My family is a walking confusion storm in China. Big white guy with a gorgeous white wife holding hands with a seven year old Chinese girl speaking freakishly advanced English (10th Grade according to her 1st grade SAT scores) who frequently hugs and kisses a chunky, 20 month old, extremely well tanned, highly intense little boy consistently, yet inadvertently screaming obscenities in English and possibly Chinese (we don’t know those words yet). Yeah . . . people stare.
Our family was built by adoption and we love that. We celebrate it and we teach our kids to do the same. We knew when we signed on though that we would be different and different is in the eye of the beholder. You don’t have to convince me that my family is beautiful but one man’s beauty is another man’s confusion storm. Seeing our blended family through China’s eyes has been the most refreshing and the most challenging part of our life here.
The one thing I have learned (and hope to learn deeper) is that no matter what or how much you understand about someone’s else’s perspective . . . there is always more to it.
The first thing you hear when you adopt a child in China is “lucky baby.” It’s a great lesson in the power of interpretation. At face value (through culturally dense ears) it would be easy to hear, “Oh look at the sweet little Chinese baby who gets to go live a wonderful life in America (or Canada or Australia or England or with some other rich, white people) free from the chains of Communist oppression.” Confession time . . . that’s what I thought “lucky baby” meant. It doesn’t. I wish I could say with precision what it does mean but I do know there are a world of cultural dynamics packed into those two words.
What does luck mean? Where does human value come from? Lucky because they get out of a bad life or into a good life? What makes a life good? Money? Education? McDonald’s three times a week? What makes life bad? Seriously, this list goes on for days but it’s safe to say, regardless of your first interpretation . . . There’s probably more to it.
One of the shockers for us has been the difficulty explaining adoption to our Chinese inquirers. It rarely seems to be a given that our two kids, who look nothing like us, are adopted. There is always an explanation and even though our pronunciation is horrendous we know how to say, “adopted” in Chinese. Still nothing. “Adopted.” Nothing. “Like from an orphanage.” “Ohhhhh.” The lights go on and the deeper questions can finally begin.
For us it seems baffling. “Seriously? What part about us doesn’t scream adoption.” In contrast though, adoption is not so commonplace in China and when it happens the child generally looks a whole lot more like his or her parents than ours do. It’s fair for us to be baffled but fairness, by definition, goes both ways. For me it helps to imagine meeting a Chinese couple in middle America walking hand in hand with a seven year old blonde haired, blue eyed white girl speaking 10th grade Chinese and hugging a chubby Mexican baby (inadvertently screaming Chinese obscenities). Baffling huh? That’s us.
But there’s probably more to it
You’ve Got a Good Heart
When the lights go on the most common response is a big thumbs up with a hearty, “Ahhhh, you have a good heart!” I like that one. Makes me feel warm and fuzzy. If it were up to me we would just leave it there. I would say, “thank you, you’re too kind” and move on. Unfortunately . . . there’s probably more to it.
The Rescuer Mentality
Wrapped up in the “goodness of our hearts” is an underlying statement that we have saved these children. The idea is that without us they would have a hopeless existence so we swooped in to snatch them from certain despair and give them hope . . . and McDonalds three times a week. The less noble truth is that we adopted because there was a hole in our family. We weren’t complete and it made us sad. As much as Rachel and Judah needed us . . . we needed them. They are our children not our project.
I would love to point my bony finger here but the truth is I probably began with a rescuer mentality. I think a lot of adoptive parents do and I’m sure a lot hold on to it. It’s a heated topic among the adoption community but for us rescuing our kids from where they were is kind of like biological parents rescuing their children from the womb. Yeah, they’d be miserable if you left them there . . . but so would we (ok mostly mom in that situation but when momma ain’t happy . . . ).
Sidenote – We have several friends who are fostering or have adopted children who would have, without question, died had they not stepped in. They are my heroes. They are beautiful, wonderful people with hearts the size of a bus but I bet even if you offered it to them, none of them would take the title of Savior. I get it though. When I look at them I can understand why it is common for Chinese to lean that way (if only on the surface).
But there’s probably more to it . . .
Pronouns Are Key
“Is this your child?”
Our answer, of course, is always a resounding yes. From there we get a myriad of responses from, “Impossible, he’s so black” to “are you sure? her hair looks like a Chinese girl.” It’s the “your” that gets them. I think generally speaking a possessive pronoun carries the weight of biological birth. Semantically speaking they are asking, “did this child come from you?” We know what they mean but we’re not about say no, even for the sake of cultural understanding. We don’t hide from the adoption issue at all but we do let them squirm for a moment while they try to figure us out. Usually it leads to a nice conversation but when our kids (Rachel at this point) are uncomfortable we politely move on.
In our hearts Rachel and Judah could not be more ours. We have done the up all night feeding, changed their poopy diapers, watched painfully stupid DVD’s a million times, worried sick over a fever, a seizure, a bloody nose, 62 mosquito bites and a clash with the coffee table. We got ticked about the mean kids, laughed at jokes that weren’t funny and darn near cry at the thought of college already. Of course they are ours.
A few weeks ago we were asked what they call us. We answered, “they call us Mama and Baba.” “Ahh . . . that’s good . . . do they know they’re adopted?” It is times like these that I remind myself that sarcasm doesn’t translate and there is probably more to it.
Your Parts Don’t Work?
One of the first experiences I had with the China view of adoption was before we moved China. An employee from the Panda Express (fake Chinese buffet) was puzzled because my little girl looked Chinese. I said, “yes, she’s adopted.” “Ahhh” still puzzled, “cause’ you can’t make one?” I could not think of a single response that would not plunge me even deeper into this abyss of awkwardness. What do you say to that? “Well, we have . . . um . . . you know, tried. And the doctor said everything was . . . uh . . . ok. . . and wow . . . I do not know who you are.”
We’ve learned that reproductive systems are fair game here. I mean for conversation. So we’ve gotten a little more comfortable but still . . . awkward.
China is still under a “one child” policy with exceptions for many countryside citizens and minorities. So, when adoptions do happen it would be an extremely rare case that did not involve infertility. Therefore its only natural to assume . . . well . . . that you can’t make one.
But I bet there is more to it.
I once saw a special report on Chinese adoptions in which a couple went back to the village that their daughter was from and posted a sign with her picture looking for the birth parents. With good intentions they actually shamed the parents, the village, the culture, the nation and destroyed their chances of ever finding who they were looking for. Saving or losing face is everything in China and no one wants to be known as the people who abandon their children. Face cannot be grasped by the Western mind. It’s deeper than embarrassment and more impacting than shame but that’s another post.
In 2007 China tightened up on adoptions making it much more challenging to adopt and greatly increasing wait times. Their reasoning was that they just did not have the children to meet the demand. Some would say they were becoming known as a nation with abandonment issues and needed to save face.
Maybe? Probably? Ok.
But I bet there is more to it
We love adoption
We are profoundly blessed to be Rachel and Judah’s mama and baba. Living as foreigners in China with adopted children has helped us process who we really are as a family. The challenge pushes us to know where we stand and it has helped us develop our understanding of which issues are worth wasting emotions on and which ones just aren’t. We will probably never fully grasp what they think of us but we love China. We love the people. We love the culture. We really love the food. Put that together with the fact that we love our kids more than you could possibly imagine and that’s all there is to it.
Some other posts about our awesome, little, multi-ethnic life: