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Parenting: Red Diaper Brigade


In many ways, however, Chinatown still feels like a foreign place. Perhaps because of this barrier, a new English-friendly Chinese culture -- one designed for these eager new families -- has been springing up. A lot of it is coordinated by an organization of adoptive families -- Families with Children from China, or FCC, as it's known. It's now a nationwide confederation of more than 90 chapters, but it was started half a dozen years ago by a few families holding potluck dinners on the Upper West Side.

The volunteer group devotes part of its resources to bringing Chinese culture to adoptive families. They sponsor celebrations for Chinese holidays, like the New Year and the Autumn Moon Festival, as well as for Chinese Culture Day, a celebration they made up to honor families just like themselves. Now all across the city there are enthusiastic Chinese-holiday celebrations, sometimes even more enthusiastic than those in China. "We have visitors from China who after going to an adoptive parent's home say they haven't seen so many New Year's decorations in all their lives," said Kay Johnson, an adoptive parent and Asian Studies professor at Hampshire College.

"They like to do everything the Chinese do," says Xiaoning Wang, from Beijing, and now Park Slope. "I was impressed and moved." Wang, who has an entrepreneurial bent, saw an opportunity. After bumping into white women with Chinese babies, she formed, which provides Chinese products -- her shelves are lined with books, tapes, silk dresses slit up the side, Chinese provincial maps, panda-bear backpacks -- and cultural information for families who have adopted from China.

It's possible to wonder if, in all this excitement over a new culture, there's also a kind of pressure, maybe a particularly New York kind of pressure. Do some families feel they have to do Chinese things, and do them really Chinese?

"A lot of adoptive families say you must take Chinese lessons by the time your child is 2, or 3 at the latest," said one parent. "And you have to start Chinese dance classes certainly by 3. Or else you're going to get comments, especially if you don't show up for Chinese New Year."

The Little Red School House, the progressive school in the West Village, started a Mandarin-language summer camp two years ago -- and before it expanded, there was a waiting list. ("I couldn't get my daughter in last year," lamented one mother.) And Little Red, along with St. Luke's, offers after-school enrichment classes in Mandarin as well. All these activities are led by Jennifer Lee, who seems to have pioneered many of these forays into Chinese culture for kids without Chinese parents in part, she says, because of what she's noticed. "Not looking like their parents bothers some kids," she explained. "Some feel ashamed of being Chinese."

Here was a parent's biggest fear. It touched just the point where a parent felt least qualified to help. How, after all, could a Caucasian parent help her Chinese kid appreciate her Chineseness? The results might be years off, and yet the experience of a child in psychic pain is a terrible thing.

Jennifer Lee had already noticed a tendency. "Some of the kids don't want to emphasize their Chineseness," she said. In this instance, she figured she had an advantage in getting through to these mixed families: "I don't look like everybody else." Jennifer is part Chinese and part African-American, among other things (she looks kind of Hispanic, though she's not). Jennifer had always identified with the Chinese side of her family -- she hardly knew her father -- and was stunned when people wouldn't believe that the Chinese woman next to her was her mother. "It was very hurtful," she explained. And she saw the same kind of hurt at work in her classroom. There were kids who started out silent, refusing to participate when Chinese was spoken.

Outside New York, the issue of a girl's Chineseness doesn't always seem so pressing. One adoptive New Yorker had traveled to China with a dozen families from around the country. After adopting, they kept in touch. "The other families don't take Chinese lessons, they don't worry about taking Chinese dance classes, they don't go out for Chinese food," she said.

What was the right emphasis? No one could say. This particular familial alignment hadn't existed in any numbers before. A sense of fitting in, of belonging, seems a delicate act. Maybe, they worry, emphasizing their Chineseness works against those things. "It's a difficult issue. To the degree you emphasize Chinese, you're not really part of the family," said Nancy Reale, a professor at NYU with an adopted daughter. "Are you raising somebody who will always be different from you? Or are you raising a New Yorker like you?"

"The watershed is school," explained Elizabeth St. Clair. There are dual-language schools, mainly in Chinatown, where the kids learn Chinese. "How much of that did I feel comfortable with? How much did I want my family to be marginal to my kids' school experience?" asked St. Clair, who said, "I wanted us to be a more normal part of the mix. I decided on a neighborhood school."

Roberta, though, leaned the other way. Juliette had started off a Mandarin-speaker, and her mother would like her to continue. "I want her to be a citizen of the world," Roberta sometimes said.

Some people warned her that she'd lose context in the mainstream world. "I want Juliette to be confident inside her skin" was her response. She didn't think Juliette would lose touch with mass culture, the one she sees on TV all the time. "I like that my child will be comfortable around Chinese people," she said.

