A few hundred steps and a piece of paper hold significance for the 900 students who are graduating from Calvin later this month. Together, they signify the crossing of a major metaphorical bridge.
Senior Kati Pohler ’18, a music and public health double major, is set to cross that bridge. But nine months earlier, she took a few hundred steps across a literal bridge, halfway around the world. The walk changed her life: bridging her present with her past. And it started with a piece of paper.
TWO EXPRESSIONS OF LOVE
It’s 1996 and two families, separated by 7,116 miles, are about to begin an unexpected journey with all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Ken Pohler ’73 and his wife, Ruth from Hudsonville, Michigan, have two young boys and are feeling led to adopt from China. Xu Lida and Qian Fenxiang, from Hangzhou, China, are pregnant with their second daughter.
With China’s one-child policy being strictly enforced and village officials threatening to level Xu and Qian’s house if they don’t abort the child, Xu and Qian flee 80 miles away to Suzhou and give birth on a boat in a Suzhou canal. The couple try to find a relative or close friend to raise the child but to no avail.
With no other options, Xu heads to a highly trafficked area of town and leaves the baby in a basket to be taken to an orphanage. But it’s what else is in this basket that makes the story so compelling.
Meanwhile in Hudsonville, the Pohlers receive a call from Bethany Christian Services that in just seven months they’ll be able to meet their new daughter. The Pohlers are shocked at how quickly the process is moving.
The real shocker comes later that year when they pick her up. Their closed adoption is suddenly complicated, in essence, opened, by an item found in that basket: a note. Written in Chinese characters, the Pohlers hand it to a translator from Bethany.
“She is crying while she’s reading it,” recalls Ruth. “We’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ … Then she shared it with us and then we again had my brother-in-law’s mom who is Chinese look at it and different people would translate it a little differently, but basically it was like: ‘She was loved and the government forced them to do this.’
“So, it was very touching,” Ruth said.
The remaining content of the note moves this story from compelling to unbelievable. Xu requests to meet his daughter on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou, China, in 10 or 20 years.
“The fact that we are going to meet on some bridge in 10 years in China, you gotta be kidding me? How would we do that? So, I kind of put it on the backburner,” said Ruth.
LIFE GOES ON
The Pohlers name their daughter Catherine (Kati) and keep a folder of items—including the note—related to her adoption in her closet.
“There were times when I was curious,” said Kati, “and I remember climbing to get it [the folder] down. I knew it was there and that I could ask questions if I wanted to.”
“I think that they did a brave thing. I think their decision to send someone to the bridge was good and they obviously never knew how that was going to all turn out.” KATI POHLER ’18
Kati doesn’t remember asking many questions about her adoption or her identity. Ruth doesn’t either, except questions early on, such as: “Did I come from your tummy?” To which Ruth answered: “You came from a woman in China, but you were born of my heart.” And Ruth recalls Kati being satisfied with that response.
“I think I told her we had a letter, some information for her, and I showed her a book that we had bought about what was happening in China when she was born,” said Ruth. “We kept telling her if you have any questions about your adoption we’d gladly talk to you about it.”
But life carries on as normal in Hudsonville, until the 10-year mark approaches and the Pohlers entertain a dinner guest, a friend who did a lot of engineering work in China. They tell their friend about the letter, and he tells the Pohlers that he has friends who live in Suzhou and asks them if they want him to have a “scout” visit the bridge at the 10-year mark to connect with the parents. They agree and prepare a letter for the occasion.
The birthparents show up on the bridge that day, but another twist in the plot (the scout missing her train) seems to spoil the plan—until the scout notices a TV crew on the bridge filming an unrelated documentary. The scout explains her reason for visiting, asks to see their footage, and discovers a couple on the bridge.
The camera crew discovers “TV gold,” interviews the scout, and the story soon catches the attention of both the Chinese media and Kati’s birthparents. “It was getting a little bigger than we ever thought it would get,” said Ken.
THE FINAL PUZZLE PIECE
A few years later, enter Chang Changfu, a professor in Pennsylvania who does documentaries on adoptions and regularly visits China looking for stories. He learns of this incredible story and finds his way to the Pohlers.
“We told him we’d talk to him if he kept our name out of it,” said Ken. “We didn’t want our daughter to deal with this at this point in her life.”
Changfu informs the birthparents that he has located Kati’s adoptive parents and begins serving as the bridge between the two, exchanging letters for the next eight years.
SEEKING MORE ANSWERS
In 2015, Kati is ready to study abroad in Spain. Two days before she leaves, she has questions.
“I thought I’ll probably get more questions there [about my past] since nobody knows me, and so that’s when I asked my mom directly, ‘What do you know? I just want to make sure I have everything straight.’ … I know they always said your birthparents loved you, and I was like, ‘Is that them saying this to a little girl or is that really true?’, I couldn’t really figure out what was actually reality.”
Ruth shares with Kati that they have been communicating with her birthparents through Dr. Changfu. Once Kati returns from Spain that winter, the pursuit of her past intensifies.
“I Googled his [Dr. Changfu’s] name and found his blog, and I was reading the blog post and I was like, ‘Oh wait, this is about me.’ And so that was super surreal.”
Then she watches his adoption DVD featuring her birthparents. “That was my first time hearing them and really hearing their message and what they wanted to say to me,” recalls Kati.
RESTORING WHAT’S BROKEN
After meeting Changfu and learning even more, Kati agrees to participate in a dramatic reunion, complete with a BBC documentary crew on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou.
“I was definitely pretty nervous. I could tell I was doing my nervous habits, but I was also excited, and we just kept driving around because we had to time it perfectly,” recalls Kati. “Getting out and walking down the bridge, I just remember, saying ‘OK, you only do this once, so here we go.’”
And so, with cameras rolling and crowds gathering, the climax of the movie unfolds. More importantly, a mother and father’s 20-year longing is fulfilled, and a daughter’s identity deepened.
“I think that they did a brave thing,” Kati said of her adoptive parents. “I think their decision to send someone to the bridge was good and they obviously never knew how that was going to all turn out.”
But now millions of people do. And ultimately Kati is glad her story has reached so many.
“I’m glad it’s starting a conversation about adoption. That’s what I wanted to do,” said Kati. “I have been in contact with people who have or are going to be in a similar situation and so just talking with them and sharing my experience, it is helpful for some.”
And the story continues to unfold. Kati stays in regular contact with her birthparents through text and Skype. “My dad (Xu) still texts me good morning and good night every day.”
She’s also planning on teaching English as a Second Language next year in China, within driving distance of her birthparents.
“I’m definitely glad that I know, even with the complexity of it. I’ve made my birthparents so happy and that feels good … it hasn’t drastically changed my identity, but it’s definitely added a lot to it and that’s really enriching.”
And it all started with a piece of paper … and ended with a few hundred bold steps.