In the Missionary Position: Emily Prager in China1
In the Missionary Position: Emily Prager in China1
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter demonstrates that in her Wuhu Diary (2001), Emily Prager was exploring the origins of her Chinese adopted daughter, and in the process, was forced to reassess her own images of China. Inevitably, there are some signs of Prager compromising with the presentation of China as a picturesque and backward nation, but then her discussion of transnational adoption brings out the inherent complexities of this process. Adoption has to do with the general treatment of baby girls in China, with business since it has its financial side, and even with the geopolitics of America's relation to China. Thus, the chapter restates one of the keynotes of the present volume: namely, that the local is ultimately inseparable from larger international concerns.
China runs as a theme through Emily Prager's work, centrally in A Visit from the Footbinder and Other Stories and Wuhu Diary. Prager's biography offers a partial explanation. When her parents divorced, her mother remarried and sent Prager alone, aged seven, with a tag round her neck, to her father in Taiwan. Prager spent three and a half years in the East and never went back to her mother. Later she adopted a Chinese daughter, LuLu, and returned to China when her mother died, to show LuLu her native city of Wuhu. Prager repeatedly describes China as ‘a very maternal place for me’2 because, when she was a lonely seven-year-old, the Chinese people she knew were so kind to her. At the same time Prager is no sentimentalist, as her career indicates. Employed as a child as a soap opera actress, Prager became a satirical columnist, worked for National Lampoon in the 1970s, then from 1978 for Penthouse. It was not then usual for a feminist to write for a men's magazine. Prager commented, ‘What I found there was complete freedom to write female supremacist humour, good pay to go with it, and a thoroughly unconverted audience’.3 Her anthology In the Missionary Position collects her pieces, which have offended both the puritan and the libertine. While A Visit from the Footbinder and Other Stories was banned in South Africa as a danger to public decency, one of her journalistic pieces, ‘How to tell if your girlfriend is dying during rough sex’, was banned by the Penthouse editor as too sensational. Interviewed on The David Letterman Show in 1982, she was asked ‘What's a feminist like you doing writing a column for Penthouse?’ The implication was that she had sold out, despite the feminist content of the column. Prager's answer revealed her pragmatic concern to avoid preaching to the converted: ‘I'm in the missionary position over there’, she answered (Missionary, p. xv).
Prager's topics in ‘A Visit from the Footbinder’ and Wuhu Diary – footbinding (p.239) and transnational adoption – raise the issue of how far she sells out to a Western agenda in which China features as underdeveloped, timeless or backward, in need of assistance in order to participate fully in a globalized world. Both topics feature prominently in the archetypical Western vision of China as primitive, the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) in which Ingrid Bergman literally occupies the missionary position, in a biopic based on the life of Gladys Aylward, a missionary in China.4 In the film Bergman is horrified by Chinese ‘barbarity’ (a public execution) but eventually adopts China as her home. Following a decree against footbinding, she accepts the role of ‘foot inspector’, and eradicates the practice. The other cause promoted is the adoption of Chinese orphans. When Bergman encounters a woman with a naked baby, used as a prop in begging, the rapacious mendicant dismisses the child as ‘a girl child, worthless. A beggar gave it to me.’ Bergman adopts the child, eventually collecting hundreds of orphans, and when the Japanese invade, marches them singing to safety. This is not a film with any great claims to subtlety, nor to presenting an accurate image of China. The main Chinese roles are not played by Chinese actors but by Westerners in ‘yellowface’ – Curt Jürgens as the love-interest Lin-Nan, Robert Donat as the Mandarin – and the film was made in north Wales on the river Colwyn, with local Welsh-Chinese residents cast in supporting roles (though not in speaking parts, given their strong Welsh accents.) The ‘China’ displayed here is envisioned through a Cold War lens, either as greedily rapacious or as a helpless victim, needing to be rescued by Western intervention, modernization and development. The film exemplifies the tendency of the West to renew itself from non-Western cultures, in the imperial belief that the world is totally accessible to the Western traveller, as a spectacle for Western view. In this reading, the West uses the East to prove its own greater civility, with the account of horrors legitimizing its own domination.
Imperialism's image as the establisher of the good society is marked by the espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind.5
Prager is obviously open to the same critique. ‘A Visit from the Footbinder’6 is a heartbreaking story, as the knowing reader follows Pleasure Mouse, aged six, bounding around the palace, quite unaware that after this day she will never run anywhere again but hobble short distances with a cane. Footbinding (at the mother's behest) keeps the child immobilized in a traditional role, unable to develop, as is physically exemplified in the shuffling progress of the boundfoot women in Prager's story, an implicit argument for modernization and development.
