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Best Books for Moms: Families With Children From China

Adele has been a youth services librarian for 25 years and a mother to a daughter from China for 20 years.

This site lists best books for mom with children adopted from China.

This site lists best books for mom with children adopted from China.

Books to Treasure

Here you will find memoirs from other moms, books that provide insight into the lives of Chinese people--both in China and America--and the best fiction I could find.

When I adopted my daughter from China, a whole new culture opened up to me, and it has been my good fortune as a librarian to be able to lay my hands on some of the best writing about adoption, China, and the lives of Chinese-Americans.

I've read hundred of books, and have chosen here those which I believe to be the most evocative and interesting. I hope you will find here books to treasure, as well.

Note: Click Here if You Are Looking for Books for Kids, Too

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

New! Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

My Chinese-American daughter is all grown up now and working in a library. She tells me that her heart goes out to Chinese immigrant families that come in looking for information on learning English, or getting a job, or figuring out the bus routes, and she is glad that she can speak a little Mandarin to make them feel more comfortable and a little bit more at home.

I thought about those families when I read Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang, a memoir of her family’s immigration from China to the United States. Her family was also overwhelmed by the language and culture of this place we call America, especially since they were undocumented immigrants who lived in continual fear of being found out and deported. For years they had no one to guide them, and their fears not only kept them isolated and lonely, it also trapped her parents in a series of low-wage and demeaning jobs that kept them poverty-stricken for much of her childhood.

It seems like the US is always debating what to do about immigrants, especially those like Wang’s family who were undocumented because they came to the United States and then overstayed their visas, and we can argue in generalities all we want, but we can only know what it is like to be with these families if we can read stories such as hers that viscerally take us into their lives.

She begins by saying, “My story starts decades before my birth.” Her father lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the violence and betrayal that characterize that era have given him scars that last throughout the rest of his life. In adulthood he becomes a professor of English literature, but after a time he finds the constriction of the thought police to be unbearable, and leaves for Mei Guo—literally Beautiful Country – the United States. Two years later, after pleading with Chinese officials numerous times, Wang and her mother join him.

She flashes back to her memories of living in China, and they are largely sweet and loving. She talks about the joy she shared dancing with her father, how tenderly her mother cared for her when she had chickenpox, and how her grandparents spoiled her when they came to visit. This life is so touchingly described that we ache for seven-year-old Qian when she has to leave it all and get on a plane with her mother--who was incapacitated because of extreme motion sickness--and travel to a place she didn’t know at all for reasons she couldn’t understand.

The theme of secrets winds around in and through the book, and even in her idyllic Chinese childhood, we see some dark strands of what will come to pass in her life in America. I would imagine book clubs would have a lot to discuss about parenting styles as we see young Qian’s father basically trick her into attending school when she didn’t want to go. When they moved to their new country, she was often befuddled, as her overworked and overwhelmed parents often kept things from her while impressing upon her how dangerous it was to call attention to herself and risk deportation. They were a family alone, and her parents didn’t have any way to gauge the danger of their activities, or their new country, and they lead lives often constricted by fear. Wang recounts how her mother made her sit in the dark in their Brooklyn apartment until her father came home because she was afraid that if she turned on the light, people would shoot into their windows.

We know that starting out as an immigrant is hard, but Wang’s account of the numerous menial and low-wage jobs her mother had to take – a woman who had of professional job teaching math in China – is heartrending. Throughout it all, little Qian served as her mother’s xiao yi sheng, her “little doctor,” or on-call therapist. From sweatshop seamstress to waitress to hairdresser, the mother always found herself on the lowest rung of the ladder and taken advantage of.

Wang’s writing is truly evocative, and I find that so many of the poignant details stayed in my mind long after I finished the book. At one point, her mother worked for restaurant supply warehouse and brought home a large canister of yellow wafers but she had never seen before. Her mother explained that they were called “fortune cookies” and that what people thought that was what Chinese people ate. She was allowed to eat all of them for dinner that night, and not surprisingly she didn’t feel well the next morning. Later her mother showed up with a bunch of those little paper umbrellas you put in drinks, and she amused herself by taping these small parasols all over their rooms. Left on her own for a good deal of time, Qian tells us she developed a relationship with a small cracked television that her father had found in the trash, and learned much of her English by watching shows like The Simpsons. She says, “Over the course of those long hours, the TV and I became kindred spirits. Like me, it was sad and lonely, having been abandoned on the curb by its bigger and less cracked Ma Ma.” She also discovered PBS Kids and shows like Reading Rainbow, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and The Puzzle Place.

In her foreword, Wang tells us she has written this book for other children like her, to know that they can survive and succeed in this world. For all the heartache and hardship, it is a story of resilience and hope, and we cheer for the family each time they make new strides.

Nine Continents: a Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

Nine Continents: a Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

Nine Continents: a Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

I noticed Nine Continents on the library shelves in the biography section and was intrigued by the cover, so I checked it out. I had quite a few other books I needed to read for work, and by the time I got around to reading it, I just had a few days left in the loan period. I read about a third of the book before I turned it in, but was so intrigued to see how things turned out that I bought the book, rather than waiting for my turn to come up again.

There are lots of accounts of rough childhoods in Chinese memoirs, and Guo’s ranks up there with one of the most heartrending and difficult. “I was born an orphan,” she begins. “Not because my parents had died, no, they were both still very much alive. Rather, they gave me away.” Her father had been imprisoned in a labour camp and her mother could not raise her. Shortly after she was born, she was taken to live with a peasant couple, but when that couple fell upon hard times themselves, they discovered where Xiaolu’s grandparents lived and took her to them.

The grandparents lived in a fishing village by the sea, which sounds like a charming place to grow up, but it was not. It was a place of crippling poverty, where the mornings were filled with sobs coming from the huts around them—the crying from the women and children who were beaten before the men went out to fish, or scavenge, or do whatever they could to get a little food for their families. Xiaolu’s grandfather, a failed, bitter fisherman took his frustrations out on his wife, just as the others did.

