Adopted Chinese daughters seek their roots

Adopted Chinese daughters seek their roots

By Patti Waldmeir

Patti Waldmeir with her adopted daughter Grace
Patti Waldmeir with her daughter, Grace

This article comes via Financial Times (which in itself is interesting to me – a story about adoptees returning to their country of birth in a publication about the world of finance?).

I have several thoughts about this piece, some of the language and themes I really struggle with and find incredibly problematic, like this:

And one American mother who visited the orphanage squat toilet with her
nine-year-old Yangzhou girl reports that the child gripped her hand as
she perched precariously above the evacuation hole, and proclaimed that
she was glad she had not been left there forever. Those of us who live
in China (as my family does) know that squat toilets are a trial for
any westerner. They are a wake-up call that, to those used to western
toileting ways, China is still a foreign country.

Yeah…moving on.

One of the things I find most fascinating about this article is the idea that China seems to be bending over backwards to welcome "back" their "lost girls" (referencing the book, Lost Daughters of China here). The author of this article writes,

But now, as the balance of global economic and political power
shifts subtly in favour of China, Beijing is reaching out to all these
lost daughters – and welcoming them back home.

China has invited
thousands of foundlings back to their birthplaces for
government-sponsored “homeland tours” which, like last year’s Beijing
Olympics or next year’s Shanghai World Expo, give the country a chance
to show off to the world. On one level, what the Chinese adoption
authorities call “root seeking tours” – filled with extravagant
expressions of love and kinship and lavish gifts for the returning
orphans – are a transparent public relations exercise aimed at raising
money for Chinese orphanages, justifying the decision to export surplus
children and countering decades of unfair international criticism that
Chinese people “hate girls”.

In a blog post I wrote, Client, Ambassador, Gift (based on Sara Dorow's concepts in her book, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender and Kinship) I wrote from an adult adoptee's perspective what it felt like to be "welcomed back" by the country that sent me away because they didn't want to deal with my welfare or the welfare of poor/single women and families.

In the article, the author describes this scene:

To the maudlin strains of “There’s no Place like Home”, the deputy
mayor of the city told the children at a welcome banquet: “You are not
guests, you are family.”

which reminded me of the time I attended the 2004 Gathering in Seoul in which the Vice Minister of Health and Welfare said that he "loved us" and how the other officials there encouraged us to come back and "bring our families."

I felt like they were saying, "hey, we didn't want to support you so we found other families in wealthier countries to do it, and since they've got money, come back, visit our great parks and temples, eat our great food, spend lots of money on trinkets and show them what a great country we are! But forgive us, we love you, we really, really love you!"

In that older post, I wrote,

Language programs, so we can be translators as well as ambassadors and
bridges. Our skills and knowledge of the "west" now being appropriated
by the same country that rejected us, as we are asked to forgive and
forget – and bring all our educational and financial assets with us.
Not only did they not have to support us financially – or our poor
families – they have received fees for adoptions (agencies receive
substantially more per diem for each international adoption facilitated
than for domestic adoptions, hence the incentive to continue
international adoption) and they still receive charitable donations
from around the world. To top that off, now we are encouraged to return
and spend money in our mother land economy as well as stay and live and
work here and become cultural and financial bridges between the two

I wonder how many other adoptees there that day felt incredibly used by South Korea. Rather than helping me feel "better" about my adoption, the constant parade of "but look what a great country we are NOW" by South Koreans and their pleas to think of our "two motherlands" only makes me angry.I don't think there was a single Korean speaker that didn't mention at least once that Korea is now the 11th or 12th OECD now.

This "We had no choice but to give you away when we were poor, but now we're not so come back and spend money here" is like some cruel, abusive relationship. And they wonder why some adoptees have attachment issues.