In contrast, in Wuhu Diary Prager promotes an image of China as an idealized maternal space: China, guardian of my memories, nurturer of my spirit (p.240) […] China is China to me no matter who rules it. It is a matter of people, trees, birds, smells, and earth, not politics'.7 In fact, Prager spent her childhood with her father as an American military dependent in Taiwan, a location which could hardly be more politically resonant. Transnational adoption allows for an idealized female entity, the Chinese motherland, while a specific (abandoning) mother is absolutely silenced. The moral appears to be that traditional China maims its daughters; modern China abandons them. Adopters rescue the girls for a better life in a ‘developed’ society. In the short story development comes to a crashing halt, as the child is crippled by the footbinder. In the travelogue, the child abandoned as a result of China's one-child policy has her individual development promoted in the West. The one-child policy is itself designed to promote modernization and development by limiting population growth, regulating consumption, and avoiding starvation. In Prager's travelogue, the child becomes the focus for a discussion of the benefits and costs of development.
Transnational adoption is a new phenomenon with a complicated political background. In the West, the sensational media exposure of conditions in China's orphanages propagated a horror story to which the overwhelming response was a belief in adoption from China as entirely humanitarian. The British documentary The Dying Rooms (aired in the United States on 24 January 1996 on Cinemax, then on CBS) showed conditions of squalor in Chinese orphanages, with some children apparently emaciated and left to die. The New York Times Magazine headlined a story about adoptions in Wuhan ‘China's Market in Orphan Girls’, subtitled ‘Unwanted and Abandoned Baby Girls Have Become the Newest Chinese Export’.8 In an article headed ‘China's Horrific Adoption Mills’ Holly Burkhalter reported that Human Rights Watch had claimed that thousands of children in Chinese orphanages had died of starvation, abuse or neglect.9 Although the Chinese government disputed the charges of neglect, there seemed little reason to most Westerners to envisage adoption as anything other than a rescue mission. A further trigger to American women is the awareness of the gender imbalance of the adoptees. As a result of China's one-child policy, the overwhelming majority of the children are girls, abandoned by parents who want a chance to have a son, a decision informed by years of cultural experience in which a boy was more valuable for production.
It was estimated in 1992 that, given the usual ratio of male to female births of 105 to 100, some 1.7 million Chinese baby girls go missing each year.10 Transnational adoption nevertheless transfers babies from disadvantaged to privileged women. For some commentators The Dying Rooms wrongly demonized China, when the real problem was the context of extreme poverty.11 More sceptical observers noted that the Chinese authorities kept adopters out of orphanages, delivering the babies to them in hotels, even in (p.241) different cities. Of the thousands of state-run institutions, foreign adoption agencies have contact with only about fifty. Most are quite inaccessible to outside observers. (Prager received her daughter in the Anhui hotel in Hefei. When she returns to China to visit Wuhu, LuLu's birthplace, she never succeeds in visiting the orphanage where LuLu spent her earliest years, or gaining access to her records, though she is allowed to see a very pleasant orphanage elsewhere.) It was also argued that some institutions offered better care to infants who were ‘marketable’ to foreign adopters. Harry Wu, the survivor of a Chinese labour camp, points out that adopting Americans bring millions of dollars into China each year, and make large compulsory ‘donations’ to Chinese orphanages. The money, however, does not necessarily stay in the orphanages: ‘The government is selling the babies and making money for the purpose of controlling the population. It's political. You have to realize that the people in the orphanages are government employees.’12
Transnational adoption therefore poses particular problems in the context of any discussion of development. As Karin Evans notes, the Chinese people broadly accepted the one-child policy, despite the draconian measures taken to enforce it: public monitoring of women's menstrual cycles, fining or eviction of offending families, coercive abortion and sterilization. Even in the 1989 student unrest, reproductive rights were not an issue. The policy was accepted as a prerequisite for the country's economic development.13 For Westerners it is often axiomatic that a Chinese child will stand a better chance of individual development in the developed West. Others take a less positive view, emphasizing the exploitation of poorer countries, the commodification of children, the implication that Chinese girls are an expendable surplus, available for a price, and the continuity with previous history: ‘the practice is a new form of colonialism, with wealthy Westerners robbing poor countries of their children and thus their resources’.14
Rescue – or theft? American responses are divided. It is, however, indisputable that the adoption of Chinese girls is a large-scale phenomenon with significant consequences for American society. Evans, writing in 2000, estimated that some 18,000 Chinese children had already come to America, with some 350 girls arriving each month, forming a nationwide sisterhood.15 Adopters tend to be middle-class professionals. The organization Families with Children from China has chapters in every major US city. Both FCFC and Our Chinese Daughters' Foundation are grassroots organizations, linking local chapters to global issues. ‘This East-West group of parents and children has become a global village’,16 with thousands of websites describing personal adoption journeys.17 Most adoption agencies offer assistance in bicultural socialization through reunions, pre- or post-adoption workshops, summer culture camps, Mandarin classes, and events designed to foster the (p.242) adoptees' sense of their Chinese identity. For some commentators this is a potentially positive social movement. Adam Pertman sees transnational adoption as a redefinition of America, linking Americans permanently to other countries and establishing a global sense of connectedness.18 American parents adopt ‘in’ and not ‘from’ China, and the impact of going there and adopting a child in the Chinese cultural context cannot be underestimated. Because transnational adoptions are often also transracial, the image of adoption as promoting racial diversity and acceptance of others is tempting.
