Saturday, December 31, 2005

"I Have No Money"

The shirt caught my eye as I walked along the market street of Dali's "Old Town" in the Western Province of Yunnan, China. "I Have No Money" it stated simply in Chinese. Boy, I thought, I should get that shirt to wear on my trips.

I did buy the shirt, as a joke and as a reminder. The simple truth is that everytime I come to China I experience events that break my heart, and reinforce to me again and again how most of the world lives. Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't apply well to the back streets of rural China. If one took the teachings of this parable literally, one would never be able to walk to the end of a single street. Need is everywhere here, and manifests itself in many forms: the four year-old street urchin; the teenager asking for education money; the crippled man barely able to push himself through the dirt and trash; the old woman with broken teeth asking for enough to give her another meal.

"I Have No Money"

The Chinese remind me that the shirt is meant as a joke, that the Chinese seek to impress those around them with their possessions, even if purchased with borrowed money. For the Chinese, the look of money is the goal. To be able to portray to the less fortunate that the Chinese gods have looked with favor upon them. The joke lies in the fact that few in China are willing to admit that they truly are poor and have no money.

"I Have No Money"

I wear the shirt feeling a burden of guilt. Although I am told that most will find the shirt funny, and show others that I have sense of humor, I realize that I also must hide my face in shame as I pass the poor beggar. For the truth is, I am richer than 95% of those whom I walk among in China. I carry my trinkets home from my daily shopping excursions, passing those who have nothing of what I have. My heart is torn between my selfish and carnal side, and my religious and moral upbringing that holds the conviction that those who assist others in need will be blessed.

I am reminded of a night I sat in a KFC in Nanking, in China's eastern Province of Jiangsu. A city steeped in history, I had come here to witness for myself the pictures and graves bearing witness to the atrocities the Chinese had experienced in World War II at the hands of the invading Japanese. Now, as I silently ate my fried chicken, a woman approached me through the glass and motioned that she was hungry.

I invited her to come into the facility to eat, but an employee forbade her entry. "She comes here often," was the look the employee gave me, "don't feed her." But in my mind I kept hearing the words of my youth, "I was an hungered, and you gave me food." I walked to the counter, ordered some food and drink, and walked it outside into her eager arms. She turned and walked into the darkness.

The Chinese largely ignore the myriad beggars they pass on the streets. "They do it for business," is their reasoning, a rational I am all too familiar with at home. But when I am approached by a young girl who looks like she could be my daughter, my hand slips once again into my pocket, hoping that I will find some small change to pass on. Even those who work make little money by Western standards. The director of my daughter's orphanage, a respected government position, makes $160 a month. Taxi drivers make about the same, and those that clean China's streets make less in a month than I spend to go to McDonalds with my girls. Most of China's farmers and the factory workers make less in a year than an American teenager makes at a part-time job in a month.

China's poor remind me that I live in a global society, not on an island of prosperity in the sea of destitution and poverty. U.S. calls to limit imports from China, India, and other impoverished nations fall on deaf ears with me. The threat of globalization, the loss of American jobs, the importing of cheap goods, is a two edged sword. Certainly there is a cost to be borne by those whose incomes exceed that of most in the world, but few of us in the U.S. realize the benefit those jobs are to those in other countries. The exporting of factory jobs to the "Sweat Shops" of China allow many women who previously worked at the back-breaking labor of the field to make more money in a factory job. In a small way their lives are improved -- slowly, almost imperceptively -- but improved none-the-less. I question any policy that elevates or maintains my standard of living by continuing to suppress that of others.

As I walk China's streets, I have long ago stopped trying to discern who is "doing it for business" and who is in true need. I give whatever change I have freely and willingly, with a silent prayer that others might do so also. What I do is small. If I was a better person I could do much more. But I hope that one day all might be able to live like I do, rich in the abundance of the earth's blessings, free of the deprivation of life's basic needs. Instead of living on an island of prosperity, I hope that one day the economic continents will unite and we will all live in abundance together.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

"Rolling Cloud of Black Smoke" -- 12/26/04

On December 26, 2004 a set of twin tsunamis wreaked devastation on both shores of the Indian Ocean. A few days later, my wife Lan, a friend Adam and I brought care and hygene packages to many of the thousands of homeless children in Sri Lanka's relief centers. As we made our way from camp to camp, we stopped to watch the recover effort taking place in a grove of trees along the coast.

The sand crunched under my feet as I made my way to the recovery site. Overhead, I spied ripe coconuts hanging in the trees. As I wound my way through the trees, I had to watch my step to avoid walking on clothes, purses, and other personal effects. In the distance the sound of a diesel engine was heard, the heavy-lifter that was even now, nearly two weeks later, still working to right the compartments.

This site, located just outside Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka's western coast, has become for the Sri Lankan's symbolic of the entire tsunami disaster. At 9:55 am on December 26 over 1,500 people lost their lives on this site. Most were passengers in the #50 Train, making the post-holiday return home from Colombo to Matara over two hundred kilometers to the south.

