went quiet. Perhaps he felt bashful; or perhaps, he just knew too well what it was like to be on the other side, the child listening and wishing it was his turn.
One staff member said: “Keyuan is a very thoughtful child, he won’t say anything upsetting. I know he wants to express (his happiness), but he can’t put it into words.”
THROUGH MANY LOVING HANDS
It has been a long journey for the boy who was born in Wuwei, a small city in the west of China. Nothing is known about his birth parents – at just a few days old, he was found at the gate of an orphanage.
But though he was orphaned, his early years were not without love. A Muslim couple in the same city soon agreed to foster him, after unexpectedly falling for him just as the Yaps did.
Mr Ding Yun Zhi, 64, had not planned on taking in Keyuan - but something struck him when he saw the little boy for the first time. “I wanted him to feel that he was loved, that he had a family, that he was not abandoned,” he said.
They raised him with all the care they would give their own son, and he even started calling them mummy and daddy.
At the age of four, however, Keyuan was still not able to speak well because of his hearing impairment. So the couple decided to send him to an orphanage in Shanghai that could better help him.
The centre’s director in turn sought the help of Alenah’s Home in Beijing, which specialised in foster centre for children with special needs. Money was raised, Keyuan had a hearing aid implanted – and he was finally able to learn to speak properly.
In the two and a half years he was at Alenah’s Home, he made huge progress and touched staff with his big heart. “He’s very smart. He’s like a big brother,” said Ms Zhang Jing. “He’ll help you, he’ll care for you”.
“When I told him that we found him a home, he was so happy,” she added.
He kept on asking me if it was true. I’ve never seen him smile so happily before. It’s like a miracle for us.
For his new parents, it seems as if his adoption has been the result of the efforts of many, all aligning to help him find a home. “We really feel that Keyuan is a gift who has come to us through many loving hands,” said Dr Lim, a senior consultant with a hospital in Singapore.
His former foster dad Mr Ding put it this way: “As human beings, we share the same emotions. For the sake of bringing up these kids, we do what we can… maybe it’s fate.”
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
When Dr Lim and Mr Yap arrived at Alenah’s Home on a wintry Monday to bring him home, Keyuan – now Lucas Yap Keyuan – ran into his father’s arms, unleashing months of anticipation and joy.
For once, he did not have to be the mature older brother reassuring the younger children – he was just a child himself, happy to be in his parents’ embrace.
WATCH: The long wait is over (7:19)
For the many times he was left behind to wait, though, he must know the thought running through the other children’s heads: When will it be my turn?
“The children would say ‘Keyuan, can we leave with you? Can you ask your dad to take us along too?'” said Ms Zhang Jing.
Ms Yao Chen Xia, the general manager of Alenah’s Home, said: “When a child leaves, the hardest part for other children is having more hope that they, too, will have their turn. We can’t promise them anything, all we can do is try our best to find them homes.”
Every year in China, 900,000 children are born with disabilities. The number of those with birth defects has jumped 70 per cent in the last 20 years. With the lack of social support, many are landing up in orphanages to be cared for.
As a result, centres that were once filled with healthy baby girls (given up by their parents because of China’s one-child policy), are these days full of unwanted children with disabilities.
“Especially for those with more needs, the rate of adoption is lower. We have a girl with a serious brain condition, and she’s been here five to six years,” said Ms Yao.
With the adoption age limit at 14, some never get adopted at all – and end up living at or working for the orphanages that accommodate older children with disabilities. (See related story: Orphan's poignant photos capture life in shelter for unwanted disabled kids)
FROM STRANGERS TO FAMILY
For the lucky ones like Keyuan who do eventually leave with a new family, adapting to the outside world – often, a strange new country and language as well – and getting to know the strangers who are your parents, can be tough to handle.
Keyuan and his parents were in no rush to go home. Dr Lim and Mr Yap had three weeks planned in China, to get the essential paperwork done before they could fly him back to Singapore. This included going back to his birth province to complete the adoption, getting him a passport, and putting him through a medical test for the necessary travel visas.
