A Parental Fight Is a Cultural Fight
New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Feb 15, 2008
Editor’s Note: Anna Mae He's Chinese parents gave her temporary custody to an American couple, but when they wanted her back the battle was as much a cultural clash as a custody dispute, writes NAM contributor Xujun Eberlein.
Here goes an ancient Chinese legend: Two women fight over a child, both claiming to be the real mother. They bring the battle to court. The judge draws a circle on the ground and places the child in it. He then tells the two women each to pull an arm of the child simultaneously. "Whoever drags the child out of the circle is the winner," the judge says. At first both women pull very hard. The child is writhing in pain and begins to cry. At the child's tears, one woman reluctantly lets go of his hand. The judge decides she is the real mother and awards her the child. The audience cheers the judge's wise decision – a happy ending.
The judgment in the ancient story is based on the belief that the blood-bond love transcends all others. The judge's logic is idealistically simple: the real mother would rather give up her own rights than hurt the child.
That ancient judge, however, would face a real challenge in today's international society. In Memphis, Tennessee, it took eight years and three courts to finally bring the painful battle over Anna Mae He to an end.
In 1999, the Hes, a couple from China under financial and legal distress, gave temporary custody of their one-year-old daughter Anna Mae to an American family, the Bakers, who subsequently insisted on raising the child. In May 2000, a Juvenile Court denied the Hes’ petition to regain custody. In May 2004, Tennessee Circuit Judge Robert Childers again ruled in the Bakers' favor. In January 2007, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled Childers, returning Anna Mae to her parents.
By that time, both sides had been badly damaged. During those years Anna Mae, who had been living with the Bakers, grew resistant to Chinese culture. And the feelings of hurt and anger go beyond the litigants. Hundreds and thousands of onlookers who followed media reports on this case took sides, fighting like hell. Curiously, the Chinese blogosphere reaction was pretty much anti-He, whereas the Americans tended to be anti-Baker. Both communities seemed to be more critical toward their own.
Last Friday, ABC's 20/20 aired an exclusive TV interview with both the Baker and the He families. The day before the show, a summary of the case was put up on ABC's Web site. Before 10 p.m. Friday, there were already more than 100 comments posted. As the show started, more comments poured in. Overnight the number of comments tripled. At the time of this writing, the number of posted comments has almost reached 600. Keep in mind that this figure does not include thousands comments in Chinese from those following the conflict for years.
On the ABC site, plenty of comments posted by non-Chinese Americans can be found saying "Shame on you, Bakers!" They blamed the Bakers' selfishness in keeping Anna away from her birth parents and culture. This is in stark contrast to the harshness of the Chinese who blamed the Hes for giving away their baby in the first place. A recent article on Muzi.com, quoted Jack He – Anna Mae's birth father – as saying "the number of (Chinese) people who opposed me must be in six digits, but we had at least seven or eight supporters who helped us through the most sorrowful and desperate moments."
In the same article, He described his two most memorable moments: one was in May 2004, when Circuit Judge Robert Childers ruled that the Hes' parental rights be terminated and gave full custody to the Bakers, "the American Chinese community responded with all cheers and applauses." Another was in January 2007, when the Tennessee Supreme Court determined that the lower courts had erred and that Anna Mae belonged with her biological family, "the American Chinese community angrily approbated (the Supreme Court decision), they even organized a 'hundred member' team that vowed to right the Bakers."
Why each community has been more judgmental about their own members is a bit puzzling. Do they have insider information on their communities? Cultural differences are a complex and tricky thing. Having been born and raised in China, and lived in the United States for two decades with an American husband, I still can't claim I know both cultures equally well.
The main argument from the Hes’ dissenters is that, since they "abandoned" the baby, they were no longer qualified as the parents of Anna Mae. But for people from China the concept of abandonment is not absolute, rather it is something of degree. To allow parents or brothers or sisters to raise a child is business as usual. It is not uncommon for this to go on for years, after which the parents and child reunite as if nothing happened. To allow relatives or friends to raise a child requires some consideration, but is hardly abnormal. While to give a child into the hands of others within the Chinese community is understandable, to do what the Hes did, i.e., to acquire help from someone outside, is disturbing to many. This might partially explain the Chinese view.
Did cultural biases play a role in Childers' early ruling in favor of the Bakers, though it was ultimately overturned? The examples he cites as a basis for his negative opinion of the Hes are things that many Chinese see as what simply needed to be done. He noted that Casey He "is an impetuous person not subject to being intimidated or deterred in achieving whatever she sets as her goal." A small turn of phrase becomes the definition of what an ordinary loving mother is, an irony that the judge may have failed to see. Childers assessed that the mother could speak and understand English more than she let on, which was true. However her English was much poorer than he realized.
When I watched Casey He on 20/20, she spoke little. She seemed a quiet and deferential person. She is, however, from my hometown of Chongqing, and those two adjectives are unfit to describe a woman raised there. In an interview conducted in Chinese by dwnews.com in the first week of Anna Mae's return, Casey He was much more forthcoming than on American television. She said Anna Mae would have none of the drinks she offered and only wanted soda. "That kind of drink had never entered my door." Now she had to buy it because that was all Anna Mae would drink.
Early in the interview with the Chinese reporter, Casey He said her second child, a boy in first grade, was very good at mathematics and karate. Her third child, a 4-year-old girl, plays piano. She complained that the Bakers did not teach Anna Mae any useful skills, all they taught her was Game Boy. This highlights another cultural difference. In Chinese culture, skills and discipline are considered more important than having fun.
It’s worth noting that when dwnews.com followed up with the He family's reunion, the Chinese reporters tried their best to not disturb them. At the Hes' request, the Chinese reporters did not reveal their journalist’s identity and did not use cameras within Anna Mae's sight.
Now that 9-year-old Anna Mae has returned with her parents to China, the American media is still following her. From ABC's latest report "Anna Mae Goes to China" and the video, it is apparent to me that the family's peace is disturbed and Anna Mae's already difficult transition, worsened.
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