The #50 started the morning at 7:30 am with its departure from Colombo's train station. On board were nearly 900 passengers, mostly families, returning from visiting family and friends for Christmas. As the train paused in Moratuwa, Pandura, Kalutura and other small towns, a few more passengers boarded, until the number peaked at around 1,000 passengers as it pulled out of Kahawu, ninety kilometers south of Colombo, at 9:25 am. The passengers were tightly seated in the train's eight burgundy rail cars, all of which was being pulled by the single light-blue diesel engine.

The train's track meandered through the coconut forests parallel to the Sri Lankan coastline. For most of the trip, the passengers could look out the right-side windows and see the emerald water. Even at this early time of the morning the air was warm and humid, and almost without exception each passenger lifted their window open to allow the fresh ocean air into the train compartments.

As the train neared the two kilometer mark from Kahawu, the passengers watching the ocean to the west glimpsed the first sign of trouble. Looking through trees, coming at them with tremendous speed was what one person would later described as a "rolling cloud of black smoke". It was in fact the first wave of the tsunami. Filled with sand and debris, the wave took on the appearance of a living, moving wall of water. Just before the it hit the train the passengers felt the cool spray of the approaching destruction.

As the wave engulfed the train, it drowned the train's engine, stopping the train in a small clearing about 500 yards from the coast. The water settled around the passengers' knees, indicating it was about 8 feet deep. When the local farm people saw that the train had remained mostly erect, they began swimming towards it. As they reached the sides, the passenger's yelled down to them to lift their children up through the open windows. Over the next half hour, nearly 500 local inhabitants would join the train's passengers in what was thought to be a safe location to wait out the receding waters.

One passenger, Supun Jayansinghe, left the train. Supun was on his way to a holiday party being hosted by some friends in Hikkaduma, the next stop on the rail-line. Not trusting the circumstances that he was witnessing, Supun made his way to a nearby coconut tree, and worked his way up to the tree's top branches. At its peak, the tree was nearly 50 feet high.

Below him the passengers were screaming and crying. No one understood what was happening. The weather was clear, and there was no apparent reason why a wave should have come into land this far. As time passed and nothing further happened, the passengers began to calm down. Many had made their way to the roof of the train, and were sitting there gazing out at the water below them. The farm houses appeared to still be fine, and many locals had taken refuge on the roofs of these buildings as well. All could see that the water was receding. Most felt things were going to work out, and they would soon be on their way again.

Twenty-five minutes after the first wave had hit, Supun and the others heard a building roar once more coming from the ocean. Still more local farmers and their children appeared in the clearing, screaming in terror at the approach of the gigantic second wave. All would have seen the tumultuous thirty-foot wave as it made its way over the highway, engulfing the trees and buildings, hurdling in their direction. As tall as most of the coconut trees, the wall of water would have looked enormous from the ground and the train. As the wave hit the farm houses, it lifted the roofs and collapsed the walls, blowing the stranded people into the foamy water. In what was no longer than a few seconds, most of the train's passengers realized they were about to die.

The force of the water broadsiding the train forced it off its tracks and flung the cars sideways into the sand. Most fell on their sides, throwing those on the roof into the dark water, and allowing the sand and foam to pour into the train's compartments. Within seconds the cabins were full, and although many tried to make their way out of the open windows, the foamy water disallowed many from escaping. Within a matter of a few minutes, Supun, his eyes closed to the bedlam and screams of those below him, looked down upon a quiet, almost tranquil scene. Bodies and debris floated around him, the train invisible underneath the more than 20 feel of water.

Days later, the rescue teams would find nearly 500 bodies in the area immediately surrounding the train, and more than 900 inside the train itself. It would take nearly a week to recover and bury the victims.

As I walked to the recovery area 10 days later, the bodies were gone but their screams still filled the air. Most of the passenger cars had been restored to a short stretch of track. Clothing, purses, and other belongings hung from the open windows. The cars stood damaged but not destroyed. Rescue workers, most wearing light blue surgical masks, continued to labor to clean up the mess.

As I have witnessed the scenes of utter desolation in the wake of the two tsunami waves that washed over the coast of Sri Lanka, I have felt largely detached from the human suffering that must have taken place here. In a measure of emotional self-preservation, you always imagine that this family must have survived, or that these people got out of the way before the second killer wave struck. But in walking around the wreckage of Train #50, you know that almost 1,500 people perished inside the cabins you are seeing. You can easily imagine what they saw, what they experienced in the last few seconds of their lives. It is at once harrowing and impressive.

Even now, two weeks after the event, and before the last cleanup efforts have been completed, the tourists and onlookers are appearing. The site feels like sacred ground, and one is compelled to whisper. More than any other, this place will grow to represent the suffering and pain of the Sri Lankan people. For me, it brings home the power of nature, and the enormity of the event that transpired here.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

P.S. My Final Word on Hunan

Since posting my letter to the CCAA, I have been praised and pelted (mostly anonymously) for doing so. Many claim my arrogance at even approaching the CCAA, and many spoke from fear that the CCAA would be so offended that they would stop adopting to foreigners.

It is the unfortunate reality that my work in researching has deep concerns at the CCAA. I am not sure what exactly they are afraid of, but it seems we are locked in a power struggle to control the information that is received by adoptive families. I have had many experiences with directors that wished they could convey to their families information regarding birth parents, notes, pictures, etc., but were strictly prevented from doing so.

