A Young Singer's Olympic-Sized Adventure: Part Two

Los Angeles Children's Chorus singer Gianna Horak returns to China, 14 years after being adopted by American parents.

Ever since she was little, Gianna Horak has wondered about where she came from. Each year, on the anniversary of her adoption, she wrote a letter to her Chinese birthparents. Over the years, the letters got longer and more detailed, but almost always she ended by saying, "I miss you."

Her adoptive parents, Mindy Schirn and Chris Horak, encouraged the wondering. They knew that Gianna was really missing a part of herself and that one day they would take her to visit her homeland.

A tour of China with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus in the summer of 2008 seemed to be tailor-made for Gianna. The family made plans to extend their stay so they could travel back to the government orphanage where Gianna had spent the first eight months of her life.

If visiting the orphanage had been the only agenda for their trip, it might have been too much, Mindy believes. But going back to the place of her birth in the context of the chorus tour provided a kind of "soft landing."

"She was cocooned by all the weeks of preparing and then the singing in august places like the Great Hall of the People," Mindy said. "It protected her. In the context of the seven weeks, visiting the orphanage didn't take over the trip."

"The Place of My Birth"

Before the tour, Anne Tomlinson, music director of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, asked Gianna and a fellow chorister, Tricia Lin, to introduce the music for their programs—in Mandarin. "If you want to add something about being from China and being adopted," Tomlinson told Gianna, "that would be great."

The girls worked hard to perfect their pronunciation of the Chinese words. But they worried about being understood. At their first concert in the Shanghai Concert Hall, right before introducing two Chinese choral pieces, Gianna said:

Hello everybody. I am Gianna Horak. I was born in China, but I was adopted as an infant and now I have parents who love me as their own. I lived in Germany for four years, but then I moved to America. Coming here is an emotional trip and I treasure this trip the most because this is the first time I have come back to the place of my birth: China.

The stage lights were so bright Gianna could only see the first two rows of the audience.

"A woman in the first row was crying," Gianna said. "I knew then that I had been able to communicate clearly."

A Bonding Experience

Chorus tours are famous for making memories. For Gianna several moments stand out—among them, singing Carmina Burana at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, with members of China's Jin Xing Dance Theatre dancing before them, and a dinner and an impromptu performance, shrouded in fog, on the Great Wall of China.

"My parents had climbed the Great Wall before they went to the orphanage to adopt me," Gianna said.

"And 14 years later I am climbing the Great Wall before I go revisit the orphanage."

Over the course of ten days, the Chorus performed eight times, five concerts with the Stanford (CA) Symphony and other Chinese ensembles and three concerts on their own, featuring choral music from America, China, and Europe.

When it was all over, the children couldn't hold back the tears. "After the [last] concert, one of the boys started to cry," Gianna wrote in her journal, "and then the whole choir was crying. People were singing on the bus back to the hotel, but that made us cry harder because it reminded us of people who will be leaving the chorus."

Back to the Orphanage

On the day the Horaks were to visit the orphanage, Gianna woke up with a churning stomach. Something she ate, or nerves? Gianna is not sure.

The orphanage, about 220 miles from Shanghai, was in a different building from the one where Gianna had spent the first few months of her life. The Horaks had sent ahead documents and a picture from 1994: Mindy is holding the tiny Gianna and standing next to a smiling woman—the baby's caretaker, or ayi.

At the orphanage, the staff greeted the Horaks cordially, but it seemed that they had received none of the documents or the photo, and the Horaks had no extra copies. Without the photo, it was unlikely that anyone could identify that baby or her ayi.

But then serendipity—or grace—intervened. "She came up to us," Mindy recalls. "I recognized her because of the smile. She was the only one of the caretakers from 14 years ago who was still working at the orphanage."

"Mommy and I cried," Gianna wrote in her journal.

"Ayi remembered Yuan Yuan—me. We explained my current life and the two heads [of the orphanage] and the ayi said I was excellent. I got to give the part of my speech from the tour that talked about being adopted."

Mindy wanted to know if Gianna's musical ability could be traced to anything in those first few months of her life. She asked the ayi, "Was there music in the orphanage?"

"No music," the ayi answered, "but there might have been a radio."

"Our Little Star"

The orphanage staff were duly impressed when Gianna told them about the important venues in China where the Los Angeles Children's Chorus had performed. They gazed approvingly when Mindy gave them a copy of A Young Singer's Olympic-Sized Adventure (Part One), the article that tells of Gianna's early days, when her doctors thought she was deaf, and her remarkable rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles Children's Chorus,

"They called me their little star, because I had sung with the Los Angeles Opera," Gianna recalled. "They were very happy for me."

And very proud, too. "China is very accomplishment driven," Mindy said. "They were very interested and very impressed that Gianna was a singer, a composer, a pianist. It was tangible evidence that something right happened to someone in their care."

Gianna had hoped that she would be able to hold some of the babies at the orphanage. But the youngsters were mostly older, two and three. She had to be content to give them illustrated children's books in Mandarin that she and her parents had bought in Shanghai.

The orphanage was not the picture Gianna had imagined, and for that she was glad. "I was happy there were not 100 babies in one room," she said. "There were 15 only. I saw that they had rattles to play with. It was good to see they were making progress."

Gianna was especially gratified to see a caretaker feeding the toddlers, because 14 years earlier, Gianna had left the orphanage severely malnourished. "There was enough food," Gianna said. "That was satisfying to see."

It is A Mystery

The story of Gianna's adoption was that she was left in the orphanage garden—thus, the name Yuan Yuan, or garden gate. It was a safe place to leave infants because they were sure to be found. During their visit, one of the orphanage workers produced a sheet of paper that said Gianna had been left at the People's Hospital.

Returning to the original orphanage building, now a home for elderly and disabled men, Gianna and her parents searched for answers. "There was someone who remembered the name Yuan Yuan," Gianna wrote in her journal. "I looked into the room where I was nursed. The room was turquoise on the bottom half of the walls, then white on top: much smaller than I imagined. They said 10 babies per room and one per crib. Not my picture."

They went to the People's Hospital, but could find no information to reconcile the discrepancies, nothing to satisfy Gianna's curiosity about the people who left her or their reasons why.

Gianna says she has made peace with it. "It is a mystery," she says. "I'm fine without knowing; the important thing was that I was found."

No Big Bang, But A Creative Burst

Back home in Los Angeles, Gianna was surprised to notice that she missed China. "The energy is so amazing there," she says. "In Shanghai, everyone walks down the street with purpose, like they have something to do, that they need to get to it and accomplish it.... I am very proud of how my country is progressing."

Even so, Gianna knows that China is not home. "I expected a big bang of belongingness," she says. "I expected I would fit right in, that I would find all the pieces of me.

"But there was no big bang. It was a slow realizing that this [China] is where I could have grown up. How different my life is in California, singing with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, here with my parents."

Since her return, Gianna has had a creative burst. She is composing music again, something she had set aside for awhile, "My goal now," she said, "is to compose a piece about the experiences of several girls adopted from China who revisit their orphanages."