Many people assume that our last name-Wing-is Chinese, so when my husband and I decided to adopt from China, our friends were amused. How funny that we would now actually be a Chinese American family. Adding to the joke, my husband likes to say that our daughter adopted us.
The hard truth is that our daughter joined our family as a result of the People's Republic's attempt to control population growth. The family planning program, usually referred to as the one-child policy, was instituted in 1979. Because of the traditional preference for, and dependence upon, sons, if a family could have only one child, it wanted to make sure it was a boy. There were often harsh penalties for defying the law by having more than the legally permitted single child, but emotional and social devastation for complying. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of girls were abandoned. As the Chinese say about such matters, yu ku wu lei-a sadness beyond tears.
The infants and children were secretly, and illegally, left in public places-train stations, markets, parks-with the clear intention that they would be found and saved. But there is a severe gender imbalance in the PRC-recently estimated at 117 males to 100 females-that suggests other fates for some of these "lost" girls. The worst-case scenario is the possibility of infanticide. Certainly there have been gender-based abortions, even though laws are on the books forbidding medical professionals from telling parents the sex of the fetus revealed by ultrasound. There is also some evidence that many "outlaw" births were never recorded, or that informal adoptions took place, so some girls have never been officially accounted for.
The skewing of the population has left many young Chinese men unable to find women to marry. It has also prompted the government's propaganda campaign to convince its citizens that girls are as good as boys.
The hundreds of thousands of over-quota female children who were abandoned wound up in Social Welfare Institutes throughout China. The country was unprepared for what its heavy-handed social engineering had wrought: there were not enough facilities, staff, or funds to handle the influx, and the conditions in some of the orphanages were horrendous. The situation became known to the international community because, in 1993, the government began to allow foreign adoptions. More than fifty thousand Western families, most of them in the U.S., have adopted from China. Over time, the PRC's care of the abandoned children has improved and earned high marks. Today, with help from Western donations and volunteers, many institutions have been transformed from bleak, understaffed mills into sunny, well-equipped shelters run by caring professionals.
Our daughter was seven months old in 1997 when she was handed to us by Director Chang of the Yueyang City Social Welfare Institute in Hunan Province. She was a healthy, chubby little thing with the round face of a full moon. At first, she was a little shell-shocked at the abrupt change in her life. I guess we were, too. But effortlessly we began to love each other.
She has no memories of her time in China as an infant. She's a New York City girl, riding the subway to middle school. Other than proudly recounting the accomplishments of the Chinese people, donning a cheongsam on Chinese New Year and being a rice devotee, she's not interested in any aspect of the country of her birth. When, on the first leg of our return trip to China last summer, our well-intentioned guide in Beijing greeted her with, "Welcome home," he struck just the wrong note. But the physical differences between our daughter and the rest of the family are glaringly apparent, and painful, to her. In addition to the sorrow and anger that sit in her heart because of having been given up by her biological family, she must contend with the confusion that threatens her sense of self.
To help ease the way …