Due to my desire to protect directors and others who cooperate in providing information to families, I have become hypersensitive to being obscure and vague when making reference to conversations. "Certain meetings" are left chronologically undefined, because I am afraid the CCAA can determine who was at the meetings, and track down my sources. So, I am always required to change names, places, cities, etc. to mask the originator of my information.

The Hunan baby trafficking story has been building for years. If it wasn't for the very brave orphanage worker (and few of us can comprehend how brave this person was) that exposed the trafficking ring to the Shanghai newspaper, it would, without a doubt, have never been revealed, and all of us would have continued assuming that ALL of our kids were orphans. But the reality is that the CCAA was probably aware of this ring for several years. In early 2004 all of the orphanages in Western Guangdong Province had their records audited at the request of the CCAA. At the time, it was asserted that the reason for the audit was that there was apparently no slow-down in foundlings in Western Guangdong that had been experienced in most other areas of China, and there was concern "that the orphanages were engaged in baby-trafficking." At the time I learned of this I assumed that this was just a curiosity investigation, and found it affirming that most of the orphanages passed muster. The one orphanage that did not, Huazhou, apparently kept faulty or incomplete records.

Now, I have asked several Guangdong directors if, in light of recent discoveries in Hunan, the director in Huazhou was involved in baby trafficking. No one knows for sure. I personally find the whole timing of these events to be very suspicious. I don't know if Huazhou was involved, but press reports indicate orphanages in Guangdong were involved, and that this has been going on for many years.

Some have faulted me for releasing information concerning the closure of Hunan “based on rumor”. In this I have to respectfully disagree. I received valid, reliable information (information which is now being shown to have been accurate) concerning the change in status for Hunan from a director of one the orphanages. As others have posted, this closure was also communicated in the CCAA’s internal memos to most of the orphanages in the area. I stand by the accuracy of my reporting.

So, to those of you that feel I should have remained quiet, and not antagonize the CCAA, and "let them do their investigations," I would respond that the CCAA WAS investigating, and quietly cleaning up the mess. In all likelihood, if the Shanghai paper had not broken this news, we would never have heard anything about it. The financial realities of the international baby market that I have written about would have continued, and perhaps in another city another director might have made a similar deal with the devil.

But fortunately, the press did hear about this story. Now the world is watching, exerting pressure on China to make changes. Not to just fire those involved, but to arrest them. "Face-saving," is no longer an option in much of this. I believe it falls on us, as adoptive parents, to put aside our own self-interests and put as much heat as possible on the CCAA to insure that this never happens again. Never!!!!!

Was my letter arrogant? I don't think so. It was an attempt to show that this story is not simply an "China" story, one that can be censored and made to go away. This is a story that potentially effects your child and mine. It is my hope that it will spur them to really clean house, and make changes that will insure that the children we adopt from China, not just today but also next year, are truly who we think they are.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

An Open Letter to the CCAA

To the Honorable People at the CCAA:

We have been, shall I say, on adversarial terms for many years now. Iam sorry for that, because in many ways the mission of the CCAA and mine are very similar -- to find loving homes for China's daughters and sons, and to empower them with knowledge to lead happy lives.

I can't presume to speak for the entire adoption community, but I do feel that I have a very good connection with the concerns of many, since I am the father of several Chinese daughters myself. So it is in that spirit that I post this open letter to you, the CCAA, knowing that you do read my writings, and in the hope that we can create an honest and forthcoming dialogue.

The Chinese culture has a long and splendid history. I am proud of the great strides China has made in the last decade to bring an openness and transparency to its people. As I read Chinese papers and watch Chinese television, I am often amazed at the stories I see reported, many of which I know would have been kept hidden just a few years ago.

That is why recent events in Hunan regarding baby trafficking have grown so disturbing for myself and the thousands of other families whose children were adopted from China. It is my firm conviction that the events that transpired in Hunan are isolated, that there is not wide-spread corruption in the orphanages, and that the overwhelming majority (if not all) of our adopted daughters came to us as we were told at adoption: being found as an orphan.

So, I can only assume that China is working from a position of determination to make sure events that occurred in Hunan are not common place, and are resolved quickly. I can only assume that there is no desire to cover-up what has been discovered to be wide-spread kidnapping and selling of China's daughters. As adoptive families, we trust that this is the case.

Thus, we can view the just-announced closing of Hunan Province to further adoptions as a precautionary measure designed to show that the CCAA and the government are on top of things, and are acting to return the adoption program to complete integrity and legitimacy. Realistically, we also recognize that it was a defensive move to avoid the possible closure of China to international adoptions by the United States and other countries under the Hague agreement. By closing Hunan, China seems to be communicating that this was a localized event.

But the parallel announcement that the Chinese press is no longer able to report on this story casts all of these actions in a troubling light. The Free Press isa fundamental right in the cultures of most of your adopting families, and our natural response to censureship of the press is that there is something to hide. But a free and uncontrolled press is the friend and supporter of honest government. It is only a corrupt government (which we believe the Chinese government is not) that fears the disclosures made by a free press.

