Monday, December 13, 2010

Honor and Realism About Birth Countries

In this post at Slate, adoptive parent KJ Dell'Antonia discusses the difficulty of honoring China in light of the oppression of its people:
In September of 2008 I wrote a letter to the Chinese government. In it, I promised to always honor the Chinese culture and to raise any child it chose to put into my care to honor it as well. Two days after we arrived in Beijing to adopt our daughter, Chinese authorities appeared outside our hotel room at midnight. Within a few hours my other kids, my mother, and I were securely behind armed guards in a quarantine hotel, and my husband was locked in a hospital room being treated for an H1N1 flu so mild he hadn’t even realized he was sick. If by “honor,” we mean “show deference to power,” I now had it covered. If we intended to use any of the more common senses of the word, I had a problem, because for what I felt toward China, at that moment and since, has little to do with the kind of honor I’d like to feel toward my daughter’s home country.

China has spent millions of dollars over the past years improving its "soft power." That effort has been very successful. It's now very easy, with all we've heard about the efficient subways, the expansive mobile networks, the stable population, and the high-speed trains carrying new workers to new destinations, to forget that behind the “One World One Dream” Olympic façade, China is run by a regime that believes its power still lies in its willingness to oppress when necessary. China's fury over the Nobel committee's choice to honor Liu Xiaobo stems from its fear that in distinguishing Liu for his criticism of Beijing, the world will look behind the curtain at the real costs of the unilateral power that has led to so many gains.

* * *

China has always been a tough sell for the honoring adoptive parent. If China afforded its own people the simplest of human rights—the right to keep and raise their own children under any circumstances—it’s likely that most adoptive parents would travel there only to see the Great Wall. (There may be more to my particular daughter’s story, but the issue remains.) I have long struggled to figure out how to honor China's past without being willfully blind to its present. In Liu Xiaobo, I've found one answer. In awarding the Nobel to Liu, the international community may shame China for its failure to allow dissent, but it honors China as well, for producing a citizen willing to speak boldly in support of what’s right for his country and countrymen, knowing that he’s likely to be called upon to accept and endure the worst of what he protests. It’s a contradiction worthy of China itself.
How do you straddle that divide, between honoring your child's country of birth while being honest about its faults?  I'm assuming we want to honor our children's birth country; feeling positive about being Chinese, or Russian, or Haitian, or whatever, is necessary for positive self esteem.  But what happens when we hide a country's faults?  Or fail to hide a country's faults?  It is a balancing act, isn't it?

When Zoe was 4.5, and we returned to China to adopt her baby sister, she was excited to visit Beijing.  From my guidebook, she had fixated on the large image of Mao over the entrance to the Forbidden City.  As we were waiting to go under that portrait into the city, Zoe was singing, "Mao, Mao, Mao-y, Mao, Mao!"  She was excited -- I was worried we'd be arrested for heresy!

As we passed under the portrait, Zoe said, "I think Mao was a good man."  I answered, "Some people say he was a good man, but others say he was not."  Zoe turns the stink-eye on me as says, emphatically, "Well, I say he's nice!"  Alrighty, then! 

We've revisited this topic many times since.  We've talked about the good things Mao has done, and the bad things that Mao did.  I think Zoe has a more balanced view of Mao now.  We've talked about the one child policy, and she knows I don't approve of the policy.  But we've also tried to separate out our problems with the government and government policies and our love of the Chinese people.

What advice would you give adoptive parents on this topic?


Anonymous said...

I have always discussed her birth country as I do our own--with positives and negatives, triumphs and faults. No country is perfect. It is important to seperate govt policies and citizens. If we keep the discussions open and honest, we do ourselves and our children good. By realizing that our shared country has faults just as their birth country we keep ourselves honest and understanding of a world dynamic, not just a small scope view that so many would like to take.

Wendy O--it wouldn't take my password today

Victoria said...

You know, it is pretty easy for me. I have many, many problems with our fair country's government too...especially with the current class divide, and we talk about that with my daughter. Same for China. As Wendy O explained above, we try to make clear that we can honor and appreciate its citizens while finding fault with its government.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of triumphs, I did sense a little triumphalism in her piece. I agree with Wendy. Countries are a mixture of good and bad, the US too. I know when Kay Johnson was talking about her daughter's relationship to China now, it was by way of saying that the place is a real place for her. But fundamentally, or order to encourage that view I don't think we should ever be saying, in effect, "you're in a better place now." (That "knock on the door" reference struck me that way.) I think that's deeply confusing to our kids.

Reena said...

Oh my, I followed this blog while we were waiting to adopt our youngest. We considered not taking our oldest (also adopted from China) with us for the adoption.

I think you hit it on the head with,

"separate out our problems with the government and government policies and our love of the Chinese people."

The US government is far from perfect-- oh boy could I make a list!

All countries have their goods and their bads in terms of the rule of governance. I don't think any are perfect.

There are good-spirited people as well as mean-spirited people in all cultures, all countries.

One lesson I have learned from History, is that when 'a people' are faced with extreme circumstances such as extreme oppression, there are people who strive to be more-- to accomplish--to persevere. I have seen this in some of my readings about China as well as other countries.

Yes, be truthful, account for the unfairness of the Chinese government.

Yes, be truthful, account for the beauty in the culture, landscape, and way of life found in China as well.

We did take our oldest with us to adopt her little sister. I am so glad that we did!