By Gabe Licht
DELANO, MN While growing up in the Delano area, Danielle Middendorf wasn’t familiar with her native town or even country.
She is now.
Danielle, along with her parents, Mark and Wendy, and her sister, Nicole, visited the rural area three hours from Nanchang, China, where she was born and lived in an orphanage for the first eight months of her life.
The two-week trek was part of a Red Thread Tours trip with eight other families with adopted children.
Starting in Beijing, they visited the standard tourist attractions: the Great Wall of China and Forbidden City.
“To experience it yourself is amazing,” Danielle said of the Great Wall. “You see it go on through the mountains, weaving. There’s two ways to go: one easier and one steeper. We took the steeper one and went right up to where they finished making it stable.”
Wendy remembers a moment off the beaten path.
“We went on a rickshaw ride that was really fun,” she said. “It was raining at the time. We went to parts of Beijing you don’t normally see. We met a lady who showed us how to make dumplings.”
The rickshaw ride wasn’t the only mode of transportation the family hadn’t experienced together before. They also shared a small sleeper train car on the way to Xi’an, where they visited the Terracotta Warrior and rode bikes and flew kites on the city wall.
Danielle’s most memorable part of the trip came next, as they traveled to the village where she was born.
“They welcomed us with firecrackers and a sign with my name on it,” Danielle said. “At the orphanage I got to meet my caregiver.”
Some moments were especially poignant.
“I got to see where I slept and my finding place,” Danielle said. “They found me outside the gate. It was pretty emotional knowing that I was there in a box.”
Mark explained that Danielle’s abandonment was a product of China’s strict one-child policy at the time.
“Most families wanted boys to take care of the family when they got older,” he said. “It was quite common for women to give up their babies. They would just leave them somewhere. Fortunately, in Danielle’s situation, they left her at the gate of the orphanage.”
“With some kids, their parents don’t want to give them up for adoption, but don’t want to care for them either,” Wendy added.
To show their gratitude for those who cared for Danielle, the Middendorfs gave gifts to individuals at the orphanage and also shared a scrapbook. Individuals at the orphanage gave Danielle and Nicole wood carvings made in the area.
After visiting that rural area, the Middendorfs headed to Shanghai to meet one last time with the rest of the tour group.
There, they took in some culture, visiting the Shanghai Museum, and took advantage of a scenic view from a river cruise on the Shanghai River.
“We also went up in what they call the TV Tower,” Danielle said. “One of the sections has a glass floor, so we walked out and took pictures. A lot of buildings were really tall, but it was cloudy so we could hardly seem them.”
That cloudiness was largely a result of pollution.
“We could feel the pollution in our eyes,” Danielle said. “We had to throw away our contacts.”
Traffic was also crazy, especially when compared to the traffic in Minnesota towns.
“The driving there was crazy,” Danielle said. “No one really wears their seatbelts. One tour guide said stoplights are optional. They use their horn for everything.”
Danielle took notice of the vast difference between urban and rural areas.
“I’d be in a big city with more modern things, and then switch into a more rural community,” she said. “I was amazed at seeing the difference in going from one to another in such a short distance.”
Danielle was also stereotyped in a way.
“When I was shopping with mom and dad, people would come up to me talking in Chinese, expecting me to translate,” she said. “I’d have to say, ‘I don’t understand.’ I know a few things, but not enough to communicate with them.”
In Shanghai, the trip ended in a memorable way for the kids and parents.
“On the last night, the kids got together and made candles,” Wendy said.
“We had to pick something memorable from the orphanage, create a candle and give it to our parents as a thank-you gift,” Danielle added.
Danielle said she’s looking forward to returning to China, but said she would like to take a different approach.
“I, for sure, want to go back and do more siteseeing,” Danielle said. “I don’t just want to see the big ones everyone knows, but the smaller ones. I don’t think I’d like to do another tour. I’d like to just go with the four of us. We didn’t get much down time. We just kept going and going.”
Despite the frenetic pace of the tour, Danielle slowed down to take it all in.
“It’s overwhelming to see where I spent the first eight months of my life.”