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In one particularly poignant memory, Guo recounts what happened in the late 70’s when government census takers came to talk to her grandmother. They asked the grandmother her name, but it turns out the grandmother had no name. She was born at a time when girls weren’t thought to have much worth of their own, and she was only called by names like “Second Sister” and “Wife of Guo.” These were not the kinds of answers that would look good on the census officials’ forms. They ran into similar difficulties when they were trying to determine when the members of the family were born, or even which characters to use for the grandfather’s name.

One day, little Xiaolu’s grandmother took her on a rare visit to a Taoist monk who remarked that the girl was a “peasant warrior.” He went on, “She will cross the sea and travel to the Nine Continents.” "Nine Continents" was a phrase used by the people of the village to mean "travel the world."

You can argue whether the monk was prescient, or whether holding on to the idea of the prophecy was what propelled Xiaolu Guo through her life, but the little girl from the fishing village did manage to cross the sea and travel to Britain, where she studied film and became and English-language writer.

She begins her story with an account of giving birth to her daughter—a girl half western and half Chinese—in a British hospital. You find out early on that she was reunited with her birth mother and father, but instead of making her life easier, the new family made it harder in many ways.

How she got from there to now is as interesting a story as any I’ve read.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

When All You Can Ever Know appeared on not one, but two “Best Nonfiction Book of the Year” lists, I knew I had to get a copy and read it. It’s the memoir of a Korean-heritage girl adopted into a Caucasian family , a well-written account of her struggles as one of the few Asians in her town and her search for her birth family roots.

Her story has a bit of a twist from the usual Korean adoption story. Her birth parents were living in the US when she was born, and her adoptive parents told her that she was relinquished for adoption because she was born about 10 weeks premature and her birth parents didn’t think they had the resources to care for her.

Though she considers her adoptive parents loving and honest, she found it confusing and frustrating to navigate school and the world outside her family. Her parents didn’t want her Korean-ness to be an issue, but she was continually the target of racial teasing in her school. She wasn’t able to share the hurt from those years with her parents, in part because they believed the adoption was meant to be, and as a child, she didn’t want to upset them or call their family into question.

Chung takes care to articulate her feelings and insights from that period, always being even-handed. Her experience serves as a reminder to parents that though they don’t think race matters, the wider world may see their children in a different way, and children need to learn ways to cope with both the curiosity and the hostility they will encounter.

My husband and I adopted our daughter from China back in 1999. We were fortunate that our agency, the largest China-specific one in the world, was in our city. Though she didn’t seem particularly interested at first, we took our daughter to Chinese school on the weekends and to heritage camp in the summers. I know some people would say that we were just dealing with a few surface issues, having her learn some words of Chinese and doing a few holiday celebrations, but we thought that the real values in those activities were to introduce her to a peer group of other children adopted from China and to have her get to know adult Chinese women. Over the years, she did become more connected to her heritage, and camp became a not-to-be-missed summer tradition. Her closest friends are young women her age who were also adopted from China.

Now that she is in her 20’s, she tells us that the classes and the camp complemented each other: one showed her how to be Chinese-American in the world and the other, how to be adopted. She has had long talks in college with other adoptees who didn’t get that grounding and, according to her, have more issues to talk out.

Right now, she doesn’t have any particular interest in her birth parents. She has not yet had a child, an experience that is often another turning point for people who were adopted. It changed things for the author of this book. Chung found herself wanting to know more her birth parents once she herself became pregnant. Her adoption was technically a closed adoption, but laws have changed in the intervening years, and she was able to make some contacts. I’ve read several memoirs and talked with several people who were adopted domestically, and it often seems to be a mixed bag when they connect with relatives, a combination of delights and disappointments, not often matching what they expected, but still answering questions they’ve held onto for so long.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

As I was reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which is set in China’s Yunnan Province near Kunming, I was taken back to the very first orientation session my husband and I attended when we first started thinking about adopting a girl from China. The director was telling us about the several different orphanages around the country they were working with, and how we would travel near those spots to meet our children.

When he mentioned Kunming, his eyes lit up. “The families who get to travel to Kunming, they are lucky. It’s such a nice place to visit, just beautiful.” Then, he shook his head a bit to clear it, as if noticing that he had drifted off his topic. “But, of course,” he said, “this is not a vacation trip. You are in China to add a child to your family.”

Since then, I have always been interested in Kunming, which I have learned is called “City of Eternal Spring.” I imagine that everyone who reads this book will be motivated to search online for pictures of the Yunnan mountain scenery, if not book a ticket there to see it yourself and participate in tea tasting. You will learn a lot about tea, especially the fermented kind, called Pu-er, which inspires devoted tasters who speak in a similar vocabulary to wine connoisseurs. This kind of tea is also prized for its medicinal qualities.

But back to the story. It starts in Lisa See fashion, with unbelievable hardship befalling the main characters of the story. They are part of the Akha minority that farm tea on the mountain, a culture wrapped in ancient traditions. I often had to remind myself that most of the story was taking place in the 1990’s because the customs and lifestyle of the Akha seemed so removed from the 20th century. Their attitudes towards the birth of twins or children out of wedlock shock the reader and provide the engine of the story.

Since the publisher mentions it in their promotional materials, I can tell you that the main character, Li-yan, is forced to take her newborn daughter to an orphanage, who is soon adopted by a couple in California. Her circumstances are heart-rending, and her life is in a downward spiral until her mother and a beloved teacher arrange for her to go to school in a distant city.

From this point on, we see more of the modern world and how it eventually changed even the most remote places in China. We alternate between the story of Li-yan and her birth daughter, who is given the name Haley.

Lisa See has done some homework about the adoptive community and knows about things like Families with Children from China, heritage tours, the conundrum of family heritage assignments in school, and many associated topics we are concerned with.

She does follow a tried-and-true story arc: Haley is good in math and science; she’s in therapy trying to deal with her identity and the idea that she was relinquished by her birth parents, the adoptive mom is threatened by her daughter referring to birth mother as real mother, Haley is driven to try to find her birth mother; there is some kind of fateful connection between parents and their birth children.

