Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran
It seems that most Americans know someone who has adopted a baby from overseas (and by “know” I don’t mean read about Angelina Jolie’s growing menagerie in the weekly tabloids), many of those being baby girls from China. There is endless speculation about why the adoption rates coming out of China were so large for so long (they’ve fallen off precipitously in the last few years). Most of what we hear is the Western media’s take on the situation, based on a variety of both reliable and unreliable sources. While at times this media coverage is accurate, often it portrays the birth mothers as unfeeling, selfish and backward in their cultural beliefs. These are easy sentiments to propagate, as they serve to make the adopting families feel a sense of superiority to the birth mothers forced to make terrible choices. In reality, I worry that all such speculation does is create a more deeply ingrained stereotype of the Chinese people and their culture. Xinran attempt, and succeeds, in putting human faces on those mothers. While we may still have a hard time culturally identifying with the women and the choices they make, they are no longer faceless foreigners, just abiding by cultural dictates, but instead real mothers facing a dilemma and pain that is unknowable to many.
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is a rare opportunity for us to glimpse the other side of the adoption story. This book is not a single story of one woman who gave up her baby, but rather a series of tales from a variety of women, spanning the entire spectrum from uneducated countryside to highly educated city women. Through the stories of these women, we are allowed a glimpse into a world that requires mothers to make difficult choices, to weigh their own emotion versus what is best for their child. None of the stories are easy to read, but all are worthwhile.
One of the things that I really liked about this book was the way Xinran was able to mesh the adopting mothers’ points of view with those of the birth mothers. While the focus of the collection is on the Chinese mothers, she doesn’t neglect the wonderful families in other countries who have opened their homes and their hearts to these young girls. There is no finger-pointing or name-calling, but rather a true desire to help the world, and especially those Chinese girls who have been adopted, understand what their biological mothers were faced with and why the decision to give the baby up for adoption may have been made.
The book sways the reader on a pendulum of emotion. At times tears and frustration and anger directed at the historical dictates, strict government officials and mothers unready to fight their current situation are at the forefront of the reader’s psyche, followed shortly by awe and inspiration at another group of women who dedicated their lives to improving the lives of the young Chinese who could not care for themselves.
The writing itself isn’t of the highest caliber, lacking a sense of flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, but the story told is important enough to outweigh the book’s literary shortcomings. (Part of this disconnect may be connected with the fact that this is a translation from Chinese. The smoothness that we are used to as readers of English may just be a different style than a non-fiction book of this type would display when written in Mandarin.) This book would be a beautiful gift for anyone who has adopted a Chinese baby or for the girls themselves when they are old enough to start questions what may have caused their mothers to have made such a painful choice. Xinran’s Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother earns: