Monday, September 26, 2005

Lessons from History

The following was written from Huainan, Anhui Province, during a research project on October 19, 2003.


I walked into the compound expecting to be impressed, for my guide had already shared with me much of this city's history. As I had researched throughout the city the previous two days, evidence of this area's natural resources was omnipresent -- from the heavy-laden trucks bound for the processing plants to the thin glaze of coal dust covering virtually everything not protected.

Huainan, China is a city rich in resources, but poor in wealth.

But that didn't stop the Japanese from taking notice of this city in the early stages of their imperial expansions in 1937. Following their infamous attack and conquering of China's capital in December 1937 (, the Japanese army moved 200 kilometers west to Huainan. They came for the coal, seeking to control the vast reserves to fuel their military machine.

As a typical westerner, I have always been indoctrinated to view China and its people with suspicion. As recently as the last term of President Bill Clinton's presidency, when technological "secrets" were allegedly sold to China through American corporations, I have been told that China was a sleeping tiger preparing to expand it borders and conquer its neighbors. But my experiences inside China have shown me the view from the opposite side of the fence.

In January 2000 I visited Beijing, and traveled to the Summer Palace, a housing complex constructed by Empress Dowager in the late nineteenth century to escape the stifling heat of the Chinese summers. As I stood gazing at a large Buddhist temple, I noticed it large walls literally covered from top to bottom by thousands of four-inch high Buddha figures. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the figures below seven feet from the ground had been destroyed. How did this happen, I asked my guide. The French did this, he replied, when they took over this part of China.

He referred, no doubt, to the so-called "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900, when Empress Dowager, in an effort to finally rid her country of foreign powers and influence, silently supported the insurrection of rural gangs, called "Boxers" by the West. For nearly a century China had been slowly but surely broken up and conquered by Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Russia. Even the United States, following the capture of the Philippians, sought to gain entry into China.

When the Boxers took control of Beijing, these foreign powers sent in the troops, crushed the rebellion, and in the process destroyed many of China's national treasures. Evidence of this destruction is still plainly visible today.

When one looks at China's history, one is impressed by the number of times China has been the oppressed, not the oppressor. History, however, has successfully dispensed in the Chinese a strong fear and apprehension for the West. Today, I gained another experience that helps me understand China's xenophobia.

It was quiet as my guide led me to the complex's museum. Through the dirty glass I could see the miniaturized version of the complex in which I was standing. Towers were scattered across the reproduction, towers that I had seen earlier in the day as I had researched. From these towers the Japanese killed many Chinese, my guide told me. The next room held life-sized statues depicting Chinese coal miners in various positions of enslavement -- working in cramped confines, being beaten by guards, collapsing from exhaustion and hunger. The faces were haunting, filled with anguish and fear.

As we descended the short flight of stairs at the last building, I was overcome with a feeling of darkness and depression. "This is where they all died," my guide told me, "This is where so many lives were destroyed." As I peered into the windows of the three long and narrow subterranean buildings, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting. But slowly the images revealed themselves. A rib cage here, a skull there. In the shallow trench of these three building lay the remains of several thousand men, men who died extracting coal for Japans war machine. The dead gave this place its name -- "Wang Ren Keng" -- "Ten Thousand Peoples Camp". It was here that nearly 70,000 Chinese laborers, mostly men, were imprisoned to die.

I sat there for a while, taking in the scene and contemplating its significance. I began to understand the view from China's side of the fence. I saw how history had taught China a brutal lesson in foreign occupation and warfare. For a moment I understood China's fears of the West, its desires to be viewed as a strong and might nation so that such history will never again occur upon its soil, to its people.

As we walked away from this Japanese death camp, I saw the role coal played in this city's history. On the one hand the "meikuang" brought industry to this people, but it also played a significant and deadly role in its history.

It was the "treasure up the mountain".

Why don't the Chinese bury those who died here? I asked as we returned to our car. "Because we don't ever want to forget what happened here," was the reply.

I think that is sage advice.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Broken Silence

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.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Other Mother

The women had begun to gather before we had even arrived. As we traveled to this remote village in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, I had hoped to find the foster family for the girl I was doing research for. The foster mother had slipped her phone number between the girl’s clothes on the day she was delivered to the adoptive family, and we had called her to get directions to her home. Now, as we approached her house, I could see scores of other women running across the fields towards us.

As adoptive parents, most of us think at one time or another on our children’s biological parents. But often lost in the adoption process is an awareness that our children sometimes have three mothers, not just two.

Many orphanages in China utilize foster programs to care for the children prior to adoption – either due to space constraints in the orphanage, or because the administration believes that a home environment is healthier for the emotional well-being of the child.
Although most foster families apply to foster children to supplement their income, it is obvious to me that most deeply love the children they care for. Foster families earn between 400 and 500 yuan ($50 to $60) a month caring for each child. Orphanages fund their foster programs with assistance from the government (150 yuan per child) combined with money derived from adoption donations. Because fostering costs more money than caring for the child in the orphanage, some facilities try to limit the number of children placed in foster care, sometimes placing only the healthy children in foster care, or only the special needs children. A few, like the Yongfeng orphanage in Jiangxi, place almost all of their children in foster families, keeping only a small number of children in the orphanage facility to satisfy minimums established by the local Civil Affairs Office. Still others, like the Fengcheng orphanage in Jiangxi Province, are in the process of upgrading their facilities so that all of the children in their care can be cared for “in house”.