All of these are true of quite a few of our families, but there are a few indications that See, and our culture as a whole, think these things ought to be true of all our families. One thing that I especially noticed is that at one point, Haley says something like “We all have something that was given to us by our birth parents. A note, or a blanket, or a trinket.”

Well, not all. We asked the orphanage staff, and they didn’t give us any notes or items connected to our daughter. They didn’t even have any information on where she was found. And, I know that most of the other families in our group didn’t receive any information like that.

Hollywood, book writers, and all kinds of story-makers seem to always put in a search for birth parents if they have an adopted character. You can see the appeal in the theme that we are drawn to finding our true family, and if we find them, we know our true identity and where we belong.

At some point, I would love for some actual adoptee stories to get as much attention as these fictionalized accounts. I’ve known adoptees that aren’t interested in finding their birth parents. Some find a birth parent, and it is a highly positive experience. Others find it a letdown. Birth parents and their relinquished children can be strangers to each other and remain so, even if they meet again.

I know that these kind of endings don’t make for as satisfying a reading experience, and the things that happened in See’s story are at least possible, if not entirely probable. All in all, I would say it is worth reading, but I will say that I’d love for a second book to be published. To me, the really interesting questions are set in motion by the ending.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

An Atypical Adoption Story

I’m including this book, not so much because I recommend it, but because we are going to see more and more of this story’s attitude towards cross-cultural adoptive parents as time goes by. When we first adopted our children, it was our story, and we shared our experiences, first on e-mail listservs, and now on Facebook. Now, we are hearing more from the wider Asian community, writers like Celeste Ng.

Ng, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, is an accomplished author, having graduated from Harvard and from Michigan with an MFA, and winning awards for her previous stories and books. The story she tells here weaves in themes of creativity and order, the privileged and the poor—and of birth mothers and others who would raise their children. She works in just about every reproductive issue: unplanned pregnancy, abortion, surrogacy, infertility and adoption.

I had found out that one of the plot points involved adoption of a Chinese baby, and I picked up the book because I was interested in how it was handled.

So far, I’ve only told you what you can read in the promotional material, but I have to warn you that there is a bit of a SPOILER ALERT coming along, so if you’re planning to read this book and want to be surprised by it, you’ll want to stop reading now.

Still with me? Here’s what I wanted to tell you: even though the story is set around 1996/97, the adoption is a little unusual because the baby girl was relinquished by a Chinese woman in the United States. She is a poor immigrant, abandoned by the father and unable to raise the child. She leaves the baby to be found in a fire station. The baby is put up for adoption, and a well-to-do couple from the Cleveland suburbs applies to adopt her. She has been in their home for about a year when the birth mother (now able to support herself) discovers where she is and sues for custody.

In the hands of a great writer, a story like this would make your heart ache for both the birth mother and the adoptive mother, but in this book, the adoptive mother is brushed off as a shallow, thoughtless character, and the most eloquent writing is reserved for the birth mother. This is in no way to say that Ng shouldn’t depict how poverty devastates people—and especially mothers-- in this country. And yet. There is cursory mention that the adoptive mother has suffered miscarriages, but we don’t get the same touching description of her grief. She and her husband took in a baby that had no parents at the time, but their devotion doesn’t carry hardly any weight in the story. I remember what the head of our adoption agency, himself a Chinese immigrant, said at our orientation meeting. “I tell our people to take care of the parents who come to us. Because these people already come with lots of tears.”

The overarching theme of the book is clearly an indictment of the privileged people living in the suburbs, congratulating themselves that their good fortune comes from following the rules, stifling the wild and creative, and not even realizing that they often benefit from the misfortune of others around them. It’s a take on the suburbs that was around before Stepford Wives and continued on through American Beauty and into the present. Suburban moms are an easy target if we just look at them, with their highlighted hair and their lattes and their SUV carpools.

At the custody trial, much is made of the adoptive mom’s ignorance about raising her Chinese child. She tells the court that a local Chinese restaurant has always been a favorite of her and her husband, as if that is enough to introduce her to Chinese culture. And when the lawyer asks her what her daughter’s dolls look like, she is at first confused by the question, and then says they are mostly blonde and blue-eyed, which she describes as the “default” for dolls. She tells the lawyer, who is Asian American, that one day when she’s older, they’ll get their daughter a Chinese Barbie. “Have you ever seen a Chinese Barbie?” the lawyer asks. When the woman is flustered, he says, “There isn’t one. Mattel doesn’t make one.”

OK. Point taken. Some adoptive parents are clueless. And granted, Ng isn’t necessarily saying that all adoptive, suburban parents are like this. And yet. If you look at her suburban crowd, they seem to be all of the same cloth. They are rule-bound and self-absorbed.

And, it kind of bugs me that the author categorically states that there was no Chinese Barbie around 1997. Mattel came out with the Mulan doll around that time. I know, because I bought two of them for my daughter, along with several other dark-haired, dark-eyed Barbies. Of course, dolls aren’t everything, but if you watch the Mulan movie, you will see that there is a lot of emphasis on Mulan being smart and strong. My daughter, who is 19 now, always preferred her as a role model to the other heroines who mostly relied on others to take care of them.

And, if you are a thinking person, you have to be careful about pigeon-holing people from any place, something that was brought home to me when I attended a baby shower for a friend who was adopting a girl from China. I grew up living in a tiny trailer house on a ranch in a high mountain desert, so I sometimes harbor a little of the anti-suburban bias myself. I was sitting next to a young woman who seemed to embody the suburban ideal, perfectly highlighted hair, straight white teeth, delicate features, a dainty silver necklace and a crisp white cotton dress. I had just been through the most trying time of my life, complete with infertility treatments, insomnia, and a breakdown. I looked at her and indulged myself in some ruminating on how she had such a charmed life and could never understand how it was for someone like me.

She was pleasant, and soft-spoken, and sitting right next to me, so we talked a bit. She was planning to adopt a baby from China, too, she told me. Later she told me she’d had a daughter, but the two of them had been in a car accident. Her daughter, who was about two years old at the time, died in the accident. It was then I noticed that under the delicate silver chain, there was a small scar on her neck, and I wondered if it had been incurred during the accident, if she’d needed a breathing tube inserted.

