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Women Not Allowed and Girls Not Wanted

Yan Sham-Shackleton

On a US-bound plane with Chinese girls being carried to their new homes by their adoptive parents, the author, recently barred from a worksite in China because she is a woman, reflects upon being an unwanted female in modern China.

"In the tunnel I dug for myself, I kept bumping into the white bones of abandoned children . . . Here in this place, where the land is blanketed with yellow flowers . . . where might we find a wonder drug capable of uprooting and eliminating the petrified notions that cleave to the brains of the people in my hometown?"
Abandoned Child: Shu Fu, You'll do Anything for a Laugh
51; Mo Yan

I have spent a large amount of my time traveling in third world countries. One of my major fascinations is with infrastructure — roads, bridges, power stations, water pipes — the inner workings of those things that make the world I live in so different from the majority of the world's population. I am fascinated with pieces of metal combined with technology, engineering and human genius, that allows those of us in the developed world to take for granted every day things such as running water, consistent electricity, and reliable transportation; such things that elude most others, most everywhere else. These things are the very delineations between us and them, first world and third world, both in terms of the simple basics, as well as in symbols of wealth and power.

So when I was invited to see the construction of a new tunnel that will help the flow of traffic from Hong Kong to China, I was ecstatic. I envisioned myself wearing a yellow hardhat, camera in hand, recording the creation of a real and semiotic tie to my home and the motherland. At the same time, I would quietly laud another symbol of China's emergence from a developing country into first world status. Except as it turned out, we encountered a slight problem. Actually it was a huge problem for me, and one that harks back to millenniums of Chinese culture. Engineering, technology, bearings and steel can move hundred of tons of rock a day, but they cannot push human minds beyond their deeply-embedded traditions.

The problem: I could not go into the tunnel. I was barred from entry not because I am unauthorized personnel, nor because visitors are not allowed. The reason Ms. Sham-Shackleton would not be allowed into the unfinished tunnel to see the machines burrow into hard rock is because she is a woman. It is because of some yang to the yin, something about the female energy that I possess in my breasts and uterus, and the clashing of gender semiotics — a male place burrowing into the female earth — that my presence in the tunnel is assumed to bring bad luck. My visiting this tunnel could mean the project slows and problems arise. The worse case scenario may happen in my presence: someone could be killed in an awful industrial accident.

I have two responses to this discrimination. One response, is acceptance. After all, I can't ask my friend to risk discord in his job because I happen to be interested in infrastructure projects. I know that the traditional men — the ones who will be most offended by this act of breaking taboo — are the construction workers. They are the ones most likely to get hurt should my presence, indeed, bring bad luck. If my friend or myself were to force the issue and I would go into the tunnel, anyway, no matter what goes wrong with the project from that moment on, slight or serious, in the minds of the believers, the blame for every problem will go squarely onto me. I have shown disrespect to tradition. By default my friend, too, will be guilty, for breaking taboo on my behalf.

My other response is a wail of discouragement. Four thousand years of Chinese culture have allowed us to be the only continuous civilization from ancient times. This means our cultures and societal traditions can be traced back the farthest of any other living people. Part of the reason I believe we have been able to achieve this cultural longevity is through the incredibly strict rules that everyone must obide; rules that leave little room for social dissension. The stricter the cultural norm, the punishment for breaking the mode more severe, the more likely the society will remain intact. And intact we remain, and authoritarian we remain, both politically and culturally, with gender being the place where such restrictions remain the strongest.

Even in modern Hong Kong — with all its bullet trains, four of the world's tallest buildings, and 99 years of colonial rule — this is still the city where I got yelled at by my (then) boyfriend because I was sitting on the curb smoking a cigarette. That was absolutely not something a woman should be allowed to do. To hell with that, I thought, I earned more than him, he was crashing at my place, and more often then I would like he borrowed my money. The fact is, by sitting on the curb, enjoying my cigarette, I was showing him up for acting so "crass" and "unlady like". Recently, a woman friend complained that that her boyfriend will not let her wear the clothes she wants because he deems them "too revealing". I laughed, until I realized she actually did what she was told. But why should I be surprised at her obedience? People in Hong Kong have, on occasions, treated me with a level of disbelief, when they learn that I can drive a car and that I live on my own.

If such simple, every day attitudes toward women remain in the most advanced, international, and modernized city in China, imagine what life is like in the undeveloped, still agricultural parts of my country, where thousand-year-old ideas remain as fresh in the minds of the people as when China was ruled by dynasties. The ultimate and most disturbing manifestation of the age-old-sexism that prevails in Chinese culture is that we kill our own babies. Well, we kill our girl babies.

