Bei in Jiangxi, China before we met her. 2001.
(click image to view larger)
Bei, proudly made-up for a cello concert, December 2011.
Bei just returned from the Teton Science School, her first multi-day trip away from home. She had fun, but was also homesick, which is both upsetting and endearing for us parents. We're happy to have her home. I've been meaning to repost this blog entry that I wrote when we lived in China in 2005, and this seems like a good time--I'm too busy with work to create much in the way of new posts until the semester ends. This post first appeared in my China blog, and was recently published in Alice Renouf's book, "Yin Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China."
Adoption in China
Part of our motivation for coming to
China this year
was, of course, that this is our daughter Bei’s home country. The Chinese are immensely curious about Bei
and they are surprisingly confused when they see her with us—two obviously white
parents. There is little shyness in China about
staring, and people stand on the street looking back and forth from Bei to
Ellen to me in confusion. If it is just
one of us with Bei they may ask if the absent parent is Chinese. The relief of understanding a mystery leaps
onto their faces when we tell them that Bei is adopted (“Ta shi shou yang de.”
– “She is adopted.”) and the reaction is always a thumbs-up or an expression of
how lucky Bei is, to which we reply that we
are the lucky ones.
During our train ride from
to Kunming we
passed directly through Bei’s hometown just after dawn on a dreary Sunday
morning. Feng Cheng is a small,
nondescript, typical southeastern Chinese city, with concrete apartment
buildings and stores surrounded by rice paddies and, in this part of the , coal mines. Evenly spaced trees line the highway that followed
the railroad tracks, and a few trucks and bicycles moved along it in the early
morning. I snapped some blurry photos
through the train window to save for Bei, who was still sleeping. Jiangxi Province
In one field I saw a man with a little girl about Bei’s age and, as we passed, he hoisted her onto his shoulders for the walk back into town, much as we often carry Bei when she is too tired to walk. I couldn’t help but think about how easily Bei could have been that girl, living an utterly different life in
of sleeping through the dawn in a soft sleeper train bed with two American
parents. And I couldn’t help but imagine
that somewhere in that town, maybe even within sight of the rail line, Bei’s
birth mother was busy making breakfast, unaware that the one-day old girl she
had left at a Feng Cheng school gate in 2001 was passing through town and
dreaming four year old dreams in English.
It is not just foreigners who adopt children in
China, and it has been interesting to learn that
adoption here is viewed quite differently than it is in the U.S. One of the most surprising things that we
have discovered, initially through conversations with our friend Wei Hong in
Shanghai (the wife of our American instructor there) is that, in China,
adoption is often a huge secret that is kept from the adoptive child for as
long as possible. In fact, it isn’t a
stretch to imagine adopted people living their entire lives here without ever
knowing that they were adopted. And
remarkably, according to Wei Hong, who has an adopted cousin, everyone else in
the family and in the family’s social circle EXCEPT the adopted child knows
about the truth.
Of course our philosophy in the
U.S. about sharing the adoption
story is quite the opposite—we start talking about adoption and birth parents
from the earliest opportunity so that it ISN’T a big surprise for the
child. Our thinking is that if the
child is aware of adoption from the beginning, they integrate this identity as
they grow up with their adoptive parents and they avoid dealing with an
unanticipated sea change in the context of their lives upon discovery of their
history. And of course there is an implicit
understanding by us that adoption is not shameful or something to be hidden
So why do the Chinese take the opposite approach—hiding this enormous truth, the mother of all elephants in the closet?? I can speculate based on a few conversations, some reading and the results of an assignment that I gave my second year writing students here in Lijiang.
One obvious hypothesis is that there is a sense of shame in
adoption—aren’t big secrets often related to a need to hide something shameful? But if this were the case, why would everyone
except the child be let in on the
secret? This suggests that perhaps the
parents are not themselves ashamed, but feel that the child’s very history
might be shameful for the child. To
them, keeping the truth a secret may be a design to protect the child.
Protecting the child from shame by keeping the secret may have something to do with trying to save “face” for the adopted child. The concept of face in
China is more important than it is for us in the
(though we do have it), and perhaps there is some feeling that an adopted child
would experience a loss of face upon finding out about her history. This does not seem like a huge stretch. In the book, “Encountering the Chinese – A Guide for Americans,” the authors (Hu
and Grove) put it this way:
As people grow into adulthood, they gradually adopt certain claims regarding their own characteristics and traits, and they learn to make these claims, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to others. People also learn to recognize other individuals’ implicit claims about themselves and to accept (or in some cases to appear to accept) those claims…This set of claims, or line, of each person is his or her face.
Face is important in
China because of the nature of
social relationships here (according to Hu and Grove). In
contrast to the relatively transient social relationships in the U.S. and some
other western countries, the Chinese are strongly tied to their families and
social groups for their entire lives, with relatively less mobility than
us. As a result, it is critical to
maintain these relationships which means maintaining a stable self image –
“face.” In a sense, losing face means
losing your status in your entire social support group – being exiled.
But does this really apply to the dilemma of whether to tell a child about adoption or to keep it a secret? It seems to me that if a child’s identity includes early knowledge of adoption, that there is no issue of “face” since there would be no catastrophic change of self image (loss of face) for the child within the child’s family and social group. So maybe this concept doesn’t explain the issue after all.