Claudia Castañeda is one of the few writers to consider transnational adoption in the context of wider theoretical debates. Castañeda argues that the notion of development is implicitly inscribed in the child. What is unique to the child is its capacity for transformation. In debates about transnational adoption what is at stake is the power to define the kind of person a child will become. In the context of Prager's ‘return’ to her childhood in China, two aspects of this analysis are suggestive. Castañeda notes that to turn back to one's childhood to repair ‘the child within’, to use the past as a resource to establish a more stable self, is almost a cliché of self-development programmes. ‘Hence, the child is primarily valuable insofar as the condition of childhood can be revisited in order to be left behind again.’19 Prager returns to China on her mother's death in order to re-experience the ‘mothering’ of China. At the same time Wuhu Diary is a record not only of Prager's own development in China, but also of LuLu's. It is in some senses a ‘baby biography’, a record of development. The visit to Wuhu is a ‘roots’ trip expressly designed to foster a stronger sense of her identity in LuLu, to ensure psychic health, in the belief that the separation of the child from her birth culture may result in long-term difficulties with identity development, genealogical confusion and loss of heritage.20 For the adoptive child what is being produced is ethnicity, connection to heritage, the sense of a stable self which is ‘grounded’ in origins. In the past the foreign adoptee was transformed into a familiar family member; now the movement is towards a multiculturalist valorization of diversity. Adoption is understood not just as family-making but also as a site of racial and global harmony. Castañeda, however, argues that what is really being offered is greater freedom of choice for adoptive parents, as consumers in the adoption market. Laws of supply and demand link poorer ‘sending’ countries and richer ‘receiving’ countries. Castañeda therefore identifies adoption as a reproductive technology (comparable to surrogacy, in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination) in that it lies somewhere between cultural phenomenon and natural fact. This particular technology is firmly in the service of modernizing and developmental agendas common to China and the West.
From a consumerist point of view, Chinese children have many advantages over other adoptees: a swift adoption process,21 acceptance of older or (p.243) single parents, no rumours of stolen children, little evidence of HIV or foetal alcohol syndrome (unlike Eastern European and Native American adoptions), and young babies, usually under a year old. The children are not ‘available’ as a result of US military action (unlike Koreans or Vietnamese), hence there is less ambivalence from members of the extended family with experience of combat in Asia. Although children may encounter some racial discrimination, prejudice against foundlings in China is also severe (a point noted by Prager) so risks are evenly balanced. American private adoption fees are as high as $30,000 whereas a Chinese adoption will cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Chinese adoption is unchallengeable, whereas various well-publicized American cases in which the birth mother reclaimed the child (popularized in television ‘trauma dramas’22) have increased worries about the security of the legal adoption bond. In China, since the abandonment of babies is illegal, the birth parents are unlikely to reclaim their child. Nor can the child easily trace the mother. Very little is known for certain of the origins of the children. Unless found with a note, or delivered in a hospital by a mother who subsequently flees, the child merely has a name and birthdate assigned to it. If a child's age and birthdate don't match up, the American parent can change the birthdate as well as the name. As Prager herself discovers in Wuhu, China is developing rapidly, tearing down older neighbourhoods and transforming its geography. The place where the child is abandoned may disappear overnight. In short, the ‘property rights’ of the adoptive parent in the child are absolute. The Chinese child is visibly different from her parents, and to that extent the adoption is ‘open’; but since access to the birth parents is impossible, the adoption is effectively ‘closed’.
Adoptive parents are themselves well aware of the potential commodification involved in transnational adoption. When Karin Evans shopped in America for baby clothes, and the recommended ‘transitional comfort object’23 (a Winnie the Pooh toy), everything she bought had been made in China: ‘But it seemed a bit hypocritical to be politically correct in the discount store when I was about to be involved in a far larger transaction’.24 Ironically, in China, babies are usually abandoned in places of lively commercial activity to ensure that they are found swiftly. The American press has satirized the consumerist nature of the process as an upper-class fad. Vanity Fair listed as a necessary ‘accessory’ for fashionable summer vacationers in the Hamptons a ‘Chinese baby’.25 In the New Yorker a cartoon shows two American couples, loading their plates at a buffet, with the caption, ‘We're so excited. I'm hoping for a Chinese girl, but Pete's heart is set on a Native-American boy.’26
In view of the potentially consumerist nature of the process it is useful to adopt Rey Chow's terminology of ‘biopolitical transactions’. Chow draws upon Foucault's argument that the institutional practices devised by society (p.244) to handle human sexuality are part of a biopolitics, a systematic management of biological life and its reproduction. Although the point of biopolitics is to generate, manage and optimize life, in order to make it better for the human species, racial discrimination and genocide are also the logical manifestations of biopower ‘because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population’.27 Chow raises the image of China and the West as collaborative partners in a series of biopolitical transactions, where human beings are the commodity. In her example, political dissidents are exiled one by one, as others are arrested, so that the Chinese government is setting itself up as a business enterprise dealing in politicized human beings as precious commodities, as if China has to maintain a supply of the ‘goods’ demanded by the West. If some are traded off, others will be caught:
human rights can no longer be understood purely on humanitarian grounds but rather must also be seen as an inherent part – entirely brutal yet also entirely logical – of transnational corporatism, under which anything, including human beings or parts of human beings, can become exchangeable for its negotiated equivalent value.28
The West is not innocent in the transaction. The humane release of famous dissidents is also a means of palliating the embarrassment of Western companies doing business with the Chinese regime. Chow uses the example of dissidents, but the argument can be extended to abandoned girls, also a subject for Human Rights Watch.