I, therefore, offer the following suggestions in an attitude of humility and a sincere desire to assist China in resolving this issue. I love China heart and soul, and wish nothing but prosperity and goodwill for China from my country and all peoples in the world.

1) Most families watch your CCAA website carefully. You might consider posting information regarding your investigations and findings, letting adoptive families know what is being discovered. We all understand that there are individuals in every country that make bad decisions, and do bad things. China has no need to fear that reporting the actions of a few people will cause us to think that all of China acts or believes in this way. By keeping adoptive families informed, you will quiet a lot of the fear and uncertainty -- uncertainty that is, in all honesty, increasing among the adoptive families. This story has caused many to reconsider adopting from China; it has created bad feelings among many that have already adopted. It is in your control to dispel the causes of this bad will.

2) Allow the press in China to cover this story. Covering it up and protecting those that illegally kidnapped children for adoption is immoral, and against the basic philosophical principles on which China is built. As I stated above, everyone understands that a few individuals will act contrary to the public good, and these people should be detected, arrested, and punished for their actions. I believe this is what the CCAA wants. It is certainly what the adoptive families want. We adopted from China to assist orphaned children to find good homes. For us it is anathema to consider that our daughters were stolen to provide us with children, all in the name of money. By allowing the Chinese press to investigate and expose those responsible for these actions, we will have increased confidence that the CCAA is on our side. By preventing the press from reporting on this story, you simply make us believe that the problem is bigger than at first reported, and increases our uncertainty.

I welcome a dialogue with you on this or any other topic. I sincerely believe that the CCAA and I can assist each other in bringing happiness to China's adopted children around th e world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

P.S. Birth Mother Addendum

Many have written me thanking me for my posting on the two birth mothers I interviewed. I wanted to respond to some of the important questions that were asked.

1) "Do you search for birth mothers?" -- I have never systematically searched for birth parents. These two women were the first and only birth mothers that I have located. I have been requested by the CCAA not to engage in this activity, due largely to its potential abuse, and respect that request.

2) "Shouldn't birth parent searching be left to the adoptee to perform?" --
I will answer that with a personal anecdote: My daughter Meikina is 8 years old. A few months ago she asked me why her birth mother had given her up, and I had to admit that I didn't know. Her need to know (now and in the future) is my primary reason for searching. I would love to be able to sit down and talk with the birth mother of my child and find out the reasons she felt compelled to give up a beautiful two-day old baby girl. I want to know so that my daughter can know. Knowledge empowers, and my primary responsibility as a parent is to empower my children.

Would I want to initiate a relationship between Meikina and her birth mother? No, that is Meikina's decision. But China is changing so rapidly -- people move, buildings are rebuilt, orphanage staff changes -- in 10 years when she makes that decision the trail (if any) will be gone. So, the burden is upon me to gain as much information, and put it away until she asks about it one day. To say that we shouldn't search for birth parents because it is the perogative of the adoptee fails to address the rapid changes that are occurring. In 10 years they in all probability WON'T be able to search, and then the burden of that failure will be upon us as parents for failing to act.

3) "Did the two birth mothers I interviewed know their children would be adopted to the U.S.?" - Neither woman had knowledge of the international adoption program, and it did not play any role in their decision.

4) "Did the women wish to have contact with the adoptive families?" -- Yes, both indicated a desire to correspond with the adoptive families, but I firmly believe the decision to communicate rests with the adoptive families.

5) "Why did you publish these two stories anyway?" -- My only desire was to enlighten adoptive parents as to the reasons why some (not all) girls are abandoned in China. I believe that the experiences of these two women are representative of a large segment of birth mothers. I have no desire to encourage or facilitate the location of birth parents.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Tale of Two Birthmothers

I remember feeling that my job was getting just a tad routine. Not to the point of boredom, but after visiting more than 50 orphanages, photographing hundreds (if not thousands) of finding locations, and talking with scores of finders, it was all becoming a bit predictable. At least I thought so as I climbed out of the taxi in front of the home of "Hua Mei Xiao" (not her real name). "OK," I said to my wife, "Let's hurry and get this done." I was anxious to wrap up our last finding location -- this little farm house in a village in eastern Jiangxi Province.

We introduced ourselves to the finder, a grand-motherly woman who greeted us in the courtyard of her one-room house. We explained that we were there to find out more about the child she had found 2 years earlier. We had learned that she had also fostered the child after she was found, and wondered how that had come to be.

She explained that when she had found the child, she had contacted the orphanage and reported her. She had been fostering children for many years, so Mei Xiao speculated that the birth parents had probably known that, and that is why they had abandoned the child in her courtyard. It all seemed very logical.

I asked her to point out exactly where the child had been found, and she responded with a sweep of her hand. "Over there" she stated matter-of-factly. Thinking I had missed something, I asked her to show me again. Again she proffered only a wide sweep of her hand. A bell went off in my head.

I don't understand much Chinese, something my wife finds useful when she occasionally lets loose on me in her native tongue. Instead, my wife does the talking, and I do the watching, and as I watched Hua Mei Xiao, I knew that she was hiding something from us.

