It is late January and we are celebrating Tu b’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, with its tiny whispers of Texan spring. It’s also the time when I actually begin to think about Passover. Though the holiday is still two months away, the age-old ritual of cleaning every corner takes time. I will be enthusiastically assisted in this endeavor by my daughter Sarina, who, but for an enormous twist of fate, would be preparing not for Passover, but the Chinese New Year.
I often wonder how, as our six-year-old grows up, the Passover story will speak to her. The notions of hardship and exodus are particularly searing in relation to her roots, although so far anticipating Passover mostly means that Sarina’s excited about chocolate lollipops, matzah balls and matzah toffee. Sarina attends a Jewish day school, so she has a good grounding in many aspects of the holiday. But as my husband and I parent her, we also find ourselves thinking about the other side of the Passover story, the post-liberation side, in which, parallel to emancipation, the Hebrews spend 40 years wandering in a desert. Will Sarina wander? I wonder. Will she toggle internally in some way between Kunming and Dallas? How will she understand her story?
My daughter’s exodus began on January 1, 2005, when she was found abandoned at the entryway to a warren of dwellings in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. In China, there is no legal way for parents to give up their children. They must be abandoned, though abandonment is illegal, too. Every New Year’s Day I am haunted by the thought of a two-week-old infant, possibly awakening from her nap, crying out for her mother who will never reappear. And I think of her birth mother — I’ll call her “Yocheved” [Moses’ mother] — hearing her cries and being powerless to hold or comfort her baby, or to keep her baby, except at the risk of government retribution.
If a Chinese birth mother is caught leaving a child, she risks everything, from losing her job to forced sterilization. And with the age-old cultural privileging of boys, keeping a girl can mean loss of face for both mother and daughter. Women often feel they have disgraced the family when they give birth to daughters.
I think about the emotional price that all of this exacts on the female population of China. In The Lost Daughters of China by Karen Evans, Anchee Min writes about the huge number of abandoned female infants brought up in foster care in China, and how the foster parents call the birth mothers “ghosts.” They “sneak around our houses,” Min quotes them as saying, “trying to locate the daughters they abandoned.”
China’s one-child policy was instituted in 1979 as a temporary way to prevent mass starvation, but it is still in effect 33 years later. Since international adoptions became legal in 1989, over 150,000 Chinese children have found new families all over the world, including 80,000 in the United States alone.
Do mothers who made the same agonizing decision as Sarina’s birth mother console each other, I wonder, or does each mother have her own heartbreaking secret? How does one abandon a child, put her down in a marketplace or a park and leave? What happens to these mothers emotionally? Sarina’s birth-mother will never know that her daughter is being raised in a loving family in a free country 11,000 miles away. I imagine her grief could be partly assuaged if only she could know this.
When I think about the Passover story, I think about China’s harrowing twentieth-century history, populations held captive by many Pharoahs, from the Qing dynasty to the Nationalists of the Kuomintang to the Japanese and finally to the Communists. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, from 1957 to 1961, precipitated a famine that forced millions to flee their homes and left 30 million dead — did Sarina have biological ancestors among them? In the new China, is anyone in Sarina’s biological family riding the wave of urban wealth, or are they destitute and forgotten in the countryside? And then my thoughts turn global. Who on our planet is trying to leave Egypt now? How many families, even as Sarina and I prepare for Passover together, are being torn apart?
My husband and I try to expose our daughter to her birth culture, though at this point in her life she considers herself more American than Chinese. She’s also been able to belt out the Four Questions in Hebrew since the age of three. But if the time comes that she asks us, like one of the Four Children, “What does all of this have to do with me?” I would like to offer her an answer that includes her biological as well as her adopted ancestors, if only, alas, in the abstract.
Certainly we will tell her that we hope that people everywhere, regardless of nationality, race, class or ethnicity, can offer this to their children: we have suffered in bondage, we have endured in a wilderness, we now celebrate in freedom.
As she grows up and matures, I am sure Sarina will have her own Four Questions, maybe something like these: Why couldn’t my birth parents keep me? What do my birth parents look like? Why did you want a Chinese daughter? And, is there any more matzah toffee in the fridge?
I hope my husband and I can give her answers that make sense to her. I hope we can give her strength for her own private journey.
Nancy Cohen Israel lives in Dallas, Texas where she organizes and leads tours of art venues, teaches art history at Southern Methodist University, and writes about the art scene.