Life

A NEW COMMUNITY COMES OF AGE

As the first Chinese adoptees reach puberty, researchers are taking stock

SUE FERGUSON February 24 2003
Life

A NEW COMMUNITY COMES OF AGE

As the first Chinese adoptees reach puberty, researchers are taking stock

SUE FERGUSON February 24 2003

A NEW COMMUNITY COMES OF AGE

Life

SUE FERGUSON

As the first Chinese adoptees reach puberty, researchers are taking stock

IN A ROOM cluttered with photos, dolls and other girlhood trinkets, Samiee Pei-Pei Singleton beams over her prized possession: a weighty medallion awarded for her participation on the Brookville Elementary soccer team. Emma Yu Ju, her sister and bunk-bed cohabitant, deliberates before revealing her most cherished keepsake: a pale jade necklace, a gift from her po-po, the Chinese nanny who watched over her until she was three months old. Together, those pendants speak volumes about the girls' richly textured identities. Arriving in 1993, Emma was one of the first Chinese adoptees to come to Ontario. Samiee arrived the next year, at age two. Growing up in Campbellville, 50 km west of Toronto, with four older brothers, their grandmother Dorothy and parents Paul and Barbara, the preteens are, says Paul, among "the senior citizens of the Chinese girl community" in Canada.

That community is considerable. In the past 13 years, Canadian families have adopted 7,000 Chinese children, overwhelmingly girls. Since the middle of the past decade, they have represented about one-third of all international adoptions, jumping in 1998 and again in 2002 to fully 41 per cent. Pat Fenton, executive director of the Adoption Council of Ontario, attributes China's popularity to a variety of factors: a well-organized international program that carries a relatively low price tag (about $20,000), the families' strong post-adoption support network, and the appeal of offering a home to someone abandoned because of the country's one-child social policy and cultural preference for boys. And then there's the fact that, as she puts it, "they are appealing little girls who tend to do quite well." This last point is, for many, the clincher. In the early 1990s, researchers found that one-third of children adopted from Romanian orphanages had significant developmental difficulties stemming from the lack of social and emotional stimulation and poor physical care. Around the same time, Chinese adoptions began to take off.

But the evidence that Chinese kids strug-

gle with fewer problems is still anecdotal. Only recently have they come under the gaze of researchers here and in the U.S., where up to 5,000 children arrive annually from China. While the studies' preliminary conclusions appear to confirm the positive perceptions, researchers caution that their subject groups are small and they do not know what, if any, problems will arise over the long term. Entering parenthood "is always risky," says Martha Maslen, executive director of Children's Bridge, an Ottawabased international adoption agency.

Also lacking—because the earliest Chinese adoptees are only now reaching their crucial teen years—is a comprehensive picture of how the kids are faring socially, and

how they are dealing with both their adoptions and minority status. Eve-Maryse, 13, and her brother Christian, 11, are the oldest of four Chinese children adopted into the Lohé family. They are frank about the issues they face. Growing up in Sherrington, Que., 30 km south of Montreal, the siblings have encountered some racism. "When I was a little girl, the kids called me 'chintok' [chink], or they'd pretend to speak Chinese," recounts Eve-Maryse. "I would get so mad but I couldn't do anything because they were bigger than me." She learned to ignore the taunts. "It gets difficult sometimes," adds Christian. "I usually try to hide it when I'm feeling sad but sometimes it's too much and I have to talk to my parents."

Some are luckier. Rosa Newman has encountered little racism. Living with her mother, Wendy, just a few blocks from Van-

couver's Chinatown, the 11-year-old attends a school that is 80-per-cent Asian. Wendy, an arts administrator, actively fosters her daughter's connection to her Chinese heritage through books and cultural activities. Every year (most recently, earlier this month), they invite a dozen other adoptees and their parents to a Chinese New Year party that spills onto the streets for the community's annual parade. "It's important that I don't forget it's a part of me," Rosa says.