"Lan," I whispered, "ask her if she knows the birth mother." "Are you nuts?" was her response, but I told her to ask the question. I had a gut feeling.

As my wife posed the question to Mei Xiao she grew instantly quiet and reflective. Finally, after a few moments, she acknowledged that she did.

I grew excited, and machine-gunned questions at Lan to ask. I couldn't believe it! After all these years, I was finally going to be able to find the Holy Grail -- a birth mother of one of my girls.

Mei Xiao led us into her home, and sat us down at her table. I asked her to tell us about the birth mother. She replied that she was about 28, lived on a farm, was married, and had a older girl and a young boy in her family.

As we sat and talked, we discovered that not only did she know the birth mother of the girl we were researching, but also of another unknown child found 9 years ago. After I returned home, I aggressively worked to locate this child, and in September 2005, after watching my project DVD, an adoptive mother contacted me. Her daughter had also been found by Mei Xiao. She was the other girl.

So on this visit we returned to this small village and once again entered the courtyard of Mei Xiao. In my camera bag I carried DNA kits from Genetree in Salt Lake City. Mei Xiao was happy to see us again, and as we reintroduced ourselves, we explained why we had returned. She told us that the birth parents lived a distance away, but that she would arrange a meeting the next morning.

As I sat across from the two women, my heart raced. I wanted to know each of their stories, not just for the families I represented, but for myself. Perhaps the stories they would tell me would parallel those of three other birth mothers, living far away in an unknown place, who in the darkness of a solitary night had also decided to give up their daughters. So, as I addressed these two women, I was asking them questions not just for their daughters, but for my own.

“Li Feng”

Li Feng (not her real name) sat nervously in her brown corduroy jacket and white turtle neck. I assured her that it was safe to talk freely with us, and that no one would ever be able to locate her. I explained why it was important for adoptive families to understand their daughters’ histories, and that what she explained today would be valuable to many families in understanding how their daughters came to be in their lives.

She began by telling me that she was 35 years old, and that she had been married for 15 years. Her oldest child, a girl, was born shortly after she was married and was now 15 years old. A year after the birth of her first child, she became pregnant with her second child. She gave birth to another girl, and so she and her husband placed this child with a family member. Her third daughter was born four years later, and it was this girl who was brought to the orphanage. Soon after giving birth, she contacted a family member that fostered for the orphanage and asked her to see that the child was put in the care of the local orphanage. This foster mother called the orphanage and told them she had found the girl in her courtyard.

The following year Li Feng had another child, this time a boy. They then contacted the family member who was raising their second girl and retrieved their daughter, now 6, bringing her home to live with them.

Their third daughter was adopted by an American family.

“Hai Yue”

Hai Yue (not her real name) was dressed in a burgundy leather jacket with faux-fur lining, covering a light turtle-neck sweater. She had long black hair which was pulled back by a silver broach. Thirty-three and married for 9 years, she also had her first child soon after getting married. This child was a girl. Six years later, she was again pregnant and had another girl. A family friend suggested that she could contact a friend of hers in another village on Hai Yue’s behalf; this friend fostered children for the orphanage. As soon as Hai Yue was brought to the recovery area of the hospital, the fosterer was called and asked to come pick up the child and bring her to the orphanage.

A year later Hai Yue gave birth to a boy.

Her second daughter was adopted into an American family in 2003.

Both women reported that they had registered their pending pregnancies with the village Family Planning Office. Registration is required by law and entitles the family an ID card for their new child. This ID card allows the mother access to prenatal care and will also allow the family to register the child for school when they get older. A person without an ID card is persona non-grata in Chinese society.

I asked them what they had done when their newborn child was a girl and they had decided they wouldn’t keep her. They said that they had returned to the Family Planning Office and reported that their newborn daughter had died. No one questioned their stories and the pregnancy was voided from the records, making them eligible to have another child.

China’s “One-Child” policy allows many rural families to have a second child if their first child is a girl. Since both Li Feng and Hai Yue had given birth to girls as first children, they were allowed another child in order to try and have a boy. Thus, both participated in what Kay Johnson terms China’s “one son or two children” exemption (“Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption, and Orphanage Care in China [Yeong & Yeong Book Company, St. Paul, MN], p. 55).

The actions of these two women has broad implications to the demographic imbalance in China. Consensus views estimate that based on census records and mortality figures obtained from Family Planning, China will experience a demographic imbalance of 40 million men in the coming decades. Since both women reported that their abandoned daughters had died, their deaths were registered in the Family Planning records and permission was given for each to have another child. However, both girls were actually alive and well in an orphanage. Thus, the mortality statistics for girls in each of their villages were inaccurate, being inflated by a false death. If their actions are similar to the thousands of other women who are abandoning their girls each year, it is probable that the mortality figures published by the Chinese Government are largely inaccurate, and the population “bubble” is exaggerated.

Next, I asked both women to elaborate on the causes for their abandoning one of their daughters. There is much speculation about this among adoptive parents. Although the answers provided by these two women are not statistically random, I feel they are representative.

