Monthly Archives: June 2015

“My child doesn’t look Chinese”

Fairly regularly in an online adoption forum or group, a parent will post “I know this sounds silly/crazy/strange, but my child doesn’t look Chinese.”  The person usually goes on to ask if other people have children with the same look, or to take a poll on possible minority heritage.  So if you’ve had this thought, you aren’t alone.  I think we can all have a little chuckle at the irony that adoptive parents, who are often very sensitive about any perceived racial stereotypes, can still have the idea that there is a particular way to look Chinese, when China is a country of over 1.3 billion people and takes up 9.6 million square kilometers of landmass.  Do we really think they all look the same?  But at the same time, this idea certainly isn’t limited to non-Chinese, because while are you in China with your child you may find that your guide or other Chinese people you meet will comment on your child’s appearance, saying that the child doesn’t look Chinese but Vietnamese/Thai/minority.

I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of the factors that play into appearance, because while you will probably never be able to fully know your child’s genetic heritage, some of the confusion might be cleared up with a better understanding of China’s history and contemporary life.  Many adoptive parents seem to have the default assumption that their child’s birth parents are married Chinese farmers, of Han heritage, who have lived in the same area for centuries. That is certainly possible, and it was the most likely scenario during the first decade or two of China’s adoption program.  But Chinese culture and attitudes are changing fast.  China has a booming economy and is no longer isolated.  Millions of Chinese people of childbearing age are leaving the farms behind to work in major cities, saving up so their children can attend university.  This creates a melting pot effect that is not unlike what we have in America.

First, let’s look at regional differences within China.  Here in America, we have pockets of people from the same area in Europe in different geographic areas.  You are more likely to find people with hispanic heritage the more you go southwest, or areas of the north where there are a lot of Polish or Norwegian heritage.  Similarly, you can find some general appearance characteristics which are influenced by geography in China.  China_Political

The upper northeast of China, which used to be known as Manchuria, borders Russia.  Generally, the further you go north, the taller and more fair complected the people are.  Yao Ming, the famous Chinese basketball player, is from Shanghai, one of the regions where people tend to be taller.  Shanghai is in Jiangsu province, where my son is from.  Neither my husband nor I are very tall, and we joke that our children are the kids who fill out the bottom of the growth charts.  Our Chinese son is larger than any of our biological children at his age.  Of course, nutrition plays a role in height as well.  You can read in the study I linked to above that in all areas of China, people in rural areas where malnutrition is more common are shorter than those in urban areas.  Also, there is a simple chart here with the average height for men and women per province.

As you travel south in China, you reach the areas where it is near to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos.  In these areas people tend to be darker complected, as you would expect in semi-tropical regions.  To the west, the area closest to the Indian border is where you find the plains of Tibet.  Finally, in the northwest corner there is a confluence of Eastern European and Middle Eastern culture.  This particular area is where the Uighur people live.  The story of the Uighur people and their constant state of tension with the Chinese government is a sensitive one.  You can read about it here.  I also found this photo essay in The Atlantic to be fascinating.

Having brought up the Uighur, we are now firmly on the topic of minority groups.  There are 55 recognized minority groups other than the Han majority within China.  Besides the Uighur and Tibetan, you might have also heard about the Miao, Bai, or Dai people.  Some of the minority groups reflect the national borders I mentioned previously.  For example, Korean is a minority group, as is Mongol and Kazak.  When you traveled to your child’s province, you probably would have been informed if it was an area with a large minority population.  Statistically, most of the foreign adoptions within China take place in the areas where the Han majority live.  Here is a link where you can see photos of all the ethnic people in their traditional attire.minority map

However, just because you adopted from an area that tends to be Han majority doesn’t mean that your child’s parents were Han.  You also need to consider that the world’s largest human migration is now occurring in China.  Young people of childbearing age are migrating from the central areas of China, area with minority populations, to the urban cities of the east coast.  There are many factors why these migrants might choose to abandon a child.  Living in poverty unable to afford medical care for their child, problems with hukou, and the stigma against single mothers.

Now let’s look at the married part of the original assumption that all children have married Han Chinese parents.  Premarital sex is becoming more common in China, but the stigma against single mothers is unchanged.  Many female college students may end up pregnant while they are studying at school and some will choose to give birth and abandon the baby.  If the women are students in large urban areas, they might have a foreign boyfriend.  Even if they are in rural areas, many foreigners take a job at these universities to teach English for a few years.  Foreigners have a certain mystique in Asia, just as Asians can seem exotic to caucasians.  A college girl goes out clubbing with her friends, has a few drinks, the foreigner starts flirting with her…you can draw your own conclusions.  Sometimes it is very obvious that one of the child’s parents was not Asian.  The same situation can occur for the many female migrant workers in the urban areas.  Many of these workers leave home at age 16 or 17 for the big city where they are living thousands of miles away from friends and family.  I recommend reading Factory Girls by Leslie Chang for an in depth view of life for these young migrant women.