The explanation offered by Wei Hong for the secrecy in her family was that the parents feared that if a child knew she was adopted, she might love her parents less. This viewpoint is supported by at least some of the students in my classes who, aside from representing the relatively rare slice of the Chinese population that goes to college, come from all over the
and offer a geographic cross-section of Chinese thinking among their generation.
Ying Zhou Na (Sandra – Class 4), a Chinese student, explains it like this (unedited):
If I adopt a child, I won’t tell her that she is adopted. I think it is not necessary to tell her who are her birth parents. I also can give her a warm family, as good as her birth parents could do. I’m afraid that she will be sad at hearing the news that she is adopted. She may keep silent to us later. To keep secret to her is better than to tell her the truth, I believe. Personally speaking, I don’t want to tell her the truth either. As I consider that it may affect our close relationship.
The writing is a little clumsy, but you get the idea. And this sentiment was expressed by many students in my classes.
But other students refute this and suggest another reason for keeping secrets that seems to come closer to the heart of the issue for the Chinese I’ve talked with.
Wang Hai Lian (Shannon – Class 4) writes (again, unedited):
By tradition, Chinese parents always not tell their adopted children who are adopted. It is not because they are afraid the adopted children loved them less, but it will be hurt the children’s heart and do harmful of children’s growth. In my opinion, if the family have several children who are birth children and adopted children, the parents should not have to tell the child who are adopted. If the family have only adopted child, maybe they have lots of adopted child, the parents should have had to tell the children. Even if the children and parents were become close friends maybe child could keep touch with birth parent but they always loved and close with their adoptive parents. I known my uncle have two daughter. So he give his little daughter to other people who haven’t child. After fourteen years, my uncle went to her home and wanted her called him father. I don’t know when her adopted parents told her that she were a adopted child, but her only told my uncle: “I only have one family and one parents. I never know you and never wants to know you.”
Many students shared this opinion. To tell a young child the truth about adoption would break the child’s spirit and taint their view of the world. All children should see their world as a beautiful and happy place with no lurking shadows to darken their days. To these students the illusion of a perfect world for a child is the most important thing. This central philosophy of a sacred happy childhood was repeated in paper after paper as well as in class discussions. When a child is young, their ability to cope is low and adoption truth could be catastrophic. This, of course, assumes that adoption, while fundamentally devastating, can perhaps be swallowed when a person grows to maturity with the strength built upon an idyllic childhood.
The majority of students felt that eventually, an adoptee should be told the truth. When pressed, they surmised that “eventually” meant when they were fully mature adults.
Zoe (Sui Shanru) Writing Class 5 summed this view up like this:
I think adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted when she is old enough. After all, the adoption is a fact that they must face. So, we must tell them. But we must choose a suitable time at the same time. Because, in my opinion, they are pure when they are young. They should live happily. We should make them believe that the world is wonderful. The persons around them are kind and love them. I also think a little child don’t have the ability to distinguish right and wrong. They are easy to do something wrong. If they know the fact early, they may be self-abased. And they will think, “Why my birth parents abandoned me?” So they will give up themselves. They can’t understand even though their birth parents had some difficulties that they are reluctant to discuss or mention. So, as for this question, I think the adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted when they grow old enough to think deeply.
Hou Jun Ping from the
agrees: Gansu Province
For my part, I think adoptive parents should tell their child the truth. The child has the right to know everything about himself. If I were a adoptive mother, I would tell my child he is adopted. I won’t tell him when he is young. One of my aunt’s daughters was adopted at 2 years old by another aunt. My aunt is kind to her and kept the secret for a long time. At last, my aunt told my adopted cousin the truth. My cousin said, “Mum, I knew I’m not your birth daughter early, then I was unhappy. Now I understand you. I’m your birth daughter and you are my birth mother.” Now my cousin has two [sets of] parents. She lives a happy life. The adoptive parents should tell their child that she is adopted.
But an adopted girl (Chinese name) from one of my writing classes refuted many of the arguments of her peers:
By Kenny (Peng Yan) Writing Class 5:
In my opinion, adoptive parents should tell their children that they are adopted. Because when they grow up to be a teen, they must think lots of things that making them very sad. But if they told their children the truth when they were a small child, it might be a habit: [become internalized] they know they are adopted but they don’t care.
It is just my opinion, because I am a adopted child, too. I was very young. I learned the truth by my mother. Although sometimes I am sad that I was adopted, I knew that my adoptive parents love me very much, especially my mother. She makes me very happy and I don’t feel different with others. I appreciate her of course. I love them as if they are my birth parents.
Zhang Lu Yan supports this idea but describes a more ambitious course of moral and political development for her future adopted child, a “brave boy”:
From Heidi (Zhang Lu Yan) Writing Class 4:
If I had an adopted child, I would tell him that he was adopted. I said “he” because I had a wish that one day I could adopt an African boy. I want to adopt an African boy because there are many kids homeless and ill or starve to death everyday in
Africa. I want to
adopt a boy because I think boys are more brave than girls. I will teach him everything when he is
young. I want him to be tough-minded. I want him to be responsible. I want him to have strong self-respect. So I teach him at his youth. When he grows up he should be prepared to
face himself, to face his country and to devote to his country. Thus, I will tell him that he is adopted with
no hesitation. It’s my choice to adopt
him, but it’s his choice to decide what he can do to the world when he can rely
on his own effort.