I asked each birth mother to quantify on a scale of 1 to 10 how significant each of four pressures was on them to abandon.. The first was a perceived need by the birth couple to have a son to work on their farm. Both answered that this was not a significant pressure, since they perceived both sexes as being capable of farm work. Each also valued lowly the pressure felt by the birth couple to have a son to carry on the family name, although Li Feng admitted that her husband felt some desire for a son for that reason. When asked if retirement care was a major consideration, both stated that factored very low in their considerations.

Finally, I asked what role paternal grandparents played in their decision, and both indicated that this was the primary reason the birth parents had abandoned their daughter. Li Feng indicated that the paternal grandmother was especially concerned that they have a son, primarily to carry on the family name but also due to fears that the family would not be viewed well if they had two girls. Apparently having a son is viewed by some rural families as a sign of biological success, and failure to have a son is viewed as a source of shame.

When asked if the paternal grandparents had been dead at the time their daughter was born, would they have abandoned that daughter, both adamantly stated that they would have kept the girl.

These answers confirm what I have perceived from many different cultural sources in China, be they Family Planning propaganda in the countryside or answers from orphanage directors and common “man-on-the-street” interviews (see my blog “Why Girls Are Abandoned in China”, 10/26/05, All suggest that the pressure to abandon, at least at this juncture in China’s history, comes primarily from the paternal grandparents of the child. The need for a son to work the farm or provide retirement income in old age appear to be distant secondary influences on a couple faced with keeping a second daughter. Primary is the perceived need to carry on the family name by the husband’s parents.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I posed one last question to Li Feng and Hai Yu. How often does each of them think about their “lost daughter”? The answer from both was immediate and identical: every day. Both showed in their faces the regret and shame they felt for what they had been forced to do – perhaps not forced in any literal sense, but in a cultural one. Out of respect for their elders, both of these women and their husbands felt they could not fight the pressure of their parents. Although they regretted their decisions, both admitted that if the circumstances were the same today, they would probably do it all over again.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Finances of Baby Trafficking

The recent news story of baby trafficking in the Hunan Province of China offers a disturbing view into the hidden market for young children. Although many Western adoptive parents read such stories with awe and puzzlement, this case has struck particularly close to home, given the involvement of individuals involved with the international adoption program. This recent event represents a convergence of two powerful market forces, the international adoption program, and the domestic demand in China for infants.

Unfortunately, Western News organizations have misunderstood both the causes and forces behind these stories. Reuters, for example, asserts “The sale of children, and women, is a nationwide problem in China, where stringent rules on family planning allow couples to have just one child, at least in cities.” ( This statement is flawed factually and logically, but the truth does lie beneath the surface.

Baby trafficking has its foundation in childless couples wanting offspring, a condition that exists in every country of the world. Since childlessness has nothing to do with the one-child policy, the demand for children in China is not related to any governmental policy. It is important to understand that most of the people buying these black-market children are married and have no children. Thus, they are seeking young, healthy infants of either sex.

What puzzles most adoptive families is why there would be a black market at all for babies, given the perceived abundance of unwanted baby girls in China’s orphanages. Why don’t these families simply go to an orphanage and adopt a child, rather than face the potential consequences of buying a baby on the black market? The case of “Xiao Mei” (not her real name) will serve to answer that question.

Xiao Mei is a 33 year-old married ovarian cancer survivor. Unable to have biological children, in 2004 she began contacting orphanages to arrange an adoption of a baby girl. The first orphanage she called was the Guangzhou orphanage, since she and her husband live in that city. She was told that only registered residents of Guangzhou are permitted to adopt from the Guangzhou orphanage. Additionally, she was informed that families adopting had to be at least 30 years old, have a stable income, and have no other children. She was told to contact the orphanage in the city where she was registered.

She then contacted the Zhuzhou orphanage in Hunan Province, her city of registry. There she was informed that because she was married to someone from Henan Province, that she must contact the orphanage in that area. Zhuzhou was unwilling to allow them to adopt a child from their orphanage.

When she contacted the Zhumadian orphanage in Henan Province, her husband’s city of registry, she was informed that there were no healthy babies available for adoption. She was told, however, that if she were willing to adopt an older child, or a child with special needs, that there were some available. Since Xiao Mei wanted a child less than a year old and healthy, she declined (Xiao Mei is atypical in requesting a child up to one year old. Most domestic adoptions occur before the child is 2 months old).

Finally, Xiao Mei contacted the Yulin City orphanage in Guangxi Province. Here at last she met with success. Having few adoption criteria, the Yulin orphanage indicated that there were several healthy young babies available for domestic adoption.

But by this time, Xiao Mei was contacted by a friend who knew a family that had just given birth to an unwanted baby girl. This family already had an older girl, and didn’t want to keep the second girl. Would Xiao Mei be interested in adopting this child? Xiao Mei jumped at the chance, and after paying the mutual friend 700 yuan ($90), and assisting in the delivery expenses of 6,600 yuan ($800), she assumed custody of the week-old child. All arrangements were done orally, and neither party knew of the other.

