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Fulbright scholar calls for China’s adoption law to be more open

Beijing American Center (北京美国中心) last Tuesday showed "Somewhere Between", a documentary by British filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton chronicling the lives of four Chinese American teenagers as they struggle to explore and develop identity.

The film leads one to think: it’s difficult to be a teen in America; it’s even more difficult to be a teen in America who was adopted as a baby from China. A Fulbright visiting scholar’s family and one of their family friends attended the event because they have the unique background and wanted to share it.

Over 80,000 children have been adopted from China to the US since 1999, and over 90% of them are girls. The reason could be easily attributed to China’s one-child policy enacted in the late 1970s, although many may not agree and consider it as an exaggeration of the reason behind the availability of children to be adopted in China before 2005. "Somewhere Between" has chosen four girls in their late adolescence that in a way could represent the whole group.

The film follows Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang along their journeys to meet with other adoptees, to go back to China for reconnecting with the past, or to express themselves in front of those who wonder about their circumstances and would like to help. Although the experiences and emotions may be specific for every individual, the efforts made by them represent a universal quest to find the answer to the question "who am I" and a sense of belonging.

Bruce Larson is a political science professor who is now involved in a semester-long Fulbright exchange program at the China Foreign Affairs University. After the film, he went to the stage with his wife Alice Carter, 13-year-old daughter Lily, and a family friend Ming Foxweldon to share their stories with the audience.

The Larson couple adopted their daughter Lily when she was only 12 months old in Guangzhou, south China’s Guangdong province. And Ming was adopted by an American family when she was three and a half in Kunming, the capital city of southwest China’s Yunnan province. Now, Ming has an elder sister who is her family’s biological child and a younger brother who was adopted from Peru.

Professor Larson asked all people to think about the title of the movie—somewhere between—and especially its significance beneath the literal meaning. Jenna, one of the four girls featured in the documentary, says in the film, “I don’t think I could consider myself fully Chinese or fully American. No matter where I am in my life, I’m always going to be sort of somewhere in between.”

This is definitely a general idea or mindset shared by most young people of the group who were adopted when they were babies in the early 1990s, when China first formulated laws to allow international adoption. According to Alice Carter, now the young people are becoming adults, and they begin to find out the adoption law applied to them is not really in their interests. “This wave of the first generation of adoptees becoming adults may push China’s adoption law to be changed,” she noted, “It should be more open and transparent.”

“China’s adoption law does not require the identity of birth parents. This information is not part of the record kept by the Chinese authorities,” said Professor Larson, “In some cases, it’s not even straightforward how the child got to the orphanage, and there is just no way to find out.”

The Larson couple had gone to the orphanage where Lily was adopted for more birth information about their daughter, but they were told all record about the children there had been thrown out a while ago.

The Larson family  Photo: sino-us.com by Rebecca Lin

Ming once talked with the management in her orphanage a few years ago, and she was told such kind of social welfare institutes are not running efficiently because they usually don’t have enough hands. Although the national law says the record must be kept, as Professor Larson put it, "it’s hard to implement laws in such a big country with so many people." Ming confided that she is now doing her own research although the possibility of success is quite slim.

Haley, one of the girls in the film, had finally reunited with her birth family in China with the help of her adoptive parents. But Alice Carter noted such happy endings in real life are actually unusual and not that realistic. “Most of the adopted girls that we know have never gone to China, and 99% of them would not find their birth parents either because they don’t want to or because they tried but just couldn’t,” she said.

When Professor Larson and his wife adopted, China’s adoption program was viewed by U.S. international agencies as legitimate and ethical. However, as the time went by, some media began to publish ugly stories about corruption associated with some of the Chinese programs.  “There is a lot we don’t just know about how children ended up in orphanages,” Larson noted, “because there is so little transparency at the local level in China.”

Like his wife, the Fulbright professor complained that related Chinese laws failed to offer what the children need. He suggested that more transparency would lead to less corruption. But Larson and his wife Alice stressed that they are not adoption experts and were instead speaking as parents.

As the director of the documentary Linda Goldstein Knowlton said in a VOA interview, there is no one way to feel about being adopted, being born in China and being a teenager. Although not all adoptees would expect a rosy reunion with their birth families, many of them would want to reconnect with their past to identify themselves.

The peak of international adoption for China came in 2005, and since then, the figure of Chinese children being adopted internationally has been on the decline.

The three agreed that adoption is harder than it was just a few years ago.

“The waiting period is longer,” Ming said. “A few years ago, a year and a half might be needed and now for adopting a healthy child, people may need to wait for as long as four to five years.”

It is generally believed that at least two main factors are driving the trend. First is China itself is becoming wealthier with the rise of middle class, and the second is apparently the now stronger China is pushing up in-country adoption.

“All countries would prefer to have their children to stay in their country,” Linda Goldstein Knowlton said in her VOA interview. “I guess they’ve been working toward making that work.”

When asked what are the most embarrassing moments are for the kids from China, Alice represented her daughter in answering the question. “People thought about things like we must have rescued Lily from some terrible situation and we must be so kind-hearted and Lily is so lucky. But, it’s hard not to be raised by your birth parents; it’s hard to be one of the few Chinese children in your town; and it’s also hard to walk into a public place with every one looking at your family and thinking ‘oh, look, that girl is adopted’,” said Alice.

“So many people assume that there is only one way to make a family. There are many ways to make a family. We know that, but the rest of the world doesn’t know that. So, we think we might bring the message,” Professor Larson said.

Fulbright is the US government’s flagship international exchange program, under which, competitively selected U.S. citizens may become eligible for scholarships to study, conduct research, or exercise their talents abroad and citizens of other countries may qualify to do the same in the United States.

Ming Foxweldon [R]   Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Larson


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