Traveling on a plane to the United States recently, I sat in a cabin full of toddlers; little girls on their way to America with their new adoptive parents. I would like to have been able to say it was the worse plane ride in my life because of all the screaming children surrounding me. But it was the worse plane ride in my life for a different reason: each time I heard a girl wail, I was reminded by how the May 4th intellectual movement, the communist propaganda, and the bloodshed of the cultural revolution made dramatic changes in the history of China, but they failed to rid the Chinese people of their feudalistic mindset. We were flying high above the earth, but our status as girls and women had not risen one inch.

Those little girls were going to America because their parents didn't want them. Those little girls were the flotsam and jetsam of China's one child policy, designed to control population growth by limiting families to having only one child each. Because traditional Chinese people value their son's lives more than their daughter's, because they believe that a son's obligation is to look after them in old age as well as carry on the family lineage, whereas a daughter's obligation shifts towards her husband's family the moment she marries, some people in my country do not want to be parents of a daughter. So should they have a girl child, they will kill her, or leave her somewhere and hope a passer by will pick her up and give her a different life. The girls who are lucky are found, brought to an orphanage, and adopted, sometimes by other Chinese, often by people in Hong Kong and western countries. No one knows if the one-child policy was truly needed for China's sustainability, whether, had it never been implemented, the fear of massive famine would have occurred as predicted. What is known is that this new law mixed with the traditional views of family resulted in a potent mix of gender-specific infanticide and abandonment.

Nobody really knows the number of girl children who have died under this new "tradition". As for the living, some studies indicate a gender shift in the country: women could become highly valued because there will be less of them to marry. Others studies show that the female-to-male ratio is small and will have no societal impact, because the natural distribution of female-to-males within any human population is two percent more females to males. Who knows what the impact of female infanticide will have on China's female-to-male population? What does it matter? What truly matters is that one girl child lost to this way of thinking is one too many.

Some have claimed that the "One Child" policy was never as harshly implemented as reported by the western press, and since the last decade the rules have been relaxed and therefore gender selective infanticide abandonment are no longer a problem. But even if the fate of such children is/was restricted to the tiniest percentage of the Chinese population, in 2003 nearly 7,000 children were adopted to the US alone. And there I was, on a plane with 15 real girls gurgling, crying, and needing to be changed.

I felt embarrassed that my country could not look after those little girls. I felt lost that their parents threw them away. One has to wonder; can a woman truly not want her child after nine months of carrying that child? If society or family did not force a woman to get rid of her girl child, would she do it, anyway? As a Chinese girl who made it to womanhood, riding on that plane with those babies, I, too, felt abandoned by China.

During the flight I played with the children; made faces at the little girls, talked with those old enough about where they were going. I chatted with their new parents. One adoptive mom took a special liking to me, and told me about her plans for her little girl.

"It was okay that I could only adopt a little girl because that's what I always wanted. I am going to give Audrey a better life in America." She paused, seemingly embarrassed and concerned that she may have offended me. "Not because America is perfect . . . we have our problems, too, and China is beautiful. I would like to bring her back here, someday. I would like her to know where she is from."

I have some illogical sadness about this adoptions; these little girls will probably never know their country of birth. They probably won't learn much about Chinese culture, let alone learn the language of their birth parents. But those are misplaced pangs of esoteric cultural pride compared to the hard fact that those little girls will live a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life in the US, a country of substantial, first-world infrastructure, than they had a chance for in China. And I can never discount the importance of being wanted and loved.

No matter how we spin the story of the lucky girls and happy new mothers and the new families they are creating, the big picture and the underlying truth behind their excitement and joy — the undeniable happiness emanating from the new parents and the new daughters that I witnessed as we all crossed the Pacific — is founded upon the great tragedy of my people:

A country where women and families do not have reproductive choices.

A culture which at its most extreme conveys that women are lesser than men, that girls are not worth keeping, but boys are, and females have a knack for bringing bad luck where males work to improve their world.

Mo Yan buried himself in a metaphoric tunnel and found himself surrounded by the bones of abandoned children. I am barred from entering a tunnel of another sort, yet even soaring above ground, in the company of so much life, I find myself surrounded by a deep sorrow comparable to Yan's.

I was always told I could do what I wanted, and being a girl — even a Chinese girl — had nothing to do with who I was, or what I might become. I was just me. Most of the time I take that "can-do" sentiment for granted, much like I take for granted that clean water will come out of my taps, and my Internet connection will always be available. But then one is reminded that still there are places that women can't go, and places from which little girls will be sent away.

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