Juliette attends Red Apple Child Development Center, a nursery school in Chinatown, and has her sights set on Shuang Wen, a new public school -- P. S. 184, housed inside P. S. 134 -- on the edge of Chinatown. Sarah Shulberg, Sar Wah Wah from Juliette's old play group, is already enrolled. So is the daughter of Paula Grande, who left work so she could be active in her child's upbringing. She's now co-president of Shuang Wen's PTA. The school has 110 students -- 100 of them Chinese, including five adopted girls with non-Chinese parents. Half the day is taught in English, half in Mandarin. The children actually use different names, morning and afternoon.

Paula's daughter seems to use a variety of names. At roll call, for instance, she's Elizabeth Streeter. In the afternoon, during the Chinese session, she's Ma Youjing. In the Chinese style, Ma, her Chinese family name comes first, though, of course, she doesn't really know her Chinese family name. Ma is the name assigned to everyone from her orphanage -- in fact, there's another adopted girl in the school from the same orphanage and thus with the same name. At home, Paula and her husband call her Youjing, which Paula pronounces the American way, You Jing, and which her teachers, using the correct pronunciation, say Yojing, with a long o. (Paula feels that "Yo Jing" sounds a little slangy.)

The children don't seem to mind all this switching back and forth -- it's the parents who have trouble keeping up. And the rising competence in Chinese can leave parents feeling a bit out of it, especially with homework. When Chinese homework reaches the kitchen table, Paula, despite the couple of courses she took in Mandarin, has little idea what's going on. "Sometimes I sit with a dictionary," she said, but usually that proves impossible. "The characters look like chicken scratch," she confided. The school ran workshops for parents in Paula's predicament. Still, she said, "sometimes parents can feel estranged."

Before they left China, many adoptive parents spent a few days pushing their lightweight strollers through the streets. Wherever they went, older Chinese women bent over to pull up the infants' socks and fluff the strangely thin polarfleece, checking that the infants were warm enough.

Then, invariably, the older women said two words, possibly the only two they knew in English. "Lucky girl. Lucky girl."

Was it true? Even back home, neighbors sometimes congratulated you on being such a generous soul. Some of these children could have died if they hadn't been adopted. They sometimes lived several to a crib. They might have had too little attention, too little sunlight, too little food. Some got rickets. Some had flattened heads from lying so long on their backs. "Olivia's head seemed caved in in the back," said Angela Calamia. "She had boils all over her body, fever, a glazed look in her eyes."

The adoption agency was so concerned it felt compelled to ask: Did she want to trade her child in for another?

"This was my baby. It was as if I gave birth to her," Calamia said. "I would never have taken another child."

Calamia's daughter, now 2, is as healthy as any American child. And yet if you ask these parents, they bristle at the lucky-girl stuff. "You see these kids playing together and you can think, Yeah, there are lots in the orphanages who aren't adopted," says Sarah's father, Richard Shulberg, who co-produces "The Secret Museum of the Air" for WFMU. "But these kids also represent the needs of parents to create a family, parents who couldn't create a family any other way. We're the lucky ones."

And in fact, it was more than a family they'd ended up with. In the end, the kids gave the parents, really, a sense of belonging. "The decision to adopt from China was the best thing I've ever done," says Roberta. "I love being a mother."

In many cases, family life has proven transformative. "I reached out and made lots of friends, and had a social life centered around my circle of China-adoption friends," says Roberta. Suddenly her calendar bristled with play dates. Meg Tolan, an attorney for the New York Stock Exchange, organized a single-parents group. Elizabeth St. Clair always brought her two adopted Chinese kids, who became best friends with Meg's two. Now, most Saturday nights, they have dinner together.

Sometimes Richie Shulberg, Roberta's friend, imagined them ten years from now, as adolescent girls. They'd be in a Chinese gang, but a nice one. They'd be called the Mei Meis, which he says means "little sisters." Sarah Shulberg would be in it, and of course Juliette Ferdschneider would, too -- they'd been friends from their nanny days. They'll wear pink satin jackets bearing the name of their province of origin. "Dad, I need $300 for the Mei Meis," Richie imagined his daughter saying.

For Roberta, these new families have become her whole life. She'd worked as a typesetter, as a manager at a hospital. She's now assistant director of China Seas, an adoption program. When she goes to dinner with people who are thinking about adopting, she takes them to Chinatown and brings Juliette. "She is our best advertisement for China adoption," says Roberta. Juliette eats a few noodles and then, once she's comfortable with people, climbs into their laps, plays with their hair, puts her chubby arms around their necks, as Roberta explains that it's not so hard, really, to be a family.


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