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Greatest gift: Adoption like a fairy tale for the Huntsmans

Like something out of a fairy tale, she was found on the doorstep of a vegetable market in a poor Chinese neighborhood. She wound up in a police station. She was handed off to an orphanage.

Her childhood might have played out its days there, another face in a cast of thousands in a nation where female babies are discarded like unwanted pets for one simple reason: They are not boys.

But Gracie Mei, as her future family called her for months, long before they even knew of her, would be found twice.

She came to America in the arms of a rich young businessman-politician and his wife, to a large family, where her new siblings had been writing her letters she wouldn't be able to read for years, where her new sisters were waiting at the airport, arms linked, tears streaming down their faces.

Five years ago Tuesday, Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr. and his wife, Mary Kaye, brought their new baby home from China to join their family.

"She is our greatest Christmas present ever," says Mary Kaye.

Gracie Mei, now a precocious and gregarious 5 years old, is sitting at her mother's side, pointing to photos of her former home, an orphanage, with its rows of cribs and a herd of children looking up at the camera, waiting, always waiting.

"They found me in a vegetable market," says Gracie Mei. "See the babies. Those are their cribs."

She knows every detail of her story and delights in telling it, but there are some things no one knows, such as her original family and her abandonment.

"Who found you in the market?" Mary Kaye asks her daughter.


Gracie Mei (Gray-see May) was a long time in coming to the Huntsmans. The Huntsmans had been talking about adopting an Asian child for years. Or rather Mary Kaye did the talking; Jon did the listening. She wanted a Chinese baby; he kept putting her off.

They had strong ties to the Chinese culture. Jon served an LDS Church mission in Taiwan and spoke fluent Mandarin. Later, he moved his family to Taiwan to work for his father's company, Huntsman Chemical, and eventually served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

As Mary Kaye likes to tell it, Gracie Mei's adoption really began one day when she was strolling the streets of Tien Mu, Taiwan, and noticed a Catholic orphanage.

"I had never been in an orphanage, or even thought about it," she recalls.

But she was drawn to the place. Nuns answered the door. Mary Kaye couldn't speak the language, but she motioned to them that she wanted to enter.

"All these handicapped children were on mats in a dark room," she says. "I sat there and I thought, 'I want to take them home.' "

Orphanages are ubiquitous in China. The government has limited families to one child because of overpopulation. Because of those government limits, as well as tradition, the Chinese prefer male children to carry on the family name. Female babies are often abandoned in public places, such as parks and markets. More than 500,000 girls are waiting for adoption.

Mary Kaye began to make regular visits to the orphanage, taking toys and clothing with her to give to the children. After the Huntsmans returned to the United States, Mary Kaye, pregnant with the third child of their five children, told Jon, "We need to return and adopt a baby from Asia."

Jon's reaction was cool. "Maybe someday, but now is not the time."

For the next 12 years, he continued to resist his wife's wishes for adoption until finally one night in 1999 he broached the subject for the first time while they were out for dinner.

"I'm warming up to the idea of adopting a baby from China," he said. They even discussed names. "What about Gracie Mei Huntsman?" Jon said. Mei means beautiful in Chinese.

They began the adoption procedures in China. They gathered the family together several times to discuss the adoption, "and everyone was always in favor of it," says Jon.

"The kids all felt a remarkable connection to Gracie months before we knew anything about her, as did Jon and I," recalls Mary Kaye. "They would often write notes and give them to me."

"I hope we get Gracie soon. When Gracie is left on the street corner then we're going to get her at the orphanage. We will bring her into a good home and take good care of her. — William, July 14.

