Friday, May 13, 2011


May 12

Yesterday the BBC ran a story on child trafficking in Hunan province. ( Headlines highlighting children’s vulnerabilities in the modern age frequently catch my eye, but this story had a particularly personal twist: the cases occurred ten years ago and the commoditized children were exported as international adoptees, placed primarily with families in the United States and Europe. Our family is an adoptive family and both of my daughters began their lives in Chinese “orphanages.” I say they began their lives there, but that’s not really true. They had lives before these orphanages, but we don’t know specifically where they began their lives, though we have convincing evidence from social welfare records that both were abandoned as newborns. My husband and I have visited the abandonment sites of both of our daughters, have stood there sketching together the details of the mornings in which they were found, trying to imagine the sequence of events, the first known facts to make the records in their very young lives. The start of their histories as we know them began with police records documenting each girl’s founding. We’ve photographed and filmed these spaces and the surrounding venues, paying attention to details—signs and faces, archways and alleys—trying to fix for them, in images, something of this lost time.

My oldest daughter is nine years old. The Hunan cases occurred ten years ago, far from Chongqing, where she was found and where I am now writing.

My reception of this news of the child trafficking of international adoptees is complex. One of the emotions many adoptive parents contend with at one time or another is the fear that someday they will be told that their child is not really theirs. We take all kinds of precautions to mitigate this fear; the chief precaution being that we do everything possible in the adoption process to ensure that the child we embrace as our own has truly been relinquished by anyone else who may have once claimed parental rights. We do our research, we don’t take short cuts, we dot our i’s, we cross our t’s. This is what we do to protect ourselves as parents and to ensure birthparents and parentless children are not being exploited.

But my parental rights and the rights of birthparents aren’t my primary concern when I hear of this case. As an adult adoptee who has “been there,” so to speak, wrestling as a child with an unknown past, I have an additional concern. I don’t want my children (and other adoptees) to fear that anyone from their pasts may re-emerge to lay claim to them, or that anyone may dare to tell them that they do not belong where they have come to belong. With our first adoption we were especially zealous, as many first-time parents tend to be. When we brought our daughter back to the U.S. we had a huge file of papers documenting our journey as a family that included her Chinese birth certificate, her immigration visa, and her Chinese adoption papers. To these we added, over subsequent months, an American birth certificate issued by the state of California showing us as her parents, an American Social Security card, and an American passport. Not stopping there, we took the extra steps to “readopt” through the American court system, documenting our parentage and her daughterhood in every way possible so that no county agency, or state agency, or federal agency or international agency, disconnected from any other bureaucracy, may ever—in the case of a will or a custody battle or a claim to life insurance benefits or to a deed on a house or to guardianship of her aged and demented parents or a younger orphaned sibling—will ever try to strip her of her daughterhood, her claim to us as her forever parents, or her claim to any subsequent children of ours as her forever siblings. In sum, adoptive parents can be a little paranoid, recognizing, from sobering experience, that not everyone in the world sees adoptive families as real families. And this adult adoptee, turned adoptive parent, is especially vigilant about ensuring my daughters are secure in their knowledge that they belong in the family where they belong.

So the first place I go with the news of child trafficking ten years ago, down river, is to how my daughters and their cohort of adoptee friends might receive comments from well-meaning others on this news, if and when they hear the commentary. I have no idea if the American media has picked this story up, but recalling the coverage of the Russian adoptee sent back to Russia a few years ago, I’m apprehensive. I’m quick to imagine the confusion it will stir, the conclusions people may leap to, and the damage this will do to popular understandings of real families, forged through adoption, like my own.

Far from home, with my husband about to depart from our home front on a separate trip to China, I hastily alert our dear friends who will be caring for the girls in our absence, of a possible contingency plan in the remote case that this news of child trafficking enters our daughters’ media-shielded lives.

I sent an email, in an attempt to wrest control over a complex narrative.

Apparently officials enforcing the family planning policy took at least 20 over-quota babies from their families and sold them to local orphanages. These babies were then adopted internationally. Heart-breaking. Chilling. One baby was apparently an only child and ‘mistakenly’ confiscated. I don't know if this has hit the American press, or to what extent it will be, but I wanted to give you a heads-up in case our girls get word of this in the next couple weeks.

