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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Loveby Xinran
A BOOK WRITTEN
FOR ADOPTED DAUGHTERS
It took a long time for me to summon the courage to relive the personal memories and experiences of my life as a reporter in China. In The Good Women of China, my first book, published in 2002, I wrote about those brave women who had told me their stories when I worked as a radio presenter. But there were some stories I could not yet bring myself to tell. They were too painful and too close to home. I am not a particularly courageous woman; I am just a woman who longs to feel a mother's embrace and that lifelong bond of love and dependence between mother and daughter. Little by little, that longing seeped through me until it began to dominate my thoughts night and day. Reawakening the memories threatened to reopen old wounds: I would miss my own mother more than ever and would feel even more bitterness that I would never have that kind of love.
At a talk I gave at the International Book Fair in Melbourne, Australia, in 2002, someone asked me, "Xinran, what is your dream?"
I didn't even have to think about the answer. I said, "To be a daughter."
There was uproar from the audience of several hundred people. "But you were born, so you must be someone's daughter!"
"In a biological sense, yes," I responded. "But I was born into a traditional culture, I experienced brutal political upheavals as a child, and my mother and I lived in times that did not consider bonds of family affection important. The result is there's not a single occasion I can remember when my mother said she loved me, or even hugged me."
After the meeting, I found a line of silver-haired women waiting for me by the car. They were there, they said, to give me a mother's embrace. One by one they came up to me, put their arms around me, and kissed my forehead. ...
I could not help myself, tears poured down my face. In my heart, I cried, "I'm grateful for their genuine affection, but how I wish my own mother could have held me like this. Every day, since I was a little girl, I have missed my mother's love so much!"
In 1958, when I was just thirty days old, I was sent away to live with my grandmother. Like millions of Chinese women, my mother believed that anyone who put their family and children before their country and the Party was at best selfish and at worst criminal.
My earliest memory of my mother is of her walking toward me on a very quiet platform in the Nanjing railway station. She was a cloud of purple--her silk scarf draped over her shoulders waved in the breeze. She smiled sweetly and opened her arms to me like a dancer on the stage.
I was five years old and had never called anyone mother before. That day, at my grandmother's urging, I called my mother "aunty"--what children call any female stranger in China--and as I whispered the word this beautiful woman stiffened and a solitary tear fell down her face.
In 1966, only two weeks after I had begun living with my mother, the Cultural Revolution began. My parents were both sent to a political jail within a month of each other. My younger brother, who was only two and a half, and I became orphans. Ten years later we were all back as one family but no one has ever spoken about how we survived the struggles during that turbulent time.
In 1989, after twelve years of studying and working at a military university, I became a radio presenter. The first time I went to a small village in the countryside, I was devastated by the poverty-stricken lives I witnessed. It was only a forty-minute drive from the city I worked in, but they were so poor that in the summer most children did not even wear trousers, they only had a pair to provide warmth in the winter. I was so shocked to hear from the people I interviewed, face-to-face, the real numbers on how many lives had been lost in the past one hundred years within China. I was so ashamed by my lack of knowledge of traditional Chinese culture and the real history of China.
Until then, I never realized how ignorant I was about the real China and how misguided I was in my education about my mother's and grandmother's generations, so I started to reeducate myself by learning the truth from people. I went on a journey to find out the answers to my bewildering questions from my country and my people. Over the next eight years, I traveled around and met more than two hundred Chinese women for my radio program. I listened to them, and their stories struck a chord deep within me. I found myself as one of them--as a daughter, our lives watered down by the tears from our past.
I moved to London in 1997. After eight years of digging, searching, and feeling for Chinese women, I felt empty and run-down. During my time as a radio presenter I had received about a hundred letters every day with personal secrets full of dreams and confusion, and I had witnessed my country jumping onto a rapidly moving express train toward the Western lights, but the people still lacked the necessary education to grasp the massive force of change that was sweeping across the country. Therefore, as a Chinese woman who had walked a long march to find out who I am, I chose to start afresh in London, where I could deepen my understanding of the world.
But once there, I was stunned and hurt by how little Westerners understood the Chinese people. And on my many trips back to China I discovered how little the younger Chinese understood about their parents' generation. I found that our children have been cut off from the real history and even from their own family history. They have no idea about what kind of life their mothers and grandmothers have endured; they don't even believe that they have love stories.
Then one day in 1998, while I was teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, an Italian student came to me with a book he had been reading and asked me, "Is it true that Chinese women physically lack emotional cells and are mentally short of love as described in this book?" I was flabbergasted. Finally, through gritted teeth, I told him, "I am going to write a book that will move this world to tears about the Chinese women I know, on their rich feeling, their deep love and unconditional giving."
Since I began writing books about the lives of Chinese women, I have been fortunate enough to receive countless letters, photographs, and videos from adopted Chinese girls and the adopting families from all over the world. Their letters, like the two that follow (and the others on p. 187 and pp. 195-199), bring me comfort, and it is with their encouragement that I have finally managed to write down the stories of Chinese women who were forced to abandon their babies.
I am the (adoptive) mother of two beautiful daughters of China. My daughters are now 11 and 9. They both are very happy in our family and much loved. They also will never forget they have a birth family in China. They love their birth mothers and both of them, like you, would very much like to see their birth mother's face and hear her words. Please write your book. In this way they will know the heart of their birth mothers. Though we have told them we will look for their birth mothers if they desire to find them, we have also told them such a search may not be successful. The message you send from birth mothers may be all they ever have of their Chinese family.
One thing you can tell the Chinese birth mothers is that their daughters have not forgotten them. In our family their birth mothers are honored. My daughters and I study Pu Tong Hua. We have already returned to China 2 times with our daughters. They love the land of their birth, as their father and I do. We are proud to be an American Chinese family.
