Like many others, I am eagerly looking forward to the Olympics. But they also worry me this year.
I love China, and not just because my youngest was born there. It’s a beautiful country with an incredible depth of history. Everything is bigger than it looks in the documentaries. If you’ve seen pictures of the National Mall in DC, with the various buildings of the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol at one end, and the Washington Monument at the other, well, you’re pretty much prepared for what you’re going to see when you’re actually there.
I’ve seen the Temple of Heaven in photos, on documentaries, etc. I had no idea how big the complex was, or that the whole park area attached to it is, in fact, half filled with various palaces for fasting, auxilliary temples for lesser members of the Imperial family, etc. We spent hours there and only covered the two main boulevards that lead up to the temple and away from it. The level of detail and sheer number of buildings, all exquisitely decorated, is just breathtaking. And then we saw the Forbidden City the next day, which is fancier, more detailed, and much, much larger. I don’t know that I’ll ever consider Europe terribly impressive again. Someone in our adoption group commented, “Geez, this makes Buckingham Palace look like a pathetic pile of rocks.”
Over the past few years, we’ve watched a lot of documentaries. (Not much else to do besides cruise the Rumor Queen’s website trying to guess when we might expect to get a referral and browse every coffeetable book on China we could find.) “China Rises” and “The Dragon’s Ascent” (both series) were frequent viewing. They were both quite good and surprisingly candid. Women talked about the pressure to have a boy, and the difficulties if you tried to cheat the system by going into hiding. “If you do, they arrest your parents and won’t feed them until you come back and get the abortion. I mean, what else can you do? You come back and get the abortion,” one woman explained, talking about a friend who had tried to hide her pregnancy in an attempt for the all-important boy. The series showed the good and the bad of China’s rapidly expanding economy:
* the unemployed workers from a state factory gone out of business
* the new millionaires with their flashy imported cars and European-style mansions
* the couple who lost their home for a new road project but never got the government assistance to rebuild that had been promised
* the factory worker couple travelling home for Chinese New Year to see their son who lived with his grandparents and hardly recognized his parents
* the awful pollution from unregulated factories who are bribing their way out of the few environmental regulations in place
* the new middle class, more comfortable than their parents could’ve dreamed, and, therefore, almost completely uninterested in politics
These are just a small smattering of the stories told in these series. Although they showed the wealth and relative freedom and modernity growing in the cities, they also traveled extensively in the countryside and found out what was going on.
And then there was the recent miniseries documentary by Ted Koppel, “The People’s Republic of Capitalism.” It was nowhere near as good and conveniently glossed over a lot of China’s problems, especially in the area of its coercive family planning programs. The topic was touched on, but not really discussed in depth. Koppel followed a local family planning official around on her rounds in Tibet, I think it was. You saw her talking to people, reading from the official book of what the state wants families to do, but nothing was said about what happens to those who fail to comply.
China wants to look good for the Olympics, and understandably so. Every country who lands the opportunity to host the Games does their best to build fabulous venues and to present the best their country has to offer. Everyone wants to showcase their pride in their national heritage and their openness to the future with some innovative architecture.
I’m just afraid that too many people will buy the image as the reality.
I guess my husband and I just like to research stuff we’re getting involved in. So, when we started thinking about adopting from China, we delved into the subjects of China and Chinese adoptions. I took Tai Chi at the local Y. I learned a little about Chinese calligraphy and brush painting. He learned about the language (totally different from what we’re used to; there are no phonetics in Chinese. The characters may build a little like we build words, but all words are a single syllable with an inflection. “Ma” in one inflection means “horse” and in another inflection it means “Mother”. So every word has homonyms. Plus, some words have homonyms with the same syllable and the same inflection. But, since it’s not phonetics based, you can’t conjugate verbs; tense is indicated by other words, as in, “Yesterday, you go to the beach.”). We watched Chinese-themed movies (Hero has to be one of my all time favorite movies!). We bought books. Lots of books. We read websites. We joined the local Families with Children from China group. And we assumed this was normal.
Then we met our adoption group. One other couple was our “partners in crime” (PIC’s from here on out for brevity); they had researched, too. Heck, we were in China to adopt daughters, isn’t it logical to learn something about the culture they were born into? Apparently the rest of the group didn’t think so. If you’ve read anything about adopting in China, you know that the babies get a lot of congee (a traditional rice gruel served with bits of chicken or other add-ins) and tend to love it; often, it’s the only thing that will comfort them in the difficult first few days. Most of the group had never heard of it. The PIC’s and us headed out to a local restaurant on the guide’s recommendation; nobody spoke much (if any) English, but the food was incredible (totally spoiled us for American Chinese, unfortunately!). The rest of the group was mostly concerned about locating the nearest Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Starbucks. We were walking through Tiannamen Square and one of us made a comment about the protests a decade back and how we remembered watching the guy facing off with the column of tanks… while the front end of the group was asking the guide, “Now, who was this Mr. Yu guy, again?” pointing at Mao’s portrait over the entrance to the Forbidden City after the guide had just explained exactly who Mao was as we passed his mausoleum. On the last night, the people who had always eaten in the hotels or ordered American fastfood delivered asked the guide to point them to a restaurant serving snake. Why? So they had a story about those “weird Chinese” to tell back home? Many of them were horrified by the “dirtiness” of the cities; one couple was even throwing their clothes out as they went, I guess because they thought they were too contaminated to wear again. What a *great* story to tell their daughter as she grows up. Hello, people? Not everyone lives like middle class Americans. We, um, didn’t exactly bond with our travel group, except for the PIC’s.
And, in spite of the fact that we were all there to adopt, many people in the group had not one clue as to why these little girls couldn’t stay with their families. “Why are there so many boys?” someone asked curiously, “You see lots of little boys out, but hardly any little girls…” Ever heard of the “one child” policy? Ever heard that most Asian countries strongly favor boys? There are 20 million marriage-age men who will never find wives because the women have been aborted (or killed after birth) for being a girl; the very few lucky ones make it to the orphanages and either grow up in state care or are adopted (China is trying to improve its domestic adoption rates, but the prejudice towards blood ties is even stronger than here, and there are plenty of people here who make comments like, “I would never adopt; they aren’t really yours because they aren’t related to you by blood.”). Did y’all notice that of a little over a dozen families in our group, only one adoptee was a boy, and he was older and special needs? Our guide in the province where our children’s orphanage was located actually told us on the bus, “Oh, Chinese don’t really care about abortion; nobody makes a big deal about it.” Funny, the mob who hung the five family planning officials the month before we travelled seemed to be making a big deal about it.
Like I said before, I love China. I would go back in a heartbeat (preferrably not in the middle of winter again, though). The food was wonderful, the people were welcoming, the history could absorb a lifetime of study and you’d only scratch the surface, the landscapes were incredible… there is so much to admire and respect.
But the country also has deep flaws. No country is perfect, but that doesn’t give carte blanche to cover up and ignore the problems.
I worry that too many people will watch the carefully scripted Olympic coverage and think that those flaws are all in the past. I worry that people will stop caring about the human rights abuses, the iron-fisted control of religion to try to make it serve the state, the forced labor camps, the millions of coerced abortions…
Nobody in China can speak out against the worst abuses; those who do are arrested, often disappearing into the laogai (prison camp) system. Think “The Gulag Archipelago” with a Chinese accent.
If the West is dazzled by the pretense, who will hold China responsible?
If we are bought by pretty spectacle and cheap factory goods, are we not complicit?