We’ve made it to the large city of Guangzhou, historically known as Canton, in Guangdong Province on the southern coastal tip of China and a long way from Gansu Province. More specifically we are for the third time staying in the center of the city on Shamian Island, which has been sort of an Ellis Island on foreign soil for more than 50,000 abandoned Chinese children who since the early 1990s have been adopted into perhaps two-thirds that many families from the United States, since it’s been common for families, affected by their experiences, to return for more than one child.
Shamian Island is a tiny oasis of calm amidst a busy population of roughly 12.5 million people. Its older buildings are of a western colonial architecture because the island was originally divided in two concessions given to France and the United Kingdom during the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century.
Towering 28 floors over the island on a sliver of land bordering White Swan Lagoon, a wide spot in the Pearl River, is the White Swan Hotel. Surrounding the hotel and around the island generally are dozens of shops that have built businesses targeting adoptive families. This is an easy place to find diapers or baby supplies late at night or a huge variety of Chinese memorabilia, cheap extra suitcases, and squeaky baby shoes during the day.
It was a comfortable place to land in November of 2002 from a cold and foggy Nanchang, Jiangxi, where visitors like us were still relatively unusual and China was still relatively new to us—or in August 2004 from the steamy furnace of Changsha, Hunan. Then we were with travel groups of eight families, converging each time at the marvelous White Swan to join well over a hundred other adoptive families with little baby girls adopted primarily in south central provinces. It was wonderful, but a little odd. Foreign adoptions in China peaked in early 2005.
Today there are far fewer adoptive families or western visitors on the island and at the White Swan. It seems mostly Chinese again. It seems a better balance.
The U.S. Consulate is the focus of each family’s visit to Guangzhou, along with the U.S. citizenship application process that must take place there, preceded by a required medical exam. The consulate was moved to newer, larger quarters in another part of the city a year or so ago, although a fair percentage of adoptive families still choose to stay on the island.
Another change is that fewer children are winding up in state controlled orphanages in the provinces that have had the largest numbers of abandoned children and slightly more Chinese families are formally adopting healthy children. Our two girls are among well over a million girls abandoned in China since it began enforcing its one child rule in earnest in the late 1980s; collateral consequences of a generally rationalized national effort to address the country’s inability to effectively provide for all of its billion and a half people. Fewer children in orphanages may or may not reflect abandonment overall since studies of birth ratios and other population factors still don’t appear to indicate much closing of China's gender gap, an indicator of large numbers of “missing” girls in the population.
In rural China there is an old tradition of families adopting abandoned children informally, often between villages. China’s government acknowledges that only some of the total number of children abandoned wind up in orphanages. A recent development within one-child China is that a domestic market for children among childless families has been discovered by "intermediaries" who will relieve rural birth parents of the need to physically abandon a child and who can sell the child to another family for a price much cheaper than formal domestic adoption and without its wall of restrictions. This has made state controlled orphanages largely irrelevant for most Chinese seeking children. Children adopted informally have no quaranteed rights as citizenry, however.
Some of the child-related shops we remember on Shamian Island are gone now, replaced by more locally oriented businesses, and the ones that remain seem a little like ghosts from the past. Tonight we heard that the city would like to take over many of these properties, envisioning much of the island as an historic park, focusing on its history prior to foreign adoption. The White Swan has closed its baby play room. Still, foreign adoptions will continue in China for the foreseeable future, although probably at a much slower rate. Given some of the looks that Henry has generated during our travels there likely will be waiting children with special needs in this country for a long time.
But even this element of China is changing, perhaps not in linear fashion, but changing slowly nevertheless. It’s worth writing again that we know we are blessed to be adoptive parents, but wish with all our hearts for a day when there would no longer be foreign adoptions in China because children here would no longer be abandoned. It’s our greatest hope, underlying all our hopes and wishes for Dorothy, Clara, and Henry.
Henry did well on the plane from Lanzhou, about a three-hour ride. Actually, he’s doing relatively well on all counts, eats constantly, and often gets upset when food isn’t readily at hand. He has visibly gained weight over the past week and easily plays, smiles, and laughs. He likes to be tickled. He stands with help and can walk a bit, as probably the smallest walking person we've ever seen.
His sisters, however, are finally beginning to show a few signs of travel fatigue, Clara especially. She dug in her heals and screamed at the top of her lungs, as only Clara can do, as we went through security in the Lanzhou airport when security officers made her give up a soft toy to run it through the x-ray machine. That’ll teach them. We’ve had a few similar episodes, but all in all the kids are all hanging in there for this final stretch. Everyone except Henry has been hit by a nasty stomach bug, Dorothy probably the worst. Both girls were throwing up at the same time the night before were left Lanzhou.
Happily, we’re recovering here in comfort.