Lost and Found
An abandoned baby on the streets of Shanghai.
The orphanage where my elder daughter, Grace, spent the first eight months of her life was rebuilt recently, with underfloor heating, flat screen televisions, a Little Tots climbing frame and a bouncy castle. And the US charity Half the Sky Foundation—which has trained staff in scores of Chinese orphanages to nurture children rather than just keep them alive—recently announced that Beijing will start to shoulder the financial burden of building special nurture centres in additional Chinese orphanages.
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Soon after Donuts arrived at her temporary home, orphanage staff gave her a name and a birthdate. Her name was chosen according to a formula that applies to all new arrivals: 2010 arrivals all receive the same surname, Jiang; the orphanage wishes to keep the rest of her name private. Her official birthday is October 28 2010, arrived at from an educated guesstimate. Like both my children, for the rest of her life Donuts will celebrate a birthday without ever knowing how accurate it is. Where other children have a birth certificate, a genealogy and a family tree, they have a "certificate of abandonment".
The first couple of times I visited her, Baby Jiang seemed to be doing well: she was responsive, alert, relaxed, and she cooed a lot. Charm, in an orphanage baby, works wonders: babies who smile, coo and engage their carers get far more attention, and for her, that might make all the difference.
Aware that babies are not all created equal in the eyes of many orphanage nannies, the first time I visited, I came bearing expensive presents: Lindt Lindor truffles and a posh European tea sampler, gifts chosen to convey a sense that this was a baby of substance. I need not have bothered: Donuts already had her own PR strategy.
The head matron told me right away that she "sleeps well and eats well"—what more could one ask for, in an orphan? But the look in the eyes of the bucktoothed, sweet-faced nurse who held Donuts—making the same silly faces a mother would make—told me that she is also a favourite. The nurse may not be Mum—but she will do nicely for the moment.
The tale of an abandoned Chinese infant is not always so warm and fuzzy. For centuries, rural Chinese women were forced—by circumstance, and often by their mothers-in-law—to strangle or drown or simply throw away girl babies at the moment of their birth. Xinran, the Chinese radio show host turned author, recounts in her new book, Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother, an incident from Shandong province in 1989, when she was present at the birth of a granddaughter to the village headman.
"Suddenly, I thought I heard a slight movement in the slops pail behind me," she writes. "To my absolute horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail… Then the tiny foot twitched! It wasn't possible. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slop pail!" Xinran accosts the grandmother, who explains calmly that "a girl baby isn't a child".
It is that kind of story—which, however, gruesome, is far from apocryphal—that makes it, paradoxically, relatively easy to explain to our Chinese daughters why their parents abandoned them. When traditional preference for sons meets the one-child policy, the inevitable outcome is abandonment (or sex-selective abortion).
Families that need a son may keep the first daughter and try again (most rural families are allowed to have a second child if their first child is a girl). But if they are unlucky enough to bear another girl, abandonment may be their only option. Single mothers may abandon a baby of any sex. And mothers of children with costly medical problems like Baby Jiang's may be unable (or think they are unable) to get help for their children any other way.
But as my daughters grow up I become more aware that vague generalisations about the one-child policy are not the same as concrete facts about where they were born, and when, and to whom—and the real reasons why their parents could not keep them. I was living in the US when I adopted, and that is where my daughters spent the first few years of their lives. Soon after we moved to China three years ago, we returned to the hometown orphanage of my oldest girl for the first time. She was eight then, and not long after our visit she challenged my version of her abandonment myth: "She could have paid the fine," she said to me one night. "Who could have paid what fine?" I replied, dissembling: I knew she meant that her mother could have chosen to pay the stiff penalty (sometimes as much as a year's income) imposed on those who break family-planning rules.
She wanted me to stop making her abandonment story into a fairy tale about the good parent and the evil one-child policy: maybe her mother was a businesswoman who was just too busy to have a baby. Maybe she could have paid the fine.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT's Shanghai correspondent.
Photograph of baby by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.