March 12, 2006

Explaining Chinese Adoption

I walked into the subway elevator pushing my youngest daughter in her stroller. It was empty except for on older Asian woman who stared at us as we entered. The ride down was a slow one. Very slow. I always thought the elevator’s crawl was to discourage riders, funneling them towards the escalators instead. With only one elevator rush hour journeys down could get pretty packed. Better to save the space for those who really needed it.

That morning’s ride was roomy and quiet. The old woman continued to stare. Finally, she asked “Where’s she from?” in a matter-of-fact tone. Not angry nor particularly pleasant it caught me off guard. I was enjoying the silence as I mentally prepared for my daily encounter with a toddler and the minions on their way to work. Anything could and did happen. I hesitated. I had to think fast during encounters like this.

She continued to look at us. “Is your wife Vietnamese?” Again, I vacillated. “No she isn’t,” I finally replied. I had learned to triage inquiries about us —about my daughters and my family. Was the questioner merely curious? Answer one way. Was he interested in adopting from China? Answer another way. Was she asking inappropriate questions and intruding on our privacy? Be nice but don’t feel compelled to respond beyond the basics. The woman directed her question at me, but my four year old understood what was being asked. She too remained quiet. In this case “no” was as basic as it got and my silence thereafter conveyed my desire to end this conversation.

As I read “Stealing Babies for Adoption” on the front page of today’s Washington Post, I remembered this distant encounter. It’s been years since I commuted downtown with my girls. Today, especially in urban areas like Washington, a trans-racial family like ours is commonplace. Most questions from strangers now are about the “how to’s” of the adoption process. We’re not as different looking a family as when we first came home with our eldest in 1997.

But I was reminded we can never hide a certain part of our family history. And we would intrinsically and forever be connected with the culture, politics, and lives of billions of Chinese, especially with two families somewhere in Southern China. I have learned that differences in our two cultures are often hard to understand, yet explain. How could I convey these distinctions to my daughters? Ultimately, these differences will make my daughters proud and perhaps even wonder as they grow into powerful American women.

But just as it was when we first arrived home from China, I realize that most of this story belongs to our daughters. The details are theirs to share at their discretion. As they mature their relationship with their early lives are changing for them. My wife and I are no longer the only spokespersons in our family on the subject. Guiding our children as they learn how to tell their story (or not) is something we actively discuss.

Today, as I read the Post article about the abduction and sale of Chinese infants for adoption I was mindful that their story will never be simple nor simple to explain. There will always be questions.

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My older sister is adopted. Her father was Lebanese, her mother is English. Our family is a sort of Judeao-West European mashup.

She must have stood out like a sore thumb in the Tunbridge Wells of the sixties and the seventies where the term “half-caste” was generally used to describe her. She stood out in our family as she is resolutely outgoing compared to the rest of us who are resolutely inward looking and nervous about the world. It has only been in later life that I’ve come to realise how hard life must have been for her.

She learned to cope with it through extrovert behaviour, though I now realise this is to a large degree a cover for a scared dark skinned girl in the town that is the epitome of Englishness. That said, our family worked fairly well, all things considered. We learned a lot about ourselves from our crazy sister and we never for a single moment considered her not 100% one of us. If anything she is more resolutely interested in the Jewish side of the family and much more at ease in the wider world. She’s lived in India, Australia, France, Iran and now Canada. She is unique in the world and she has been a blessing to the rest of my crazy family.

I can say from experience that your girls will want to find out about their past. My sister spent years tracking down her birth mother and her father’s family (he being long dead). She now knows the whole story and her full brother (and a huge crew of half siblings in north London). She never really got on with her birth mother but there were uncanny parallels with her.

I suspect she is at last getting to be at peace with herself in her mid forties. I don’t want to scare you but prepare yourself for a long haul as your kids work out where they fit in the world.

Posted by: Ivan Pope on March 13, 2006 3:50 AM

This was an interesting entry. I read the article and found it difficult to read on many levels. I’m adopting from China (waiting now).

I have to wonder how many people will now not only question my desire to adopt, as they already do, and the bonds I will have with my daughter, as they already do, but also the legality of our family.

Posted by: Karen on March 13, 2006 4:43 PM

Brian Stuy, who was quoted in the Washington Post article has just sent the Post Editor a letter refuting many points of Peter Goodman’s article. Here is his letter (as of this writing, unpublished):

Sunday’s article by Peter Goodman (“With U.S. Couples Eager to Adopt, Some Infants Are Abducted and Sold in China”) artfully weaves several issues in China into one inaccurate construction that impunes the motives of adopting Americans, and the orphanages from which their children come.

Goodman begins by detailing the tragic abduction of a child from the streets of Dongguan in Guangdong Province. He artfully transitions to China’s adoption program, leading readers to conclude that somehow the seven month old girl had been kidnapped to satisfy an adopting American family.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to establish this link, and in fact considerable evidence to disprove it. By Goodman’s own admission, 50,000 children were adopted to the U.S. since 1992, an average of 4,000 per year. I suppose Goodman proposes that these 4,000 children represent a significant number of China’s 1.2 billion people to result in kidnapping rings to develop, but the sad reality is that annually an estimated 250,000 children (mostly girls) are abandoned in China, 35,000 of which end up in China’s foreign adoption program. One can readily see that there is no shortage of adoptable children.