I have a problem with the way many of these "motherland" and "root-seeking" tours are conceived and carried out. I have never gone on any of these types of tours that are often a part of adoption agency programs but believe me, I know enough people who have gone on them, and read Eleana Kim's articles (see here and especially here) to understand how they operate and how adult adoptees feel about the tours and their experiences of "returning to the homeland." Kim writes in "Our adoptee, our alien: Transnational Adoptees as Specters of Foreignness and Family in South Korea":

Since the late 1990s, adult adopted Koreans have been officially
welcomed back to their country of birth as "overseas Koreans," a legal
designation instituted by Korea's state-sponsored "globalization"
(segyehwa) project. Designed to build economic and social networks
between Korea and its seven million compatriots abroad, this policy
projects an ethnonationalist and deterritorialized vision of Korea that
depends upon a conflation of "blood" with "kinship" and "nation."
Adoptees present a particularly problematic subset of overseas Koreans:
they have biological links to Korea, but their adoptions have
complicated the sentimental and symbolic ties of "blood" upon which
this familialist and nationalist state policy depend. Because
international adoption replaces biological with social parenthood and
involves the transfer of citizenship, to incorporate adoptees as
"overseas Koreans," the state must honor the authority and role of
adoptive parents who raised them, even as they invite adoptees to
(re)claim their Koreanness. Government representations optimistically
construe adoptees as cultural "ambassadors" and economic "bridges," yet
for adoptees themselves––whose lives have been split across two
nations, two families and two histories––the cultural capital necessary
to realize their transnational potential seems to have already been

I'd rather read what an adult Chinese adoptee has to say about these trips (and I'm sure that in another few years, we will) than hear about how adoptive parents find comfort and justification in these homeland tours and how they find Chinese toilets disgusting. Yeah, thank God I was adopted so I didn't have to live with squat toilets (I wonder if this family had ever gone camping and used an outhouse or dug their own litrine? And to think for some Americans, this is a "fun" vacation).

But anyway, judge for yourselves. It was an interesting read.

You can read the article here.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

7 thoughts

  1. Hmm… squat toilets. I remember feeling a split second of shock, and then I was like “Oh yeah. This is the way things are done here. Well… here goes.”
    Squat toilets – however uncomfortable they are (I can’t imagine handling an upset stomach over them, though) – are cleaner than Western toilets. ;P

  2. Hmmm… it was weird reading the thing about squat toilets, making it seem as though it is a “developing country” thing. Super-advanced Japan has many, many squat toilets, not so much in homes anymore, but in many public places. Many of the older generation prefer them, and I think it’s because you don’t have to sit on a toilet seat where (possibly) hundreds of strangers have sat since it was last cleaned. And this is in a superclean country – the Western toilets in the U.S. are probably even dirtier. I still prefer the Western toilets, because culturally I have been conditioned not to think about the many strangers who sat there before me. Purely a cultural preference, in my opinion, and not a good place to start saying that one country is better than another…

  3. Trying not to derail here but technically speaking toilet seats are cleaner than the bathroom sinks, door handles and even your cell phone. Very easy to google if you think I am crazy 🙂 But if you find something to say otherwise, I am always open.
    Now back to the original discussion, which I can’t lend much too. My daughter is 4 and I plan on a trip back when she is about 12. I want her to also go back as an adult too but not so much to be “welcomed” back but to just live and travel.

  4. Chinese hospitality, ugh. I’ve become highly cynical since my early days as a new mom. The article doesn’t mention the new fee structure that has been put in place for returning orphans visiting their orphanage….or the fact that somehow the Chinese officials keep track of former Chinese children who travel in the country even if they are not on homeland tours.
    I don’t know who to be more aggravated with, the Chinese or the adoption agencies here in NA that have been in collusion with them.

  5. This article was completely from one mom’s perspective…where were the kids quotes. I guarantee you if I took my 5-year-old back today she would have a VERY strong opinion and would openly share it with me.
    There toilet quote – just disturbing…did the parent not talk to her daughter about what things were like where she grew up?
    I won’t even mention the fact that there was not even an indication given that corruption in the system could be one reason there are fewer children available now than 5 years ago.

  6. Jae Ran- Just letting you know that I linked to this post, as I have a few personal thoughts regarding it, as well as my thoughts on the Tedaldi case.

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