Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Value of a Grain of Rice

The following essay was written while I researched in beautiful Guilin (Guangxi) in August 2005.

The countryside was a blur from my taxi window as we headed back toward Guilin. In front of me, in a broken mosaic of olive and green patches, were the acre-sized farm fields. Some held grape vines, hanging heavy with the year’s production. Most, however, contained the nearly white heads of rice, on this August day ready for harvest.

Suddenly my eye was drawn to a group of four people laboring at a small mechanical rice thresher. I bid our driver to stop, and exited my cool taxi into the blazing heat of a Chinese summer day. I strolled into the field, and settled down to watch, beads of perspiration already falling from my forehead.

All around me the rice had been hand cut and gathered into bunches, tied with a single strand of rice stalk. As I watched, the bundles were systematically gathered, carried over to the small automatic threshing machine, and their heads thrust into the teeth of the turning cylinder. With their seed ripped from their light golden husks, the bundle was laid into a pile to be burned at the conclusion of the harvest, its ash providing the nutrients for the next planting. Under normal circumstances this would be difficult work, under the heat of today’s sun it was nearly unbearable.

As I sat listening to the rhythm of the harvest, my mind remembered the beginning of the life cycle whose end I was now witnessing. Early in the Spring, when the fields are flooded by the monsoon rains so common in China, I have watched as the farmer struggles behind his ox, knee deep in thick gray mud, preparing the ground for the young rice stalks that would soon be planted. It is an image as old as China. Farmer and animal alike are caked in mud, walking back and forth across the field, the soil being turned by the long wooden stakes being pulled by the ox. Occasionally one hears the farmer coax, then command the animal on, stopping only infrequently to catch their respective breathes.

In the next field one might glimpse the bobbing straw hats of another farmer family. Here, still deep in flooded ground, the farmers stand, bent at the waist, their hands darting in and out of the mud, each jab leaving a tender, single strand of a rice seedling. Each farmer works a band three to four feet wide, as far as they are able to reach on either side. Up and down they work until their rice paddy is filled.

As I sat today and watched the harvest, I realized that no stage of rice production is easy. From the struggle against the soil in preparation, to the back breaking strain of planting, to the relentless sun of the harvest, it seems that nature fights the farmer at every turn. And the struggle is not yet over, for each farmer will take the harvested rice home to lay out in the hot sun to dry, a process that will require many turnings and sifts in order for the rice kernels to dry enough so that they wouldn’t spoil on the way to market.

It may seem obvious to others, but I need frequent reminding where my food comes from. At home, I run to the store and quickly grab my bag of rice or beans, my plastic-wrapped meat, my gallon of milk, and rush home without giving a second thought to the cost of the food. I don’t mean the price I pay at the register, but the cost in human terms of the food I take for granted daily.

China doesn’t allow that luxury. Meat is purchased by most Chinese families still on the hoof. Markets are crammed with baskets and cages of live chickens, ducks, and pigs which are purchased and slaughtered on the spot. Vegetables and fruits are grown by ones neighbors, the grains bagged at the local co-op down the street. The Chinese witness on a constant basis where their food comes from, a recognition I appreciate and long for in my own culture.

We have a policy in our house that plates should be emptied as much as possible at dinnertime, but under no circumstances should meat be left uneaten. I instill in my children an appreciation that a pig, cow, or chicken gave its life for their culinary enjoyment, and that to not eat their gift would mean that the animal died in vain. “No one should live and die in vain,” I tell my girls.

But as I watched the farmers today in the hot Guilin rice field, I realized that it is also unacceptable to let the hard labor of our food producers go to waste. For the value of a grain of rice is not measured by the pound at the cash register, but by the sweat that went into producing it. In China the two values are not the same.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

China's Missing Daughters

The following experience occurred while my wife, daughter and I travelled from Jiangxi Province to Xi'An following a research project in May 2004.

As we sat in the airport terminal waiting to board our plane to Xi'An, an older woman approached and asked me about my daughter Meigon. We had long ago grown used to the attention Meigon and I received, me for being a blond-haired Westerner, her for being a small three year-old Chinese girl rattling on incessantly in perfect English. This woman also had a young two year-old girl in tow.