How then to adopt a literary strategy adequate to the complexities of the topic? Wuhu Diary is both a deeply personal account of LuLu's return to China and a narrative which challenges the model of the West-as-parent developing the underdeveloped East. Prager uses a deliberate technique of reversing the usual conventions of the adoption narrative and creating alongside the account of child development a recessive subtext concerning Prager's own development. This is not a naïve account of healthy national development as China modernizes, in tandem with healthy child development. The easy polarities of the Western parent/Chinese child are reversed, as the Western parent becomes the child, the Chinese child becomes the protector of the parent. The possibility of China as human rights violator is both acknowledged (imagistically in a subtext of brutality and danger) and matched with examples of American abuse. Prager's trip to China coincided with the bombing by US planes, under NATO control, of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, an incident which led to widespread anti-American unrest in China. The embassy district was invaded by 100,000 people, the residence of the US Consul General in Chengdu was stoned and partially (p.245) burned, American products were boycotted, and showings of US movies were cancelled in favour of movies about the Chinese fighting the Americans in Korea. As a result global politics erupt into the personal story. Prager thus positions the main story – LuLu's development in China – between recessive subtexts: her own return to childhood (underdevelopment) and Chinese Westernization and modernization (development). China may appear to be a dangerous environment for LuLu but neither East nor West emerges as providing the best ‘growth medium’. LuLu's bicultural socialization involves her mother yielding her control to others and acknowledging both Chinese values and deficiencies.
Adoption and fictionalization go hand in hand. Prager has to decide what story to tell LuLu in the knowledge that the story she tells will condition LuLu's development. The term ‘adoption narrative’ is a slippery one, referring both to the narrative by a parent of an adoption, and the story told to a child to explain her adoptive status. Because transnational adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are few narratives for its practitioners to use. Oedipus may be the first transnational adoptee29 but his story is not conspicuously helpful to a small Chinese girl in New York. Happy adoption stories (Mansfield Park) suit an older age group.30 Adoptive parents therefore invent narratives for their children almost from scratch, creating one of the first new genres to emerge in response to transnational activity. Enormous responsibility hangs upon the imaginative flexibility of the parents. The child will read the narrative, and draw individual conclusions about her own worth, while the general readership forms its own views of China. Throughout, Prager emphasizes the imagination as power, and credits LuLu with considerable individual agency. The transnational adoptee is taken away from any traditional narrative of origins, and a new narrative of cultural meaning is created both for her and by her. She is not merely the passive recipient of a narrative rescue mission. Narratives of adoption thus offer a particularly good example of the imagination not as fantasy, elite pastime, or contemplation, but as an organized field of social practices, a form of negotiation between sites of individual agency and globally defined fields of possibility.31
Wuhu Diary is a combined autobiography and baby biography cast in the shape of a travel journal. The apparent spontaneity of the diary form (‘May 27 Sunny’, p. 162) and the apparently contingent details of stomach upsets, laundry costs, menus and weather, create a sense of the improvised, the less than fully shaped, the still-developing. The subtitle ‘On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to her Hometown in China’ suggests a series of occasional notations or contingent observations. The diary form (30 April to 18 June 1999) means that the visit is precisely timed, firmly set in a specific historical context. The everyday nature of the narrative implies a rejection of culture as ‘heritage’ (art, history, grand monuments) in favour of culture as learned (p.246) through the daily living of values and attitudes. The Belgrade bombing prevents the Pragers making excursions and keeps them in Wuhu, allowing for a deeper local engagement. Throughout the narrative, the details – sensuous, trivial and apparently superfluous textual presences – carry a freight of meanings related to the larger themes.32 Not all local details are innocent or ‘exotic’; many carry a countermessage to the global, developmental narrative.
Most parental adoption narratives are apolitical, celebratory accounts of ‘how I got my baby’, culminating in the ‘gotcha moment’ when parent first meets child, with little awareness that every adoption is also a tragedy, involving a woman who has lost a child. Stories are controlled by adoptive parents, not by birth mothers, whose stories go untold.33 Accounts tend to involve the motif of the rescue mission, and the triumph over adversity (bad orphanages, hostile bureaucrats, false starts), the notion that fate or God brought parents and child together, that the child is just the right one (the ‘chosen child’), or a lucky survivor, plus some emphasis (once the family are back in the United States) on the ‘positive’ aspects of Chinese heritage.34 The pitfalls are multiple. A child may find it hard to live up to the ideal of the perfect chosen child, may feel the guilt of the survivor, and may experience Chinese culture only in museumized form. The common explanation of abandonment (that the mother bravely risked discovery to assure the child's safety, by leaving the child close to an official place, or by hiding nearby) still implies that those who love you can also abandon you.
