A Lonely New World
01/19/2009 at 01:00 AM EST
At home in her family's two-bedroom apartment in southwest China, 9-year-old Anna Mae He told her mother she wanted to be a doctor. But Qin Luo "Casey" He encouraged her oldest child to aim higher. "'You could be President,'" Casey says she told Anna Mae. "I buy Obama's book. I tell her about Bill Clinton."
After all that has happened, Casey still dreams of a future in America for her daughter. And she harbors those hopes even as she helps Anna Mae build a new life with her biological siblings after one of the most contentious custody battles in recent memory. It's been 11 months since a Tennessee Supreme Court decision allowed Casey and Anna Mae's father, Shaoqiang "Jack" He, to take Anna Mae from Louise and Jerry Baker, the Tennessee foster parents who had raised her almost since birth. Now, back in Casey's hometown of Chongqing, Anna Mae is still struggling to adapt. She speaks little Mandarin, misses the Bakers and is coping with the sudden breakup of her parents—Jack, a teacher, had a falling out with Casey in July. "I was not thinking this would happen to my family," Casey told PEOPLE Dec. 29. For her part, Anna Mae tells PEOPLE, "I don't like China. I don't like school."
Casey is doing everything she can to help her daughter—hiring a Mandarin tutor and giving Anna Mae piano lessons. "Before, she didn't want to think about music," Casey says. "Now, she likes to play." Enrolling Anna Mae and siblings Andy, 8, and Avita, 6, at a boarding school paid for by the children's uncle, Casey is looking for a job at a place like the Gap or another American store. (She says she has received child support from Jack, who didn't respond to an e-mail request for comment.) While the family doesn't have a television, Casey, 40, makes allowances for Western ways, including Game Boy. "I have a Chinese culture," she says. "But the kids have an American culture."
Thousands of miles away, the Bakers are also adapting to a new life. A decade ago, the two families were friendly. When Casey was pregnant with Anna Mae, she and Jack—then a college student in Tennessee—were in the depths of a legal and financial crisis. They asked the Bakers, whom they met through a Christian adoption agency in Tennessee, to care for their baby, then just 3 weeks old. The Hes visited regularly, but as time went on relations grew strained. The Bakers had fallen in love with Anna Mae and felt they could provide her with a good life. The Tennessee courts sided with the Bakers (who contended the Hes had agreed to let them raise Anna Mae to adulthood) and once even revoked the Hes' parental rights. Then in January 2007, the Tennessee high court returned full custody to Anna Mae's birth parents, forcing the little girl to leave the only family she'd ever known. If that weren't upheaval enough, shortly afterward the Hes returned to China.
One bright spot in Anna Mae's life? Her weekly phone chats with the Bakers. Armed with a calling plan that costs one cent per minute, the couple call every Friday at 11 p.m., which is noon Saturday for Anna Mae. At first, Louise says, the little girl was shy. "But the more she talked, the more she opened up. Now we'll make jokes and she'll just laugh." She especially enjoys giggling with the Bakers' youngest child, Aimee, 8, her former foster sister and roommate. "Aimee tells her a hundred times how much she loves and misses her," says Louise, 48, a grocery store cashier. "Aimee puts the dogs on the phone, tells her about her lizards, about different friends she went to school with." The Bakers also check whether Anna Mae has gotten the care packages they send, full of her favorite things: Webkinz, macaroni and cheese, chocolate, taco fixings.
The phone calls have also helped thaw the Bakers' difficult relationship with Casey and ease some of their own heartache about losing a daughter whose pictures still dot their walls. "It takes some of the pain away," Louise says. For now the Bakers are working to raise money to send Anna Mae to an international school closer to home and to get Casey a visa so she can visit with Anna Mae and her other children. "As much as we'd love to have Anna move back into this house, the truth is that it's not going to happen," says Jerry, 50, who works in banking. "Our goal is to try and make Anna's life better in any way we can and try to still be a part of her life as much as we can."
Casey hopes to make that trip soon and says she'll do everything she can to keep Anna Mae's connection with the Bakers—and America—alive. "My kids say, 'Mama, what time do we go back to America?' I say, 'Not yet,'" Casey says. "'But you are American citizens, and one day you can go back anywhere, anytime.'"