What China's one-child policy meant for my family

From 2015: The consequences of China's one-child policy will be felt for generations—even in Canada.

CHINA - MARCH 11: A Chinese child at orphanage in Shangai, China on March 11, 1994. (Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

A Chinese child at orphanage in Shangai, China on March 11, 1994. (Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

The flight south from Shanghai’s sparkling Pudong airport to the coastal city of Zhanjiang takes a tourist 2½ hours, but for pilgrims, it can take a whole life.

We returned to China after a decade, the first time coming to adopt a baby girl, this time taking our two kids with us, along with a detailed plan to explore the birthplace of our daughter, Maizie. It is all set up carefully. We will visit the orphanage where she lived for the first eight months of her life, a place we were not allowed to see 10 years earlier. There is also a chance to meet the “aunties” who took care of her, and then, the most fraught moment, the opportunity to locate—no, to confront—“the finding place.”

Is there really a phrase to describe the spot in the street where your daughter was found, at only one day old, wrapped in a blanket and placed in a small box? Like some kind of black hole, the very idea of this place swallows up language, taking with it so much sorrow, loss and love. Of the many aspects of China’s one-child policy, this singular action, the giving up of a child, has become the most haunting and most misunderstood. My wife and I debate taking the kids there at all. What forces will it unleash, what wounds could it reopen? We decide to go anyway. Tourists travel to see, pilgrims travel to change. This is our pilgrimage.

The “finding place” is not a technical term, of course. It emerged out of the highly organized international Chinese adoption community, which over the years has carefully grafted its own narrative on top of the official story of the one-child policy. The Chinese government refers to it as the “place of abandonment,” but like most government terms, the stark banality of the phrase hides the real story. That story began in 1979 when China embarked on the world’s most radical population control experiment. Last week China declared that policy over, but the consequences will be felt for generations—even in Canada, where more than 20,000 Chinese children, mostly girls, were adopted.

Affecting over a billion people, the one-child policy was a different kind of Cultural Revolution, aimed at reshaping the very notion of the nuclear family. It has either been a colossal failure or a victim of its own brute success, but either way it has left behind a demographic time bomb. As China’s population ages, it can no longer replace its workforce quickly enough. Even worse have been the human costs. With only one child allowed, boys became prized over girls as a means of parental security.

Related: Michael Petrou on the end of China’s one-child failure

It was not, as so many believe, that girls are fundamentally second-class or unloved. But in many parts of China there is little or no social security or pension and the boys take care of aging parents, with their wives. The parents of girls are often left to fend for themselves.

By the late 1990s, orphanages overflowed with girls, all left at “finding places.” A dangerous gender imbalance now cuts across the country, but this Draconian policy also pulled in tens of thousands of people from around the world—people like us, who had an opportunity to adopt from China and grow families. Pressed against the Great Wall of Sorrow created by the one-child policy, our singular happiness as blended families sometimes seems worse than insignificant, it seems unfair. But it is neither. It is something new, a powerful reality, a generation of children who got swept up in one of history’s great churns, and now have their own story to tell.

We are here, at the Zhanjiang City Social and Children’s Welfare Institute. Founded in 1957, it is a sprawling mass of four buildings, housing orphans, the elderly, special needs children and adults with disabilities. Located in a part of the city packed with street markets, it sits across from a small, polluted river that runs toward the sea port where the Chinese keep their key navy base for a growing South Sea fleet.

Rain spits down as we enter the gates. Immediately we are accosted by a young man in what looks like pyjamas, wielding a Ping Pong racquet. His smile reveals a single black tooth and he demands a high five.

“He’s OK, just saying hi,” my wife tells the kids as they retreat. What is this place? I slap his hand as we make our way past, and up to the third floor to meet the institute’s director. My daughter stares blankly ahead.

The director, Mr. Su, is in his late forties, has long, wavy hair and glasses, and greets us warmly. He is accompanied by a taller woman, the deputy director, Ms. Yi, who seems vaguely familiar. Ms. Yi is dressed formally for visitors. Her crisp dress is patterned in black and white checks and her shoes, also black with mid-sized heels, have small gold bangles attached to the sides.

I am feverishly taking notes of every detail—even minutiae like the bangles—so we never forget.

Ms. Yi produces a book for our daughter to sign, and we see that other “returnees” have signed it. There is an entry from a 16-year-old girl from Denver and another from a 14-year-old girl from Orillia, Ont. They thank the “aunties” for their care, and reveal their likes and dislikes. Reading it is like putting a paddle in a river. We are part of a current.

