But for some Chicago-area families, the city was where they welcomed abandoned or orphaned children into their families, forever changing the lives of parents and children.
Twenty years ago, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter joined the dozen families as they traveled to Wuhan to complete the adoptions. They were among nearly 1,000 adoptions in China arranged by Chicago-area clinics from 1995 to 1999.
China was the most popular destination for Illinois families seeking to adopt internationally then. With 4,100 adoptions in 1999, China was second to Russia nationwide. It’s now surpassed Russia, though the number of adoptions dropped to 1,475 in 2018.
Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus outbreak, suffering most of China’s more than 75,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths.
News of the outbreak brought back memories of the city to Christine Casper of Barrington, who adopted a 2-year-old girl there in November 1999.
“I loved Wuhan,” Casper said. “I’ve been praying for them, for everyone to get better and for them to find a way to end it.”
Long before the outbreak, Mike Lauzon was a 38-year-old attorney living on the Northwest Side.
Before heading to China 20 years ago for an adoption years in the making, he spoke of his anticipation: ”In two weeks, I will be in a world unknown to me, receiving a child that will be a part of my life for the remainder of my life. I never imagined nor planned, until we made the decision, to be in this situation.”
The Chicago-area families headed to Beijing before spending a week in Wuhan waiting for the children to get Chinese passports so they could travel.
Wuhan “was so nice,” Casper said. “There were so many people on bikes and rushing around carrying things. The architecture was [so] different. It’s a big city.”
The Americans attracted attention, particularly after the kids joined them. Chinese onlookers surrounded the couples, asking questions, taking pictures and calling the newly adopted children “lucky babies.”
“You are very nice,” one said to Maureen and Bruce Berkheimer of Tinley Park as they walked around with new daughter Emily.
The parents thought they could offer the children a better life than they faced in China, where conditions in orphanages were difficult, and there were few foster families. Today, they say they ended up benefiting more themselves.
“I don’t know what her opportunities would have been, but I can tell you my life would not have been as good,” said Lauzon, now 58 and living in Barrington Hills, calling the past 20 years with his daughter “wonderful.”
“I’m the lucky mom,” said Laura Garbacz of Schaumburg, who adopted a girl she named Ali. “I can’t picture my life without her.”
The Lauzon and Garbacz families returned to China to adopt again within a few years of the first trip.
As for the kids from Wuhan who have grown up in Chicago or the suburbs, they say they spend more time pondering being an adopted child or answering questions about their mixed-race families than wondering what their life would be like had they grown up in China.
“If I hadn’t been adopted, my life could be worse or better or maybe just the same,” said Pax Lauzon, 21, a Bradley University junior studying animation. “But I’m glad I got to grow up here.”
Emily Berkheimer, 22, doesn’t worry about what-ifs.
“I’m grateful for where I am, and I thank my family for that,” said Berkheimer, who recently moved back home to the northwest suburbs after graduating from the University of Dayton. “There are times when I think about it, but there are times when it’s the last thing on my mind.”
Not that the children aren’t eager to someday visit their birthplace.
“I would love the opportunity to go back” and try to learn more about her background, Emily Berkheimer said. But it would be important for her to have her family, which includes two non-adopted brothers, come with.
Claire Casper, now 22 and working in sales, went back to China during high school with a group of other adoptees and later to teach English while studying at Valparaiso University. Casper would like to visit Wuhan someday. And she hopes the outbreak won’t mean people avoid China as a travel destination.
“I’m passionate about people traveling to other countries because I think it helps all of us build connections,” said Casper, who fell in love with China, its culture, people and food after growing up a world away.
“China is so much more than the coronavirus,” she said.