Prager's narrative operates almost in reverse order. Rather than writing an account which culminates in the return to America with the baby, the story begins with a return to China, culminates in the cataclysmic grief of LuLu as she recognizes that she was abandoned alone on the street, and closes with a letter to the birth mother, acknowledging her importance.35 The story may begin apolitically, with a reprise (in memory) of the ‘gotcha moment’, but it develops a political subtext, and shows the mother letting go of LuLu psychologically. As LuLu becomes involved with Chinese children, Prager sees her moving away from her: ‘It is scary, but I'm not pulling her back to me. I am going with my deepest instinct that she and we will benefit so much if I let her go free. So I'm releasing her to have her experiences without my hovering over her’ (p. 219).
Above all, Prager reverses the terms of the rescue mission. The Belgrade bombing creates real hostility to Prager and lets politics into the story. The bombing occurs in the context of a Western mission designed to protect human rights in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. As well as undermining the image of the US as rescuing others from the wicked abusers of their rights, it also reverses the mother—daughter relation. Prager is tolerated only because of LuLu: ‘LuLu is in no danger here at all […] On the contrary, (p.247) out on the streets of town, LuLu is my protection, not the other way around. By virtue of being the mother of someone Chinese, I am allowed to pass almost unnoticed’ (pp. 128–29).
Even more tellingly, Prager confronts her own experience of abandonment. Her own first experience of the East was when she left her mother ‘and her new family’ (p. 11) behind. When she returned to America, she never lived again with her mother. When she goes to China with LuLu it is ‘again without my mother’ (p. 13), two months after her mother's death. She remembers her mother as ‘out of reach to me’ and after the age of seven ‘never mine again’ (p. 13). In addition, she several times describes China as it emerges from the Communist period as ‘like the 1950s’ (p. 30), the period when Prager was in the East as a child. The trip to China is explicitly positioned as a repetition of Prager's own experience of abandonment, returning her to the status of child, and confusing generational patterns. Because of her mother's death, Prager recalls her mother's own history, as a child actress who supported her mother (Prager's grandmother) from the age of eight, reversing the usual economic roles. Prager's was a stage family and her mother only discovered her father's real name (O'Keefe) late in life. He had adopted the name of Romano as a stage name.
The memory reveals Prager's awareness that roles can come unfixed, names change, family structures alter, even without the adoption process. At one point she wonders if LuLu also came from a theatrical family (p. 50), an unsurprising observation given that it follows on from a series of scenes of roleplay, in which the roles of mother, daughter and grandmother crisscross, as Prager relinquishes the role of mother (as far as circumstances allow) in favour of constituting LuLu as a daughter of China, and allowing herself therefore to become a daughter, remothered in her own turn. LuLu acts out various family roles, dramatizing her own birth by sliding through Prager's knees, and staging a game with toy pandas in which she sometimes acts the birth mother, sometimes the baby. ‘We both gave her away and adopted her many times’ (p. 29). LuLu's agonized cry when she realizes that she was abandoned – ‘Why did they leave me alone?’ (p. 227) – is also Prager's own cry of outrage (‘being left alone is just a metaphor for being left’, p. 227). Prager accompanies her daughter to China, unlike her own mother who left her to go alone. The ‘roots’ trip to develop LuLu is also therefore a reparative journey for Prager. Watching Chinese mothers and daughters, she notes that ‘[girls] don't seem to hate their mothers at puberty in China’ (p. 75), unlike (by implication) American girls.
LuLu also gains comfort by role reversal when her grandmother is dying, drawing on notions of reincarnation to imagine that her grandmother will be reborn as a baby. But when she actually sees her grandmother, she states quite firmly that ‘Grandma is going to die, Grandpa. Very soon’ (p. 89). (p.248) LuLu remembers a baby dying in the orphanage where she had spent her first months and correctly reads the signs of impending death. Her knowledge is superior to her mother's, just as she is now ‘older’ at four than her ‘baby’ grandmother. In generational terms LuLu now seems to be further advanced than her mother (the child) and her grandmother (the baby). The ‘abandoned’ child is also Prager, regressing to a child again, growing back through the roles of sister and mother, and then overtaking her own mother (now a baby). LuLu has become her mother's mother – as in the adoption photo in which ‘she looked exactly like my mother when she was young’ (p. 134). Nancy Chodorow has argued that women choose to have children in order to re-experience mothering, to recapture that blissful primary attachment of mother and child by re-creating the exclusive symbiotic relation of their own infancy.36 Mothering therefore involves a double identification for women in which they take both parts of the pre-Oedipal role, as mother and child. Where a child has not been sufficiently mothered she may be more disposed to become a mother herself, to recreate the mother–child bond. Similarly Prager develops by going back to a less developed state, guaranteed by her supposedly underdeveloped Chinese daughter.