The trials of those involved in the Hunan baby-trafficking ring all testified that the children involved were unwanted newborns willingly relinquished by their birthparents. Defense testimony by Police and other witnesses confirm this. No lost child reports, no response to found baby newspaper notices. Goodman makes some sweeping generalizations, inaccurate assumptions, and faulty reasoning to falsely assert that the international adoption program is contributing to child abductions in China.

Additionally, he erroneously quotes me as asserting that the Chinese orphanage program is “a corrupt system… driven by money, and there’s no check and balance to the greed.” This statement was made in what I thought was an off-the-record conversation discussing China’s governmental structure, not its adoption program. I have frequently and publicly written that I believe the Chinese adoption program to be one of the most ethically run in the world. A family leaving the U.S. knows who their child will be, exactly what fees will be paid, and where they will be on any given day while in China. Few other international programs run this predictably and effeciently.

Goodman also anonymously attributes to a “Western aid worker” a quote that proposes that few of the donation dollars given by adoptive families and other NGOs actually reach the children. This is patently false to anyone who has visited orphanages over the last few years. Whereas orphanage facilities in the early 90s were most often housed in small, unheated adobe or brick buildings, today nearly every orphanage is housed in third-generation modern facilities, many with medical and educational facilities on site. These orphanages are often located next to facilities for the aged, to allow a symbiotic relationship to develop between the elderly and the young. Contrary to Goodman’s assertion, a more engaging argument could be made that China is over-investing in their orphanage system, given China’s declining abandonment rates. This decline can be attributed to China’s increasing personal wealth, as well as the passing of male-preference traditions in its culture.

Goodman also falsely characterizes the American families that come to China to adopt, portraying them as almost being on a shopping expedition, being ferried “to sightseeing spots in Beijing”, and walking streets “thick with stroller-rental shops and silk baby outfits embossed with traditional Chinese logos.” This caricature belies the fact that most adopting families try to experience, in the short time made available, as much of their child’s Chinese heritage as possible. All have spent more than a year preparing the paperwork required by both the U.S. and Chinese governments, and paid significant fees to both governments. For most, the adoption trip is an emotional and spiritual experience, and are deeply offended to have it portrayed as a shopping excursion.

Goodman’s article does a disservice to almost everyone involved in the Chinese adoption program. There is little doubt that the adoption of Chinese children by foreigners has altered the perceived value of these children, but to falsely assert, with no substantiating evidence, that these families are fostering kidnapping rings in China to satisfy their parental urges does a disservice to them, and the legacy of their children.

Brian H. Stuy

Posted by: Jeff on March 15, 2006 3:18 PM

As the mother of two daughters adopted in China I am surprised the Washington Post would publish the article, “Stealing Babies for Adoptiion.” It is filled with conjecture and half-truths which mislead readers to the false impression that Americans buy stolen children in China.

I have written two letters to the Post and encourage other adoptive families to do so as well. Brian Stuy’s letter (already posted on your site, but not in the Washington Post) and his Web site,, show a different reality to foreign adoption in China. It is very different from Peter Goodman’s which casts all aspects of the experience in a sinister light.

At the risk of sounding crass, I can’t help but ask, if a quarter million baby girls are still abandoned each year as a result of the one-child-per-family-policy, why would orphanages need to buy babies to run an adoption program?

Also, see two articles by Joe McDonald in the Post (March 6 and March 15) that give more complete information about the centuries old tragedy of child trafficking in China, but also acknowledge there is no evidence nor liklihood that abducted children have been adopted by Americans through the reputable Center for Adoption (CCAA) in Beijing.

This article feeds the public’s appetite for adoption melodrama. I was disappointed to find such senstionalism on the front page of the Washington Post.


Posted by: Jan Bufkin on March 18, 2006 10:44 AM

As another adoptive parent from China in the DC area I was outraged by the Washington Post’s sensationalist front-page article. I did my part in spreading the word about it to the adoptive community. I also wrote to both the article’s author Peter Goodman (who has consistently shown an anti-China bias during his entire tenure in Shanghai for the Post) and to the paper’s ombudsperson Deborah Howell. I got a condescending, defensive reply from Goodman, who never did answer my follow-up and I heard nothing from Howell.

As far as I know only two very mild letters from adoption agencies was ever published in response to the article. *NONE* of the AP counter-balancing stories already noted here or any other replies from parents who wrote ever made it into the paper.

I’ve got my Internet feeds to keep me informed. Left, Right, Center: I read some of each so I can get balance *and* depth for free!

Staying anonymous for work reasons. My apologies.

Posted by: Dad in Maryland on April 5, 2006 11:10 AM

Just a quick note of thanks to those who posted comments about the recent Washington Post article about child trafficking in China.

My husband and I are thinking about adopting a daughter from China and found the article very upsetting. I had visited the Research-China site after reading the article but was unaware that Brian Stuy had responded. I had only seen his words misquoted in the article, which, to me at the time, gave credibility to the story.

Please continue to spread the word about this misinformation for others who may be wrestling with the idea of Chinese adoption.

Posted by: Stacey on May 1, 2006 9:47 AM

Comments are now closed for this post. But there are a few other entries which might provoke an opinion or two.

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