Tag Archives: foster care

The Embodiment of Hope

Today I’m over at Grace and Hope for Children’s blog, writing about my experiences working alongside their organization in China and the hope that their staff and the foster parents they support bring to children, their communities, China, and abroad.

I’ve written a fair bit about my research with foster parents on this blog, but without the support from folks at Grace and Hope none of it would have been possible!  They’re a great organization that are supporting the work of foster care in China, which is so important.  You can learn more about their organization via their website, or you can read the post below and click over to the blog to finish.  If you’re joining us from Grace and Hope today, thanks for your support of foster families, and I hope you’ll enjoy browsing the blog for other posts about China, foster families, and faith.

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Nanning
Farmers on the outskirts of Nanning’s modern skyscrapers in the Guangxi Autonomous Region. All photos by Evan Schneider.

Nearly three and a half years ago I came to China hoping to do dissertation research with foster families.  I remember vividly the first few moments in the Nanning airport, where my halting Mandarin got a pungent taste of Southwest Guangxi’s linguistic plurality and thick Southern accents (yep, there are Southern accents in China, too!).  I remember not only this cacophony of languages upon touching down in Nanning, but also 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.

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.  Our research design is open-ended in anthropology, meaning that we spend a lot of time in the places where we study and live, and we often expect even the topic of our research to change along the way.  People who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and urged me to go somewhere of real importance in China.  Chinese professors of anthropology wondered why I wanted to study foster mothers, rather than the Zhuang minority culture, for which Guangxi is famous.

But oddly, for some reason, it never occurred to me to abandon the project.  I had this strange, absurd, yet resilient hope that foster mothers were out there somewhere, and that they were worth studying and worth knowing.  So my husband and I moved to Nanning the following summer, on a wing and a prayer.  And then finally, in March of 2011 in an unassuming concrete office, buried in the middle of the city, and through a roundabout network of friends and acquaintances, I was introduced to a small NGO staff who told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes.

Their name was Grace and Hope.  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, and in no small part due to Grace and Hope, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.

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The author with members of the staff of Grace and Hope for Children in China.

Keep reading at Grace and Hope for Children

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The intimacy of family life

Often people in China and people in America are equally perplexed by what it means to study anthropology and do participant observation research.  

I know I can’t possibly explain it all in one blog post, but looking back I’m less entranced by the bureaucratic aspects of doing research in China (and trust me there were many), or the language-learning process, but rather the intimacy of being part of family life here in China, which has made me blush and cry from time to time.

What I’ve been seeking to do as an anthropologist studying foster care is to use the relationships I’ve been privileged to experience between foster mothers, foster fathers, their foster children, as well as other siblings and family members, as a window into describing the intimacy of contemporary relationships within Chinese families.

The author with a foster mother in Guangxi.

But it’s funny how scientific and sterile that can sound compared to the actual reality of things–getting sneezed and drooled on by CP kids as we frolic on the makeshift mats in their foster mothers’ teeny apartments, getting the sweat under my arms sopped up by a foster mother and her tissue after I arrive on one blistering afternoon, and yet another foster mom bursting into the bathroom with some toilet paper just as I’ve squatted down, exclaiming, “I wasn’t sure if you had anything to wipe your butt with!”  

With a foster family in Guangxi, Guilin.

Needless to say, these are the memorable moments, the real stuff that fieldwork with families and children is made of, and the intimacy of family life that I’ve been invited to experience, and despite its awkward moments, is quite sacred and thrilling.  The secret of anthropology is that while you’re studying these people, you’re also falling in love with them, becoming moved by their lives and their struggles, and finding that your life won’t be the same without them.

Just a few things I’m pondering as I’m getting ready to leave this place…

Saturday morning thoughts from China

Ah, Saturday morning…

…when my husband and I flop onto the couch in our South China highrise, gulping down as much coffee as possible, and feigning as though we have all the time and no cares in the world.

My husband having coffee and breakfast in Yangshuo, China, on our anniversary, 2011.

Sure I came in last night on the train late from Guilin, my body covered with bites from God knows what that lives somewhere there in the orphanage, my pack on my back and my heart heavy with signs of hope and despair among the children in foster care and within the orphanage walls.