A second subtext is carried by the detailed travelogue. On the surface, the description of Wuhu as a place of danger creates an implicit argument for adoption. China is like LuLu, half-finished, still developing. In Shanghai, Prager is surrounded by half-built skyscrapers and construction noise. Scaffolding obstructs the route to the waterfront. Reaching Renmin Park involves a road with nothing on either side but enormous pits and stacked girders. Prager's childhood memories were of pastoral, unchanging rice paddies and the water buffalo, ‘the yoke eternally around his dutiful neck’ (p. 52). But in fact when she reaches Wuhu the first thing she sees is a miniature Eiffel Tower. Wuhu too is under construction, with rubble nine feet high on either side of the road. Carpets are not tacked down, work is unfinished, lights are dim or non-existent, electric wires are exposed and the air is full of rubble dust. For Prager, ‘the real human rights story in this country, right now, is the dangerous living conditions of the average person’ (p. 225). The dangers of the streets are a constant theme, with the subliminal message that these are the streets on which LuLu was abandoned, that she was fortunate to be rescued.
When the Chinese embassy is bombed (7 May 1999) the event coincides in Prager's narrative with the visit to LuLu's place of discovery. Her documents note ‘Found near the Qng Yi Jiang Police Sub-Station’. To Prager's surprise the bridge where she was supposedly found is modern: ‘I hadn't expected the place to look so … what? So urban, so twentieth-century. I don't know what I thought: that it would be more ancient-looking somehow? Just as I thought that Wuhu would be more like a village, with a (p.249) dusty main street’ (p. 82). Prager associates Chinese child abandonment with a ‘traditional’ rural environment, not with the developing world. But the side of the bridge where she stands is close to the new department store, overflowing with consumer goods; the other side is the older, unreconstructed Wuhu. LuLu was found in the city centre, near a bridge which half of Wuhu's population crosses each day to get to the shopping area. It is the modernity of the scene of abandonment which is shocking. Prager had decided that there was ‘no need’ for LuLu to know about the bombing (p. 99) just as she had also decided not to tell her that she was abandoned in the street, but to say that she had been taken right to the orphanage to give her a better life. The most commonly accepted explanation of the bombing is that the pilots had the wrong map. In parallel it transpires that Prager also had ‘the wrong map’. The place where she thought LuLu had been abandoned was the wrong one. A Chinese journalist, Stephen, offers to take her to the right place. Prager comments, ‘Just when you think China has abandoned you, she turns around and picks you up again’ (p. 220).
In fact, however, this new turn in the story reveals the reverse, confronting LuLu with her abandonment and Prager with Chinese economic realities. When the place is discovered (another bridge on the same canal) the location has changed completely in the four years since LuLu was found. Formerly a poor area of shanties, it has been transformed into ‘a new but nondescript business neighbourhood’ (p. 220). The price of development is abandonment. Far from being the result of traditional attitudes, abandonment is the product of modernization. While the Western press tends to describe it as the result of a traditional desire for sons, the abandonment of daughters is not equally prevalent across China, but more common in the provinces near the Yangtze river, an area of unprecedented economic development, rural to urban immigration, privatization of state-owned enterprises and accelerated social change. LuLu was abandoned in the province of Anhui in Southern China in June 1994. There had been an intensification of birth-planning efforts in Anhui in the early 1990s.37 So what is more dangerous: the traditional gender bias, or modernization ? Prager visits the ‘new urban area’ immediately after she has been to the place where LuLu's fellow adoptee Lao Li was abandoned. It is as if Prager is aware that transactions are being struck, that the price of business development was the one-child policy and the adoption of girls.
The bombing also brings to the fore the financial transactions underlying the China–America relation. The reversal of generational patterns no longer appears as benign role play. The bombing killed two young people, and the mother of the young woman who was killed is quoted as saying, ‘Should a mother have to decorate the mourning hall for a daughter?’ (p. 115). It is not just the Chinese who are a danger to the young. When Prager's guide (p.250) denounces her furiously, refusing to believe that the bombing was a mistake, Prager's reply is telling: ‘Why would we? Why, when we have all this business with you?’ (p. 111). The relationship between America and China is no longer personal, maternal, but political, economic. The economic transaction is exposed as the real guarantor of continued ties of friendship. What returns relations to normal is the involvement of the business community. Because of the bombing nobody is eating at Kentucky Gi (KFC); production has slowed in factories. The anti-American television bulletins soften, and the news, aimed at the American business community, assures them that it is safe do business again. A day later the top story is no longer the evil Americans, but the post-bombing woes of American companies, which are losing money. ‘Clearly the business community has weighed in’ (p. 126). Prager realizes that ‘no one here wants bad relations with the United States or the West in general right now. Prosperity is just ahead, and everyone here can see its tail feathers’ (p. 120).