Why was Xiao Mei willing to purchase her daughter instead of formally adopting her from an orphanage? The decision was not financially motivated, since in addition to the delivery expenses she will also have to pay the fine to register her daughter and obtain the I.D. card required for schooling. Xiao Mei simply decided that it was easier to obtain a black-market baby. In addition to the paperwork that all orphanages would require, Xiao Mei was frustrated by the bureaucracy she had experienced in her discussions with the orphanages.

As adoptive parents, we might find this puzzling. Often we assume that the children that are adopted internationally from China are the children that remain unadopted by Chinese families. But as Xiao Mei’s experience shows, this might not in fact be the case. It seems that some orphanages engaged in international adoptions have established barriers to domestic adoptions, be they high adoption donations (upwards of 20,000 yuan ($2,500) in some cases), demographic constraints, or geographic requirements. Two of the four orphanages Xiao Mei contacted were unwilling to adopt a child to her, when there were patently children available; instead, they erected geographical constrains that prevented her from “qualifying” to adopt. Only one of the four, the Yulin orphanage in Guangxi, seemed willing to adopt a child to her.

Why would the Guangzhou and Zhuzhou orphanages be unwilling to adopt a child to someone within China, while actively participating in the international adoption program? As in most questions of this nature, it is helpful to follow the money.

Prior to around 2001, orphanages participating in the international adoption program were permitted to submit a CCAA-calculated number of dossiers each year. Under this program, the CCAA anticipated the number of children that would be internationally adopted each year, and assigned each orphanage a number of children they could submit for adoption. Although this resulted in a balance being struck between “supply” and “demand”, it had the unfortunate consequence of having the directors hold back dossiers for older children or those with special needs. In 2000 and 2001, I would read of families being told by the CCAA that there were no older children available for adoption, yet simultaneously touring orphanages with scores of older children playing in their halls. This discrepancy was a result of simple market forces – directors, working under their quota, were submitting only what they perceived as the most marketable children – healthy infant girls.

In 2001, the CCAA lifted the quota system and allowed orphanages to forward dossiers on all the children in their care. The Waiting Child program was established, and many more older and special needs children were adopted. But now another result occurred: the perception by some directors of their children as internationally adoptable commodities.

The simple reality of the international adoption program is that each child in an orphanage that is in the CCAA’s program is worth $3,000 in donations to that orphanage. The more children an orphanage adopts internationally, the more revenue it receives. For these orphanages, the $100,000 to $500,000 in annual donations represents a huge resource with which to build new facilities, improve salaries and wages for orphanage employees, and otherwise improve the lives of the other children. Thus, some directors have sought opportunities to increase their revenue by various means, some legal and others illegal.

One legal method employed by some orphanages is to make alliances with nearby non-internationally adopting orphanages to provide children to the orphanage. No doubt some sort of “profit-sharing” arrangement is devised. This allows the primary orphanage to submit more dossiers, and also allows the secondary orphanage to obtain much needed revenue that would otherwise not be available. Both benefit.

But the recent case in Hunan illustrates another method, this one illegal, to increase the supply of children. Allegedly the director of the Hengyang County orphanage (an orphanage that participates in the international adoption program) brokered kidnaped children into his orphanage, as well as orphanages in other Provinces. Given the highly lucrative nature of the international adoption program, the question is not how did this happen, but how come it hasn’t happened more often. As the above-quoted Reuters article accurately stated, "Some families that cannot have children of their own are desperate for kids, so these factors combine into a way for orphanages to make big money." Big money indeed.

Something must be done to rectify the current program. One possible solution would be the re-implementation of the quota system, with a few variations. First, special needs and older children would be exempt from the quota. Thus, only healthy infant girls would be subject to dossier limitations. Although this would cap the potential income a particular orphanage would obtain through international adoptions, it would discourage and prevent abuses like those seen in Hengyang – there would no longer be the financial incentive. Additionally, the quota would necessitate more orphanages being brought into the international program, since each of the current orphanages would no longer be able to submit as many dossiers. This would effectively spread the benefit of foreign adoptions among more orphanages, resulting in quality of life improvements being received by more of China’s orphans.

The exposure of this trafficking ring has cast a seriously bad light on the Chinese adoption program. No doubt the participants will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. But the real problem lies in the underlying financial structure that forms the basis of the foreign adoption program. Until the CCAA addresses the inequalities brought about by the current system, it is simply a matter of time before another director seeks to gain in the same way as Hengyang’s did. Perhaps some already do.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The False Hope of Sibling DNA Testing

I have updated this discussion in 2011 with a new posting discussing more current technology.  The reader would do well to read this essay to gain some insight into the issues of sibling testing, and then the essay dealing with current and improved technologies.


I have had the opportunity of researching the orphanage histories of several girls that were shown to be "sisters" by DNA testing. In all of the cases the girls were found at locations far apart, and were given different birth and finding dates. In other words, if there weren’t a DNA link, no one would have suspected any relationship. All of the relationships were discovered by the adoptive parents finding orphanage sisters through the newsgroups that looked like their daughters, and, after making contact, having a sibling DNA test performed.