And here now we sit in the mess of our half-packed apartment…

…but–deep breath–all that can wait for another moment.

For now it is Saturday morning in sunny South China, our second to last one, in fact, and I’m turning my thoughts to the ones that let giant hope leap into my heavy heart.

As in I’m thinking and praying about the children with Down Syndrome who I met, so happy in foster care with their foster mother, and being put on the list for international adoption.  Praise God!

Foster siblings playing.

And the little eight-year old autistic girl I met on the last visit of the week on Thursday, down a little country road, where in view of the setting sun she pronounced characters so clearly and deliberately, reading and knitting for us, with her foster mother looking on, proudly grinning from ear to ear, and going on and on about how gifted her child is.

A view of Myanmar from the remotest of country roads in rural Yunnan. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Gifted.  Not disabled, not strange, not marred.  Gifted, good, and beautifully and wonderfully made.

A foster mother and her foster daughter.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

And that’s when the tears came, plump stinging ones, the kind that are impossible to control because you’ve been reminded so deeply, so palpably in your gut what love is again, and it’s so beyond our human capability, and yet so plainly visible in our midst.   And you’ve been reminded of our limits as humans but of God’s ability to do great things with our smallness.

And so I might be sitting on my couch here, wondering how I scarcely lived without coffee this past week, how I went without a mirror, how I endured the bug bites and the dirt and the grime, not to mention the heartache of these children, but I also know in a matter of just a few weeks I’ll be somewhere else wondering how I will be able to live without China.

Holding a tiny baby just placed in a foster home.

God, make me to breathe deep this breath of God in all its goodness, because all things are for a season, and in this season I have been richly blessed by China, these families, and your goodness in a world of suffering.  Amen.

Leaving the field

Is this how it feels to know you’re soon to be leaving a country you’ve learned to call home, soon to be leaving what was always to be a temporary moment of cultural immersion and learning, but also people who have become your friends, your kin, your world, all the same?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t think we anthropologists do a great job talking about the process of fieldwork with all its insecurities, guilt, anxiety, joy, pain, and meaning.  Sometimes we prefer to speak in theories and codes, leaving all that humanity–ironically the object of our study–in relative obscurity.

A temple in Kunming, China.

But I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at that.

And I’ve discovered that while I’ve enjoyed the feeling of being transported to somewhere else visiting friends and hosting family here in China, I’m feeling overwhelmed about the last month of research in China, about being sucked back into my life here, and wondering how and where the research ever ends.

You can leave, but you never stop feeling, you never stop caring.  

I’m a ball of mixed emotions these days, wondering whether the comfort I’ve felt at times that the sacrifice and devotion of these lowly foster mothers will be honored in another lifetime is merely an attempt to assuage my own guilt at leaving them and their children behind.

The faces of the gods at a temple in Kunming.

I’m feeling so racked with shame about the lovely invitations my family make to my friends here in China to come to the US, because I know they’ll never be able to afford the trip, let alone get the visa to do so.  Or I just worry about the myriad of children here who grow up without parents, for whom it may get worse before it gets better.

I know I’m not to worry.

I know it’s not in my power or my purpose to change things, and yet the very concept of fieldwork, becoming a confidant, a compatriot, a companion, just feels trite when one gets to the leaving part.  

And so I stumble on, forced to embrace the fact that life is unfair, imperfect, unjust, and I’m actually quite small in the grand scheme of things.

And then again, things wouldn’t hurt like this if I hadn’t been changed by the people around me, made to feel and understand things in a whole different light.  And that’s no small thing, I suppose.  And the journey wasn’t without its moments of doubt, fear, and pain, either.  When I think how far I’ve come, I can’t help but be thankful, but that doesn’t make leaving any less discombobulating.

All photos by Evan Schneider.

 

Where did May go?

Yes, I know it’s already the fourth of June, but I’m stunned.

May seemed to just fly by…what do you think?