I explained that my daughter was from Guangzhou, and that we had become a family in 2001. A few minutes pause, and the woman began to tell me her story.

She owned a shop in the airport, and her daughter was actually a "foundling". The grandmotherly woman had been walking home one evening and had chanced upon the six-day old baby along the side of the road. In an instant she decided to keep the baby herself, and quickly hid the baby under her clothes as she stole home.

This child remains a carefully guarded family secret. No one in her son's village (he is married with a child of his own) knows about the origins of the girl. She keeps a secret I believe is shared by hundreds of thousands of others throughout China.

My first experience with "foundlings" was when I returned to Meikina's orphanage a few years ago. In discussing the director's family with him, he revealed that his fourteen year-old daughter was actually a girl found by a close family friend. When this family migrated to New York when the girl was four, the family asked the director to be the her guardian, since she lacked the official paperwork required to migrate with the rest of the family. Ten years later he was still keeping watch over her.

As I have spoken with finders in the course of my research, almost without exception they have recounted how close they came to keeping the found girl themselves. One doctor-finder of twin girls had trouble convincing another witness not to take one of the girls home with her. It was only by appealing to this witness's sense of duty to let the twins grow up together that there were two girls found that day, and not one. I wonder how often that isn't the result.

I estimate that there are around 250,000 children found every year which end up in China's orphanages (almost 40,000 in orphanages that do international adoptions). This figure is based on the number of finding ads placed in the Provincial newspapers each year, reporting the date and location for each foundling. How many are silently taken from the scene and raised in the village or town where they were found is unknown of course, but my instinct tells me it is also in the hundreds of thousands.

As adoptive families we are told that a search is launched each time a child is found, and the finding ads placed in newspapers are one facet of that search for a child's family. But the reality is that no search is made. I have stumbled upon witnesses that had substantial information regarding birth parents, and no inquiry was ever made of these people. It soon becames apparent that from the hospital staff to the police to the orphanage personel, all are accessories
after the fact, turning a blind eye to this problem, allowing birth parents to go uncaught and unpunished. Outwardly the Family Planning office seeks to prevent pregnancy and births through indoctrination and propaganda, but once the birth occurs, little is done, and most turn their heads and ask few questions.

I agree with this strategy.

The woman in the airport was able to afford what most can't -- the after birth registration fee to obtain an identification card for her daughter. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is encouraged to register her pending child with the local Family Planning office. For no fee, she can obtain an I.D. card for her future child, allowing her to have access to the area hospital and to later register her child in school, etc. But many do not register their child until after the child is born. Obtaining an I.D. card after the child is born is costly, costing the airport woman 8,000 rmb ($1,000), a small fortune for many Chinese.

Thus, many thousands of China's daughters remain unregistered members of China's society, forming an invisible and growing group hidden in the countryside and in the cities. These girls will have trouble gaining an education and jobs unless fees and fines are reduced and the I.D. process made possible. Until then, demographic numbers will continue to show an "imbalance" among China's children. China officially does nothing to rectify this perceived imbalance, because it allows them to encourage families to keep their girls by reporting that China faces a girl shortage.

Everyone wins, except China's hidden daughters.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Why I Research

The sudden bump of the plane jolted me awake. I turned and opened the plane’s window and gazed out upon the landscape below me. Behind the plane's wings and to the east the horizon was growing light with the approaching sun rise, and below me the high-rise buildings and streets of Guangzhou could be seen.

It was 6:00 am.

I asked myself why it was that I am continually drawn back to this place. Why do I endure the almost suicide-inducing long hours cramped in a crowded and stuffy airplane; why deprive myself of the companionship and love of my two beautiful and young daughters I was forced by finances and circumstances to leave behind? Every time I make this flight I re-evaluate my
reasons for doing so, the costs of making the trip, and the purpose I have for being here.

From the first time I came here in April 1998 to adopt Meikina, I have loved China. Now, as then, my experiences living in this country have been almost completely positive. Everywhere I go I am greeted by friendly faces, treated with extreme courtesy and hospitality, and made to feel like royalty in my interactions with orphanage directors and other civic leaders.

