Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Why Girls Are Abandoned in China

A recent article attributed to Lauren Bossen summarizing various studies on China’s sex imbalance raises some interesting questions as to the motives of birth parents in abandoning their daughters. The following essay recaps my experiences in determining these motives, and conflicts with some of those made in Bossen’s article.



As adoptive parents, we often wonder what motivated the birth parents of our children to abandon them. In the course of my research, I have asked the opinion of scores of couples, orphanage directors, taxi drivers, and anyone else that I think might have an idea of why they feel it is happening. One common answer emerges, although the problem is admittedly complex.

In addition to providing family planning counseling, the local Family Planning offices are responsible for promulgating the “one-child” policy to the citizens of their jurisdiction. Public billboards promoting the policy are ubiquitous in China’s countryside. Although the billboards, wall murals, and hillside slogans generally promote the one-child policy, frequently they also address the issue of female abandonment. A survey of these specific messages provides one with an idea of what the local officials feel are the main reasons for child abandonment. Combining the themes of the family planning propaganda with the anecdotal evidence collected from average citizens, a clear hierarchy of reasons for abandonment emerges.

It is important to keep a few things in mind when drawing assumptions regarding this topic. First, the economic situation is changing rapidly in China. Twenty years ago, economic pressures relating to having a second child (medical attention, schooling expenses, governmental fines imposed for second children) were much different than today. Most families have seen their incomes increase dramatically in the last 10 years, even in the rural countryside. Increased economic opportunities have dramatically altered the intrinsic worth of girls in China also.

Second, societal attitudes are also changing. As China embraces Western culture, what I term "Chinese traditionalism" is on a decrease. Especially among the youth and young adults, strict observance of Chinese tradition is waning. Cultural biases are also changing, and this has dramatic implications when it comes to attitudes about girls.

Thus, we must be careful when looking at statistics and anecdotal evidence from the 80s and 90s. My observations are limited to conditions and attitudes today, and might not be applicable to conditions and motivations prominent ten or more years ago.

The Family Planning propaganda regarding abandonment is almost universal in it’s message: “Boy or girl, it is the same -- Both can carry on the family name.” This message is by far the most prominent when one studies the “official” message from the Chinese government.

It is important to realize that in China a woman doesn’t change her name when she marries. The issue of passing on the family names relates to the children that the married couple will have. In almost all situations, the children of a married couple will be known by, and will carry, the family name of the father.

In discussing this topic with young marrieds, I have yet to find a young husband or wife that feels the family name is important enough to abandon their daughter. When I ask if their parents feel similarly, I often discover that the attitudes of the older generation are not the same. In fact, especially among the paternal grandparents, the desire to have a male child to continue the family name is most strong. Interviews with many couples convince me that the primary pressure to abandon originates with the parents of the father.

This conclusion is re-enforced by the Family Planning propaganda, as well as anecdotal evidence from international adoptions. The example of the family planning mural I saw in Lianjiang, Guangdong Province (see above) clearly illustrates the problem of grand-parent attitudes towards female children. Thus, it is probable that the Family Planning messages are aimed primarily at the grand-parents in China, not the parents themselves. In my discussions with many young parents, I see very little preference for boy children.

When analyzing the finding ads from the various orphanages in China, a trend emerges: fewer and fewer girls are being found. This trend is almost universal across China, with a few exceptions.

It is of course dangerous to stereotype the multitude of reasons why a family might decide it in the best interest to abandon their daughter. As with any situation, each family is unique in their economic, cultural and familial standing. But broad generalizations can nevertheless be made. Minority factors include a complete lack of medical insurance among China's poorest families, resulting in wanted children being abandoned due to perceived or actual medical conditions. Lack of financial resources to educate register (government imposed fees) and educate a child certainly play an important role. Bossen speculates that China's rural land policies play an important role in female abandonment. This governmental policy gives rural families an additional acre of farm land in their village when a child is born. If that child is a boy, stewardship of the land falls to the male child when they marry; it reverts back to the government when the female child marries. The purpose of this policy is to encourage inter-generational stability in the rural villages, and to discourage the migration of families into the urban areas. I have found no families or individuals, however, that have even considered China's land policy in conjunction with family size or make-up.