For me, May highlights included:

A view of the countryside in South China.
Evan and I on Halong Bay.
A photo of me and my grandparents from spring 2008.
  • A myriad of foster visits
  • Perhaps my last trip to the countryside to see the disabled kids who are thriving there in foster care
  • A visit from dear friends and a jaunt back to Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam
  • The passing of my lovely Grandfather
  • My twin sister’s seminary graduation (it really feels like just yesterday she started her classes at Denver Seminary.  Congratulations, Julie!  Now both twins graduated from seminary: praise God!)
  • Our fourth-wedding anniversary
  • Experiencing God’s blessings, grace, and joy!
Photo from my seminary graduation in 2008….
…and the twin’s this May. See the resemblance??

And looking forward to in June:

Children’s Day

Today is Children’s Day in China and all over the world.

A Chinese child flies a kite in the park.

Children are squealing with delight as they run around in the city courtyard below our highrise this morning, and yesterday we had the privilege of passing out cakes and red bean buns to the twenty-two disabled children being fostered in a rural community a few hours out of the capital city of Guangxi.  I’m so heartened by those kids being fostered, loved, and accepted not only by the foster mothers, but by whole families and communities.

But the future is not so bright for all the children of China.  

A recent article in the Xinhua news highlighted Guangxi as just one area of China where children are being left behind in the countryside to be cared for by their grandparents while their parents flee to find work in the cities, and the harsh consequences of those family breakdowns.

And the future is comparably complicated for children in Africa, and other parts of the developing world.

The dynamics of international adoption are never simple, but a recent report from the African Child Forum shows a sophisticated understanding of international adoption and development, namely that, “Adoption can save the lives of individual children and give them unique opportunities to live healthy and prosperous lives, but it does little to address the problems that led to the child’s orphan status in the first place” (Fortin Anaylsis May 30, 2012).

I can’t offer a simple solution today.  I’ve written previously about cultural differences that make even such a seemingly noncontroversial phrase, such as “in the best interests of children,” quite contextual.  I’ve also discussed with some frequency on this blog the relationship between birth planing policies and international adoption, as well as  the portrayal of Chinese children in the media. And I’ve tried to balance these more political discussions with ones that reflect the hope that foster mothers’ in China inspire.

But I can say today that despite the bleak news, and the complexity of working for change in the face of cultural differences and a legacy of misunderstandings, I’m still filled with hope.

The author with a foster child.

A few months ago, one of our foster mothers had been neglecting the two foster children in her care due to her increasing age and a host of other complicated reasons.  And so, the children were moved.  One child was sent back to the orphanage, her age and her problems too advanced for any new family to take on.  And my heart broke.

But the other child, only two years old, was placed in a new family.  When we visited the family a month after the switch, I noticed something different about this child.  She was smiling.  I realized that in all the time I’d known this little autistic girl, I’d never seen a smile cross her face.  In fact, I’d never seen her quite look another adult in the eyes, but here she was, playing with her foster mother, who held her as they both giggled, snuggled, smiled, and laughed.

Yesterday the orphanage monitor praised this woman and her husband’s dedication to their two foster children, and the same smile crossed her face, but this time, tears also slipped from her eyes.

That had been my reaction, too, when I saw those precious smiles for the first time.  Big fat, flowing tears of joy.

So friends, you see, even as there is much to lament, there is much to hope for today when it comes to the world’s children.

Pray with me for their future, for their present, but most of all for them to experience the love of a family and for them to know, no matter who they are or what they’ve been through that they are worthy of unconditional, tears-of-joy kind of love, the kind that really exists not just in heaven, but here on earth, and my they all know it in their lifetime. 

All photos by Evan Schneider.

Some Easter thoughts from China

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.  –Mark 16:1-8

Easter is generally quite quiet and unassuming in China.  I’ll be up on Easter morning, right around sunrise, getting into a taxi to head to the airport to travel to several provinces and visit foster care projects.  Often the rhythm of my life here in China couldn’t be more different from my previous experiences helping to pastor during the bustle of Holy Week, and I’m left to wonder what Easter means in a foreign land.

