Tag Archives: adoption

A preface of sorts

I’m learning that writing a dissertation is all about excess.

A botanical garden outside of Boston.  My photo.
A botanical garden outside of Boston. My photo.

You write and write and write (or at least this is the way it has gone for me), without any sense of the whole, blindly, and at best, faithfully, and when you generate enough material, things start taking shape.  You’re no longer writing so much, but sifting through material, arguments and descriptions, and assembling something piecemeal, slowly and methodically.

It works best when there is excess, but that’s hard to accept when you’re first getting started.  You want it all to fit.  You want not a moment to be wasted.  But not everything will make its way into the larger work.  There will be pieces that stand alone, and pieces that are ultimately set aside.

Here’s a bit of excess for the moment.  Something I wrote months and months ago and finally came back to, and liked, but who knows whether it will make it into the dissertation.

Consider it a sneak preview!

***********************

I remember sitting with my Chinese professor in his office in Princeton explaining my intent to go to Southwest China to study foster families.  When he heard Guangxi, Nanning his ears perked up, and he bellowed a guttural laugh, “I don’t even understand a thing they say there, ha!  Good luck!”  I remember not only the cacophony of languages and accents upon touching down in Nanning, but the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.

E-bikes in Nanning, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
E-bikes in Nanning, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I met not a single foster mother that first summer.  Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me emphatically that they did not exist.  Most people who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and they urged me to go somewhere of more importance in China.  Chinese professors of anthropology wondered how what I was studying could be called anthropology if it did not concern the Zhuang minority culture for which Guangxi was famous.   They misunderstood the focus of my research to be international adoptions, because as they and many others stated, there was no Chinese culture of adoption.

But in March of 2011 all of my fledgling questions brought me to an unassuming concrete office in the middle of the city, where a small NGO staff assembled and told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province to who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes.  That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern.  Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.

When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories.  It was no different for me, and despite the draw of foster mothers’ joy and pain, I imagined a China in which movement of children from public orphanages to private homes represented an unprecedented receding of the state from private family life.  I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change.

Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Fishing alongside the Yong River in Guangxi, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinderblock homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands.  I learned that despite the narratives about the strength of the Chinese state in my textbooks, power was always locally negotiated.  Despite the myriad of books on China’s urban centers, the people of Guangxi are, as Fei Xiaotong wrote decades ago, firmly “of the soil.”

And I discovered that despite the literature on families and family life in China, nothing prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I would encounter on the inside—the secrets people confided in me, illegitimate children, illegal adoptions, and how parents clung to me briefly and then physically pushed me away.  So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was inside of me or between us that elicited such rawness, even as I relished the intimacy.  Even if you know in your heart that you are dealing in the realm of truths and the kindred, there is, for the anthropologist, always the concern for what will someday make it onto the page and into the readers’ conscience.  And the fact that your informant is never so concerned with representation in these real moments, but only concerned with living itself, that’s what always gives me a sinking, slithery uneasiness.

A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
A foster mother and her son in Anhui, China. Photo by Jason Fouts.

I once read a warning from another writer about the tendency to make the people we meet and learn from and love, “dear, little tragic figures in the story of me,” and the phrase struck real fear into my anthropologist soul.  Even as I write these words now back in the glass towers of Princeton University, it’s been hard but necessary to come to terms with the fact that what I write will inevitably be a sort of fiction—irrelevant and inaccurate—because these people, these friends, are not characters I invented, but people whose lives go on, quite independently, quite functionally from mine after I’ve left China.

For every anthropologist of China there is this sense that you become irrelevant once you leave and China goes on changing at the speed of light.  And for every human being who has ever done fieldwork or loved another they’ve left behind, there is also this hope that while others will go on living, that you’ll never, ever be the same.

Visiting foster homes with an orphanage director in Anhui.  Photo by Jason Fouts.
Visiting foster families with an orphanage director in Anhui. Photo by Jason Fouts.

Hunan Headlines: A Mix of Sorrow and Hope

It’s been about three weeks (May 9) since I first read on a Chinese news website about the incident of baby trafficking in a poor county in Hunan that subsequently made international headlines. While I’ve been busy, the wait was actually intentional, in that I didn’t want to respond with only my gut or my heart, but with my mind, as well.

Several weeks later, allow me to share a few lingering thoughts.

First, I’m filled with sorrow for the parents who lost children so many years ago, and whose pain was largely ignored by not only local and provincial leaders, but media, and social agencies. This story, though it received many slants in the media, is first of all a story of human tragedy, and only secondly, a story of tragedies about national or international systems. I also am filled with sorrow regarding the mistakes of local officials, and their alleged abuse of the population policies.

Next, it saddens me that a few individuals’ mistakes have colored international perspectives regarding Chinese governance, and given that my research attends to the individuals in Chinese society who warmly and willingly foster and adopt abandoned and disabled children, it frustrates me that this negative story is the one (as the negative stories often do) that has captivated international attention.

As someone studying Chinese social welfare, I’m more often than not refreshed by the care and concern Chinese people have for their children, and I’m blessed to see that there is much to be hopeful about when it comes to the lives of orphans and disabled children in China.

Finally, it frustrates me that several media outlets have taken this opportunity to draw attention to the one-child policy, and focus on condemning its role in child trafficking, rather than the illegal actions of a few individuals, or the complexity of competing pressures. In this case, local officials abused the policy, and for whatever reason, chose to implement the policy illegally and inappropriately, and as such the child trafficking is a consequence of illegal behavior, rather than routine policy enforcement.  While the one-child policy is by no means perfect, child trafficking in China, as in other developing countries, is a much more complicated effect of poverty, international demand for adoptions, etc., rather than the direct consequence of a policy.

This incident has received attention from the Chinese government and the Chinese press, and is currently under investigation. My hope is that as a result of this incident, the pressure that population officials are under to maintain low birth rates will be illuminated, and families who lost children in Longhui county, as well as in other parts of China, will be given support and attention from the government.

My encouragement goes out to those in Chinese society who are working to promote the case for foster care and domestic adoption in China, and my hope is that I am able to describe their work accurately, so that the international audience can understand the complexities of life in China, and also relate to the love parents have for children here as well.