Archive for the ‘Social Commentary’ Category

Until his overthrow in 1911, the emperor in China carried “the mandate of heaven.”  He was believed to be a god descended to earth for the purpose of ruling China.

Even though religious practice was outlawed in the early decades of the Communist Party’s rule, and most people I meet in today’s China embrace a kind of agnostic-but-curious approach to faith, the threads of this dynastic heaven concept are still shot through modern culture.  For example, according to a very interesting 2012 article about “leftover women” (China’ official term for single ladies over 30), the party-sponsored All China Women’s Federation recently applied this “mandate of heaven” to urge marriage upon all women.  In a published party document on the subject, the Women’s Federation cautioned that even a very successful career woman “is flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of heaven,” which is understood to be marriage for all. (more…)


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Lately, Matt and I have been hunting for a doll.  Not just any doll—a doll that looks Chinese.  While this may seem an unusual errand for kid-less newlyweds like us, it wasn’t entirely random.  We were on a mission.

Around Christmas time, Matt’s brother and sister-in-law, Abby and Josh, sent us an email.  They have some friends who adopted their four-year old daughter from China a few years back.  At some point last winter, she was playing with her dolls, but after surveying a few more closely, she put them down, and said:

“Mommy, I want a doll that looks like me.”

Her mom thought this was a reasonable request, and she began to look around.  If you’ve scoured any Barbie aisles lately, you’ll know this is a tall order.  If anyone is actually selling an Asian Barbie, I would bet money that they just put different eyes on an other-wise Caucasian face and body (like all of the “black” Barbies I’ve ever seen).  Abby and Josh heard about the search, and naturally assumed that such a doll should be easy to find in China.  Matt and I we were duly dispatched. (more…)

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As I’m sure you were distracted over the Thanksgiving weekend, able to think of nothing but the end of my Chinese orphanage story, here I am to finish it.  And boy, did I finish it…it’s long.  Prepare yourself.  🙂  (If you’re behind, you might want to read Part 1 and Part 2).

I left off as my orphanage “tour guides” and I straighten up at the sound of an approaching phalanx of officials.  As I mentioned, this particular Social Welfare Center (SWC) had been selected to host a national symposium for other SWCs, with the purported aim of discussing how best to incorporate social workers into their programs.  (We are still unsure what training Chinese social workers receive–the field is very new, and may be little more than a 1-2 year program, sort of like “educationally enhanced do-gooders,” as opposed to a 4-year college degree followed by a 2-year Masters program in the states…which may be overkill.  Who’s to say?).  Our little group of four included Sharon (the director of the special pre-K programs I mentioned), Irene (the founder behind these programs), Melody (the newly-hired Chinese director of the program they are launching soon, at their 4th SWC!), and myself.  We smiled in the covered walkway, ready to greet our guests.

I had never met confirmed Communist Party folk before.  (Though, according to “The Party,” written by a reporter for Financial Times, the party is over 75 million strong and claims 1 in 12 Chinese adults.)  I felt a little fluttery with all the excitement.

A group of about 40 perfectly normal-looking adults rounded the corner, high-heeled footfalls echoing.  (What was I expecting?  Special hats?  Deng Xiao Ping placards?)  The guests were comprised of directors of Social Welfare Centers from all over China, as well as policy heavy-weights from Beijing.  I was rather impressed to see a photographer and a videographer bobbing amidst the group.  They were trailing two pretty ladies, dolled up flight-attendant-style, who were giving the “official” tour through head-set microphones.

“Those are new,” Sharon observed, nodding toward the headsets.  I assumed these women were SWC staff, but Irene gestured subtly toward one, and said,

“I’ve never seen her before.  I hope she’s telling them something good!”

