Mei Day: One little benefit of totalitarianism

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Jun 18, 2004 12:00 AM

It turns out there's nothing wrong with Mei Chun's head. Before we left for China, a physician who specializes in international adoptions told us Mei's medical records suggested she was not growing properly. At the same time, he said the head measurements in Chinese orphanage records are notoriously inaccurate, so there probably was nothing to worry about.
 
The advice that we shouldn't rely too much on the records, which also certified that Mei was healthy and delightful in every way, did not exactly give us peace of mind. But the pediatrician who is accompanying our group examined Mei the other day here in Changsha, and he put her head somewhere near the 50th percentile in relation to her body length. In fact, aside from a cold, she seems to be in very good physical shape.

 Contrary to the warnings from our adoption agency, Mei is at least as cute in person as she was in her picture (even cuter, according to our older daughter, Francine). She is not bald, and she does not have scabies, eczema or ringworm.

 The one warning that proved to be accurate was that she might cry for a while. This was a bit of an understatement.

 We did not give sufficient thought to what a terrifying, traumatizing experience it is for a 17-month-old to be wrenched from the only home she's ever known, separated from the caretakers who have been raising her, and peremptorily handed over to complete strangers who look, smell and sound different from anything to which she's accustomed. Although we were anxious about the first meeting, we thought of it as a happy occasion, because that's what everyone else seemed to expect.

 Instead, it was a heart-breaking scene: 10 families crammed into a conference room with 10 screaming toddlers who had no means of preparing for this baffling betrayal. We took Mei back to our room after a few minutes, hoping she would be calmer away from the cries of the other babies.

 She screamed for about three hours, and I imagined her continuing that way for several days, becoming dehydrated and malnourished because she refused to drink or eat. But eventually she calmed down, accepting a cracker and some apple juice, and now she eats almost everything we offer her. She especially likes dried apples and watermelon.

 Although Mei is no longer inconsolably miserable (right now, she is sitting on my lap, playing with her socks), she is subdued and shy. She rarely smiles, and she is pretty much silent except when I toss her in the air, which elicits a giggle, and when she cries.

 Unfortunately, that happens whenever my wife tries to hold her, feed her or touch her. A couple in our group who adopted in China once before said the same thing happened to them: The baby clung to the man and rejected his wife. Francine thinks it's because women are too reminiscent of the orphanage caretakers.

 Under the circumstances, though, I'd say Mei is doing remarkably well after just a few days with us. I've seen the same glazed look on the faces of many other adopted girls here in Changsha and at the hotel in Beijing, and I'm sure they eventually will adjust, each at her own pace.

 Our agency supplied us with slips of paper that declare we are not kidnappers, but so far we have not needed them. Everyone here treats foreigners toting newly acquired Chinese girls cordially, especially in the hotels, shops and restaurants that owe much of their business to the government's one-child policy, which helps make so many girls available for adoption, and its bureaucracy, which requires adoptive parents to linger (and spend money) while paperwork is filled out and processed.

 Although it benefits some, there's a problem with dictating family size that the Chinese government itself acknowledges: too many boys. The government attributes the gender imbalance, which by 2020 could mean 40 million young men with no prospect of marrying and settling down, to the traditional Chinese preference for boys, which leads to abortion and infanticide as well as abandonment.

 Yet the government's limits on reproduction obviously play a role: If couples were permitted to have more than one child, they might keep the girls and hope for boys the next time around. Of course, then we might never have met Mei. It's not a fact I'm comfortable with. Like Mei, though, I guess I'll adjust.