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.
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.
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.