So in conclusion, if your child doesn’t look Chinese, there could be many reasons why.  Perhaps your child is bi-racial.  Or a minority group.  He or she could be Han Chinese but fair-complected and tall because they are from a northern province.  Some adoptive parents choose to have genetic testing through a company called 23andMe to try and find more definite answers.

If you are interested in learning more about minority groups, the migration within China, hukou, or any of the topics I have mentioned in this post then you can find many additional books, films, and articles in my China 101 post.

Adoption Dissolution: Begin with the end in mind


When I originally wrote my choosing an agency series, the final post was about special adoption situations.  I discussed adoption disruption and dissolution in both that post and in the one on how accurate files are from China.  I am combining both parts in order to have all the discussion in one place.  For the sake of clarity, an adoption disruption is when the adoption is not completed, such as when a couple travels to China but decides not to complete the adoption once they have met the child.  An adoption dissolution is when a legal adoption is dissolved, although this is commonly referred to as disruption as well.

People in the adoption community love the happily ever after ending.  People who aren’t in the adoption community love it too– just look at the movie Annie.  We all want to believe that every adoption ends with a child being united with their “forever family.”  (If there is anyone left on earth who hasn’t read Jen Hatmaker’s After The Airport post then now’s the time.) And most adoptions are successful.  However, we need to acknowledge that there are times when adoptions fail.  People who have had a failed adoption usually do not stay within the adoption community so you rarely encounter their experiences in your online groups.  You will only read about the happy endings unless something really dramatic like an adoptive mother sending her son back to Russia on a plane happens.  When you are trying to decide if you should pursue an adoption you might ask in an online forum “Has anyone else done this?”  Keep in mind that the responses are already pre-selected to be favorable.  When it works out for people they are happy and want to encourage others.  When the outcome was not good, they do not want to be condemned by the adoption community and so they leave.

Even though I have been in the adoption community a fairly short amount of time, I have already encountered two different families who complained about how their social worker was making them “jump through hoops” before approving the match they wanted, and then a year later when the child/children were home, they were writing on their blogs that their adoption was failing.  My intention in writing about this is not to scare anyone off from adopting an older child, out of birth order, or adopting two unrelated children at once.  I only want to stress the importance of making an educated decision and having realistic expectations about the difficulties involved in making such adoptions successful.  You will not be set up for the best possible ending, if you don’t start at the beginning by educating yourself in order to have realistic expectations.

When you begin the adoption process, you might not realize that there is a wide variation in practices between agencies.  Generally, the older the agency the more likely they are to stick with what are called “best social work practices.”  These are things such as only adopting one unrelated child at a time, keeping birth order, avoiding “artificial twinning” (ending up with two children of the same age), etc.  In most other countries these practices are not allowed but our American independent streak rebels at those sort of absolute guidelines.  Many agencies now are allowing these practices, at least in some situations. Why would other agencies not allow these things?  Because agencies which have been around for decades have seen a lot of failed adoptions.

I spoke with a representative of an agency often characterized as being “conservative” and IMG_0227“having a lot of rules.”  I was told that their top priority was finding the right family for a child.  They wanted to make sure that the adoption was successful and they didn’t want to risk the child’s placement by matching them with a family with the potential for disruption.  Certainly, if you keep an eye on the Second Chance Adoption listings you will see time after time that a child needs to be the youngest child in the family because they are in conflict with a sibling close to the same age or they need more attention than their adoptive parents can give.

Try to imagine for a moment an older child, who has grown up in an orphanage in China.  One day an American couples arrives–the Mama and Baba they have always dreamed of!  But a few months or years later and things aren’t going well.  There could be any number of reasons why.  Will the child go back to the familiar orphanage in China where he or she has spent most of his/her life?  No.  Now an American citizen, this child will stay in this strange land, where they may or may not speak the language.  What happens to this child now?

  • They might end up in the US foster care system.  Often this is a last resort for parents because they fear they might lose other children in their home or that it would rule out the possibility of their adopting again.
  • They end up re-homed.  Sometimes this is done informally through online networks or another official adoption may be facilitated through an agency, usually Second Chance which I linked to above.
  • They have a tragic ending.

When things like this happen people inevitably say “Why did the agency let that happen?  Why weren’t these parents prepared?  We need more education, better screening!”  It’s the complete opposite of “Each family knows what is best and what they can handle.”  Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why some agencies have this criteria, because not every family does know what they can handle until they get there.  We need to acknowledge that people on both sides of this issue are working for what they see as the best for the adoptive child.  One side says “They need a family, disruptions are rare and it’s better to take the chance to get them a family” while the other says “Disruptions are real and we need to wait for the best family for a child rather than chance putting them through the trauma and upheaval of a disruption.”

When discussing China adoption in particular, disruptions and dissolutions stem from two different reasons.  One is when the child’s medical needs are not what the parent was expecting.  I discuss the accuracy of the files from China in this post, and share two different parents experiences within that post.