But it isn't the red carpet treatment that draws me. In searching my heart to determine what needs are filled here, I am able to discern three driving forces bringing me back, time after time.

The first is an intense desire to learn what is "China," in the hopes that one day I will be able to convey that knowledge to my daughters. I remember feeling intense guilt when I adopted Meikina, guilt at taking her from this wonderful country full of culture, history and tradition. Now, as then, I have made a promise to one day share with my daughters the stories of my own
journeys in this land, as well as sharing with them the history and traditions of their ancestors. China is changing at an almost mind-numbing pace, with old structures being razed to make way for modern high-rise apartment buildings, quaint country dirt roads being paved into four-lane highways. Even now I see the growth and development in areas that I revisit after only five years. By the time my daughters are old enough to experience China themselves, it will be a changed and renewed country.

The second, even more fundamental reason I return here is the feeling of intense community one senses here. In discussing my feelings with others who have visited and stayed here themselves, I have had them confirm my impressions. One simply feels at home when one comes to China.

That bears some explanation. In the U.S. we boast of our freedoms, political and personal, held in high esteem as the ultimate blessing of being born in America. But with that freedom comes a cost, and for me that cost can be seen in the neighborhoods and homes of our neighbors and ourselves. We rush from one task to another, blindly pursuing the myriad goals that we have before us. Our pursuit of personal satisfaction and financial success propels us forward,
and we seldom take time to stop and enjoy the present. We seldom walk over to our neighbors and chat on the front lawn, or engage them in play such as badminton or catch. We are too busy mowing our lawns, painting our houses, landscaping our yards to spend idle time with others.

There are few single-family homes in China. By virtue of its tremendous population, the Chinese live in tall high-rise apartments. There are no lawns to mow, there is no yard to landscape. Few own cars, so public transportation is used constantly and efficiently. Taxis, buses, motorcycles and bicycles replace the American car.

The ground floor of every building is devoted to small shops, giving each apartment complex the ability to be self-sustaining. Food is easily obtained at the local fresh markets, located within walking distance of any living places.

The net result is that one feels a much stronger sense of community and belonging in China then in the U.S. Crime is much lower, no doubt a result of the lower cultural expectations and high penalties. One witnesses children freely walking and playing in the streets, unaware and unafraid. The streets are swept clean of litter, and adorned with beautiful trees and flowers. Along the street by my hotel is a huge Banyan tree that is over 180 years old, planted decades before the pioneers arrived in my home state of Utah, when many of my nations Founding Fathers still walked the earth.

Lastly, I am driven by my need to have a worthy and good purpose to my life. My purpose in coming to China is to help parents obtain and retain some sense of history for their daughters who were born in place. As I look through my own life-book, created by my mother when I turned twenty, I am comforted by the sense of continuity I see. I gaze upon pictures of myself as a newborn infant, and each page presents a new view as I age year by year. I feel whole, knowing that I have a complete sense of who I am, where I have come from, and who has
been a part of my life from its beginnings.

A fire was lit when I first returned to China to research Meikina's beginnings. When we adopted Meikina we were given a camera with five photos taken shortly before we arrived, and a picture of her at five months used in her document preparation. Aside from those enticing tid-bits, we had nothing. No pictures of who cared for her, no sense of where she had lived, to whom she had been born.

By returning I was able to have many of my questions answered. I accomplished what few parents have the ability to do -- obtain the information that will one day be of importance to our children. My returning here allows me to research for hundreds of "my girls", obtaining pictures, retrieving notes left by their birth mothers, taking photos of the people who raised them their first few months of life. In this small, and perhaps insignificant way, I am able to
cast my shadow, deepen my footprint across the beach of time, and ensure a small degree of immortality.

I love China. My family says I am obsessed with this land. In many ways I guess I am. But it is a result of my seeing in this place a community and people that live a life that in many ways (but certainly not in every way) I wish I could live. A place with true history, a land with true culture and tradition, a people with a true sense of community and a spirit of belonging. There is much to love here, and it draws me back time and again.

Copyright 2005