A fluid sense of family: on adoption and the global diaspora of orphaned Chinese girls

It's become a family joke of sorts that I may someday have a family that looks rather like that of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's. That is, a multicultural bunch of kids, a collection of orphans that I've taken under my wing. Whether this becomes a reality will remain to be seen, but I most certainly feel strongly about adoption for my own life. And on this subject there's a large elephant in my own theoretical room, involving the largest single-gender diaspora in history: the international adoption of Chinese girls. We all know I have a minor interest and fascination with China and its people, and I would be lying to say it did not extend itself to the prospect of someday providing love and family for a daughter of China.

With a couple free weeks, I was able to breeze through Karin Evans's book on the larger historical phenomenon at play here, The Lost Daughters of China: Adopted Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past. Evans, herself a mother of two Chinese daughters, spent years pondering the connections lost and found, birth mothers and families, the larger historical ramifications of so many girls leaving China and what their dual identity would mean for their own lives, their families, and the whole world as they grow (and have grown, in some cases) into adults.

Her questions, discussions, and stories resonated with me on many levels, as a woman, as a historian, as an American, as a global citizen, and as someone who feels strongly in favor of adoption. Some of the letters to her oldest daughter, written before she had ever seen her face, brought me to tears. "When we get together, you and I, I won't really know what you've been through--who carried you and gave birth to you, what she first whispered to you, how long she held on to you before having to make a deep, sad decision. I am certain the loss of you will linger with her all her days," she writes to Kelly. Evans does an incredibly poignant and thoughtful job imagining the lives and loss of the families that gave up each of her daughters, in response to the one-child policy, poverty, the persistent favoritism and preference towards having sons, and other cultural and social factors. Or, as one letter accompanying an abandoned infant said, due to "heavy pressures that are difficult to explain."

The most fundamental story from this historical narrative, however, lies with the daughters of China, the "lost" generation of girls. Many did not survive, victims of abortion--by choice or forced--and infanticide, and those who do make it to orphanages were illegally abandoned in public places, parents hoping their daughters would somehow make it to an orphanage and from there into a loving, providing family. Those who have miraculously survived have become parts of new families, some in China, some across the world, and a very large number of them in the United States. Their stories will be flooding into our lives before we know it, as they each face the enormity of the dichotomy they embody in their own, individual ways. How will they come to terms with their two nations, and how each one has treated them? (I can't wait to see and read.) One of the most important aspects--and difficult, perhaps, for adoptive parents--will be evaluating the entire process and potential value and damage both within transnational adoption. Taking a deeper look at the whole process and the lives affected, I understand it as no light undertaking, but rather a lifelong weight of work more complex than anyone can anticipate at the outset.

It again rose in my mind throughout the discussion of these girls and their futures that the notion of nationality can only go so far. Jennifer Jue-Steuck, a young woman adopted from Taiwan and a PhD candidate at UCA Berkeley as of 2008, described her complicated position and experience eloquently, as "floating down like a feather to an unmapped country between 'Chineseness' and 'Americanness.'" Nationality is once again called into question, as soon as you try to get at what it really means, and begin to determine what traits or characteristics render a person as having one specific tag. Return visits to China, by adopted children, yield questions. A bit of hypothetical conversation might go:

"Are you Chinese?"

"Nope, I'm American. But I was born in China."

"Then you're Chinese."

"I'm Chinese-American."

This is truly one of those times when the term is challenged most, and it enthralls me. What's more, in the cases of Chinese-born adopted daughters, it also challenges the entire notion of family, as does any international (and domestic, for that matter) adoption. Some of my longing to adopt comes from the desire to expand and learn more about the people of this world, and most of all to provide for a child, already born, who needs me. But after reading more about the complexities, I realize it is also because the fluidity of a family that is based on human love, rather than biology alone, stabs very deeply to the core of our very natural and instinctual selves. Evans quotes an essay by adoptive father Evan Eisenberg, who writes:

Adoption urges is toward a more fluid sense of family, a broader sense of community. . . . We move into a richer environment than the nuclear family can provide. Although modern adoption remains firmly within the nuclear orbit, it is inherently a part of this richer notion of child raising, this soup of relations that may be thicker, even, than blood.

The stronger dose of this kind of interpretation of family, the better, in this world. Evans also comes to a personal realization regarding genetic inheritance and its actual impact in our lives. While her daughters do not know their biological families' medical histories, they do exhibit interests and inclinations that, had they been biological children of theirs, would have been attributed to various family members.

When Kelly and Fanny turn out to love music, singing beautifully, taking up instruments, or dancing across the living room, it would be natural, were they our birth daughters, to credit the genetic contribution of Mark's grandfather the accordion player, say, or my mother the dancer. Yet the process of falling completely in love with these girls has changed whatever thinking I might have had about genetic inheritance. Whatever Kelly blossoms into is completely hers. What Fanny enjoys and brings to our family is all hers alone, too. We'll probably never know who their talents and inclinations come from or through, and it doesn't matter.

No matter our biological makeup or what nationality we fall under--in whatever complicated way-- a broader and more fluid notion of family garners love and acceptance. That is the message, loud and clear, in the stories wrapped up in Evans's book, exemplified through the lives of the adopted daughters, adoptive families, and a human drama occurring on an international stage. I absolutely believed this before, and am ever more reassured of it.

Although adoption regulations have increased in China (through a 2000s-version set of social and economic forces that you can read about elsewhere), there are still millions of children, born and unborn yet, who need homes, love, parents, siblings, grandparents. The country of origin does not matter to me; China happens to be the country with the most explosive conditions, and the largest of-yet studied group of orphans. What matters are the children, and there are several unborn children who will someday need a home, who will be waiting on the other end of a winding, red thread, for me to be their mother.