Some facts for you as adults to process this. This seems to be a legitimate story (not just hype), covered in Chinese press with an official investigation. This also seems to be an isolated case. I have never heard of any other stories of baby trafficking associated with the one-child policy. This is also a case that occurred far from the birthplaces of either of our girls, and no such stories have ever broken about their birth areas. There was absolutely no shortage of abandoned infant girls in the orphanages where our girls started out, and conversations with staff there at the time of their adoptions indicate daily abandonments of infant girls at the orphanage gates and a staff overwhelmed dealing with this. We also have very specific finding information for both girls that I think credibly supports the fact of their abandonment.

If the girls do happen to get wind of this, here are the following talking points I would take:

  • Validation of the sadness and scariness of this situation and their feelings about this, whatever these may be (primary focus would be on this).
  • Reassurance that this was a very small number of babies far from the cities where they were found.
  • Reminders that we have information about their own abandonment and a reminder of the facts, as we know them (I'd give them the chance for them to tell me their stories, as they understand them).
  • Opportunity for them to ask any questions they may have, express concerns, etc.
  • If it feels right, opening up a conversation about whom they imagine their birthparents to be (a tangible tool for ZZ would be to draw a picture or write an imaginary letter).

I seriously doubt this will come up when we're gone, but is likely to be a more longer term issue to deal with, as I suspect some of the American public will extrapolate from this story that all Chinese adoptees were stolen babies.

The email was sent and lovingly received. There is a plan in place for my daughters, if they need it, freeing me up a bit to consider these other Chinese babies, those trafficked years ago, those shattered and heartbroken families, and the adoptive parents who are unknowingly participants in this loss.

The truth is, Chinese girl babies are often in my sights and on my mind when I go through my days in Chongqing. I feel a special rootedness in the nexus of these rivers as my daughter’s birthplace and as the city in which, within the Ministry of Civil Affairs, she made me a mother. I think a lot about her origins, about what might have been hers here, and about her cohort of peers whose lives remain here. I pass Chinese girl babies everywhere, held and coddled and cherished in the arms of mothers and fathers and ayis and grandparents: claimed and beloved as I cherish my own daughters, my own heart’s treasures. I talk to these babies all the time, mostly in standard Mandarin, but occasionally with expressions in the limited Chongqing dialect I know and learned when I walked here with my own baby daughter in arms, a proud momma accepting the compliments and admirations locals lavished on my daughter and me. It was in Chongqing I first learned how Chinese talk to babies and their mothers, being the recipient of the locals’ attention: “Look how cute she is!” “Look how obedient!” “How fat she is!” “How calm and peaceful!” “How many months is she?” “She’s growing so well!” “Give auntie a smile!” “Come let grandma hold you!” “Blow auntie a kiss!” “Wave uncle bye-bye.” And this last, bittersweet comment: “She’s a very lucky baby.”

I talk to Chinese babies everywhere I go. I gently touch their cheeks and hold my hands out to them, palms turned upward, inviting them into my embrace as any doting Chinese stranger would. I notice the girl babies in particular, their sex made evident through their split pants, as they are gently coddled in their caregivers’ laps and arms. And I talk to their parents and grandparents, who proudly and lovingly hold their bundled daughters, unaccustomed to strollers—who play with them and dote on them and scold them and feed them and place their hopes and dreams in them. I celebrate each and every one of these beloved daughters, convinced they are the vast majority of the girl babies in China.

Don’t ever believe someone who tells you that the Chinese don’t love their girl babies. Don’t ever be tempted to believe that a Chinese girl baby, born to an impoverished and uneducated family during a difficult historical moment, is better off raised in a more privileged family in America. My heart breaks for those 20 birth families we know of, who a decade ago were unjustly and wrongly stripped of their precious daughters. My heart breaks for those daughters, twice over, who must once again rewrite their histories and re-forge their sense of belonging to accommodate a new truth. And my heart breaks for the parents who have loved and raised their daughters and have done all they could to give their girls a secure sense of love and belonging in their world. But these adoptions, carried out unknowingly through child trafficking—these are the exceptions—even more exceptional than the abandonments, carried out under desperate circumstances during desperate times, by folks who might otherwise love and embrace that which they could call their own.


  1. Of all the topics you write about, Professor Plum, this is the one that brings me to my knees, blows my mind and takes hold of my heart. What an exquisitely eloquent post. I am glad you shared with everyone the emailed suggestions of how to talk to your daughters about the trafficked adoptees. Your advice is relevant for any adult talking to any child. You illuminate some of the fundamental questions and concerns families through adoption share, while offering glimpses of your family's history -and your current trip - in Chongqing. Write the book, baby! Xo Helen

  2. Depth, love, wisdom and voice.