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Guest Post: Affirmative Action in Vermont– Little Friends

February 9, 2011

Today, I have the great pleasure of giving you a guest post from the amazingly talented Taryn Tilton. I’ve known Taryn since I was quite small, and I am well aware of her capabilities in regards to both scholarly interest and writing. Do please leave some comments below to show your appreciation for her as I sort out my technical difficulties. Thanks! MG

As you probably know, Miles has been having computer problems. He asked me to write a guest post while things get sorted out, and I was more than happy to oblige.

After reading his post on Amy Chua and Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, I decided I, too, would write about the parenting of Chinese children — but in a completely different context: I want to write about the parenting of children adopted from China. This is not going to be a critique on parenting styles or on the ethics of adopting children from developing countries or anything of that sort, but the briefest of glimpses into how it is to be a child adopted from China now living in rural America.

As it is, I am white and currently a senior Chinese major at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, in Addison County. Middlebury’s population is a little over 8,000, which includes about 2,500 college students. The towns around Middlebury are not much bigger. In fact, the biggest “city” in Vermont is Burlington, which is about an hour away from Middlebury and still only has a little under 40,000 people.

Addison County — and especially Middlebury — is interesting in that there are two distinct populations: one of academics and organic farmers and the like, usually marked by their high education or well-balanced lifestyles, and the other of working-class or unemployed individuals, some of whom are in extreme poverty. The latter seems to outweigh the former. Excluding the huge range of people of different backgrounds at the college, there is not much diversity in rural areas like this, especially not racially. There is also a trend – trend in the sense of a pattern, not in the sense of a passing fad – in which a significant number of the people here with higher education adopt children internationally, usually from China. Chalk it up to Vermont’s supposed tolerance for unconventional lifestyles and patchwork families, if you will; I’m not sure exactly why but, relatively speaking of course, there are a good number of them.

Now, why China? There are plenty of reasons and they vary, of course, according to family, but I’ll try to go over a few here. First of all, international adoption is a great option for those looking to adopt because there are more babies available and the process, if not necessarily faster, at least tends to be more definite. Unlike domestic adoptions, there are no open adoption policies or birth mothers who may or may not change their minds. Also, speaking more specifically to China now, the children up for adoption there tend to be very healthy given their circumstances. For instance, there are far fewer cases of Chinese orphans with fetal alcohol syndrome then, say, there are in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that thanks to the Chinese one-child policy, China now has at least 50,000 orphans, not including those who do not live in orphanages.

The nuances and loop-holes of the one-child policy are enough to write at least three more posts so I won’t get into it here – for instance, rules can be bent if you live in the countryside or if you are willing to pay crazy taxes, etc. – but I will talk briefly of its consequences.

Traditionally, when people get married in China, the woman moves in with the man and they, as a couple, are responsible for taking care of his parents as they age. This leaves the woman’s parents without a caretaker – unless, of course, they have another child who is a son. The one-child policy, then, has made couples desperate for sons, even if that means abandoning any daughters they might have.

This policy – while an incredibly effective means of population control, which was the purpose of its creation – has had severe repercussions. This goes beyond just the “surplus” of baby girls in China. This also means that there is an imbalance in gender as these children age, and that now, many men are having trouble finding wives or partners. This also means that whole generations of children have grown up as only children, every single child coddled and spoiled rotten by four grandparents and two parents. (The Chinese call these children “little emperors.”) This also means that these children are not used to sharing – toys, living space, what have you – and that there has been a recent rash of “shotgun divorces” as pairs of these only children struggle to live under the same roof, confined by marriage and all the sharing that entails.

In any case, this has been great news for many American parents looking to adopt, benefitting from the “surplus” of these beautiful little girls. Indeed, more and more families have been adopting girls from China with each passing year.

Now on to my central point: how do children adopted from China, sometimes as late as four years old, cope with moving to rural Vermont without even an Asian family upon which they can rely? The answer is: they don’t. Not on their own, anyway.

My good friend and I have heard plenty of horror stories, if you will, of boys bullying other boys, saying things like, “We don’t like your yellow sisters. People like that don’t belong here,” etc. Perhaps most striking, however, is that time and time again, the parents’ pleas for disciplinary action fall on deaf ears; the schools in this area have little to no experience with diversity and thus have no measures in place for dealing with these types of issues.

We have heard stories, too, of young girls adopted from China saying that when they grow up, they want to run away with a “white, Christian family” and dye their hair blonde. One girl even expressed to her mother that Chinese people are ugly and stupid. When her mother said the contrary was true and that her daughter was neither ugly nor stupid – to the contrary, in fact – the daughter exclaimed that of course she knew she wasn’t, but Chinese people are.

These adopted children don’t identify as Chinese, and how could they? They are surrounded by white people all day every day, and their understanding of China is only through whatever stereotypical lenses the media presents or the prejudices set against them by their ignorant peers at school. What is to be done, then?

Last January, my (aforementioned) friend decided to take action. She suggested forming a mentoring group catered directly to these children adopted from China, and I hopped on board, glad to help in any way.

The program is called 小朋友 (Xiao Pengyou, or Little Friends), and its aim is to match children adopted in China with either international students or Chinese Americans here at Middlebury College. The kids grow to love their Chinese mentors – because they are really cool, old college students! – and thus form a positive racial identity with a role model who looks just like them. The mentor-mentee matches have one-on-one get-togethers about once every two weeks, and then a giant program-wide get-together about once a semester, in which all the coordinators, parents, mentors, mentees, and mentee siblings get together to learn about Chinese traditions, eat good food, and run around acting ridiculous.

Luckily, parents of children adopted from China tend to be very involved and eager to give their children the best, so I have heard enough praise to know how much this program means to those who participate in it. I don’t need to hear the praise, though; I would still know. One little girl, when planning her birthday party, asked to only invite her Xiao Pengyou friends. Her mom asked why, as these children only see each other at our program-wide meetings twice a year, and she said plainly, “Because those are my real friends.”

Since its inception, the program has grown to include a little over 20 matches. While I cannot be a mentor because I am white and that defeats the purpose, I have seen the worth in this program more than I ever could have expected; I am more than happy to serve as a coordinator between the mentee families and the mentors, as well as plan the big biannual get-togethers. It is important that while these children grow up in beautiful, rural Vermont, they are still at least partially surrounded by people who look like them, knowing where they came from and, in a sense, who they are.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tess Grimes permalink
    February 9, 2011 6:51 pm

    Sharon this was just beautiful, and this program sounds amazing. Its so great to know that you are helping do something like this.

  2. Barb White permalink
    February 9, 2011 9:52 pm

    Great insight, Sharon! So glad to see you changing the world. As always, your gift of language challenges and motives others.

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