Adoptees, social workers suggest, can be troubled by the mystery surrounding their origins. But the children Maclean's interviewed register more curiosity than distress. A trip to China (featured in Chinese Daughters, a documentary by Naomi Wise that airs on Feb. 19 and 23 on TVO's The View From Here) helped bring alive the Singleton girls' sense of their heritage and, for now, says

Paul, their questions have waned. When her adoption does come up in chats with her friends, says Samiee, "they think it's really awesome." Paul adds that Emma—who has a fancy shoe collection that includes a tiny pair of slippers once worn by a Chinese woman with bound feet—"has found great comfort in the idea that she has a Chinese lineage." As for his birth parents, says Christian Lohé, "I'd like to ask them why they gave me up. I'd like to see what they look like."

Children's pre-adoption histories can also lead to adverse developmental consequences. But however draconian it seems to Westerners, the fact that Chinese children are largely given up because of their gender means they may be less at risk for hidden med-

ical conditions. For Kim McLaren, it was precisely the prospect of a healthy child that drew her to China in 1998. The Victoria finance ministry employee first explored her options with Russian children. Three times the agency contacted her with proposals, but each child had potentially serious problems, she says, and one "was at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome." The information about Shaylee, her now four-year-old daughter from China, was scant—a tiny picture and a one-page report indicating no abnormal health concerns. But, in the belief that pregnant Chinese mothers take good care of themselves, she proceeded with the adoption.

McLaren first held Shaylee, at the age of eight months, in a Chengdu hotel room. "For about 10 seconds we looked at each other. Then she started to cry," she recalls. "She was clutching this little tissue so tightly—it

was just so sad." Returned to the nanny's arms while the paperwork was completed, Shaylee settled, only to wail again as McLaren carried her down the hall to her room. "Every time I looked at her, she cried." By day three, Shaylee rewarded her mom with a smile.

Shaylee's wariness at being thrust into a stranger's arms is, in fact, a positive sign. It indicates, says Jay Rojewski, a University of Georgia researcher who has surveyed parents of Chinese children about their bonding experiences, that she had already established an emotional connection with her caregivers. As a result, she was capable of "relearning that sense of trust and security." Of the 200 parents who responded, he adds, the majority reported similar experiences.

When Chicago lawyer Ron Prince and his wife Nancy (the names have been changed to protect the child's identity) flew to Anhui province in the summer of 1999, they were aware that the 16-month-old girl awaiting them would present a challenge. Lily was nearly blind due to congenital glaucoma— a condition that could have been corrected at birth. Surgery on their return to the U.S.

partially restored her vision, but greater problems lay ahead. By the time Lily was three, her parents began to notice unusual behaviour. At the park, says Prince, "the first thing she would do is run over and jump in somebody's lap, anybody"—and she couldn't grasp that her actions were unsafe. Lily is also frequently manipulative. She may show great affection, sometimes genuine, Prince says, but often she has an ulterior motive: it's as if she were saying, "I just want to see if I hug you right now, and then turn around and spit in your soup, what are you going to do?" Lily has been diagnosed with reactive detachment disorder. She craves the control and attention because, Prince says, she never learned "she could depend on anyone else." That leaves only herself. At daycare, "nobody wants to be with her," he adds. "That's the saddest part."

More common are developmental delays. Children who begin their lives in institutions sometimes lack the space, toys and human interaction needed to optimally stimulate their crawling, walking and ability to learn. In Chinese orphanages, chil-

dren's movements are also curtailed by the multiple layers of clothing they wear. But they generally compensate for such delays in a matter of months. Nancy Cohen, director of research at Toronto's Hincks-Dellcrest Institute, is leading a research team tracking 75 Chinese children in Canada. When the first 50 kids were tested one month after their arrival, only 23 per cent had average motor abilities and 15 per cent at least average cognitive abilities. Twelve months later, those proportions jumped to 85 and 88 per cent respectively.

And for the parents of those adoptees who are now reaching an age when all kids tend to ask questions about their heritage, the Lohé children have some advice. "Answer all the questions and don't be scared that it will make them sad," says Eve-Maryse. "And be supportive when the kids first go to school, because it's so hard to be different from everyone else." To his fellow adoptees, Christian offers this: "Take it in stride. Things will be OK with time." P!

Kathryn Borel