One-child daughter Yuan Mengping with her parents and grandmother at Lunar New Year
One-child daughter Yuan Mengping with her parents and grandmother at Lunar New Year

(WOMENSENEWS)–Strangers found my daughter on Sept. 13, 1996 in Xiaxi Town, a collection of villages where farmers harvest flowers, grass and trees.

Police were called and they drove her, as they did other babies abandoned in this town, to the orphanage in the nearby prefecture-level city of Changzhou. She lived on her back in a crib for nine months until I adopted her in June 1997. The orphanage staff called her Chang Yulu; I named her Maya Xia Ludtke.

Sixteen years later, in August 2013, Maya returned to Xiaxi Town. She went back so she could get to know girls her age whose families raised them as an only child. These Chinese girls might have been Maya’s childhood friends if their lives hadn’t diverged soon after they were born. Their companionship offered ground-level glimpses to Maya of what a rural Chinese daughter’s life was like. Taking this rare journey “home” gave Maya a perspective she needed to unravel strands of her dual identity as a baby born in China and as a daughter growing up in a Caucasian family in America.

Yuan Mengping was one of Maya’s “hometown” guides. She was home for the summer after her junior year at a university in Changzhou. Mengping is 22 years old. She left Xiaxi Town after graduation to live and work on her own in Shanghai. There, she found a job selling equipment at a golf course; many of her customers are foreigners so her fluency in Japanese and English is a plus. Her grandmother who helped raise her in Xiaxi Town wants Mengping to be married soon, in part so that she will be alive to be at her wedding. Her mom and dad are not as adamant as grandma about when this happens, but Mengping knows her parents are thinking more about all of this as she heads into her mid-20s.

First Foreigner in Town

Mengping met Maya when her grandmother rushed home to let her know that she’d seen an American girl who had arrived in town. Maya turned out to be the first foreigner anyone in Xiaxi Town had met.

Mengping’s many years of studying English, and Maya’s limited ability to understand Mandarin (plus a translator when they needed help), helped conversation flow. Soon a friendship bloomed and the two girls shared stories about their lives. Mengping’s own life gave Maya a bridge to understanding how the one-child policy that likely led to her being abandoned also enabled only-child daughters like Mengping to do what almost no female of previous generations of women in Xiaxi Town had done. Already in her young life, Mengping had achieved what few elders in her family believed was possible for a girl in rural China when she was born.

In “Abandoned Baby,” the first of our six iBooks in the series “Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods,” we tell the story of Mengping’s life since it illuminates so well what has been the surprising life of many girls in China who grew up when she did. We titled her story “She Can’t Be Our Baby: A girl among many boys.”

Girls born and raised before China‘s one-child policy went into effect in 1979 usually had brothers, who were favored in the family.

Now, families without a son invest in the daughter’s education. She is the person upon whom they will depend in their elder years.

Girls with brothers in China have been found to attend school for fewer years on average than when a girl is an only child or has a sister. Investing in girls’ primary and secondary education results in more females enrolling in universities and junior colleges. China has fewer females in its population due to its extreme gender imbalance. The girls are required to score higher than boys on the Gaokao exam to be admitted to the same universities. Still, the Ministry of Education in China revealed in 2012 that about 51 percent of students at its universities and junior colleges were women, outnumbering men by 647,800. Among masters’ degree students at Chinese universities, about 40,000 more women were enrolled than their male peers, out of 1.43 million students in all.

Changing Familial Signals

Mengping’s experiences chart a familiar life path that many only-child daughters of her generation in China have navigated. As children, they’ve been valued more by their families than daughters in the past generations and they’ve achieved more than women who came before them in their towns.

Yet as single women in China reach their mid-to-late 20s, societal and familial signals change. At this age, family members push them hard toward marriage. Women who are too well educated and considered too ambitious or successful in their careers are admonished with pronouncements of authorities and slogans in the media speaking to the dangers of them becoming “leftover women.” It’s an unflattering term that adheres to those women who remain unmarried after the age of 27.

In tandem, their nation and family urge these daughters to assume traditional characteristics associated with being dutiful wives and responsible mothers. Essentially, women are pressured to cast off personal ambition they might have imagined for themselves in younger years when they were taught to think of their lives as being equal to those of their male peers.

At Lunar New Year, Mengping returned home to celebrate the holiday with her family. Her aunt and grandmother wanted to know when she is bringing a boyfriend to meet them. Mengping doesn’t have one to introduce. Besides she’s happiest when talking about the possibility of traveling to faraway places she’s never been — perhaps Japan. Right now, marriage isn’t among the destinations she wants to reach any time soon, though she knows that soon she must.

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Medium.

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