So, yes. We come with lots of tears, even if we do live in the suburbs. And most of us know, because we are mothers and fathers, that the birth parents have lots of tears as well. I wish this book would have made more of an effort to portray the pain on both sides.

One Child by Mei Fong

One Child by Mei Fong

The One-Child Policy From Many Angles

After reading this book, it hit me that every Chinese generation in the 20th century has been traumatized by something, from the Japanese atrocities to the starvation in the so-called Great Leap Forward to the vicious betrayals of the Cultural Revolution. And the millennials and their parents have endured what Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Mei Fong argues was China’s most radical experiment: the one child policy in her book One Child.

Fong, a Malysian-born and Columbia-educated writer has a journalist’s skill for telling a taut story, finding the crux of the matter, and including description and detail that will put you at the heart of things. She reports on the policy’s inception and repercussions from every angle, delving into the stories of the Chinese people to show how life is lived and what has happened. If you have any questions about the one-child policy, they are likely to be answered in this book. (And, as you’ll find out if you read this book, the one-child policy is a misnomer. Quotas, policies, and enforcement differed widely in different areas of the country)

We’re drawn right in to the book when she describes her trip with a married couple traveling home after the Sichuan earthquake to find out if their daughter—their only child—had survived. This natural disaster in China’s rural heartland threw the population planning policies into stark relief. Here, where the one-child policy was first tested, 8,000 families lost their only child. It decimated an entire generation in some villages.

In the subsequent chapters, Fong describes the genesis of the policy rising out of the ashes of the Cultural Revolution. Believe it or not, the one child idea was hatched and carried out by rocket scientists, because they were the only ones left standing with any influence after the purges of the ‘60’s and 70’s. Many of us have read about the effects on mothers and fathers from books such as Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son by Kay Ann Johnson and Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran. Fong broadens her analysis to the effects on other groups as well: children who are relegated to being second-class citizens, the aging population with not enough young workers to support them, the men who are having a hard time finding someone to marry and the women who find they are “certainly more valuable, but not necessarily more valued.”

Two points from this book leapt out at me. One was how hard it is for the children who were born outside the quota system. These are children who were technically illegal, but the parents decided to keep them in their families. Many do not have a hukou, a sort of registration as a citizen. Of one girl, she said “Withou a hukou she hadn’t been able to attend school, get proper medical treatment, or so much as apply for a library card.”

Another was how many in the society are beginning to regret their quest for boys at all costs now that the boys are grown and these young men want to start families. One couple drained their savings to pay a bride price, only to see the new bride abscond with all their money. The father wailed “I should have had daughters!”

Fong does mention adoption in the chapter “The Red Thread Is Broken,” though she chooses to focus on the controversial Brian Stuy. His company specializes providing “finding ads” to adoptive parents, those notices that were required to be run in newspapers before a child could be declared an orphan and made available for adoption. His data, along with some other investigations seem to point to child trafficking in some of the orphanages. Many children were seized from grandparents while the parents were away, working in the city. It’s not something adoptive parents like to think about, but it’s worth reading this section to learn about the evidence and what may have happened.

I have to say that before I read this book, I’d thought that the one child policy was an understandable impulse, thought its implementation was unnecessarily harsh. The people who came up with it had been through a terrible famine in the 50’s, and they didn’t want the population to outstrip the food.

But after reading Fong’s book, I’m finding myself agreeing with her argument that the one-child policy was a “painfully unnecessary measure, since birthrates had already fallen sharply under earlier, more humane measures.”

China's Hidden Children by Kay Ann Johnson

China's Hidden Children by Kay Ann Johnson

China's Hidden Children

In her first book, Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son, respected China scholar Kay Ann Johnson set out to correct a misconception that only sons were valued in China. She pointed out that most people would have preferred to have a balanced family—a son and a daughter—but the law and local officials often made it impossible.

In China's Hidden Children she aims to dispel the notion that so many children were available for international adoption because people in China did not want to take in these foundlings themselves. In the introduction, she states “As our research makes clear, not only has adoption in rural China been fairly common in this era…the adoption of daughters, in particular, has been popular and widespread in many areas. Indeed, our research suggests that were it not for actively pursued policies of suppression, nearly all relinquished healthy daughters in the 1990’s could have found families who wanted them in China.”

To back up her conclusions, Johnson provides summaries of dozens of case studies showing how birth parents made plans for another family to take their child, and how couples took in foundling girls and attempted to raise them in their homes. Johnson’s writing leans towards the academic side, and reading this book is a little like navigating a long write-up of a research study. Nevertheless, the case studies contained in this book shed light on what happened to the thousands of children who could not be kept by their birth families. This is the only book I know of which delves into the many ways families tried to manage this crisis and the only book which includes so many examples of the ways children were forced to live under the dictates of government policy.

While the details of almost all the cases are heart-wrenching, the ones I remember most are the fathers who stood up to the officials and kept the daughters they had taken in to their homes. On page 109, Johnson recounts the experience of a man in his fifties who found a baby in the cold and brought her home. She had jaundice, and he and his wife took her to the hospital for treatment, even though it was difficult for them to afford it. After they had cared for her for several months, local officials came and said they would have to take the baby unless the family could pay a fine equal to twice their annual salary. The man argued with them, saying that the government should be grateful that they were taking care of her and paying for her treatments. He pushed them out the door, declaring “We intend to keep her as our daughter.”

The most interesting thing about this series of case studies is that Johnson was able to re-visit many of these families much later to see how they were doing. She reports that the girl is in her twenties “...the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. [She] expresses a fierce loyalty to the parent who struggled to keep her and support her…”

In her conclusion, Johnson expresses hope that children who lost their families in China will better understand how and why they were placed for adoption outside of China. For any adoptees interested in their origins and understanding more about what happened in China, this book is essential reading.

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz

New! Street of Eternal Happiness

"Street of Eternal Happiness." Isn't that a great name for a place? And the joyous boy pictured on the cover can't help but draw you in. It's the actual name of a street in Shanghai, the street where journalist Rob Schmitz has spent the last several years of his life, reporting on China's economy.