One point Bossen makes, and with which I agree with, is the misperception we have that the rural farmers in China need a son to farm the land. This is simply not the case. Women today work the farms alongside their husbands or fathers. In addition, China's growing industrial manufacturing base has brought substantial opportunity to women in the countryside. The economic value of male and female children has shrunk considerably in the last 20 years.

In summary: My experiences in researching in China has led me to the conclusion that the primary force behind the problem of female abandonment is pressure brought to bear on the parents by the grandparents, usually from the father's side. Although other factors certainly play a role, they are secondary to "China traditionalism", the belief among older Chinese in the importance of passing on the family line through male children. As the traditionalist grandparent population continues to decline, pressure to abandon will also decline, resulting in fewer and fewer found girls.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Train Riding in China

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Staring out of the train window, the rhythm of the train's rails hypnotized me into a thoughtful state. The cares and anxieties of the days' future events melted into an increasing awareness of the Now. Below me the countryside of central China passed before me in a blur, and I suddenly felt like I was witnessing the unfolding of China's rural life in front of me. As the rhythm of the train fell into sync with that of my own beating heart, I felt myself merge and become one with what I was watching.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Even before the light of a new day lit the sky overhead, I could see the moving shadows of the farmers as they moved into their fields to begin another day of spring planting. Some drew their Oxen behind them, others walked with only their farm utensils slung over their shoulders. They approached their fields as an artist approaches a blank canvas. Squatting on the raised earthen dikes that ran around the contour of their land, they pondered how best to begin their day's labor. Silently they stared, some perhaps feeling a sense of tiredness at the monotony of what was before them. They would perform the same task today that they had performed yesterday, and which they would perform again tomorrow. Behind them, smoke rose from their dwellings as their wives prepared breakfast for their families. For most, home consisted of a single 15x15-foot living/dining/family room, with one or two smaller bedrooms. Most were constructed of adobe brick or hewn rock, each bearing the distinctive red coloring of the earth's clay. The roofs were dark fired tile, similar in shape to the Mexican hacienda roofs of Southern California and Mexico. Often fruit trees are visible in the front yard, and small farm animals move freely from the yard into the house, seemingly at will.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Individual villagers flowed from the houses to dirt paths that connected each house to the others, joining others heading to their common destination. Eventually, the larger paths merged onto village streets, and soon the main thoroughfare to the market, school or other destination was clogged with people, all walking in the same direction, like water droplets slowly forming a stream, then merging with others into a river. Most are woman and children. The children laughed and played as they meandered towards their neighborhood Primary and Middle schools. For some, the walk could take an hour or more. Each wore the uniform with their school colors, usually blue and white, and many wore the school sash around their necks. Many carried their books in packs on their backs. Most seemed eager to be away from the work and drudgery of home and with their friends. A lucky few rode bikes. As I passed through the larger cities, I could see many of these children waiting patiently on street corners for the city bus. Their mothers headed in a different direction, carrying produce harvested the previous day from their fields and gardens to market. Since most of the day's shopping would transpire before the morning was over, it was imperative that the women arrive early in order to have the best chance at selling their wares. Many carried their infant children on their backs, asleep in their wrap-around halters, or Bei-bais. They would return in the afternoon with purchases of their own, each buying produce for that night's dinner, since most did not own such conveniences as refrigerators or ice boxes. The movement of people -- the men to the fields, the women to market and the children to school, created a beehive of activity in the early morning light. Many of the streets were wet, even though there had been no rain. Large water trucks moved along the largest causeways, their huge waterspouts baptizing the street, cleansing it from the previous days trash and dirt.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