But as I traveled to the various finding locations for these "sisters," I began to believe that there was another explanation for these discoveries. It seemed to me unlikely, for example, that a birth mother would leave one girl at the orphanage and another in a small village 8 miles away. As the number of "found" sisters began to multiply, I became highly suspicious. It is of course possible that these matches are true sibling matches, but the analyst in me pushed for a more likely explanation.

So I took a trip to Genetree in Salt Lake City. I sat down with one of their geneticists, and explained my experiences. In summary, this is what I learned about sibling tests:

Genetree (and most other DNA labs) tests 27 genetic markers ("Locations") when doing sibling tests. They will draw a DNA sample from both children, and compare the 27 tested markers from each child against each other, as well as against a DNA database. The database is made up of DNA samples from all over Asia, including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. If the two tested children are not identical twins (sharing exactly the same DNA), the results are compared to the lab's DNA database, and a probability quotient is calculated. In the case of Genetree, my contact admitted that the DNA sampling in their database from China is very small.

Each of the 27 markers has a probability quotient assigned to it. For simplicity's sake, I will limit this discussion to just one location, or marker. Let's assume "Marker 4" has four possible outcomes, 12, 13, 16, and 18. The probability of each result occurring ( as determined from the lab's DNA database) is 5% (value 12), 10% (value 13), 25% (value 16) and 60% (value 18) in a given population. If two children are tested, and both carry "value 12", then there is a very high probability that the two children are related (I will leave the exact probability to a Statistician). These probabilities are compiled from all 27 markers, and a sibling probability percentage is applied.

Without DNA from the birthparents, the tests will either confirm a relationship (Composite probability greater than 90%) or preclude a relationship (probability less than 15%).

I asked the technician if it was possible that the DNA pool from a small city or village in China might differ statistically from the database DNA, and thus allow false positives to occur. He admitted that this was possible.

In other words, it is possible that due to the limited movement of people in China, that genetic “abnormalities” develop in cities and villages. Instead of a 5% probability of “value 12” being in a given population, for example, it might be 20% or 50% or 75%. Thus, two children might be tested and given a high probability of being siblings, when in fact that is not the case – a false positive.

I believe this is happening in the adoption community. I believe that if we took a significant sample of DNA from Jiangmen, Fengcheng, or many other Chinese cities, and tested it against the Asian DNA database of the U.S. testing labs, we would "discover” many sibling pairs. But if we tested these same children against a much larger DNA sample drawn from their own cities or villages, the tests would show no relationship.

At this point I am very reluctant to put stock in the results of these tests because of the limited DNA samples that are from China, and more specifically from the many regions of China. Unless the children are determined to be identical twins, I would be cautious about forming sibling relationships until further research is done to verify those results.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Most Painful Decision

The woman walking into the Dalian Medical College Clinic in Liaoning Province looked unassuming. Arriving early in the morning on Friday, October 25, 2005, she carried her sick infant daughter bundled in a light green and while blanket in her arms. The child, born on August 10, 2005, was apparently a Hepatitis carrier, for she had received two vaccinations in visits over the past two months.

But on this Friday, the mother and child were not arriving for another treatment.

Videotape from the clinic security cameras show the mother and child entering the clinic at 7:43 am, and taking the elevator up to another floor. There she exits the elevator and enters the public bathroom. Less than a minute later, she comes out of the bathroom and takes the elevator back down to the lobby, where she leaves the building at 7:45 am.

In the hustle of the morning rush, no one seems to have noticed the woman leaving her two month old daughter in the public bathroom. A few minutes later, a clinic cleaning woman entered the bathroom and found the crying child in a red cloth bag.

In my last blog, I detailed one of the most common reasons for the abandonment of infant girls in China. The experience of this woman abandoning her daughter poignantly illustrates another factor that contributes to a significant number of abandoned children: medical problems that the parents feel will overwhelm the family.

As a researcher, the abandonment of children with medical problems is the most painful to investigate and document. One girl I researched in Haikou City on Hainan Island drove home for me the tremendous problems facing both rural and urban families that give birth to children with medical problems. The adoptive family was told that their daughter had stayed in the Haikou hospital for nine months due to severe illness. When we visited the hospital to investigate this girl’s story, we met 12 members of the nursing staff that excitedly recounted for us their memories of this small girl. When we asked if she had stayed in the hospital due to severe illness as the orphanage had suggested, they corrected us by informing us that the hospital had kept the child in the hopes that the birth family would return and retrieve their daughter.

As a parent, I cannot imagine the fear and utter desperation that must grip the parents of a sick child who cannot afford to treat that child. Millions experience that anxiety in this country, billions experience it in China. In the U.S., however, the government provides a safety net for families; in China, there is no safety net. Thus, thousands of infant boys and girls are left for cleft pallets and other medical problems that could be easily remedied if the family had the funds. Many of China’s poorest don’t have those funds.

China is working to address these issues, and medical insurance is becoming available to a growing segment of Chinese society. But the cost of insurance is still intolerably high for most Chinese, and many of them, like many here, gamble on their continued health with their pocketbook. Some lose, and lose big.

Post Script -- "Ying Ying" was taken to the Dalian orphanage, which unfortunately does not participate in the international adoption program. Her prospects for adoption are slim.

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.

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.