Gutian County Welfare Institute

FUZHOU, China (WOMENSENEWS)–Awaiting an adoption from China is eerily similar to pregnancy. The timing is not entirely predictable. The process, like my body before I gave birth to my son in 1996, is beyond my control. I daydream daily about what kind of child Lin Xin Ci will be, and what kind of mother I can be in response. I already love her madly without knowing her at all. And, as in late pregnancy, I have a panicky feeling that I could use an extra week or two to complete other projects before we bring our child home.

I will meet my daughter either today, Jan. 27, or tomorrow in Fuzhou, China, a prosperous coastal city across the strait from Taiwan. Xin Ci is 22 months old, and has been in an inland orphanage since she was found on its doorstep. A note pinned to her blanket said she was born five days earlier, on March 17, 2002.

For my family and me, adopting Xin Ci is an act of devotion. Our meeting will be a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, a crossroads of life before and life after Xin Ci. It is the culmination of 10 years of conversation and family planning, and the promised result of a dedicated 16-month pursuit.

Yet, as with all adoptions, the joy of bringing a toddler into our life is tempered with somber compassion. Somewhere in Fujian province, the woman who gave birth and life to Xin Ci is almost certainly grieving for the child she felt compelled to take to the Gutian County Welfare Institute. She almost certainly did that only because there was not enough rice to feed another girl child.

Tied Together by ‘Red Thread’

Families who have adopted from China commonly talk about the “red thread” that binds our children and our hearts to the Chinese people, to the mothers who made adoption plans for their daughters, to the land on the other side of the world. The red threads warp and waft across the United States with more than 4,000 girls adopted each year here. Each thread is attached to the loss of a mother in China and ties each girl to her new family.

Though Xin Ci will have no conscious memory of her birth mother, the adoption will be partly a trauma for her. She has been in the orphanage all her young life, where she has little buddies, maybe a crib mate and a staff of caretakers. Today or tomorrow, a staff member will take her out of the orphanage, perhaps for the first time, take her to the capital city, and hand her over to strangers who look funny, sound strange, and cannot even properly pronounce her name. (Ci sounds roughly like “Tsuh,” but has no equivalent in English). We’ll whisk her through 10 days of adoption and immigration bureaucracy, and after a 20-hour plane ride, she will emerge in a new country, covered in snow.

As much as we love her, as thrilled as our family, friends, neighbors and church members are to meet her, Xin Ci will grieve. She is gaining a loving family, but she is also losing the familiar life she has known.

Suddenly, I will be the mother of a Chinese-American girl. As with so many other aspects of mothering, I am clueless. How to show her at once, every day, that I am her mommy, but also that she has a history and identity rooted partly in the Chinese countryside? I want to help her discover what it means to grow up as a Chinese-American girl.

Girls a Dilemma for Rural Families

Xin Ci’s path from China to our family is also nearly universally misunderstood in a condescending oversimplification of Chinese girls not being wanted by their families. The real story of China’s orphanages is far more painful than most people could bear to imagine.

Contrary to the popular impression in the West, China’s one-child policy largely has been a failure. It is a policy enforced only in the cities, while in rural areas it has served mostly as a boon to bribery of local officials. Birth permits are required, but they can informally be purchased. Rural families typically have four or more children, according to a series in The Washington Post in 2000.

In fact, when digging into the population data and the economic implications of gender in the world’s most populous country, you find that the “missing girls” of China are not first-born children, nor are they very often second-born children. Girls are as numerous as they should be until family size grows to three and more, for then families living at China’s “poverty level” or “starvation level” face a horrible dilemma. In China, giving birth to a boy is the cultural equivalent of qualifying for Social Security and Medicare. In Chinese society, sons are obligated to care for aging parents. A daughters, once married, is considered a members of her husband’s family.

None of these practices would persist if women had the same economic power as men. Yet rural families live in this cultural context, struggling to make a meager life from the land. So sons are crucial to parents. These same families, faced with a third or a fourth or a fifth daughter, have little choice but to divide the year’s rice among another mouth, or to bring her to a place where they know she will be fed and clothed, and maybe loved.

Now I weave my own thread to make a home for Xin Ci. And I begin my own journey to China in 2004 and into motherhood for a lifetime.

Marie Tessier is a WeNews correspondent who wrote from China in 2000. She lives in Bangor, Maine, with husband Paul Grosswiler and son Leif Grosswiler, age 7.

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