As the day progresses, the women join the men in the planting of the fields. For some, the time is spent preparing the earth to receive the seeds and sprouts of their chosen crop. A few sit atop small tilling machines, riding back and forth across their fields as the large grated wheels churned up the mud. Most walk behind large gray Oxen, a simple wooden plow hitched by rope to the beast. The plow consists of several rows of wooden spikes 6 inches in length, each spike held into a thick cross beam. Slowly the farmer and Ox plod in the thick, knee-deep mud, the farmer coaxing and whipping the animal forward, each step a victory for both man and beast. Slowly they work the field, turning the soil, destroying the large clods, and exposing the fertile underbelly of the earth. A few are unable to even afford a simple ox, and these are forced to till their fields unassisted. With small hand plows, they labor to accomplish in one day what their neighbor performs in a few hours. As one gazes out across the landscape, one sees patches of dark, intense green. Inside one of these rectangular fields sits the farmer's wife, carefully gathering the rice sprouts into bundles, laying each bundle carefully to the side after gathering. From the train, once can see the progress she makes, slowly moving forward, the green leaf of the field slowly disappearing as if being eaten by a large caterpillar. Once the day's planting has been gathered, both man and woman move into the plowed fields. As the heat of the day builds, pointed bamboo hats are donned, meager protection from the stifling heat and humidity of the airless field. A wooden grate is placed in the mud and pressed, imprinting the earth with eight-inch squares. At each corner a rice sprout in plunged into the mud. As each worker stands in the mud, their backs bent nearly perpendicular, one sees little more than the darting hand moving back and forth into the soil.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

The solitude of the farm is occasionally interrupted by the abrupt appearance of a large factory, constructed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Maligned by those in the West as "Sweat Shops," these factories offer the farm-laboring women an alternative to the hard labor of the farm. Built to draw from the farm and field, the higher paying factory coaxes the women in the country to replace the physically demanding labor of the farm with the mind-numbing work of the factory. There are plenty of takers. The clothes, shoes and other items manufactured in these factories will be shipped to Walmart and other Western stores, supplying the world with a substantial part of its commerce. We in the West often speak against these factories in China, India, and other poor countries, but they are welcome by the people here, and allow them to improve their station in life.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Afternoon approaches, and many return from the fields to eat lunch and enjoy a few hours of fun and gaming with their neighbors. Tables are set up in the shade of indoors, and games of cards and Majong are heartily and enthusiastically engaged in. the heat of mid-day lulls all to sleep -- dog, pig and farmer alike. Soon, however, the call of the field is heard, and all return again the planting.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

As I pass through the countryside, I can't help but wonder at the life going on below me. I contrast the labors of my own life with those below me. I envy the obvious spirit of camaraderie and community I see. The simplicity of the farmer's life draws me. There are no cell phones ringing, no cars, big screen TVs to distract one from the simple and pure pleasures of life. Chinese rural life is communal in a very real sense. Nightly gatherings and village parties at the close of the year's harvest mark the passage of time, and that time is spent with those who sojourn with them. It is a simple, yet apparently satisfying life.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Late afternoon brings the return of the children from schools, and the excited laughter and shouting can be heard from across the fields. The returning members of the family join those in the fields, recounting the days learning, assisting where possible in the labors of their parents. Smoke once again begins to arise from the houses as dinner is prepared. Dogs can be seen running around among the farmhouses, playing, scavenging, mating. As darkness descends, the farmer remains steadfast in the field, utilizing every valuable ray of light to his advantage. Lights begin to appear in the farmhouses as children are bathed and readied for bed. As the last visible forms pass from my eyesight, I see the farmer still at work in his field.

"Click, click . . . .click, click . . . . click, click."

Above me a few stars begin glowing in the smoke-filled air of the China night. The croaking of frogs rises up to meet my ears, their call answered by the whistle of my train as it passes into the night.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


“Meigon, stop crying! It is just a little water!”