She also pointed out a man in purple short-sleeves, toting a brown briefcase.  “That is Dr. Chiou.  He is our main advocate with the decision-makers.”  She paused.  “He is rather progressive, though, to give any weight to Western ideas.  Methods and approaches taken from outside of China are usually treated with extreme caution.”  (They have, in all fairness, maintained their own unique society for over 4,000 years…they have something to protect after all)

For the most part, the group didn’t pay any attention to us, striding confidently past to inspect various corners of the center.  This wasn’t rude, per se, it is  typical in China’s culture of formal introductions—if you haven’t been introduced  to someone, you just pretend you don’t see them.  (A practice that makes for interesting behavior at crosswalks, let me tell you).  While it feels odd to me, it’s not entirely different from what you might notice in nineteenth century novels–gentlemen don’t just stride up to nice-looking young ladies and introduce themselves, proferring a cup of tea and that sort of thing.  No, no!  That would never do.  They make inquiries, figure out if their uncle or mother knows anyone in her circle, and if so, and if she’s an appropriate social contact, then a letter of introduction is sent.  Like, in the mail.  (But hey, in some cities, the post was delivered 5 times a day, so this wasn’t as slow as it might sound)  As I understand it, this type of social comportment helped to reinforce class structure in Europe and America.  Just because your family came into new money, for example, didn’t mean you were invited to the ball.

Anyway, enough of my loosely informed, and largely conjecture-based, social commentary…

We shook hands with a few people who knew Irene, and with that, the four of us were swept up into the official tour.   I was likely mistaken for a member of the American team, and the attendant photographer snapped several pictures of me chatting with Melody, who stuck by me to explain what was going on.

Sharon mentioned quietly that that visit had been quite a big deal.  The center had been in a face-lift uproar for over a month, painting, decorating, laying new tile, redoing the yard, and even adding new staff and services.  Now, Americans dust in the corners and put on a good face for important visitors, of course.  We don’t, by contrast,  hire a physical therapy team.  Presenting a strong image in China is of ultimate importance, though, and they go to extraordinary lengths to impress each other.

The pre-school program was up first, and as the group took in the colorful walls and orderly, well-stocked classrooms, the children gazed in bewilderment at all the peering faces.  They did not rush to greet the newcomers; there were probably just too many of them.

The official tour was, of course, in Chinese, and thus of little use to me.  Irene explained that one of the head-be-setted ladies was reviewing the “star chart reward system,” a familiar approach to positive discipline in America, but something her program had introduced in China.

“She explained it properly, I am impressed!”

I took note of the children’s “bedrooms,” large, well-lit rooms with about 20 little beds.  A stack of identical, neatly folded blankets and pillows perched in the center of each mattress, and they gleamed like rows of frosted cupcakes.

Next, we climbed en masse to the second floor, which was new territory for me.  Older children, those who haven’t been adopted, live here.  We looked in on several classes, interrupting seemingly thoughtful lessons.  The rooms were clean, each child had a desk and a chair, and class size was only about 20, but the rooms were less visually stimulating than those in Sharon and Irene’s programs.  The older children were more likely to have noticeable disabilities as well, some sat in wheelchairs, others had the familiar face of a child with Downs Syndrome.  I quietly pointed out one such child to Melody.

“We have this syndrome in America too, with the same facial features.  What do you call this in China?”  To my great surprise, she wasn’t familiar with Down’s Syndrome.  “Those facial features are not familiar to you?”  I asked, unable to hide my surprise.  I had seen at least ten children with Downs in the last half-hour.  I wondered if perhaps such children are kept out of public life in China, due to limited infrastructure, accessibility equipment, or awareness?  I can’t imagine how else a well-educated and experienced teacher, who would soon be directing a preschool program for goodness’ sake, could have managed to miss this clearly extant disorder among her countrymen.

By sharp contrast, I was struck on our recent trip to Korea (upcoming post!), by how many people were out and about with disabilities, crutches, speaking problems, mental illness, etc.  I felt like I was back in New York!  I realized, in a flash, that this wasn’t familiar.  In fact, I couldn’t recall spotting a single Chinese person with a physical handicap (with the exception of three beggars who frequent our favorite restaurant area), in over five months of residence in our 15 million-person city.  I am certainly no expert on the Chinese approach toward development problems and special needs, so I can only share my experience and wonder:  where are the disabled people?

