Little girls lost

The other night I caught an old episode of National Geographic Explorer, China’s Lost Girls.

I’ve only known one person who was adopted (at least that I was aware of). Jennifer Harris was one of my best friends from the first through the third grade. She had long brown braids, like Laura Ingalls, and told me right off that she was Jewish. I was 6 and had never heard of such a thing.

“Say something in Jewish,” I said to her. I was Chinese and spoke Chinese at home, so this made perfect sense.

“Hey how ya doin!” Jennifer replied.

No one would have been able to tell that Jennifer was adopted. She and her parents were all white. Her mom had brown hair like hers, and her dad had similar freckles.

College was the first place I encountered Asians who had been adopted by white families. I was president of the Asian Women’s Coalition, and one girl came to a meeting and talked about how she felt she didn’t fit in anywhere. She had a scratchy voice and serious nature, and I felt bad for her. I wanted to help her feel she fit in somewhere, but she never came to another meeting.

Since then of course I’ve seen lots of white couples with Asian babies. In Boston, in New York, at the mall in New Jersey. When I was living in China more than 10 years ago, white couples with Chinese girls swarmed the American embassy area. I’d look at these couples and think, I’m your daughter grown up. Well, sort of.

Lisa Ling, a Chinese American, hosted the show, and said of one of the adopted girls, “Quite frankly [she] looks more like me than her parents.” While in China, Ling speaks a little Chinese – setting off a group of countryside kids giggling – sprinkled with a healthy dose of Chinglish. “Ni hao, wo shi Lisa,” she introduces herself. Direct translation, “Hi, I’m Lisa,” which in Chinese should actually be, “Wo jiao Lisa,” or I’m called Lisa.

The hour long show touches on a variety of issues. The long and arduous adoption process for one. Some couples wait years for a baby, and adoption costs upwards of $18,000 (and this was back in 2004). Once the couples – who were all white, except for one white man-Asian woman couple – got to China, they had to wait around in Beijing for a few days before being transported to some top secret area, where they finally picked up their babies. In a room decked out with festive red lanterns and other good luck symbols, each couple waited with bated breath for their names to be called and to be handed over their new child.

While I couldn’t help but think the whole process was like shopping for the latest Louis Vuitton bag or Apple gadget (“I want one now!” Ling cries at one point), as I watched each little girl, bawling in terror, being handed over to their overjoyed new parents, I cried too.

So why are there so many girls up for adoption in China? The “one-child policy” was instated in 1979 “to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China.” One unintended result is the huge population gap between girls and boys. Because Chinese culture favors boys, who carry on the family name and are seen as caretakers and providers for their parents while girls marry out and leave their families, as of this year, there are “32 million more boys under the age of 20 than girls.” Although a doctor on the show said it was illegal for her to tell the mother the sex of the baby before it’s born, obviously women have been able to find out.

So what does a man do when he wants a wife but can’t find one in his village? Kidnap one from elsewhere of course. Ling interviewed one woman who had been kidnapped and sold to someone as a wife in inner Mongolia. With help she managed to escape but not before enduring years of rape and bearing a son she was forced to leave behind.

I remember in China on a road trip, the bus stopped in a small dusty village. Huang Lei’s friend’s 12-year old daughter had joined us, and as she ran off to play, my cousin warned her to stay in sight.

“They kidnap girls here,” she told me.

I thought she was being paranoid. Guess not.

Ling visited an orphanage in the countryside, full of not just girls, but some boys and special needs children. Some of these children are raised by foster parents till they’re adopted. On the show one American mother brought her five-year old adopted daughter (complete with southern accent) to see her foster mother again.

It was pretty emotional. The foster mother was disappointed that the girl knew no Chinese, aside from ni hao, and hugged and kissed her and wanted to bring her home. Another foster couple thought one of the adoptive mothers was going to bring the baby she had just met, but for whatever reason she hadn’t. The foster mother cried and cried while the father stood off to the side, looking distraught. I felt so bad for them, but how hard would that have been for the baby girl – here are the people you thought of as parents again! Tricked ya, now they’re going away!