"The only thing I want for my birthday this year is to find Grace." — Jon III, Aug. 1

"The waiting period makes me so anxious and excited. I always wonder where you are, what you look like, and who you may be. As your arrival time gets closer, I get more excited. We have set up your room and are all ready for you to enter our family. We pray for you every day, and know that you are out there somewhere. Thank you for all the excitement you have brought into my life. I know you are coming soon, and I am counting the days until we bring you home. Just dreaming about you brings happiness into my life, but now that it is real, it is a dream come true. I love you, Gracie, and can't wait until I see you face to face." — Abby, Nov. 20

Says Jon, "Grace seemed like a natural name for someone my family had not even met who had brought so much grace to our family. She created a mood in our family 'a reverential mood' based on compassion and love."

The months dragged on while they waited for a baby. At one point a newly delivered baby was available in Singapore, "but I knew we were waiting for someone else," says Mary Kaye.

On Nov. 30, Mary Kaye and the children were attending the annual Festival of Trees (Jon was away on business). They bid on trees but were repeatedly outbid. As they were leaving the festival, Elizabeth pointed out an unsold tree to her mother. The theme of the tree was adoption, and it was decorated with ornaments and dolls representing children from around the world. It was the only tree that hadn't been sold. As Mary Kaye bought the tree, the man asked her what name he should put on it. Gracie Mei, she said, and noted the time: 8:15.

When she arrived home, Mary Kaye checked the phone answering machine. There was one message: "Mrs. Huntsman, this is Mr. Lin from the China Center for Adoptions Affairs. Please call me back." He called at 8:15. When she returned the call, Lin told her, "Mrs. Huntsman, we have your baby, and she is beautiful."

After thanking him, Mary Kaye asked, "Do you know anything about her?"

"She was born May 19, 1999."

Mary Kaye was startled by the date — the same day Jon had raised the subject of adoption over dinner, and they had decided on the name. "I knew right then it was the right baby," says Mary Kaye.

She received a fax from China about the adoption. Not wanting to wait for Jon to translate it, she took the papers to a Chinese doctor at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which is named after her father-in-law. The baby, they learned, was found on the steps of the Yang Zhou Phoenix Vegetable Market in Yang Zhou China.

"We are so excited to meet you. I hope you will love your new family. You will have so many cousins. When we get you, we will love and take care of you. You will mean so much to us. For the last six months I have been so anxious to know who you are. Does anyone there know how special you are? Our whole family is waiting for you to come. We talk about you every day. We have your crib all set up, and we bought you some clothes. The only thing I want for Christmas is you." — Jon III

Jon and Mary Kaye flew to China to pick up their new daughter. They entered the orphanage, where 150 girls stared up into their faces with their arms stretched out, wanting to be picked up and taken home.

"It was heartbreaking," says Mary Kaye. "Only six to eight of them would find homes in a year." They brought Gracie Mei home to their children, who literally were waiting with open arms at the airport.

"The first time I saw her, I felt the love and connection you have for your own children," says Mary Kaye, "and also the feeling of awesome responsibility. It didn't matter what she looked like. It was like when you're pregnant — you feel a connection no matter what."

On Christmas Day, the Huntsman family, continuing a family tradition, went to a shelter to feed the homeless. Jon carried Gracie Mei on his chest in a baby carrier. The homeless made inquiries and learned her story. As they came through the line, there were tears in their eyes.

"There was a connection there that Gracie had come off the streets and now she had a home," says Mary Kaye. "There was a lot of tenderness among the homeless."

Gracie Mei feels the connection, as well. She frequently talks about the homeless and likes to gather clothes and toys she has outgrown and take them to the shelter.

"The guiding force is that all human hearts are alike — the wants, needs and desires are the same," says Mary Kaye.

Jon and Mary Kaye hope to return to Yang Zhou to see if there is more they can learn about their daughter, but they realize there is little chance it will be fruitful. On the wall of the Huntsmans' family room there is a framed story from a Chinese newspaper telling about the adoption. "I've always wondered if the mother saw it," says Mary Kaye.

Now Gracie Mei has a new life, filled with school and piano and dance lessons and a large family that loves her.

"Every Christmas we remember what a great gift she is," says Mary Kaye.