We moved quickly along to the babies wing.  I had forgotten there would be babies, and I was very excited to see them.  About twenty-five infants lay beached on a comfy-looking padded mat, with three Chinese ladies fluttering about, tending to them.  Five of them were snuggled together for a group nap, one large blanket tucked over all of them, it was all very Anne Geddes.  To my great surprise, they didn’t wake up when forty adults burst in upon them.  Let’s just say that most kids I’ve babysat wouldn’t have slept through such a racket—it made me wonder what kind of sleeping conditions they have adjusted to?  Some were quite responsive—pushing themselves up on their little palms, swiveling around to face the group, smiling.  Others were much quieter, and showed little interest in the visitors.

We stayed in the baby room for a while, as the head-set ladies showed the use of cloth diapers (a green initiative), and other provisions for the babies.  One or two adults picked up a baby, and as soon as I saw that this was an appropriate move, I got myself down on the floor and found a chubby little girl.  (This triggered a zillion photographs and quite a bit of film footage from the crew–I could see the headline now: “American Lady in Heels, With Ironed Pants!, Sits on Floor with Baby”).  A huge smile spread over her face, and she happily sucked on her fist and gazed up at me.  Awwwwwww…

The attendant told me she was four months old, and I held her up so her feet could touch the ground, something most babies love.  Usually, an infant of this age would be able to push up on her legs, and would kick off, with buckling knees, trying to stand.  This baby only stood and kicked with one leg, the other leg just hung beside the first.  I asked the attendant (who didn’t speak much English) if there was something wrong with one of the baby’s legs.  She didn’t know what I was saying, so I asked Melody to translate my question.  The response came back, “the attendant says this baby is only four months old,” which appeared to be an explanation for why she didn’t use both legs to stand.  Hmm…

We moved on from the babies, passing quickly through rows of cribs, disrupting toddler nap time (the poor little things, we woke some of them up and they were not very happy).  A few older children appeared to live in the toddler room, and it was clear from their too-skinny legs and uncoordinated body movements that they could not stand.  One of them was quite smile-y, and he leaned out of his low-railed bed, trying to touch us.  We played with him for a moment.  Something about the surfeit of cribs on that floor made me sad—obviously babies and young children sleep in cribs in normal settings too, but it just felt like they were behind bars.  And there seemed to only be 1-2 ladies working in each of these rooms, for about 20 kids.

We zipped past the elderly folks, seeing them only through windows (they were apparently not very interesting).  Many of them were bunched up in their wheelchairs, bent over puzzles or crafts, enormous glasses sliding precariously toward the brink of their nose.  I asked Melody if there are any “buddy programs,” pairing an elderly person with a baby or toddler at the SWCs.

“That is such an excellent idea!”  She sputtered.  “I have not heard of such a thing—I wonder if it can be done?”  I was, again, truly surprised.  Such a convenient situation:  discarded children and discarded elderly folks, all living in the same building, quite likely in great need of each other.  “Perhaps you can advocate for such a program at your new center,” I said, trying to be hopeful.

We then walked slowly through an entire wing devoted to interventions–physical therapy, medical supports, even a beautiful room full of small toys and two mysterious, elevated sandboxes.  We stopped here because I couldn’t contain my curiosity—what was this?  In somewhat faltering English and Chinese, the young woman presiding over the room explained that she was a therapist, and this was a child therapy room that used a method developed by Carl Jung.  Jung is a well-known psychologist and writer whose work I had been exposed to in my US education, but I not learned of his particular techniques.

“This is a space for them to be themselves,” she said, gesturing toward the sandboxes.  The little toys represented dozens of possible life settings in China, and the therapist explained that the children were meant to choose things that reminded them of any memories they had of their family (a tiny pagoda, a dog, fish, a mother, a father), or of how they pictured their life as a grown up.  “How long has this been here?”  I asked.  I was really quite surprised that Jung’s work would have made it to a SWC in China, considering that Mao dismissed psychiatry and psychology in the 50s and they have hardly come back with a bang since then.  The therapist told me the room had been set up only 1 month before—clearly part of the pre-visit improvement efforts.  (Hey, the motivation might be suspect, but as long as they don’t cancel child therapy after the visitors leave, I won’t complain about how it got there)  She was nearly as excited as I was to meet another therapist, and we exchanged emails and have plans to meet up after Chinese New Year (as she will travel home for a visit very soon she told me).