We pull out a photo from 10 years earlier, when we first came to get our daughter. Suddenly it becomes clear. Ms. Yi was the woman who handed our daughter to us. The picture shows her holding Maizie at the age of eight months. She admits she doesn’t remember her. “So many babies,” she sighs. Still, there are tears. We take another picture now of the two of them to make a set. Then it’s off to see the new babies.

Many of the children at the institute are special needs children, as healthy kids are now adopted domestically. But the term “special needs” covers a wide range of conditions, from cleft palates and missing fingers to cerebral palsy. The babies are in cribs side by side, most of them tied with a piece of cloth by one leg to the bars on the crib, so they won’t fall out. There are too many babies and not enough nurses to watch them all.

It is hot. We move around the room, touching the babies in silence. It is almost overwhelming to watch my Maizie and my son, Gideon, play with other kids, as if looking at two different futures laid out side by side. This was her. In one of these cribs. Tied to the side. When we got her she was eight months old and weighed less than 13 lb., badly underweight. Ms. Yi tells us it is time to leave, no pictures allowed. We turn and leave the children to a future we will never know.

Back in the director’s office, we make arrangements to buy the orphanage a gift. That is standard practice for returning families. Help the place that raised and protected your daughter in some way. Washing machines are what the director says they need so, following Ms. Yi, we head out to a local appliance store.

“On the way, we stop at the finding place, the place we found your daughter,” Ms. Yi says. “OK?”


The news about China’s change in policy sets off a flurry of conversation across Canada. “I think it is great news, China is finally doing something about this,” Daisy Cobden tells me by phone. I catch her on a break from work in a jewellery store in Halifax. Daisy was adopted from the same institute as my daughter in Zhanjiang, except she spent the first 11 years of her life there. Now 29 years old, she has different view than most kids, who came over as infants.

“I describe myself as a Chinese-Canadian, but I feel part of something bigger, a group of sisters who all share the same experience,” Daisy says. “We have a lot in common because we don’t know why we were left behind but we got a second chance to have a better life.”

Daisy is frank and practical. “Every adoptee has a difficult experience, but when I came to Canada I already had my own personality so I had to rebuild my identity.”

I ask her about growing up in the orphanage, and how it affected her. “Living in an orphanage, I see a different point of view of life. You appreciate being poor and having nothing, and then to come to Canada and to have a family and a job is wonderful. I will never forget the orphanage, as it shaped me for who I am today.”

Talking to Daisy I realize how careful I have to be. Daisy’s experience is just that: Daisy’s. My daughter’s is also just hers and hers alone. There is no greater act of hubris than generalizing about a collective experience, or worse, using your own particular experience as a stand-in for others. More dangerous still is pretending to tell my daughter’s story for her. It belongs to her. I ask permission before writing this article and she shrugs and says sure, go ahead. It’s your point of view. She’s right.

Still, I tap into the network across the country to check in on how other people are reacting to the news.

“My first reaction, as a mother, was how we were going to discuss this development with my teenage daughter,” Ann Rauhala tells me. Ann published a book about families adopting children from China called The Lucky Ones—the title refers to the parents, not the kids—and I contributed a chapter about our experience of having an adopted daughter and a biological son.

Over the years, Ann says her daughter—soon to be 16—has expressed periodic and surprising moments of connection to her birth country. “When she was younger there was a huge earthquake in China and she suddenly became worried about her biological family. That was a shock to us because while we had openly embraced all things Chinese and her birth story, she was never one of those kids obsessed with it.”

That’s not atypical. The adoption of children from China has been widely studied, and is often viewed as a “successful” process—I use the word carefully because it is too early to really tell, and every case is different. And how do you judge a “successful” life? Traps everywhere.

“In interviewing children adopted from China I’ve found everything from kids saying ‘what’s the big deal’ to kids being really challenged and trying to make sense of their identity,” says Sara Dorow, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. Dorow has spent years studying the issues surrounding adoptions from China, and has written the book Transnational Adoption about what factors have influenced the experience. I asked her if there are reasons why the international adoption of Chinese children has been largely viewed so positively.

“It is a confluence of many factors, and it’s more complicated than people think,” she says. “First, there was a match between the sudden availability of healthy babies, who were well taken care of, and families who had the means to take them in.”

Canadians took in a higher number of children from China, per capita, than the U.S., according to Dorow, and that critical mass led to the creation of networks, organizations and kinship narratives—calling the girls “sisters”—that helped families work through various issues.

“It should also be seen in the broader context of the changing family structure in general,” Dorow says. “This has all happened in an era when the structure of the family itself has changed—that has been the story of the last 20 years.” Divorces and stepchildren, mixed race couples, LGTB families and interracial adoptions have redefined the family. TV shows like Modern Family feature a gay couple with an adopted girl from Asia. It’s almost become a cliché. I remember taking one of my kids to a class years ago and a white father and his white wife gazed around and he joked, “Well, we look pretty damn boring right now, don’t we?”