“The adoption process (in China) is way more difficult now as compared to 15 years ago,” observed Dr Lim. “Background checks are very comprehensive and onerous.”
Among other things, during the months before the adoption was approved, the Yaps had to undergo a home study to ensure theirs was a suitable home, and take an online course about handling an adopted child.
While in China, the couple also wanted to visit their son’s former foster family and the orphanage where he was found. “There’s someone you love and there’s a huge chunk of their life that you have very little information on. We were hoping to just have a picture in our mind of where he spent the early parts of his life,” said Dr Lim.
It was also a crucial time of getting to know each other - and things seemed off to a blissful start.
Wherever they went, be it for lunch, on the plane ride (Keyuan’s first), or the first few days’ sightseeing around China, the eight-year-old held on tightly to both his parents’ hands.
And even though they couldn’t speak the same language, most of the time, words weren’t needed. The way they looked into each other’s eyes said enough. “Somehow, love just lets you make sense of everything,” said Dr Lim.
But shortly after they arrived in his birth province on Day 2, the mood shifted. At lunch, Keyuan suddenly went quiet and put his head down on the table.
“I thought he was just tired, but then I saw a tear roll down his face. I realised that he was just really sad. I think all the excitement seemed overwhelming,” said Dr Lim.
It’s a little bit like being kidnapped by aliens. All of a sudden you’re with people who smell different, who eat different food, who don’t understand what you’re saying, and it can be incredibly frustrating and frightening.
Added Mr Yap, a retired architect and stay-at-home dad: “He was probably also grieving the loss that he was feeling from losing everybody whom he loved and everything he has known up to this point.”
There was something in the way the boy kept his face in a pool of his tears, almost ashamed to lift his head lest anyone saw him. An adoption agent said this is common with adopted kids - one child had said, “If I cry, will my parents love me?”
“They try so hard to be lovable,” said Dr Lim. But “part of being in a family is knowing that people will love you no matter how you feel.”
WATCH: Keyuan learns what family means (6:25)
‘ADOPTION IS A LOT LIKE MARRIAGE’
It was early morning on Feb 10 when Keyuan and his parents touched down in Singapore. At the arrival terminal, the couple’s friends and family were waiting with colourful garlands and welcome-home banners.
“You’re finally home, Lucas Yap Keyuan,” read one.
Without prompting, Keyuan walked up to his new siblings and gently called out, “Brother, sister” – as if eager to start his new life with this family. The teenagers, who had initially been stumped by their parents' decision to adopt again, welcomed their new little brother.
The Yaps plan to celebrate Chinese New Year quietly with a few close friends before they take on the next challenge of settling him in. This will include getting new hearing aids surgically implanted – the one he’s been using for the past few years sits only on one side of his head, gives constant feedback and, his parents suspect, is still not allowing him to hear very clearly.
This last fact, in turn, has hampered his ability to process language and so he is “a little bit behind educationally”.
“But he looks like he’s pretty normally intelligent. He has a great attitude and a great personality. A lot of kids, when they have the right situation and opportunities, they catch up tremendously,” said Dr Lim, who plans to home-school him perhaps “for a year or two” until his English is up to par and he can attend school.
In the longer term, they will look into whether to reconstruct his external ears and ear canal, which would require several surgeries. “We will probably wait until he is a little older. We’re taking it step by step.”
For all the extra responsibilities and complex challenges that come with being a parent again, for the Yaps it comes down to this one simple thing: Love is commitment.
“We knew that taking on a child with special needs who’s an eight-year-old would be a major change in our lives,” said Dr Lim.
But adoption is a lot like marriage. You make a commitment to someone who is not your flesh and blood, and at the end of the day, that’s what makes a family – it’s the commitment.
“If you’re really in love with that person, you take them as they are and you deal with all the implications.”
Orphan no more: Read how Keyuan spent his first Chinese New Year with his new family.