Finally, the group straggled into a lovely, wood-paneled conference room, softly lit by recessed lighting, and boasting an ample snack reception (stacked primarily with trays of different fruit—something you’d never see at a reception in the States!—and a few healthy crackers and essentially sugar-free cakes).  This spread was overseen by eager servers sporting tea pots and sodas.  It was bewildering, like stumbling into the Ritz, after all those floors of concrete, drabness, and the struggle to belong.  To my surprise, the preschool staff hand’t been here before.  “I didn’t even know this was here!” Sharon confided.

I have to tell you that the actual symposium itself was a painful disappointment to my hosts.  Irene mentioned that her presentation had originally been scheduled for the day before, but the lady in charge had brushed her off, saying there’d be plenty of time tomorrow.  Tomorrow had come, and the symposium was supposed to open with Irene’s team.  Again, they were pushed off.  We sat through incredibly dry presentations, all in Chinese, during which speakers clicked through slides in monotone voices, and not a soul laughed much or nodded (I kid you not.  But, I am told this formal style is typical of public-speaking in China).  We all struggled to keep awake; thank God for the perky servers and their coffee refills.  A break was mercifully announced, and we munched on exotic fruit from Cambodia and Singapore while Irene went to see what was going on.  She came back, her face dark, and said “they aren’t going to let us present at all.  Take your seats after they resume, and wait for my cue.”

The lights dimmed, and the lady in charge got up to say something.  We waited, and when Irene stood, we all stood, and we walked out in the middle of whatever she was saying.

“That lady is a dragon-lady,” Irene fumed in the elevator.  “Everyone is interested in our preschool, and the success we’ve had with the children.  Several other directors have even asked me to come to their center to see about replicating the program there!”  Irene believed that her work had been sidelined because she is considered “Western.”  They have a point there, even though she is Chinese-born, certainly her ideas and methods are Western.  But, walking through that center, I couldn’t help but feel that the sparkle and liveliness on Irene and Sharon’s floor was palpably different from the rest of the SWC, and worthy of some curiosity.  We all piled into her van for the long drive back through rush-hour traffic.

Thus concluded my first visit to a Chinese Social Welfare Center.  I can’t say that I expected the Communist Party to listen with rapt attention to what social workers could be doing for their orphaned and elderly, but I did expect them to let Irene speak for a few minutes about her program.  I felt that, instead, I had gotten a tincture of Chinese politick-ing, a game that often involves delaying tactics and agreement-that-isn’t-agreement (at least according to “On China,” Henry Kissinger’s latest book).

It’s an interesting world over here, and certainly Western ideas don’t always translate into useful Chinese applications.  In this case, though, I believe these kids would benefit greatly from a move away from institutionalized living, a shift America has largely accomplished over the last 50 years as the harmful effects of warehoused kids became glaringly apparent.  (Read the Atlantic article I mentioned last time if you haven’t got a chance).  America’s main orphan model now combines a strong emphasis on adoption or long-term foster care, with short-term foster care and “group homes” used when necessary.  In a group home, eight or so kids live with a foster mom or rotating staff members.  An imperfect setting, but it mimics family life far better than 20-bed rooms ever will.

I haven’t even gotten into my suspicions about adoption practices in China, maybe I’ll tackle that sometime soon.  Suffice it to say that I believe a reduction in red-tape for foreign adoptions, and a move toward family-centered models, would really help the next generation of China’s abandoned kids.

So there you have it.  The end of my treatise.  Let me know what you think, or ask questions for future posts!

Prior Posts in this Series:  Post 1Post 2

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If you read my last post, you heard some of my initial thoughts on the problems of gender-specific abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment in China, all of which are tangled up in and underlying the orphan problem.  (If you want to learn more, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a book review of the newly minted: “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, And the Consequences of a World Full of Men,” written by Mara Hvistendahl.  A friend sent me the link after reading my last post–thanks April!)

You also probably heard that I was invited, rather spur-of-the-moment, to attend a symposium about the role of social work within China’s Social Welfare Centers (i.e. orphanages).  The directors of more than 35 orphanages would be attending, including some policy-side top brass from Beijing.