China watchers will not be surprised that, alas, the inhabitants of the street do not enjoy eternal happiness, but they do manage to find hope and happiness quite often in the midst of hard and challenging lives.

This is my favorite kind of nonfiction book: one written by a journalist who knows how to keep his writing spare, detailed and vivid. He introduces us to ordinary Chinese citizens whose life stories remind us that no one's story is just ordinary.

There's CK, a 30-something who is attempting to get a European-style sandwich shop going. Fortunately, he has a side business selling accordions that helps him keep the shop afloat. (You may have thought they were only used for polkas, but accordions are big in China.) Schmitz begins this young man's life story with one of the most telling and poignant sentences I have read: "CK was eleven years old when it dawned on him: killing himself wasn't going to be easy." As I learned more about CK and his life circumstances, I realized that his life was a sort of microcosm of the history of China at that time: a claustrophobic governmental system, overbearing relatives, a father who beat his wife and only child. Though he had been intent on dying as a child, CK somehow found the reserves to live, to persist, and to thrive, setting out on two business ventures and remaining ever hopeful, quite a contrast from the boy who had been so hopeless. At the close of the book, life had come around in a circle, as it often does, and CK found himself tending to the father who had so misused him, a father who had ceased his ranting against the system and had become a shell of himself. CK is one of the young people still fulfilling his filial duty, and through his actions we see a strength that still has the potential to lead him on a path to a bright future.

There's Zhao, a woman who took the brash step of leaving her husband and the countryside behind to find a better life in the city. Her husband was a plodding man, given to beating her, and she was a sturdy non-nonsense woman who decided to go against centuries of tradition and improve her lot in life, eventually bringing her two sons with her to Shanghai. She learned the flower business and owned a thriving flower shop. The oldest son thrived in Shanghai's school system, earning top marks through middle school. But when it came time for high school, he was not allowed to attend in the city because his family was still officially registered in the town his mother had come from. Unlike the US, China doesn't allow its citizens to travel freely, but ties schooling, health care, and some other privileges their place of registration, a registration which is notoriously difficult to change. As a result, the millions of people who moved from the countryside to the city to work in the factories are illegal migrants in their own country.

Zhao's son had to move back to the country to continue his high school education. Though he was disappointed to move back to a small village, he consoled himself by thinking that at least he would blow away all the country kids academically. To his surprise (and mine), schooling in the country was much more accelerated and competitive. The country kids, who had to compete against tens of millions of other country kids, studied day and night, and the city kid was far behind. He had never caught up, and was still a bit adrift even into his late twenties.

There's Auntie Fu an elderly woman who sees people making money all around her and falls for one get-rich-quick scam after another. There's Wang, whose father spent most of his life in a prison camp for being a "capitalist," who is making a new life for himself in America at the age of 60, taking classes at the public library to earn his GED.

These are only a few of the nuanced portraits which Schmitz provides, portraits which help readers feel they are really getting t to know the inhabitants of this city. It's an enjoyable, interesting, and thought-provoking journey into the heart of contemporary China.

Serve the People by Jen Len-Liu

Serve the People by Jen Len-Liu

A Culinary Journey Through China

Serve the People will make its readers much more knowledgeable about Chinese cooking and the staggering variety of food served in the country. What I liked most about it, though, was the window into the lives of Chinese people and Chinese life that it provided.

I’m also looking forward sharing it with my daughter, a Chinese-food aficionado. I imagine we’ll be working our way through making the dishes in this book, especially anything related to dumplings.

Author Jen Lin-Liu takes readers on quite the culinary journey as she chronicles her quest to get right into the middle of things in preparing Chinese cuisine, from attending the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, to working at a streetside noodle stand, to interning at a premier Shanghai restaurant. Lin-Liu, a Chinese-American woman, and food critic for several newspapers and magazines, decided to take the plunge and get into the nitty gritty of food preparation.

She is an excellent writer who can almost make the reader taste the dishes--from "Fish-Fragrant Pork Shreds" to "Shanghai Soup Dumplings." And, as you'd expect from a book that talks so much about food, she includes lots of recipes which seem to be adapted for an American audience. She uses our standard measures, and I didn't see many ingredients that would be terribly difficult to find.

Squeamish readers need to be aware that she describes some food that wouldn't exactly appeal to the American palate--assorted eyes and reproductive organs among them. I got the sense that those dishes weren't exactly her favorites, either, but in the spirit of adventure she tries almost everything she can find and provides quite a bit of cultural context along the way.

Reading about food is all well and good, but what most of us want is to find out what life in China is like, and Lin-Liu does a fine job of capturing the feel of the culture and the personalities of the people.

At the very beginning, you get a sense of her writing style and observations as she tells the reader the kinds of things she learned in her Beijing cooking class: “Eating fish head will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion…Americans are fat because they eat bread while Chinese are slim because they eat rice.”

Like many of us, she was daunted by sheer variety and unusual ingredients in Chinese food. “Ordering at restaurants was a minefield; menus were full of items with beautiful, ornate names but arrived in the form of innards, claws, and tongues.” She recounts that she once ordered something that sounded relatively tame—drunken shrimp (maybe something that was beer-battered?)—only to find out “the name was literal.” A waiter brought her a covered glass bowl. “A couple dozen shrimp, dazed and drenched in rice wine, attempted to crawl up the sides of the container.”

(Though the more bizarre food stuck in my memory, I want to say that most of the book is dedicated to food that sounds simply mouth-watering—the red-braised pork, the soup dumplings, the tea-infused eggs—for which she supplies the recipes.)

Along the way, she is mentored by a series of Chinese cooks: the practical woman at the cooking school who agrees to teach private lessons in her home, the noodle stand chef who demonstrates that the perfect bowl of noodles takes amazing skill and hard work (his noodles sound like just the kind of authentic food we’d line up for blocks to get), and the cutting-edge Shanghai chef who developed a variety of pan-Asian dishes such as “shrimp and pork shaomai dumplings with air-dried duck liver.”

This is a great book to read if you are a foodie—and even if you aren’t, it still wel worth reading as it provides a fascinating window into another facet of the huge and varied country that is China.

