“Your husband Chinese?”
(As we close out another National Adoption Month, some further thoughts on talking about adoption)
While living in Singapore a few years back we regularly encountered strangers asking pointed questions that would be considered by American standards somewhat rude. We had been warned. Apparently, the Singaporean public, specifically the working class, culturally are nosey. They might ask things like “how much does your husband make?” or “what do you pay for rent on that house?” without batting an eye or seeing it as offensive. Indeed, it seemed in their culture it was not offensive at all.
Even more culturally shocking, was the fact that for the most part Singaporeans are still in the "dark ages" (as compared to the U.S.) in terms of their view of adoption. It is not common for adoption to be openly discussed there and indeed many families never inform their adoptive child of their roots. They just gloss over this fact, much like Americans did in the mid-twentieth century, finding it too embarrassing and perhaps shameful even to acknowledge. Of course, as a Singaporean citizen your child would most likely be the same race or a race very close to your own, hence further enabling such a secret to be kept.
While these two cultural divides at times caused our family (one with a child of Chinese heritage and Caucasian siblings and parents) some public distress, they also gave us time to practice dealing with the, at times delicate, issue of adoption as discussed with others.
After hopping in a cab one day with all three of my daughters I got this question from the jovial elderly Chinese driver: “Your husband Chinese?” My eyes gazed around the cab and took in what he had seen just before blurting this out: a blonde teen in the front seat, a blonde ten-year-old in the rear seat, and a blonde mother cradling her almond-eyed, black-haired, coffee-colored daughter. "Perhaps he thinks I remarried?" I thought.
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Inwardly bristling, I knew that I had to answer him. Not only did politeness dictate a response, my children were watching. And learning.
My oldest two, always protective of their mei mei’s (little sister) feelings, later asked why I hadn’t just lied and answered “yes”. “You should have said yes, Mom. He would never know. We would never have seen him again,” they instructed. While that might have stopped this particular uncle’s interrogation, it would not have prevented another encounter of this kind down the road. Besides, my youngest was cognizant enough by now to know her father was, indeed, not Chinese. She needed to see her mother model behavior that she could take through life with her.
So I smiled back at the driver and said, “No, he is American.”
“Ah, ang moh” he parroted back in Singlish, using the local phrase for Whites. Are we done, I thought. Prayed?
“Then why you have her?” he pressed on.
No apparently we were not done.
The inopportune question hung in the air and my usually chatty girls were as tongue-tied as their mother. My mind searched for the best answer. The best answer for him, for my older girls, and most importantly for my youngest who, in spite of her age, was all ears.
Hmm, why do we have her? Well because we love her dearly. Because God put it in our hearts that our next child was waiting for us in China, not in my ovaries. “Are they not all my children?” God had whispered. Because an official in America had interviewed us, and our daughters, and said we would be wonderful parents to another child, an adoptive child. Because many officials in China had read our letters of request, and met us, and said, “Yes you may adopt one of these girls who do not have a home of her own.” Because we already had two daughters and I could see that they had so much more love to share. Because in our culture we are blessed no matter what the gender of our children; we are blessed no matter if our child is of our womb, or not.
Unfortunately, I could not in our brief cab ride, or with all my children present, or with the language barrier, or with the age barrier, or with the cultural barrier, say all this.
My mind sifted through other possible responses. I considered what I had used as a response in the U.S. when well meaning strangers came up to us in the grocery or the library and inquired about my daughter’s place in our family. “Why do you ask?” had always worked well. If the individual was just snooping my question back to their question usually sent them on their way, hopefully somewhat more aware of the inappropriate nature of their request. However, if the question was born out of true interest in adoption, then I could offer to call or email them later with advice. Yet, in a second, I knew this would not work on our jolly, geriatric, English-impaired driver. He wasn’t adopting. He just wanted to know because….because he just wanted to know.
So instead, I said the truth, in what I hoped was an open, honest and respectful manner, aware that there were more than two ears waiting for my answer. “Because we adopted her from China.” The words came confidently and proudly, not just because I wanted to send a message to him that it was okay to be proud of such a fact, and not just because I, without a doubt, was proud of this fact, but also because I wanted my children to sense that it was something to be proud of. Something that a family could openly speak about with self-assurance, without shame.
“Is that legal?” he asked.
Is this legal?! I struggled to hide my incredulousness at his ignorance. We were in very modern and well educated Singapore for Pete’s sake! Not back in China with its Communistic censorship on all topics taboo.
In that split second my mind echoed with more things I wanted say: Do you really not know that thousands of Chinese children, mostly girls, are abandoned every year so that families may comply with the legal constraints of a ‘One Child Policy’ and China’s centuries old tradition to produce a male heir? And do you not know that other families, families like ours, bring them home, fortunate enough to be free to consider them a gift? Lucky enough to consider them ‘double happiness’* despite their gender?”
My mind, in its lightening speed processing, also formed the penultimate response. One my upbringing and the children present dictated I could not use. “No I snuck her out in my suitcase!”
Instead, in the end, I put my hand on my daughter’s lovely black-blue-red hair and smiled at him, “Yes, Uncle it is legal.”
“Ah” came his once again uncomprehending response. Lost in this newfound information he drove on in silence. Finally.
Such a brief cab ride, such a seemingly huge cultural divide, such an opportunity for shame or pride, lessons learned or lessons lost. I realized that my answer to any questions, including this fairly intrusive man's inquiry, was shaped by the message I wanted to send everyone, Chinese or Western, of my womb or not. The message was simply this: Yes, she is adopted and we are not embarrassed by that fact. Indeed we are blessed by her presence as much as we are by our biological children’s. And no one, most importantly her, should be uncomfortable by this familial relationship. She had a birth family that cared enough to see that she lived. And she now has a forever family who loves her more than words can say.
“So, yes uncle it is legal. She is adopted.”
*In the Chinese culture “double happiness” is a phrase often reiterated when a family announces the birth of a son. That is, it is more than one happiness to have a male heir.