I hadn’t realized the symposium was going to be at an actual Social Welfare Center (SWC going forward), but when I arrived at the address I’d been given, it was clear that it was.  I was greeted out front by Sharon (I’m changing her name b/c I would hate to cause her program any trouble), the American acquaintance who had invited me the Friday before.  As I had mentioned last time, she is the director of a program providing supplementary pre-school education to the children in a handful of China’s SWCs. (In most cases, the government will not allow foreigners to oversee education for Chinese children once they hit official school age.  Thus, while Sharon’s group would like to provide training and support for higher-quality special education for the older children, they are currently limited to preschool.  There is an outside chance Shenzhen will let them get more involved with the school-age kids, though, because they’ve developed such a good reputation.  What a wonderful opportunity that would be.)

I got a sneak-peek tour of their program before the official visitors arrived.  I am glad to report that the preschool level, which occupies the ground floor of the SWC, was a much cheerier place than I had envisioned.  In contrast to portrayals of medical neglect and inert babies left in “dying rooms” (as described in a 1996 Atlantic article “In a Chinese Orphanage,” an excellent read), the Center was colorful, clean, and well-organized.  The five-story building radiated around an open-air courtyard.  Some decent playground equipment, like slides, monkey bars, and a big climbing fort, sat perched on those spongy floor tiles popular in American playgrounds.

I quickly learned that I had not understood the scope of these centers.  I had thought “Social Welfare Center” was synonymous with “orphanage”, when in fact, the SWCs provide for “all” of the social welfare needs of the community.  They house the elderly, orphaned children, and older children who are not adopted.  (I heard no mention of services for the homeless or hungry, though these programs may exist)  The preschool children live and learn on the ground floor, while the babies, older children, teenagers, and the elderly live and attend school on higher floors.

As we walked through the preschool classrooms, where English lessons, motor skill games, and singing were in full swing, many of the children greeted us with smiles and were clearly excited to see Sharon.  Others wanted to touch me or hold my hand, and those who couldn’t walk or stand very well, due to physical disabilities, scooted their way towards us somehow.  I have spent enough time with little kids to be surprised by the percent, maybe a third?, though, who didn’t smile, hanging back instead, either disinterested in visitors, shy, or not very responsive to the social environment.  I couldn’t tell which.

I noticed one thing immediately:  the center was full of boys.  Boys, boys, everywhere.  What about the gender imbalance and preference for boys I had read so much about?  By this time, we had been joined by the founder of this special preschool program (much of which, I learned, is funded through charitable donations.), and I asked her and Sharon about the issue.  Sharon said that there were actually more boys at that particular center, which greatly surprised me.  The founder, who is Chinese but was educated and got married in America, told me that the preference for a girl is stronger in the villages these days, and does not show up as much in urban settings like Shenzhen.  She also said that anyone who wants to determine the sex of a fetus can, even though it’s technically illegal (confirming my earlier suspicion).  “Maybe the doctor gives a thumbs up, thumbs down,” she suggested.  “Though, there are supposed to be cameras in those prenatal medical offices.”  Because of this access to technology, most people who don’t want a girl simply abort nowadays.  “They used to abandon girls who were basically perfect,” she explained, with a flailing gesture to emphasize how crazy this was.  She and her husband, an American, had in fact adopted a little boy from China several years before.  “We bought a whole bunch of little girl dresses and skirts, and then looked more closely and realized the box for sex said “M.”  It was so uncommon back then, it hadn’t even occurred to us we might get a boy.”  She explained that nowadays, an abandoned child will likely have special needs, and gender is less important.

(The blog Research-China.org, written for Americans wanting to adopt in China, agrees that boys are showing up more and more on China’s adoption lists.  In 2010, they reported “The gender balance continues to move toward parity. Overall in 2009, 2,246 boys were submitted, or 31% of the total. This was an increase of 11.6% over 2008.”  Clearly, though, 31/69 is not 50/50, not to mention that I simply don’t believe that a country with millions of annual abortions only produces 2,246 children who need adopting.)

Our conversation was cut short at the muffled echoes of an approaching crowd.  It was 2:30.  The official visitors and political big-wigs had arrived.

Sadly, I need to adjourn the story here for today, as I have a chicken (read: turkey-substitute, due to small ovens and $50 price tags) for an early Thanksgiving tomorrow.  I will finish the story soon!