Please send our love, gratitude, and honor to their Chinese mothers.
The Macechko Family
So lovely to hear from you. I know just what you mean about how it takes days for your "head" to arrive back after your body. Flying around the world is such an odd experience in that way. Please, please, please do write Messages from Chinese Mums. You have to write it for all those girls. Mei and Xue even now ask why their "tummy mummy" couldn't look after them. I have to say, I don't know. Because I do not know. I can't lie. I can only guess--maybe poverty, maybe postnatal depression, maybe rape, maybe the fact that they are girls, maybe she was a teenager?
I can only guess at the pain. I save all books and newspaper clippings of China, so that when the girls are big, they can read what life was like and try and understand--maybe understand what their birth mother experienced. But, if you wrote some stories of the Chinese mothers, it would be more clearly explained.
I couldn't read The Good Women of China because I found it too painful. I cried and cried and cried. Each woman I thought of as Mei and Xue's mother--and what she had to bear and what loss for her to leave her babies. Some day all those adopted girls have to understand that their mothers gave them up--(HOPEFULLY) not because she didn't love them, but because life was too hard and too painful to bear. They must understand this fully. This is the only way to heal the pain for them of being rejected in that way.
Mei and Xue have brought such joy to our lives. Barry and I are complete with them and our family is a tight, beautiful bond. But I am aware that somewhere there is a mother (if she is alive) who has a deep pain about her girls. I want her to know that the girls are alive and happy and for her not to worry. But I also know that life is very complex and a well-intentioned Westerner can cause many problems easily.
I understand fully about MBL. It is very important. The link between all those girls and their mothers. The link between women of the world is very important. For some, your books are just stories, but for many of us, they are much more than that. Someday Mei and Xue will read your books and understand a little about their birth mum's life and those of their birth grandmothers. We can only thank you for that.
With big hugs, Xinran (Mei and Xue send them also). They are fascinated by you--Xue is very literary and loves the idea that you write books. She had me read out your email (I read out bits). Both girls sense some link with you. It is very interesting. Do come back and see us and come and stay when you are next over.
With love, Ros
These letters pour in. They haunt me and make me wonder: if I were an adopted daughter, where would I find answers to my inevitable questions about my strange start in life? In truth, I have been asking similar questions my whole life. I have tried so hard to forge a connection with my mother: I wish I could have known what happened to her during the ten years that she was missing from my life. I have dreamed of asking her if she knows what happened to me and my brother when she wasn't there. We had no right to play, to speak; we had no one to protect us from the Red Guards' violence and abuse. Mum, do you know all of this? But I never dared ask her.
I have tried to heal, to make myself a woman with a happy smile each day, but I can't control myself in the night--lonely fears wake me up again and again. I don't want to recall missing my mother, but the ache never dulls. And that is why I was afraid to dredge up these things that have cost me so many tears and why I was afraid to write about the women who abandoned their daughters. But it is also why I must tell their stories.
In December 2009, after I had finished editing this book, I returned to China and tried once more to confront my mother. I wanted to unburden myself of long-buried memories; I wanted to tell her what had happened to me, her daughter, during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted her to understand the nightmarish torments I went through, and which still haunt me. For her to know how much I missed her and still long for her, my mother. But I could not get a word out. I just sat silently in front of her, in floods of tears.
Over the years I have begun to understand how those adopted daughters long to understand their birth mothers and to tell them how much they love them. I decided that, no matter how painful it was, I would write down the stories I had stored up for so long. This book was to be an honest record of mothers' lives, a gift of mother-daughter love that I, a daughter, could share with other daughters, a message from an unknown Chinese mother to her daughter, wherever she may be.
I started writing this book on February 2, 2008, in a little house by the sea on Blues Point Road, Sydney, Australia. Strangely, my labors were accompanied by a fortnight of the violent storms that a southern hemisphere summer sometimes brings.
February 7, 2008, was the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, and the Australian media reported on the tens of thousands of Chinese who joined in the cultural festivities. Among them were more than a hundred families who had adopted Chinese children. As I watched these girls dressed in Chinese costumes asking their Australian parents in English what the Spring Festival was, I had mixed feelings. Were these girls really China's daughters?
Yes, I think they were. As the ancients said: when oranges from the south were transplanted to the north, they were still oranges, even if they tasted a bit different. I believe that even though these girls have been brought up in a foreign land and a foreign culture, the blood of their Chinese mothers still runs in their veins.
But what do their birth mothers feel? Does the unknown Chinese mother feel joy or sorrow at knowing that her beloved daughter is now happy in another mother's arms? I did not actually give birth to a daughter, nor am I the mother of an adopted daughter, but I weep every time I try to imagine how they feel. And once I lost a little girl who was like a daughter to me, so I know something of what they feel. There is an emptiness that can never be filled, there is an ache felt by the broken-hearted birth mother, by the adoptive family in the West, and by the daughter who will spend the rest of her life in a dual embrace--because the life she lives is a product of great joy but also of great sorrow.
By the end of 2010, the number of Chinese orphans adopted worldwide had reached more than 120,000. America has the largest number of adopted Chinese children from China, nearly 80,000.* These children have gone to twenty-seven countries--and almost all were girls. Most Chinese find the adoption figures almost incredible, just as they find it hard to believe that Chinese children have found mothers and homes in so many countries. Why does China have so many orphaned girls?
Most Chinese would say that it is because there is something inherently wrong with traditional culture; in other words, old customs are rooted in ignorance. Westerners, on the other hand, believe that the one-child policy is to blame. I began to gather information for myself when, in 1989, I started presenting Words on the Night Breeze, a program for women started in Henan, and then moved to Jiangsu Radio in Nanjing.
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