Most foster families are older married couples, with a husband working in a low-paying manual job and grown or almost grown children. Many live in the rural areas around the cities, but few live on farms. The average foster family home is a two-bedroom single-story house with a very small kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a larger living room that opens to the outside. A majority of foster families have the children in their care sleep with them in their bedrooms, either in simple cribs or in a family-bed arrangement.

Nearly all of the foster families that I have met long for the children that they cared for. Some express wishes that they could have afforded to adopt the children themselves. A small percentage foster only one or two children, the separation process being so emotionally painful that they refuse to care for more children. One foster family in Yulin, Shaanxi Province spoke of the two children they had watched as if they were their own, and kept their pictures on the wall of their living room. My own experience with my youngest daughter’s foster parents has served to convince me how deeply my daughter was loved by them. While completing the adoption process, we asked (as most adoptive families do) to meet the foster family that had cared for our daughter for almost three years. Due to repeated prohibitions from the CCAA, most orphanages are extremely reticent to allow this kind of contact, but we prevailed upon the orphanage director, and he arranged for the foster family to drive down to our hotel to say good-bye to our daughter, and to meet her new parents. As we all talked with each other, no one noticed the foster mother take our daughter’s hand and walk out of the hotel lobby, disappearing into the traffic and crowds. An anxious 19 hours later the mother was located with our daughter. This woman simply could not bear to let her “daughter” go.

It is clear from my interviews with weeping foster mothers that many go through a painful emotional heartbreak when they are told to bring the children back to the orphanage for adoption.
As adoptive families, we long to get in contact with our children’s foster families. Even today, I still desire to remain in contact, albeit very controlled contact, with my daughter’s foster mother. She has, like most other foster mothers, valuable photos, anecdotes, and medical histories that are otherwise unavailable to us. I have tried unsuccessfully for three years to find the foster family for my daughter Meigon, whom I adopted at 19 months. I fantasize about discovering her foster family and retrieving infant photos, humorous anecdotes, and information on the various scars Meigon carries on her body (small, but interesting nevertheless). But each time I have approached the orphanage I have been denied access. (Since writing this essay I did locate Meigon's foster mother. That story can be read at

As we approached the village of the foster family of my research child, we were swarmed by over thirty foster mothers, all gripping pictures of their “children”, begging me for information on how they were doing. Some wept as they described the children they had cared for. All wanted to be reassured that their foster daughters were happy and well cared for. As we concluded our interviews, retrieved our lists, and headed back, my thoughts continued to dwell on these women who cared for, and loved, our children, preparing them for the families that would soon come to take them home.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

My Girl and Her Cub

The following experience occurred following a research trip in February 2005.

The young Bengal tiger fought to keep the bottle in his mouth. I remained frozen, watching unbelievably as my seven year-old Meikina held the bottle over its head, carefully cradling it as the beautiful cat ate hungrily from the bottle in her hand.

Few things demonstrate the vast cultural differences between China and the U.S. more ably than a visit to Guangzhou's Panyu Wildlife Safari Zoo. My first visit to this place was in 2002 when I came here with my newly adopted daughter Meigon and Meikina. On that trip we were able to pet a bear cub, shake hands with a seal, and give bananas to the elephants.

I am not a fan of zoos. I struggle to balance the incredible sadness I see in the faces of the animals, especially the primates, with the lessons in appreciation I hope will be gained by my children. I believe that sometimes the balance isn't found, as in the case of Guangzhou's City Zoo, where small cages result in endless pacing by the big cats and other inhabitants. Even the Chinese don't like going there.

But the Panyu zoo is a different story. Most of the exhibits are large, open-air in design. The animals seem well fed and maintained. But it is the proximity that the zoo allows that I feel most impressive.

Next to the tiger cub exhibit was a gorgeous mature white tiger, lying magnificently on a wooden platform. For 30 yuan ($3.75) you could sit down next to him and have your picture taken. Where in the U.S. can one go and sit next to such a fine specimen of nature? Further down was an arena where lion cubs played with some dogs and goats (a motley group, I must admit). As my daughters peered over the railing, a curious lion cub walked over and lifted her head, bringing herself within a foot of the faces of my daughters. They could smell her breath.

A favorite tradition of ours is to watch the Elephant show, and then have our picture taken on top of one of the stars. All of my girls took turns climbing up, and I stood next to the Elephant, gently scratching its ear, while it wrapped its trunk around my arm and gave it a squeeze. It felt like I was next to an old friend.

I have often felt a connection as I have gotten close to animals. I see it in the eyes of my pet dogs, and I have seen it in the eyes of other animals I have gotten close to. The one thing all of these experiences had was that I was able to get close, much closer than is ever allowed in the zoos and animal parks in the U.S. I believe it is this proximity of man to animal that teaches our
children to respect the life others, to appreciate the many different and wonderful creatures we find on this beautiful earth.

But our culture has become a culture of fear. Businesses (including zoos) see each visitor as a potential multi-million dollar lawsuit. Thus, to protect themselves (and the animals) they isolate and prevent any contact between the inhabitants and the visitors. It's too bad, because I yearn to give my children the appreciation for life that close contact with animals brings.

I'm sure the days of such opportunities are limited even in China. But while they remain, you can bet I will be here as often as possible, letting my girls feed the elephants, stroke the seals, and give the milk bottle to a tiger cub.