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By Matt Skoufalos

PaulAt 34 and a half, Paul Dubiel got the disappointing news that he wasn’t old enough to become a father.

It was 1997, and Dubiel and his wife had begun the process of petitioning the Chinese government to adopt a child. Their application had been delayed as the country reeled from the effects of avian flu, but then the wait was further extended because the law required him to be at least 35 years old before he could welcome the baby.

“It never worked out for us to have kids ourselves,” Dubiel said. “We wanted a child, and we thought about adoption. We just decided to look internationally, and we happened upon China.

“China says under 35 is too young to adopt, and in the United States, 35 is almost too old to adopt, depending on how everything goes,” he said. “We were in a holding pattern.”

With another six months to go before they would be allowed to meet their daughter, the Dubiels traveled to Seattle for a vacation. While they were out sight-seeing there, they popped into a store with a display of colorful kites, including a traditional Chinese dragon kite. It seemed to be another signifier of the path that they had chosen.

“We thought, ‘Well, we may not have the baby yet, but this kite will remind us of it,’” Dubiel said. “That was our first kite, so since then, every time we see an interesting kite, we collect it.”

Kites originated in China; historians believe generals used the technology to aid in troop deployments and gathering logistical information. Today, they are a cultural signifier, often shaped in the forms of mythological or symbolic figures. In Chinese culture, the dragon is believed to be an auspicious totem, bringing luck and wealth, and associated with nobility and power.

The dragon kite has never been flown (“We don’t fly them because I know I would crash them,” Dubiel said), but at eight feet long, it is vibrant, colorful, and commands attention. Its three-dimensional, abstract, sectional body has provided conversation for years, perhaps never more than during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020, when the kite became the most interesting detail of teleconferencing backgrounds in their household.

“It turned four, boring, blank, white walls and made the space interesting,” Dubiel said. “It goes from one end of the ceiling to another; it’s how it looks in the room and how it makes the room feel.”

A few years after the Dubiels eventually welcomed their daughter, Claire, home from China, they adopted a second baby, Leah, via the same process – and they kept collecting kites. By now, the girls have grown into young women, and the kite collection has hit double-digits.

“It’s things that caught our eye when we walked by and saw them in a store or a street fair,” Dubiel said.

In the beginning, Claire (now a college graduate) and Leah (now a college freshman) purchased some of the kites from a store, and made others; all of them were added to the collection. Many are from trips to the West Coast of the United States; some were bought on a visit the family made to China. They’ve all been selected purely for their aesthetic qualities, whether they matched another piece of décor in the home, or took the form of an animal in which the girls were interested. There are butterflies, dragonflies, bats, and moths; one’s a turtle, and of course, there are several dragons.

For the Dubiels, a collection that started as a way to keep their promised baby close to their hearts while they waited to hold her in their arms became a touchstone for the family. In the years that followed, they took a deeper dive into Chinese culture, the better to help their daughters bridge the country of their birth and the one that had become their home.

The parent-run agency Families with Children from China played a big part in helping the Dubiel family keep their children in touch with their ancestry. The group hosted social events through which parents supported one another during the adoption process, and connected families in Central Texas with children half a world away in China.

“Asian culture in general is very strong here in Austin,” where Dubiel, a 27-year fellow of the Association for Medical Imaging Management (AHRA) and current AHRA Director, works as the Assistant Director of Shared Services at UT Health Austin.

“There’s an active group of families that adopted from China here. When we adopted our oldest, we used to go to meetings in people’s backyards; by the time our second daughter came along, they had to rent out school cafeterias for any big meetings or parties.”

When they were old enough, the Dubiels traveled to China with their daughters so that the girls could visit the cities of their birth, speak to the officials who managed the orphanages where they were first cared for, and take in a sense of their heritage.

“They wanted to see the places where they started their lives, and we did that for them,” Dubiel said. “I think both of them had some closure; I know we did.”

The Dubiels still enjoy traveling, and although the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to this year’s plans, they’re likely to set out again here and there as their daughters begin their adult lives. The lessons they hope they’ve imparted on their children have more to do with the family they’ve created together than any innate expectations of the cultures they’ve traveled through in the process of getting there.

“We always try to blend both American and Chinese cultures,” Dubiel said. “You’ve just got to let the kids learn what they want and how much they want to be involved in it. You need to be there to help them, but you can’t push them into anything.

“We’re their parents, and they’re our kids,” he said. “We’ve always been a family from the beginning.”

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