Another effect of the one-child policy has been the advent of an entire generation of little emperors. I experienced this myself: the freshman and other younger students at the school where I taught were far less self-sufficient than the older students. Of course you might be less independent when you’re younger, but one girl didn’t even know how to do her laundry. Her mom schelpped in to do it for her. And once at a holiday dinner honoring us English teachers, the younger students hogged all the food before we could get to it, normally a HUGE breach in politeness in Chinese culture. Elders and respected figures always get served first.

Which leads to another problem: the increase in obesity in China. Wikipedia cites “[e]conomic expansion and the increase in living standards” as a possible cause, resulting in increased food intake while “the growth of automization and transport has seen less physical labor.” But another cause, one could argue, is that these recent generations are only children getting spoiled rotten with food. As I’ve written, Chinese people like to show they care through food and forced feeding. Imagine you’re the only child – and a boy on top of that – in an extended Chinese family. Not only do you have your parents filling your plate every two seconds, you have grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins doing the same.

Of course another result is the point of this post and the point of the whole episode: the multitude of adopted Chinese girls in America. Interspersed throughout the show were interviews with adopted Chinese girls. They were all 8 or 9, and most seemed happy, telling the story of how they were born in China, given up by mothers who couldn’t care for them, then basically rescued by their adoptive families. “If I wasn’t adopted,” one girl said, “I’d still be living in an orphnage.”

Only one girl had mixed feelings. “Sometimes being adopted is annoying,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t feel like you fit in. You’re not like anyone else.”

I wonder if Chinese girls adopted by Chinese American or mixed race couples would have an easier time, if those babies would have been less terrified by a Chinese face (though I’m sure the terror stemmed from being suddenly handed over to strangers). But as the girls – and now, increasingly, boys too – grow up, would having at least one Chinese parent alleviate at least some issues about fitting in?

But I doubt the new parents were thinking about any of these things as they gathered up their new daughters in their arms. I wasn’t thinking about them either. All I thought was now I want one too.


  1. You and MB better get to working on that (channeling your mom)! I have a friend who has been waiting for a baby from China for years now (I think their form was final in 2007 and they are expecting a date around 2011!) and of course in the process ended up having her own child, I do wonder what the adpoted child will feel like, not only are both my parents white, but so is my brother? I think that must be harder somehow.
    I’ve always wanted to adopt kids, but would adopt one from my home country, because I would want that child to know it’s own culture and be raised by (at least one) parent that can teach it how to speak the language. I would hope that some of these adoptive parents do attempt to learn about the Chinese culture and the language, so that the child doesn’t grow up feeling like it’s lost something or doesn’t fit in. But maybe that is too much to ask, that these people are so concerned with having a kid that fits in with thier lifestyle that they don’t think about it fitting in with it’s own people.
    I could go on and on….

  2. I knew a Korean girl in college who was adopted by a white family. The adoption process took so long that her parents had her brother at around the same time she was born. They’re best friends and were raised like twins. The whole family is so loving and wonderful–I really think as this country gets more and more diverse this sort of adoption isn’t even going to be that big a deal. And a lot of Chinese Americans don’t speak Chinese (as well as Italian Americans who don’t speak any Italian). I think adoption is wonderful, especially when these girls would have been raised in orphanages with no family at all.

  3. I watched that special as well. I was most touched by the scene where the woman from Georgia goes back to the park where her adopted daughter was abandoned.

    I was in China in 2004 visiting a friend, and I encountered a horrible little emperor, on a tour of Xian I took. This kid was so awful. He was about 8 or 9 years old, but still though it was appropriate to run around touching the priceless artifacts in the museum, yell loudly and unzip his pants and pee wherever he wanted to. Both the tour guide and his mother smiled indulgently the whole time, while the rest of us on the tour looked on with disgust.

  4. I have my opinions about little emperors, the male-female gender gap in China, etc. and you could say that retrospect is 20-20. I think I would have been touched by the documentary as well. I knew one adopted girl (about 6 years younger than I) back home which has a considerably lower Asian population. No doubt the parents loved her but they were so much older – noticeably less dogged about being able to help her adjust and the influences you can come across in a small town!! Now I’m in a more Asian town and there’s all sorts of Asians and I believe adopted Chinese girls just naturally have more support in a bigger, more diverse city.