A wrenching custody battle, over a Chinese child raised in suburban Tennessee, that has drawn international attention and has nearly torn two families apart, took another twist over the weekend when the child arrived in China with her new family.
Anna Mae He, 9, raised by an American couple almost since birth — but recently returned to her Chinese birth parents, following a stunning Tennessee Supreme Court decision — arrived in Beijing, Sunday morning, and almost immediately began to talk about returning to the U.S.
When an ABC News crew, that greeted the family in the Beijing airport, asked Anna Mae's birth father, Jack He, how long he planned to remain there, Anna Mae blurted out, "two days!" before her father could respond.
When he said he has a new job as a college professor in Hunan province in China, where they had returned to live with their daughter, Anna Mae piped up and shouted, "It's in Tennessee!" "No, it's in Hunan,'' He replied patiently. "Hunan is my hometown."
The moment underscored the enormous, heartbreaking challenges facing a couple, trying to reclaim a child as their own after she was raised for nine years in another culture by another family — one with a seemingly equal claim to her love.
In another exchange with ABC News, the young girl seemed guarded.
Asked what she was looking forward to in China, she replied, "I don't know." "Are you nervous?" "I don't know." Asked whether she had a message for Aimee Baker, the sister she grew up with in Tennessee, she said she didn't know. "How was the plane?" "I don't know.''
Anna Mae's arrival in China is the culmination of a fervent seven-year custody struggle that has reached alarming extremes of bitterness, worked its way through one courtroom after another, and finally, in its last, emotionally exhausting stages, produced a reconciliation of sorts — an unexpected and welcome affirmation of the one thing both families appear to share: a sincere love for Anna Mae. (CLICK HERE to see photos of Anna Mae's first day in China, February 11, taken by a family friend, Dr. Dongxiao Yue.)
The child's cultural roots are evident. 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.
And how well she fares in her new home in China is the big question on the lips and in the hearts of everyone from her adoptive parents in Tennessee, to judges who have ruled on her case, social workers who have sought to monitor the transition, friends and family of both the Bakers and the Hes, and an international television audience.
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 He of sexually assaulting her on campus. Although later acquitted of the charges, 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.