At first glance, Anna Mae He is a typical American 9-year-old girl. She thinks Hannah Montana is cool (but can't tell you why); she skates around on retractable roller skate shoes, and at every opportunity she pulls out her Game Boy. She likes to read, is a straight-A student and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.
But behind her shy smile and expressive eyes, there's a little girl who is torn between two families, two cultures and two countries. The centerpiece in a bitter custody battle, Anna Mae saw her world turned upside down last July when the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a stunning decision, ruled that she had to leave the family who raised her and live instead with a family she barely knew.
On Jan. 28, 1999, Anna Mae was born to Jack and Casey He, a young Chinese couple who had recently come to the United States so that Jack could pursue a doctorate at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
Several months before Anna Mae's birth, a female student accused Jack He of sexually assaulting her on campus. Although later acquitted of the charges, Jack He lost his position at the university and his student visa was revoked. The couple's income dropped to about $400 a month.
When Anna Mae was born a month premature, the Hes worried that they could not pay her medical bills. They needed help and sought a family who could care for their daughter while they tried to resolve their financial and legal difficulties.
The Hes contacted Mid-South Christian Services, an adoption and family services agency who introduced them to Jerry and Louise Baker, a Christian, middle-class family raising children of their own in the Memphis suburbs.
The Bakers agreed to care for Anna Mae for 90 days, but when the Hes, still facing financial hardships, weren't ready to take her back, they agreed to sign a consent order awarding custody to the Bakers. According to the Hes, it was a temporary arrangement so that Anna Mae could have health insurance. According to the Bakers, both families had agreed that the Bakers would raise Anna Mae through adolescence.
The Hes' weekly visits to see Anna Mae became more and more tense. "When [Anna Mae] was having her second birthday, we went to visit her at [the] Bakers' house," said Jack He. "We had agreement to take her to [a photo] studio for picture taking. The Bakers refused. The Bakers called the police to remove us.… Ever since then we could not see our child."
But according to the Bakers, the Hes were creating a disturbance in their home and the police simply escorted them outside.
A month later, the Hes tried to reclaim custody of Anna Mae, hoping to send her to China to stay with relatives until they were able to care for her themselves.
"The Bakers were convinced they could offer Anna Mae a better life in Memphis. They filed a petition to adopt her, and to terminate the Hes' parental rights, alleging willful abandonment It was the beginning of a battle that would last more than six years.
"We had [the] American dream before we came here," Jack He said. "We thought that America is a country of freedom, human rights, democracy. We thought equality — everybody the same, equally treated. In our family the American dream was broken by this story. Crushed — American dream."
Desperate, Casey He often hung around the Bakers' neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Sometimes she even picketed.