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The orphans always seem to be girls…

I’ve only been in China for a few months, but I keep hearing about orphans.  We go to a church full of people who want to make a difference here, but still, it’s uncanny.  Matt and I have attended a charity auction for a large girls home in Tibet, we were invited to participate in hosting weekend activities for local orphans, and we know of a program training Chinese teachers within Shenzhen’s Social Welfare Centers (the equivalent of American orphanages).  I didn’t initially understand why the Social Welfare Centers ran their own schools, given the surfeit of public schools.  Nearly all have special needs, it turns out, from learning disabilities to emotional disorders, barring them from public school attendance.  Thus, they literally live and learn within government-run orphanages.

But why are they usually girls?

Before arriving in Shenzhen, I was vaguely aware of a significant gender imbalance in the Chinese equivalent of my generation (with men greatly outnumbering women).  I’m sure the issues are rather complex, but my understanding is that the one-child policy and prenatal gender tests have only intensified the existing preference for baby boys, especially in poor areas, where sons are usually a financial asset, daughters a liability.

I got curious about the actual imbalance and turned, as usual, to Wikipedia for visual aids.  The first chart below shows the worldwide gender ratio, accounting for all ages.  As women tend to live longer, many of the countries are pink.  Blue dominates the Middle East, Northern Africa, China, and India, with pockets in other areas

Human sex ratio, all ages. Pink=more women; Green=same number; Blue=more men

This next chart, which focuses on the sex ratio of the population below age 15, really throws the Chinese problem into sharper relief.

Blue=more women, red=more men than world average of 1.06 males/female

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that China’s gender imbalance leads the world.  According to Wikipedia:

“Sex-selective abortion and infanticide are thought to significantly skew the naturally occurring ratio in some populations, such as China, where the introduction of ultrasound scans in the late 1980s has led to a birth sex ratio (males to females) of 1.133 (2011 CIA estimate data).”

I should add that China has banned sex determination prior to birth, but as doctors can easily tell from routine ultrasounds, the legal measure will never be foolproof.

This 2007 opinion piece from the New York Times squarely addresses the issue:

“Demographers in China found a ratio of 117 boys per 100 girls under the age of 5 in the 2000 census…this gender gap could result in as many as 60 million “missing” girls from the population by the end of the decade.  And what happened to these girls? According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (a term that takes on a whole new meaning when referring to China), there are about 7 million abortions in China per year, 70 percent of which are estimated to be of females. That adds up to around 5 million per year, or 50 million by the end of the decade; so where are the other 10 million girls? If even 10 percent end up in orphanages — well, you do the math.”

A grim picture, to be sure.

I am starting to grasp, however, that 1.13 boys per girl is only the beginning of this weighty and disheartening problem.  The preference for boys ripples beyond the eradication of girls in utero or after birth.  In the current social stew, girls are also more likely to be abandoned, or to receive fewer family resources (food, education, opportunities) over their lifetime.

When push comes to shove, it’s usually girls who lose out, which explains why in every brochure I see over here, orphans always have smiling, pig-tail-framed faces.

Oddly enough, I might learn more about the problem first-hand tomorrow.  Last Friday, Matt and I visited a Bible study hosted by the director of the Tibetan girls home.  I was chatting afterwards with a woman in the group, and when I casually mentioned that I was a social worker, she straightened up and said “Really?  You’re kidding.”

She then explained that she was none other than the director of the special education initiative in the local Social Welfare Centers.  (We had apparently wandered into a group of heavy hitters…)  That very afternoon, she had spent over an hour researching American social work because she was presenting at the National Symposium of Social Welfare Directors the following week.  Her organization has developed a good relationship with this group, comprised mainly of high-level government officials, all of whom hail from the Community Party.   In fact, her group recently succeeded in becoming a foreign NGO in China, a rare distinction to say the least.  The symposium had called upon her staff to present their educational model, but also to explain what social workers do in America.  Like most Americans, she wasn’t really sure.

You know where this going.  In about ten minutes, I was invited to the symposium, and a preparatory meeting on Monday.  So I’ve been ironing work clothes…haven’t used those in a while.

This would only happen in China.

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