As I sat in the Chinese taxi, my mind reflected back on how many times I had uttered, sometimes yelled, those words to my daughter. Meigon has always hated to have water on her face. From the day she joined our family at eighteen months, washing her hair has usually resulted in a screaming child and a frustrated parent. No matter how hard we tried to carefully rinse her hair, invariably some water would cascade down her forehead into her eyes, eliciting a scream and tears. Even now, at five years of age, Meigon still requires a washcloth to cover her eyes as we wash her hair.

When we go swimming, it isn’t any easier. I have tried over the past year to increase her comfort level in the water by swimming with her, coaxing her to take ever greater risks in water play. This past Summer we purchased a pool pass that allowed us to swim almost daily. It was only as the Summer drew to a close that she was able to finally bring herself to plug her nose, close her eyes, and dunk her head quickly under water.

As a father, I find this fear of the water incomprehensible. Consequently, I push Meigon, gently chiding her for her fears. I have at times lost my temper with her, yelling at her to grow up and be a big kid, one who isn’t afraid of the water. I promise her that if she would just learn to swim, we would be able to have lots of fun river rafting, swimming in the ocean, and other activities that at this point are just distant promises.

But now, as I sit in the taxi in Guangzhou, my heart is heavy with guilt.

Like most adoptive families, I tried to make contact with Meigon’s foster family following her adoption. Before making the adoption trip for Meigon in March 2002, I wrote a letter to her foster family telling them how thankful I was for the love and care they had given her. I promised them that if possible I would always allow them to be part of her life. I closed the letter with my address and 800 yuan as a small token of my deep gratitude.

As I handed the letter to the orphanage worker, she immediately asked me if my name and address were in the letter. Knowing that the letter would probably be opened anyway, I answered positively. She told me that I would need to remove that information before she would be able to pass it on to the foster family. Regretfully, I tore my name and address from the bottom of the letter, knowing that the only connection I would have with them was being severed.

Over the next several years I returned to the orphanage frequently, each time asking the name of the foster family, and each time being denied any information. On several of these trips I also brought Meigon, who did her best to have large, tear-filled puppy eyes in order to move the orphanage to letting us know the foster family’s whereabouts. All to no avail. It seemed that we would never be successful in getting this important link to Meigon’s past.

A few months ago we received the smallest of bits of information. My wife, in talking with the orphanage, told them that Meigon had begun questioning us about her past. Questions frequently centered around Meigon’s “China family.” “As a mother, how should I answer her questions?” Lan asked our orphanage contact.

The foster family, we were told, was about 50 years old, had a son and a daughter, and lived in Longdong, a village close to the orphanage. Excitedly, I told Lan that all we needed to do was head to this village and ask around. We would easily find them, I assured her. The next morning my wife and I headed with our three girls on our hunt.

When we arrived in the “village” we discovered that rather than being a small collection of rural farm houses, Longdong was in fact an expansive sweep of hundreds, if not thousands of high-rise apartment complexes housing close to 20,000 people. Looking up from the hot street, I saw that finding Meigon’s foster family was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. With heavy heart and little conviction of success, we began to walk down the first street.

Hours later, we were just about to give up when we approached a group of motorcycle taxis parked at an intersection. Lan asked them if they knew of any families that took care of children for the “Fuliyuan”, the nearby orphanage. One driver spoke up that he might know of one family, but wasn’t exactly sure where they lived. We got on his motorcycle, and headed into the concrete jungle.

After driving around for what seemed like an eternity, the driver admitted that he didn’t know where the family lived. He said that he would go ask his wife, and took off. I thought we would probably not see him again. The girls and I waited for 20 minutes, when suddenly our driver re-appeared and informed us that his wife knew where the family lived. Off we went, arriving after a short ride at the first foster family’s home.

After excitedly asking the foster mother if she knew “Hai Yue”, Meigon’s orphanage name, we learned that Meigon wasn’t one of the girls she had cared for. She did, however, know of two other foster mothers who might be of help. We walked down the scorching street to the neighborhood market, where we indeed located two other foster mothers, neither of whom had cared for Meigon. We took our token pictures, made a list of the children all three women had cared for, and with three tired girls in tow, we called it quits.

