China adoption diary: Madeleine's ingenious toy inventions

Madeleine likes toys that confound her parents, like a scraggly drawing on pink paper. Maybe it's creativity or an instinct formed in the orphanage prior to her adoption. Maybe she's just being an 8-year-old. 

Laurent Belsie
The Belsie's adopted daughter Madeleine makes toys out of anything, even the DVD case for Kurt Russel's 'Dreamer'.

Like most attentive parents, Laurent and I have tried to make sure our girls have a variety of toys and games to keep them amused when their homework is finally finished. In reality, we’ve only had to buy the minimum. Grandparents, friends, and other well-wishers have rained upon our home a flood tide of Hello Kitty products, Barbie paraphernalia, and assorted games, the most recent of which is an ingenious cupcake game. 

What’s not to love about a cupcake? For whatever reason, Laurent has drawn a line in the sand on that one. Matching the icings and the fillings will have to fall to older sister, Grace.

What’s been interesting, though, is to see what Madeleine most likes to play with. It’s not what you would expect. She has found a way to take the ordinary and transform it into something that can often keep her entertained for weeks on end. We’re not sure if this is pure creativity, or some adaptive mode that she used in the orphanage where personal possessions were at an absolute minimum.

Let me introduce you to “Dong Wu Jie.” Right after Christmas, when both girls were awash with new things to play with, Madeleine took a small piece of pink paper from a scratch pad, drew a scraggly picture of flowers and a tree on it, and announced that this was “Dong Wu Jie.” That piece of paper went everywhere with her, and ended each busy day either on her pillow or in her hand as she fell asleep. 

“What could this mean?” we wondered. “Does the phrase have special significance in Chinese?” We went so far as to ask the Chinese teacher at our Sunday language classes, but she just shrugged and gave us a blank stare. Apparently, it meant nothing in particular. Perhaps the true significance of Dong Wu Jie was that it was Madeleine’s own construct.

We all had to keep track of that silly piece of paper, fearing the consequences if it were lost or thrown away. In fact, no one has seen it now for about a month, but there were no ramifications. By then, Madeleine had moved on to something else.

At Christmas, some good friends invited us over for a festive holiday party and gave each of the girls a package of long skinny balloons, such as are used by clowns and mimes to fashion animals.  I woke up quite early one Saturday morning not long after, to the sounds of “pif, pif, pif.” I worried that the dog was having a spell in his cage. It turned out that Madeleine was just inflating a dozen or so of the balloons with the little hand pump that looks suspiciously like the “flavor injector” on a Ron Popeil home rotisserie infomercial.

For the next few weeks, dozens of these remained on her bed or in the crack between the bed and the wall. Fully inflated balloons were good, but so were the semi-wizened as well as limp fingers of latex. Eventually, these became Madeleine’s hair accessories, held in with a barrette, much to her older sister’s chagrin.

“But Mama, we go to the same school!” Grace moaned, as they got ready for the school bus.

The newest vogue for playthings was to appropriate the empty DVD case of a favorite movie, and tote that around everywhere. For a while, the DVD of Lindsay Lohan’s career peak, “The Parent Trap,” lay collecting dust in the TV room while the case was squirreled away under Madeleine’s pillow. I don’t know how many times we tried to retrieve it, but to no avail. Then, we happened to watch an early '90’s VCR movie called “Skylark,” starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, and the rickety box became the prize. The newest addition to the pantheon of beloved empty cases is a Kurt Russell flick about an injured racehorse, called “Dreamer.”

Go figure. 

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I could swell with pride and note that my daughter largely rejects American consumerism and favors imaginative toys fashioned from cast-off materials. Or I could boast of her above-average creativity. But in the end, she’s just 8-year-old Madeleine: inventive, inexplicable, and innocent.         

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to China adoption diary: Madeleine's ingenious toy inventions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today