But then again, that early morning was no doubt a strange, foreign experience for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome as they ventured out in the early sunlight to anoint their messiah.  For some reason as my friend and I read through this scripture the other morning, my mind was drawn to their preoccupations over, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  I think about how they must have felt, powerless and hopeless as they walked to the tomb, knowing not even how to move the stone when they arrived.

A week or so ago when we traveled into the countryside to visit foster families, a friend of mine and I got to talking about what we do in America versus what they do in China when someone dies.  It was difficult to explain to her the sterilized world of funeral parlors, embalming, and even cremation.

“I was the one who helped prepare and clean my grandmother’s body before she was buried,” she stammered.  Chinese people are particularly fearful of the dead and of evil spirits, but it perplexed my friend that anyone other than the family would attend to such an intimate practice as preparing a loved one for life in the spirit world.  “I wasn’t afraid, I didn’t even cry,” she remarked proudly.

I think about how the women, despite their own fears and misgivings, not even knowing how to move the stone, went to the tomb anyway.  And I think of how when they arrived the angel told them plainly that their Jesus has been raised, and was going before them to Galilee.

And I think of how difficult it really is to trust that God is going ahead of us.

A woman honors her ancestors during the tomb sweeping festival in China. Photo from The Telegraph.

Another one of my friends talked through her tears earlier this week about tomb sweeping traditions in China where one prays to the ancestors and conflicts between these and her Christian faith.  Many extreme voices from the Christian foreign and local communities, not unlike those centuries before them, stress that believers today need to take a stand against these traditions and their families, and refuse to participate.

But my friend, in her deep faith and wisdom, knows there must be another way.  So she will make the trip home today to her family, to sweep the graves and honor her ancestors and her very much living family, and carry the promise of the resurrection in her heart.  And rather than risking that the promise of grace become confused with rejection, anger, and bitterness, she will wait and pray, and when the time is right, she will share the way in which her faith makes her life full and complete and meaningful with her loved ones.

I pray that she will trust that God is indeed going before her this weekend.  It seems to me that not just my friend or Chinese Christians or the women who brought spices, but all of us wonder and worry who will roll the stone away from the tomb for us.  We all struggle to trust that God has truly gone ahead of us and died for us and been raised, and that no mistake on our part, not even the terror or the muteness that supposedly plagued the women that fateful morning can change that.  The promise has been–and is fulfilled, in the resurrection of our Lord.

That is why we proclaim, Jesus is risen, He is risen indeed, from wherever we find ourselves this Sunday, from the tombs of the Chinese countryside to the sanctuaries of the United States.  And we give thanks that God has done what God promised, and that we, the weak, afraid, mute, and hopeless, are the recipients of such grace that flowed out from that empty tomb on a quiet morning in another land years ago.

P.s.  If you’re looking for more Easter reflection, Rachel Held Evans is doing a wonderful series on Women of the Passion on her blog.

Like a child

There are days that I find doing fieldwork with children really trying.  

When I walk into a cramped room, and children are strewn about the floor, unoccupied, with dead, long looks on their faces, my heart hurts.  When I see many of them, especially those with disabilities, struggling so hard to communicate with us, and I see the ways we all fail them, I have my doubts about God and humanity.

And then there are days like one this week, when I become so utterly consumed in holding the hands of a child with CP who is so eager to walk, and taking each step with her that I literally can’t think of doing anything else.  Children are wonderful in the way that they demand our attention, and they force us to put our thoughts at bay to focus on the present, where they live.

It was hours that this young girl and I walked about the tiny living room of her foster mother’s house, toddling past her three foster siblings, and she tipped her head back, laughing at who knows what.  But that laughter was contagious.  We sat on the floor, and perhaps because I couldn’t understand the dialect her family was speaking, I became part of her wordless word, and in awe of the way in which, despite her inability to speak, she could pick up so quickly on all of my motions, even my mood.

When it was time to leave, I had to hear the words three or four times before they registered.  Perhaps this is not the way fieldwork should be done, allowing oneself to become lost in the daydreams, the world of a child.

But I keep thinking if I can do one thing this year, let it be to live like a child, to enter her world, and to be a companion, who, despite all my inabilities to make everything better, patiently and wholeheartedly, walks beside her.

Photo Credit

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.