After I had returned home to the States with Meikina and Meigon, Lan called the first foster mother and asked if she had found any other families. The foster mother told Lan she would ask around and call her back. Thinking that she was at a dead end, Lan all but gave up when a week later the phone rang and the foster mother began asking Lan in-depth questions concerning Meigon’s age, adoption date, physical appearance, etc. After answering her questions, the foster mother told Lan she might have located Meigon’s foster family.

With these developments unknown to me in the U.S., I decided to return to China a month later to spend a few weeks with Lan celebrating our one-year anniversary. Almost as soon as I entered her house, Lan gave me her anniversary present, a silk photo album. “Open it ” She insisted. Anxiously I opened the front cover to stare down at an infant photo of Meigon. “I found her foster family,” Lan announced. Tears welled up as I looked at the many pictures Lan had found of Meigon with her foster family. The quest I had started more than four years ago was nearly over.

We arranged a visit for the next morning, and headed back to Longdong to spend a few hours with the foster family. After exchanging photos, and telling them about Meigon’s life, I asked if there were any stories they could tell me about the year she had spent in their care. She had arrived in the foster family at six months of age, and I knew that this family had witnessed some of Meigon’s most important milestones. After a few seconds thought, the foster mother began to tell me of one particularly important event.

It was shortly before the New Year Festival (December 2001), she began. She had taken Meigon, who was by this time able to walk and climb upstairs, to her roof to play while she did the laundry. It was mid-morning, and the air was cool. After watering her small garden from the large cistern on the roof, she began hanging the laundry.

Meigon enjoyed exploring the roof area, the foster mother explained, and so she took no particular notice of her whereabouts.

Unknown to her foster mother, Meigon had climbed up on the shelf next to the cistern. Leaning over the edge, she looked down at her reflection in the dark water below. Slowly, she reached her hand down into the half-empty container, realizing too late that she had lost her footing and was slipping into the narrow throat of the container. As she crashed into the water, she feverishly tried to get her head above the surface, only to discover that her short arms weren’t long enough. Wedged upside down between the sides of the cistern, Meigon panicked and cried, then took in water. Her small body collapsed, leaving only her small feet above the water’s surface.

Her foster mother looked around with a start. Where was that girl? she thought. After glancing around the rooftop area, she walked to the edge of the staircase, thinking that perhaps Meigon had headed down. Calling down, she heard no reply. Puzzled, and growing increasingly concerned, she once more glanced around the garden, under each planter, until her eyes fell upon the cistern. Walking over she glanced down into the water.

Her husband heard the scream from their apartment two stories below. He ran upstairs to find his wife pulling Meigon’s lifeless body from the cistern. Meigon’s flesh was cold, her complexion ashen. Holding her by the ankles, they shook her body until some water fell from her open mouth. Seeing no improvement, they laid Meigon’s body on the floor and began to push her lungs. Water gushed from her mouth, and after several seconds Meigon gasped, then began to cry.

It would take the family almost two hours to warm her chilled body, indicating that she had been in the water for ten minutes or more. No doubt the cold water had saved Meigon’s life, since it slowed her metabolism enough to prevent her from dying upside down in the cistern. Two months later she was returned to the orphanage, and four weeks after that I arrived in China with Meikina and her Uncle Mike to bring her home.

As I sat in the taxi returning from our visit with Meigon’s foster family, an icy chill ran down my spine. I fully realized that for a twist for good fortune, Meigon would not be in our family today. I tried to push back the images of fear and terror that must have consumed my daughter’s mind in the last seconds of consciousness as she vainly tried to save herself in the cistern. I promised myself that I would call her as soon as I could to tell her how much I loved her, and how sorry I was for being inconsiderate of her fears. As I glanced out of the taxi window, I reflected that the most valuable thing I had obtained was not the photos I had received, but a story about Meigon’s past. This incident is a key that has opened a door through which I could now enter to understand who my daughter was. Like a stone cast into still waters, the events on her foster family's roof-top continue to cast ripples on the waters of Meigon's life.