That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Countless strangers have pointed to Maizie and asked us, “Is that your real daughter?” Real? Every adopted family has this experience. Besides wanting to punch the person in the face—often it’s a border guard just fulfilling his requisite obligation to make people feel unwelcome— it reinforces how powerful the standard narratives surrounding family still are.

There is another sort of finding place: when you first see a picture of your daughter. I vividly remember going to Deborah Maw’s house—executive director of Open Arms to International Adoptions— and sitting on what she calls the adoption couch, where Deborah handed my wife and I the first picture we ever saw of Maizie. “You were both floating,” she recalls.

Deborah adopted four kids of her own from China—three of whom are now in university, the last is in Grade 10—and she sometimes refers to herself as an adoption midwife. I ask her how her kids have reacted to the news about the one-child policy. Did it trigger any of fresh questions of identity? “They took it in stride,” says Deborah. “They think of themselves as Canadians—Asian-Canadians, but three of my kids had no interest in studying Mandarin. While we are very active in the community, we don’t try to force it.”

This is not unusual. Sara Dorow says families she has interviewed all have different ways of negotiating identity. When she asked families if they considered their daughters to be immigrants—which they are­—over half said no. “There was this idea of working against this racialized ‘otherness,’ that they are now part of Canada.”

The story of the one-child policy has not ended, and no one knows this better than Vickie Bennett. Vickie is the mother of seven kids, three biological and four adopted from China. She helped start the Zhanjiang Kids organization in Ohio, where she is from, but now she is staying for an extended time in Zhanjiang to build a foster home for kids. Speaking to her about the orphanage where both our kids lived is like speaking to a relative.

“When we first saw the orphanage we were horrified by the condition,” she says. “So a bunch of us wanted to do something to help out. It has become my whole life.”

Vickie says policy reversal will likely mean China will see an uptick in abandoned children. “The untold story in China is the lack of medical care for children of special needs, and it is only getting worse.”

The state does not cover the costs of medical treatment for many conditions, and that has led to more children being pushed aside. “Healthy children are now all adopted domestically,” she says. “But there has been a dramatic shift in the population of orphanages to special needs kids, kids with missing limbs, heart conditions, and Down syndrome. They have no one.”

It also plays into a darker concept in China called suzhi, or “quality.” The one-child policy was not just about controlling the size of the population but controlling the suzhi. “This concept has a vaguely eugenicist streak to it,” Dorow explains. “And for children of special needs, it has created an enormous stigma.”

back in 2012, these enormous social challenges do not occur to us, when we follow Ms. Yi to our daughter’s “finding place.” Instead, all the theories and ideas are compressed into one, intense, very personal moment.

It is not a long walk. Just out the gate to back of the institute. The road is busy, mopeds with baskets of vegetables on them whip by. Men sit on the sidewalk smoking and spitting. A rooster wanders around the store stalls, and across the road the lazy river barely moves.

“Beside the gate is where she was left,” Ms. Yi says, pointing to a barren spot. “In the morning, she was found.”

We already have the police report and the newspaper ad that follows every discovery of a child. But this is different. Real.

Tenderly, we approach the finding place. In our minds it has taken a kind of haunted hue, but here it is so innocuous, so banal. Here our daughter’s biological parents left her, said goodbye one February morning in 2003. There are no papers and no way to find them. It is illegal to abandon a child, so we have reached the line between what we can know and what we can never know. What happened at that moment? What pain? What words were said? For every moment of happiness we have all had together, I feel there has been another counter-moment of agony and emptiness.

In China there is a modern tradition called love locks, where couples go to bridges and secure a heart-shaped lock to signify their eternal love. We have brought one here for this moment. Together we lock it to the spot our daughter was found. The men smoking on the curb get up to take a closer look at us. We linger there in silence, and then we leave the finding place. We have laundry machines to buy.

The next day we return, only to discover our love lock is gone. At first we’re hurt, but then it occurs to us: this is exactly the right thing. Our daughter is part of this place, she can honour it, but she is not locked to it, imprisoned by it. None of us are. In the end, the finding place might not just be here. It might not even be a place on a map. The finding place is us, and the journey we are now on. At least that is the story we tell ourselves.

“I am still searching for my identity,” Daisy tells me when I ask her about her finding spot. “Even people who are not adopted are searching, but for us, the sisters, we had a big detour, and it’s still going on.” Her voice is strong, and she speaks quickly as she has to get back to work. “I’m still trying to find my place. I don’t think that ever stops.”