Awakening East by Johanna Garton

Awakening East by Johanna Garton

An Adoptive Family's Year in China

I suspect that adoptive parents will have one of two reactions after reading Awakening East, this memoir of a woman who moved her husband and two young children to China for a year:

1) I’d like to try that.

2) This woman is crazy!

I’ll explain what it is about the book that would elicit these two reactions, but I first want to say that this is essentially a story of a family, an adoptive family that is dealing with the kinds of transitions and questions all of us face—albeit in a more intense manner—and it is worth reading for other adoptive families, whether they plan to take a trip to China or not.

Of course, it is a must-read for anyone who plans to move to China with their family, and it’s a very helpful read for anyone who plans to take their children on a heritage trip back to China. But, even if you’re planning on staying put in the near future, this story touches on so many issues that come up in parenting in adoptive families: how you talk about the subject of birth parents, how you help your child adjust to new surroundings, what to do with a child who watches and waits and doesn’t tell you much about how he’s felling, what to do with a child who runs headlong out into the world.

So, back to the story. Author Johanna Garton acted on an idea that has occurred to most of us in the adoptive community: wouldn’t it be nice to take our children back to China to live for a while? They could have an insider’s view of their cultural heritage and maybe pick up the skill of speaking Mandarin.

Garton, who had traveled extensively in Asia in her younger days, made that idea a reality for her family, almost through sheer force of will. Although she was able to speak Mandarin and had experience as an ESL teacher, she had a tough time getting a teaching job, though she did fortuitously land one in her children’s home city of Kunming. The family had to navigate through tricky cultural situations with her school, with the housing, and with the status of their visas.

Along with the challenges of adjusting to a different culture, the family also dealt with the emotions and uncertainties that came with visiting their children’s orphanage and foster family. Neither went exactly as they had hoped, but you get the sense that the family was in the end grateful for the new information and understanding which they gained. If you are planning to take your children to their institutions or foster families in the near future, the book is worth getting just to read this section. It’s always helpful to read others’ accounts to help you anticipate what may happen or ideas on how to deal with the questions and feelings such a visit could bring up in your children.

On top of all this, Garton had quite the yearning to travel. As I recall, they went to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. I’m sure I’m missing a couple. This was the part where I started to feel that Garton was considerably more ambitious than your average parent—and just a little bit crazy with her schedule.

Though there are glimpses into the lives of the Chinese people, this is mostly a book about the family, (For more insights on China from a family perspective, I like the book Home Is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington), but there is one section, close to the end, that touched my heart especially. When Garton’s family was getting ready to leave China, they decided to give the things they didn’t want to move to their cook/housekeeper, a woman named Xiao. They gave her their linens, knives, pots, pans, but Garton wondered if would be silly to offer her the bunk bed since she only had one child. She offered it anyway, and she says “The reaction I got took me off guard.” A tearful Xiao said she very much wanted the bunk bed since it would get the three people in her family off of mats on the dirt floor, keeping them warmer and saving precious floor space.

It was a small story that resonated with me and served as a reminder that we can only know about other people’s lives one we truly get to know them. That is the motive that drew Garton and her family to China, and the one that leads us to read accounts such as hers.

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

A Mother And Daughter Caught Between America and China

Red Butterfly is based on an unusual but highly possible occurrence: someone brings an abandoned baby girl to an American woman living in China, and the woman takes the baby in and raises it as her daughter. The catch in this story is that the woman wasn’t able to legally adopt the girl, so the two of them are living a hidden existence in China. Neither one of them has the legal papers to be able to stay there.

Though it is intended for a middle grade audience (ages 8 -12), I am putting it in my list for mothers for two reasons. First, it offers insights to older child adoption, showing how conflicting allegiances—to first family and second family; to China and America—form a complicated interplay for a child. Second, it is the kind of book a mother should read first to decide if her daughter is at a point where she can take in the sometimes heartrending story.

That said, I don’t want to scare anyone away because it is a beautifully-written and wonderfully-illustrated book well worth reading. It is hard to describe why I say it is heartrending without giving away the story, but I’ll give it my best try.

The story is all told in the voice of Kara, an 11-year-old, who knows her mother is reclusive and secretive, but doesn’t know why. When her mother’s older daughter visits, she has a health crisis that blows the lid off the mother’s secret and changes Kara’s life forever. At times, she feels guilty for being the cause of her mother’s hidden life and at others she feels resentful when she catches glimpses that she is a burden.

For part of the time in the story, Kara lives with children with special needs, and for part of the time she has to adjust to a new family, not knowing if she’ll be re-united with her original family.

Through it all, Kara’s intelligence and compassion shine through, and though she meets up with her share of hardship, she also has kind and caring people who help her along the way. The book is written in prose-poem style, a style which I love because the images are so evocative and the story moves so quickly.

Sonnichsen has done a wonderful job in this first novel. She grew up in Hong Kong and returned to China in adulthood, where she fostered a girl and waited there over six years until she could adopt her. In a way, this book is a composite of the stories of the people she knew in China. In the Author’s Note, she says that she feels “fortunate to be able to share a story set in a place, among a people, and about a subject so very precious to me.” Her loves imbues the story and makes it a heartfelt experience to read.

Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold by Peg Helminski

Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold by Peg Helminski

A Girl That Will Touch Your Heart

Daughter of a Thousand Pieces of Gold is well worth adding to your collection, partly because it does such a nice job of portraying life in China in the 1990’s, but mostly because the story of 11-year-old Zhong Mei-Lin will capture your heart.

The author, Peg Helminski, is an adoptive mom who has also talked with many children about their memories of China and their adoption stories. Her research lends a touching authenticity to this work of fiction and illuminates life in a social welfare institution from the point of a child, something I haven’t seen any other books do.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I want to talk about a couple of experiences I’ve had that resonated with the book.

