Stink Eye


My daughter is convinced that everyone is staring at us. This notion is ridiculous. Not quite half the people we pass stare at us. Staring is just not as taboo in China, and we do stand out. A white woman walking with a Chinese child generates some cognitive dissonance on the streets of Qingdao, Shandong. Beside myself, I only saw one other white woman today. She was one of two Caucasians (an American couple) we spotted on our first day in China. 

We generate even more confusion when we talk to people. I stop someone to ask directions, or ask the price of an item in a shop, and they answer in Chinese, having no other choice. I say “Wo bu dong,” and they shift their attention to my daughter, firing off a string of words neither of us understand. Intimidated, my daughter stares blankly back at them, and they are flummoxed. I’d do the same thing. It’s natural, when faced with a foreigner, to address the person who looks more like you. If a Chinese person and white child suddenly walked into my shop and addressed me in Chinese, I would almost certainly try speaking English to the child.

I don’t mind these awkward interactions. These wondrous strange experiences remind us there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

The variety of responses to our adoptive family is a powerful reminder that the carefully cultivated image of monolithic China is nothing more than branding. Some of the people we meet on the street seem to be unaware of the practice at all, and can’t seem to imagine how the two of us came to be speaking only English together. Many leap to the conclusion of a Chinese father. The most common response, and one I’ve come to enjoy, is a pantomime pointing to each of us, followed by a knowing smile and a thumbs up. As at home, some people ask incredulously, “She is your daughter?” and if they know any English, follow up with the platitudes about her luck and my kindness that make adoptive families everywhere squirm.

Others just stare. I genuinely enjoy meeting people who are curious about us, but during my first couple of days in China, it was hard to ignore the stink eye. Sometimes I could feel it burning the back of my head before I even saw who was staring. I tried not to take offense. You never know who might have been personally affected by China’s one child policy. I can’t provide a trigger warning for my family as we walk down the street, so I won’t blame a birth relative for their resentment. Nor could I blame anyone who might see colonialism in my possession of one of China’s greatest treasures. I’ve shared the sentiment myself, in the White Swan Hotel, looking at fat, white Americans sweating in Bermuda shorts and tube socks, sitting down to overloaded breakfast tables with beautiful Asian babies. The stares are also a reminder that most of what we know about Chinese foreign adoption comes from people with a vested interest in perpetuating the practice. I never read The Stork Market because the very thought turns my stomach, but that doesn’t mean the premise is wrong.

Adoption is complicated and problematic. But it’s also necessary and integral to my life and family. It’s not healthy to embrace the haters. Rather than succumb to a Fever-like shame spiral I started to get analytical. I noticed that most of the stink eye came from women. That they were women made me think about their potential role in the adoption triad. I prepared a mantra almost, and mentally responded to their stares with the thought, “I hope that your adopted daughter is alive and is as happy as mine.”

But their age. International adoptions from China didn’t really take off until the 90’s, which seemed a little late for these women, who were younger than the bent, ancient grannies, but were still more grandmotherly than motherly. They looked like baby boomers, or in China, survivors of the Cultural Revolution. So then I thought a bit about generational cultural attitudes and it occurred to me, “Maybe they’re just racist.”

Almost as I thought it, I felt the burning stink-stare from an older man walking by. He almost turned around, walking half backwards to continue glaring at us. This time I stared back, “What the fuck are you looking at?” written on my face.

He jumped, like he’d been caught. Then he quickly turned around and walked away. Apparently, staring isn’t quite polite in China after all.

I still grant Chinese people the right to disapprove of international adoption. After all, I’m not a fan of the one child policy myself. And I’m not going to waste my trip feeling hostile or defensive about my family structure. So, citizens of China, go ahead and stare and welcome to it. Give me dirty looks if you must. But if you linger in your stink eye; if you have to break pace or so much as turn your head to do it, I’m not above giving dirty looks myself.

Because for the record: I am not kind. And I am the lucky one.


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