IMG_1391I have linked to Shecki’s blog, Greatly Blessed on several different posts on my blog.  I was a reader of her blog before she travelled to China to adopt her last two children.  You can get an idea of her experience by reading the initial post when she confirmed that Luke’s medical needs were much greater than expected.  When I contacted her about using her story in my post, she wrote at length in her post about her expectations and the reality of Luke’s diagnosis.  After about two years with Luke, Shecki and her husband made the difficult decision to have him adopted by another family which they felt was better suited to parent him.  She wrote a final post following up on their life without Luke in which she discussed how much the entire family struggled while trying to parent him.  Luke is now placed with a second family because his first placement did not work out.

The other reason for an adoption disruption or dissolution is often that the adoptive parents have unreasonable expectations.  This is often because they have a rose-colored view of adoption and expect their child to act like their same-aged peers who grew up in families rather than institutional care, especially when adopting an older child.  They might underestimate the amount of work involved in adopting two children at once, or the stress and conflict that adopting out of birth can bring to a family. None of these people deserve to be demonized.  They all set out to adopt a child forever, never expecting things to turn out as they did.  For most families, dissolution only occurs after several years of trying everything possible to make the placement successful.

Love Without Boundaries has a wonderful article called Realistic Expectations: Post Adoption Struggles which outlines the normal post-adoption difficulties which any family can face.

While the next story is about a family who adopted from the foster care system, it is a very good example of parents who did not have realistic expectations and ignored the counsel of multiple social workers and foster parents who warned them that it was not a good placement for their family.  Casting Out Demons— a detailed account of the Justin Harris case in Arkansas.

Unreasonable expectations can happen even when parents think they are prepared.  Stacey of Is there any mommy out there? writes in her post about their disruption (link no longer available):  We talked to our social worker. We thought we understood the challenges and pitfalls. We heard words like reactive attachment disorder and post traumatic stress disorder and post-institutionalized behaviors and we thought, naively, optimistically, tragically, that we could handle it. The deep truth, though, is that, like birth defects, like miscarriage, like fatal accidents, we never considered that these lurking horrors would apply to us.


There is a lot more to read out there on the topic, so here are a few more links:

Child has a good handout giving risk factors for disruption and dissolution.

Creating A Family has a radio show discussing adoption disruption and dissolutions.

Giving away ‘Anatoly Z.’ is a very long article which focuses on dissolution though Cindi Peck’s Second Chance Adoption service. *Warning: graphic and disturbing content*

The Atlantic’s article When Families Un-Adopt A Child

No Hands But Ours ran a five part series.

  • Part I focuses on the process.
  • Part II is a parent who explains a disruption from her perspective.  Although I’ve been telling you that this is always a painful decision for parents, apparently there are people out there who can say that God led them to disrupt and they have no second thoughts.
  • Part III is an account of a parent who encountered a child with a very different medical condition than expected but continued on with the adoption.  She wrote a follow-up to the post here, where she says that she does not at all regret continuing with the adoption although her life is hard.  There are many similarities between Shecki and Katie’s stories.  Perhaps the biggest difference, and the one which makes commitment in the face of hardship possible, is that Katie feels a bond with her daughter that Shecki never felt with her son.
  • Part IV gives us the insight of a family who adopted from disruption.
  • Part V is the most important one to read.  It is written by Amy Eldridge of Love Without Boundaries who gives her perspective on disruptions which she has encountered through her years in Chinese adoption.

Reading through these stories can be very scary if you are only starting to consider adoption.  It’s scary for people who have adopted.  Please be assured that for most people, the adoption is successful and the ending is a happy family.  But love will not solve every problem.  It is important that the perspective adoptive parents go into the process having reasonable expectations and being matched with a child who is a good fit for their family.


Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve updated the Adoption Resources page.  Since the Choosing An Agency series is over halfway through at No Hands But Ours, I’ve started linking to those articles.  I did leave a link to the original series, in case you’d prefer to read it all at once.

I added quite a few new good articles onto the Which Special Needs? post.

The parts of the fourth article which dealt with adoption disruption, adopting older children, two at once, etc. will not be appearing at NHBO.  I have written up a separate post focusing on disruption/dissolution and that will publish tomorrow.  I trimmed some of the links from the How Accurate Are Files From China? post because they will appear in the disruption post.  I also added this paragraph of text, which I’m going to post here because I think it is so important and I am disturbed by how often I people offering this advice.

One final topic to discuss is the frequent suggestion which I’ve seen that a family should bring the child home anyway, even if they know they cannot parent the child because “there are people here who will adopt them.” I want to point out that this is completely unethical. This child is under the guardianship of the Chinese government, and the Chinese government has given your family, and only your family, permission to adopt them. On all of the documents you sign for China, and when you take the oath at the US consulate, you are promising that YOU are adopting this child forever. It doesn’t matter if you think they will be better off in the US than in their orphanage in China. It doesn’t matter if you think you know a family who can handle the child’s needs better than yours. If you knowingly adopt the child intending to turn them over to a family when you return to the US, you are committing fraud and are guilty of human trafficking.