Saturday, September 17, 2005
In the early hours of Wednesday, July 30, 1997, Yang Mingzhu and her coworker at the Civil Affairs office of Shuidong Town, DianBai were just arriving at their office entrance. Although it was shortly before 8:00 am, the temperature was already warm and humid, typical for a Southern China Summer morning. The path to the office building was busy, since the street on either side of the Civil Affairs office was lined with stores and restaurants, all busy with morning shoppers.
As Mingzhu turned to enter the doorway, she faintly heard a baby’s cry coming from the edge of the doorway. Turning, she stared down into a small cardboard box. Inside lay a crying two-day old girl dressed in a simple red outfit. Pinned to the outfit was a small scrap of red paper, with the child’s birthdate scribbled on it: July 28, 1997. In the box with the crying child were a few notes of Chinese currency totaling 30 yuan, and an empty milk bottle.
Mingzhu would later recall being drawn into the crying baby’s large round eyes. She stooped to pick up the box and child, and entered the office to call the police.
Each day in China, the above scene is played hundreds, if not thousands of times. As I have researched and interviewed scores of finders, and studied thousands of finding ads, I have come to realize that my daughter Meikina’s finding story described above is typical. In fact, the finding stories of Chinese children are so similar, and contain so many similar elements, that adoptive parents often assume the orphanage fabricates the details. My experience with the actual finders convinces me that this is not the case.
The recounting of the finders I have met brings many common characteristics to light. The overwhelming majority of finders report finding the children in the early morning hours. The children are most often found in cardboard boxes or bamboo baskets, usually wrapped in a blanket or child’s quilt. Often, there are additional sets of clothes packed with the child, along with money, powdered milk formula and diapers.
As one walks the streets of China, it is easy to see why the above items are used to leave a child on a busy street. Wherever one is in a city or village, boxes and baskets can readily be found lining the streets and alleys. These baskets often are used to collect trash, and are left in the street to be picked through by the small army of Chinese recyclers that wander throughout the village collecting cans, cardboard, or other valuable trash items. Thus, by placing the child in a commonly seen street container, the birth parent assures that no one will notice the child until they are safely away.
Most children are found in the early hours of the morning, suggesting that they were left during the night when the child was asleep. One can almost picture the parents loading the box or basket at home with the fed and sleeping baby, adding some simple necessities to assure the child will be cared for. One of the parents then carries the container with the hidden child into the city, to be placed at a busy location to be found when the baby wakes up hours later.
One almost constant observation when discussing a particular child’s finding with a witness is that there was almost always the desire to take the child home. One doctor I interviewed had to protect two twin girls from being separated by a bystander who wanted to take one of the twins home with her. In fact, sometimes the child is taken home, only to be turned into the Police or Civil Affair authorities days or weeks later. Usually the fees associated with registering the found child with the Family Planning office, fees that can be several thousand yuan, dissuade the finders from keeping the child.
Finding locations are almost as varied as the children that are found. Some locations, however, do seem to be frequently considered for leaving children. Schools, hospitals, government offices and orphanage gates are very common finding locations. It should not be assumed, however, that in each case a finding statement lists a location that the child was actually left at that place by its parents. A recent case I encountered in Fuzhou (Jiangxi) will illustrate this point.
The child was reported to have been found at a village Civil Affairs Office. When we arrived to videotape and photograph the location, we saw a group of people waiting at a nearby bus stop. When we asked if any of them remembered the finding, one man spoke up and told us he had been there when the child was reported. He told us the girl had actually been found at the front door of a nearby house, and only brought to the authorities. He volunteered to bring us to the finder family.
As we spoke with the husband and wife that had actually found the girl, they confessed that they had attempted to keep the child themselves. After investigating the fees associated with registration, they concluded that they could not afford to keep her. After asking them why some stranger would leave a child at their doorstep, they confessed that they actually knew the birth parents.
Thus, a child that was found as a newborn was turned into authorities at two weeks old. But how many are never turned in? How many children are silently adopted into their communities, forming a population of girls invisible to official government censuses and records? No one knows, but I think it can be conservatively placed in the millions.
I remember how Mingzhu faltered when she described Meikina’s finding. “I remember her eyes,” she kept emphasizing, “she had such beautiful eyes.” My daughter, like millions of her Chinese sisters scattered all over China, was found by a caring passerby and brought to the orphanage. Her birth mother had placed her carefully in the box, clothed and wrapped her, and included some money and a birth note. She had given all that she was able to give: A piece of her history, and aids for her care.