In creating the parallel narratives of personal and political development (LuLu's and China's) Prager faces up to her own illusions. Adoption and fiction go together. But by not telling LuLu the truth of her abandonment, she makes a potentially damaging mistake. The truth is revealed as a direct result of the bombing which she also concealed from her. Because ‘sentiment is not with you right now because of the bombing’ (p. 172) Prager is not permitted to visit the Wuhu orphanage or consult the files for information. This is why Stephen makes the offer to check the files for her, and therefore also offers to show her the correct bridge – where LuLu hears their conversation and realizes that her birth parents had not taken her to an orphanage as part of an adoption plan, but had simply abandoned her. Stephen's promised story about LuLu is never written and Prager wonders uncomfortably whether he was actually working for the city government which has killed the story. The story, in short, has never really been purely personal, but has always depended on politics.
Prager is, however, permitted to visit a different orphanage. Just before the visit she relates a memory of her own. Aged nine, in Hong Kong, she had visited a Chinese orphanage (in the New Territories) with her schoolmates, in order to present the orphans with embroidered bibs. In the ward, her eyes locked with those of a two-year-old orphan who glared at her with ‘a gaze of such hatred and fury that I began to burn with shame. I felt what it was to be her and to be in that crib and to see me, a privileged little girl all dressed up and wandering by, as if at a zoo’ (p. 185). The little vignette demonstrates that Prager, far from being an innocent rescuer, is really immensely privileged. The child in the orphanage stares at her with hatred, not gratitude for her gifts. The memory is recalled after the bombing, when Prager has experienced Chinese hostility, and can no longer gloss over the facts of LuLu's (p.251) abandonment. It clearly signals the existence of suffering in an orphanage and is described by Prager as a ‘guilty secret’ (p. 185).
The memory occurs immediately before Prager visits two locations: a ‘show orphanage’ (p. 185) in Hefei, and a zoo, the Hefei Wild Animal Park; the little girl, compared to a creature in a zoo, links the two. Throughout the story, Prager's text is highly attentive to creatures commodified in zoos. Any parent taking a child on a trip will be likely to visit similar attractions. But Prager's eye lingers on details which are not at all random. The descriptions of the zoos, often with poor conditions and suffering animals, are often situated at points where they undermine the ‘controlled exhibit’ offered by Chinese officialdom, with suggestions of brutality. Stuffed animals are a motif linking zoos and orphanages in an apparently benevolent series of exchanges. Prager presents Wuhu orphanage with 20 stuffed animals (p. 103); LuLu is given a stuffed duck (p. 165). Prager prefaces the visit to the zoo in Shanghai with the comment ‘The orphanages are closed to foreigners now’ (p. 40). In the Shanghai zoo Prager sees a stuffed dead lion on display (badly stuffed and not as cuddly as the toys) and takes a photo, only to discover from an angry man that the animal is a prop for photographs. She has to pay him to take a photo of this exhibit. It is only there to extort money from her.
The theme of ‘brutality on display’, suggested by the animals exhibited in the various zoos, surfaces even more emphatically in Pets' World, in Shanghai Zoo. Misunderstanding the term ‘petting zoo’ (where children are safely able to handle small domestic animals) the Chinese have put pets in dirty cages. The display is aimed at emulating the West and extracting money from Western visitors. One message is that children are not well protected in China. The zoos are actually quite dangerous for children; a camel tries to eat LuLu's hair. In Pets' World there are dangerous uncontrolled pony rides and children can hug the giraffe (p. 44). The pets – hamsters and guinea pigs in cages – are also for sale. It is not difficult to see the subliminal analogy here as the nexus of imagery links cute well-stuffed animals in orphanages to less well-stuffed animals in zoos, places of danger and suffering, where small creatures can be bought. A sense of danger pervades all the exhibited animals and the juxtapositions – a memory of a miserable orphan stared at like an animal in a zoo, a visit to a show orphanage, then to the Hefei Wild Animal Park – are startling. In the Hefei Wild Animal Park LuLu actually enters a baboon enclosure where a brutal-looking man with a club controls the animals. This is a society which controls what it exhibits, and the brutal elements are never far from the surface.
Prager is not merely a naïve observer, offering a travelogue of exotic notations to her readers; she also provides coded or subliminal messages. As a former TV critic, for example, she is keenly attentive to what is shown on (p.252) Chinese television. While some programming is nakedly propagandistic, modernization does not appear to have produced cultural homogenization and she notes approvingly the abundance of special effects and colour, the variety of programmes, and the stark reality of some of them. Again, however, the devil is in the detail. Commentators have argued that the gender imbalance resulting from the one-child policy will create a generation of aggressive young males, competing for women. Increased trafficking and abduction of women have been reported. Prager's eye lingers on two children's programmes. In one, a dog cartoon called Danny Danyao, set in the period of the Spanish Inquisition, ‘a bunch of mean dogs in ruffs abduct a female dog’ (p. 125). In a children's sitcom set in modern Shanghai, the story line involves a girl who dies, killed in a war game with boys.