The first occurred on our plane trip back from China with our newly adopted daughter. The plane held two types of people: Americans who were adjusting to their new babies (there were 9 families aboard) and people who were probably terrified to see that they were on a “baby plane.” Through it all, I noticed a Chinese man a couple of rows over who was traveling with his daughter, who looked to be about 4 or 5. The two of them had the best time on that 14-hour flight, talking and playing games. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but it was clear the man cherished his daughter and wasn’t at all daunted at keeping her occupied on the long trip from China.

Likewise, Helminski creates the wonderful character of a father in this book who tells the village leader that his girl is a “daughter of a thousand pieces of gold.” I came to love the family in this book, especially “baba” and “ye-ye,” the grandfather.

The second part that struck a chord with me was a description of the immigrant experience. One day, a Laotian refugee I tutored asked me if I wanted some of the food he’d been given by a local agency. I thought he should keep it for his family, but when I saw the items he didn’t want, I understood: sugary breakfast cereals, powdered milk, American cheese—things that were not really considered food in his culture.

In similar fashion, we feel the bewilderment of a Chinese immigrant in this book who runs into all kinds of trouble understanding the food and habits of this culture.

There are a couple of things I quibble with a bit in this book—some glitches in formatting, a mom that seems a little too clueless, an ending that’s a little too tidy. But all in all, this is a story that drew me in, immersed me in Mei-Lin’s world and had me rooting for her and truly feeling her life. And after reading all types of so-called “literary fiction” that left me cold, I’ll take a story with this much heart any time.

Books for Moms: Chinese Adoption

These books include birth mothers' stories, research on adoptions in China, an inside look at a Chinese orphanage, and a biography of the couple who founded the largest Chinese adoption agency in the world.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

Accounts of Birth Mothers from China

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is one of the few books that I consider essential for the bookshelf of every family that has adopted from China. Sometimes the harsh realities make for tough going, and parents will certainly want to read the book to decide when it would be appropriate to share with their children.

It is valuable because it is the only book I know of that provides an authoritative account of the stories of the women who have had to relinquish their children for adoption.

Xinran (who also wrote the book The Good Women of China) is a journalist who came across these women during her travels. She decided to write this book so that adopted daughters could begin to understand their unknown Chinese mothers.

Some of these stories follow an expected trajectory: a woman bows to the pressures of the one child policy. But others chronicle more shocking stories families who have abandoned, discarded, or willingly relinquished their children.

This is an essential book for parents now, and for our daughters when they are older and ready to try to understand what is happening to these women and their families in China.

Home Is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington

Home Is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington

A family's Stay in China

Every now and then you come across a book that you could swear the author wrote just for you. When I saw the title of this book, Home Is a Roof Over a Pig, I immediately knew what it referred to. The Chinese language often adds together the characters for two or more words to make a third, especially when it’s trying to get at an abstract concept. To make the character for home, you first put the character for “pig,” then you put the character for roof over it, the idea being that if you have a source of food, and some shelter, you have the making of a home.

The first thing I love about this book is that she describes how so many of the characters provide a pictorial link to how the people in a culture think about their world. I find the metaphors inherent in Chinese writing fascinating, and so does Arrington, who uses a different Chinese character as a motif for each chapter in this memoir which chronicles the several years that her family lived in the small city of Tai’an, a little north and west of Shanghai, a place where they are able to settle into day-to-day life in China.

That’s the second thing I love about this book. We get a glimpse into what it’s like to live in China, from the quirky light fixtures, to the noodle shops on every corner, to the toddlers walking around in split pants and peeing nonchalantly on the sidewalk. Arrington also chronicles how a family evolves in such a setting. I had to smile at one of their favorite comfort meals: grilled cheese sandwiches fried in a wok and served with hot and sour soup. And I was touched by the story of her children who were frustrated at first by the new language, but individually worked their way into the fabric of life and the ready companionship of the other kids in the neighborhood. I have to say it boggles my mind that she moved to China with three children under 5 in tow, and that she took extended trips through China with them as well. Her husband is retired military, so I suppose moving and coping are things she has become good at.

The third thing I love about this book is that she is a teacher in China, and she recounts conversations with her students that give me a clearer idea of Chinese—and American—mindsets. She reports one of her students said to her early on, “You are American. You have freedom and liberty. We Chinese have traditions and history. What will you do about this gap?” She explores this dichotomy throughout the book, contrasting her ideas about things like women in leadership and the situation in Tibet with those of her students. She also has a poignant section on how many Chinese citizens’ view of Japan changed after the Sichuan earthquake. Japan was the first country to send teams to help locate survivors in the rubble, and the countries share a bond, having both been devastated by earthquakes.

The fourth thing I love about this book is that she adopted one of her daughters from China, like I did, and she reflects on how living in China has opened the whole family up to the culture. It’s especially interesting when she recounts the insights she gained when Chinese family who lives in America visited their American family who lives in China.

The fifth thing I love is that she is a good writer. She pulled me into her world with lots of detail, but not so much that I tired of the descriptions. I was continually interested in her family’s exploits, and came away feeling entertained--and quite a bit smarter about China, too. That’s a tricky thing to pull off in a book, and I think she did it admirably.

The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min

The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min

Story of an Immigrant Mother

I had found Min’s first memoir of living in China during the Cultural Revolution, Red Azalea, strangely surreal, and I didn’t think I would read The Cooked Seed book until it started showing up on all kinds of lists for “best nonfiction.” I picked it up and read it to see what all the accolades were about.

The Cooked Seed, Min’s memoir of her life from the time she arrived in America until now is a nicely-detailed book that gives readers a visceral feel for the struggles of a Chinese immigrant as well as the challenges of being a mother in an unfamiliar world.

Min’s life reminds me of a good news/bad news sort of tale:

Good news: She is plucked from backbreaking labor to star in Madame Mao’s propaganda films

Bad news: Madame Mao is executed after Mao’s death, and Min is now a “cooked seed” in China, forever tainted by her association with a now-hated figure

Good news: She manages by sheer persistence to get out of the country and come to America

Bad news: Life is hard for an immigrant with no resources who doesn’t yet know English

The book reinforced for me how vulnerable the new immigrant population is in this country. She falls for at least 2 major scams which wipe her out of the little money she is able to save. She finds an artistic, dreamy Chinese man, but he turns out to be a disaster. She buys property and becomes a landlord because it is the only way she can figure out to make money, but—as anyone who’s rented property can tell you—a person has to be able to interpret fine points in the law and stand up to tenants, hard things for a person who doesn’t understand much about her new country.