So does the foreign adopter save the adoptee from dangerous, ‘brutal’ China, or from a China where modernization on the Western model (as seen in Pets' World) is the real source of danger? In short, is there in some ways a bargain between East and West? LuLu is to be allowed to move freely between the two cultures, making her own choices. Prager, like many adoptive parents, is more constrained. Bad publicity has previously cut off the supply of orphans in other nations. But the story does not end in unalloyed affirmation. Prager concludes with the letter which she was encouraged to write to LuLu's birth mother, in which she recognizes that her own happiness is the result of the birth mother's greatest tragedy:
That you should have your daughter forced from your arms by a government who I then must pay to envelop her in mine is the stuff of which I have fought against my entire career. That I should end up tacitly supporting this policy is my shame and, yet, my fate. (p. 257)
Wuhu Diary represents a real effort to avoid dealing in platitudes and to construct a subtle narrative which evokes the full complexities of the relation of East to West, tradition and development. How successfully the message can be communicated to global readers remains a moot point. Ironically the British paperback edition of the book, published by Vintage, sells a different image through its paratextual apparatus. The letter to the birth mother is printed inside the front cover, almost like a blurb, essentially exonerating and absolving Prager before the reader encounters her. In the hardback, the back flap merely mentions tensions in China. The paperback informs the reader that ‘mother, daughter and townspeople became involved in a relation of warmth and complexity that stands politics and prejudice on its head. It is LuLu's joy and pride in having found them that people cannot get over. After all, this is the same town that threw her away.’38 LuLu, in short, is a little charmer; the story is not about politics at all; but the Chinese are guilty none (p.253) the less because they abandoned her. Where the hardback featured one of Prager's everyday photographs of LuLu and her Chinese classmates, a happy group of modern boys and girls staring right at the reader, the paperback substitutes a professional image of a small Chinese girl in traditional costume, with flowers in her hair. She looks bashfully and submissively to one side, against a background of traditional Chinese houses, very much the ‘China Doll’. She could almost be Pleasure Mouse reincarnated.
(1) This essay draws on material originally published in Fictions of America (London: Routledge, 2007).
(2) Gaby Wood, ‘The Chinese girl who calls me mum’, The Observer, 8 July 2001, p. 3.
(3) Emily Prager, In the Missionary Position: 25 Years of Humour Writing from the National Lampoon, Titters, Penthouse, New York Observer, Guardian and the New York Times (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 21. Page references for subsequent quotations will be given in parentheses in the text.
(4) Mark Robson, dir., The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, written by Isabel Lennart, produced by Buddy Adler (Twentieth Century Fox, 1958).
(5) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 271–313 (p. 299).
(6) Emily Prager, ‘A Visit from the Footbinder’, in A Visit from the Footbinder and Other Stories (London: Vintage, 1999), pp. 11–39. First published in the UK by Chatto and Windus, 1983.
(7) Emily Prager, Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to her Hometown in China (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 3. Subsequent references will be given in parentheses in the text.
(8) See Richard Tessler, Gail Gamache and Liming Liu, West Meets East: Americans Adopt Chinese Children (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1999), p. 8.
(9) Holly Burkhalter, ‘China's Horrific Adoption Mills’, New York Times, 11 January 1996, p. A25.
(10) Karin Evans, The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), p. 117.
(11) See Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 166.
(12) Quoted in Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 166.
(13) Evans, Lost Daughters, pp. 119–20.
(14) Barbara Tizard, ‘Intercountry Adoption: Review of Evidence’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32 (1991), pp. 743–56 (p. 746).
(15) Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 166.
(16) Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 178.
(17) Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 2.
(18) See Adam Pertman, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
(19) Claudia Castañeda, Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 5.
(20) There appears to be no reliable evidence for these risks being substantial. See Jay W. Rojewski and Jacy L. Rojewski, Intercountry Adoption from China: Examining Cultural Heritage and Other Postadoption Issues (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2001).
(21) See Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 13.
(22) See Danae Clark, ‘Mediadoption: Children, Commodification and the Spectacle of Disruption’, American Studies, 39.2 (Summer 1998), pp. 65–86.
(23) Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 49.
(24) Evans, Lost Daughters, p. 49.
(25) Anon., ‘Intelligence Report: Your Up-to-the-Minute Guide to Summer '97 in the Hamptons’, Vanity Fair, August 1997, p. 82.
(26) New Yorker, 7 July 1997, p. 31.
(27) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980). See Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 7.
(28) Chow, Protestant Ethnic, p. 21.
(29) An insight resulting from a lunch with Rachel Bowlby, gratefully acknowledged.
(30) See Marianne Novy (ed.), Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001).
(32) Rey Chow discusses reading texts through details in the work of Wuhan women writers in the 1980s and 1990s in Women and Chinese Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), ch. 3.
(33) See Kay Johnson, Huang Banghan and Wang Liyao, ‘Infant Abandonment and Adoption in China’, Population and Development Review, 24.3 (September 1998), pp. 469–510.
(34) See Rojewski and Rojewski, Intercountry Adoption from China, pp. 105–106.
(35) The letter is in a different position in the paperback edition. See below.
(36) Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
(37) Johnson, Banghan and Liyao, ‘Infant Abandonment and Adoption in China’, p. 473.
(38) Emily Prager, Wuhu Diary, UK paperback edition (London: Vintage, 2002). The US paperback edition (New York: Anchor, 2002) retains the original cover and subtitle.