Just reading about how she was hanging drywall while 8 months pregnant made me ache.

It’s a compelling read, and I found myself rooting for this woman. When her daughter, Lauryann, is born, she finds herself even more challenged as she navigates a way to raise a strong, confident daughter among conflicting messages from her husband, American culture, and the values she brings from China. I found it interesting to follow her process of deciding which old values she would preserve and which new ones she found important.

Min’s story ends with lots of good news—the biggest being that a life of mind-boggling struggle and hardship make for a good story, one that is winning acclaim from readers.

Books for Moms: Memoirs from China

These memoirs recount dramatic and touching stories from China during the Cultural Revolution, the 1980s and contemporary times.

A Comrade Lost and Found by Jan Wong

A Comrade Lost and Found by Jan Wong

A Story of Contemporary China and the Cultural Revolution

A Comrade Lost and Found is a compelling and fast-paced account of modern China that sparkles with vivid details and an engaging story. Witness the chapter headings: “Mission Impossible,” “You Aren’t Allowed to Call Anyone an Idiot—In English or Chinese,” “Neither of Us Can Handle the Twenty-First Century,” “Seeing Flowers from a Galloping Horse,” “Sex in Da City,” and “Women Hold Up Half the Sky; I Never Thought Their Arms Would Get Tired.”

Canadian journalist Jan Wong (Red China Blues) can show you the country through the prism of western sensibilities, but since she has lived and reported extensively in China, she can also give readers insight into the Chinese mindset. My copy is inundated with post-it notes marking the places I found enlightening, touching, fascinating, and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Wong wraps her memoir in an intriguing quest. Back in the 70’s, she was one of the few western college students living in China during the Cultural Revolution, and in a burst of misguided patriotic fervor, she tattled on a fellow student who had made inquiries on how to get to America. At the time, being interested in the “imperial dogs” in the US could get a person killed. At the very least, it could get a person expelled, humiliated, and shunned.

Wong has a terrible feeling she ruined the young woman’s life, and she goes back to China to try to find her—if she is still alive—and offer an apology. In a country of 1.3 billion people it is a daunting quest. But, with her journalist’s connections and tenacity, she locates the wronged woman and unearths some surprises about the China she thought she knew so well.

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Insights Into Life in China

While other books want to show the sweep is there a a society's history and culture, Dreaming in Chinese focuses on little moments and little insights that will be a delight to anyone interested in knowing what it is like to live in China.

Through Fallows' eyes we see the little evocative moments:

- How mobile phones and texting have caught on in a big way in China. Even street sweepers and recyclers pedaling their carts can afford phones, and apparently reception is good just about everywhere: subway cars, elevators, and even in the countryside.

- Things are changing so fast in China that Fallows learned to stay and wait at the cobbler's for her shoes to be repaired. If she left them overnight, the shop might be gone when she returned in the morning. Apparently the officials had the power to make the shopkeepers leave at a moment's notice.

- How metaphor and turns of phrase are used to create Chinese words. For example, the word for "heart" is included in many compound words. If you combine the word for "open" with the word "heart," you get the word for "joyous." If you combine the word for "hot" with the word for "heart," you get the word "enthusiastic."

All in all, Fallows provides us with a window into Chinese culture, a few glimpses as to how the language informs the people and vice versa.

Books for Moms: Fiction about China

These books include a lyrical classic set in the early 20th century, a poignant story of a woman who runs an adoption agency, and a feel-good story of young immigrant who overcomes palpable poverty.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

A Young Immigrant from China

Girl in Translation is a book that brings home the hardships, the triumphs, and the poignancy of the immigrant experience in America.

Kimberly Chang and her mother find themselves at the mercy of powerful relatives who have sponsored their trip to the United States, and they are forced to work in their extended family's sweatshop to pay back their debt. (Who knew that there were still sweatshops running in this country in the 1980s?)

The poverty is palpable: they live in a rundown building without heat, and one memorable scene has them fishing a bolt of bright blue furry material from the trash cans to use for blankets, curtains, and even tablecloths.

We cheer for Kimberly as she moves from wide-eyed immigrant to acceptance at one of the most prestigious colleges in America.

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

Stories of Adoptive Mothers in the States

Novelist Ann Hood incorporates many of the events of her own life into The Red Thread, a story of a woman who runs an agency that helps American couples adopt children from China. After Hood's biological daughter died from a virulent form of strep at age 5, she adopted a daughter from China.

In the novel, the character Maya Lange has started The Red Thread Adoption Agency partly to work out her grief over her own daughter's accidental death. The Red Thread name comes from the Chinese folk legend that says that fate binds people together by a red thread.

Lange shepherds several couples, all with their own failings and agendas, through the adoption process. Interspersed throughout, we also hear the stories of the children who will be matched with their eventual parents.

Though it could be categorized as a chick lit tearjerker, this book also reaches for delicate imagery and poignancy.

Daughters for a Time

Daughters for a Time

Daughters for a Time

Something that the head of our local adoption agency said has always resonated with me. At the orientation meeting, he told us that he tells his staff to treat prospective adoptive couples well. “They come to us with lots of tears,” he said.

This book, which won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, embodies those days of loss and longing which many of us endured on our adoption journey.

It is the story of a woman named Helen who is still profoundly grieving for the mother she lost when she was only a teenager and who is beginning to realize that her dreams of being a biological mother won’t come true. She slowly comes around to idea of adopting from China, and like most of us, once she has her daughter in her arms, she wonders what took her so long.

So, why recommend a book that is so full of sadness? Because Handford is an adept writer who helps us work out our own feelings as we read about the characters. Because her writing has such a rich feel that we feel comforted by the good things that populate her story: the touch of a child, the affection of a husband, the warm pastries that Helen lovingly bakes for her restaurant. And most of all because it is a story of forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope.

If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother by Julia Sweeney