More on Dwarves in China

By Deborah Fallows

Beijing: Two days ago I mentioned the prevailing Chinese attitudes toward people with physical abnormalities, in specific, dwarves. A thoughtful reader, who with his wife adopted a daughter from China nine years ago, writes in with this response. He comments on some possible explanations for the discomfort I was describing, and puts it in a larger context of Chinese attitudes toward either the unfortunate, like people with disabilities, or the very fortunate, like Chinese girls who have been whisked from orphanages to rich-country lives by adoptive parents. He says that when he and his wife spent time in China to collect their new daughter, he discussed this very topic with an American friend who had been living in China since the 1980s and had a Chinese wife:

>>[My friend] said he believed that centuries of constant, acute shortages of food and material goods and the extraordinary, life or death competition for everything that is in short supply (food, money, education, etc.) had created a cultural situation in which (a) ANY excuse to (metaphorically) kick someone off the train, under the bus, or out of line, or generally to marginalize them and deny them access to the scarce resources of society functioned to improve access to key resources for everyone else; and

(b) if you rationalize the situation of the marginalized person as "fate" rather than as something that human beings can change just by deciding to treat the "different" people better, you don't feel too guilty - the matter is "out of our hands" - and

(c) if you further rationalize "fate" as somehow being deserved, either by actions in a prior life or as just dessert for the bad acts of an individual's parents, etc., then you are insulated even from thinking that it might be cruel to adopt the attitude that fate rather than the choices of more privileged humans are involved.

This helped to explain the two very obviously polar opposite reactions we observed among young women who observed our daughter during those two weeks in Beijing (this was 2002; things may have changed). Some were obviously moved to tears of joy on her behalf, and would ask my friend to thank us for our kindness to her and to China. (We didn't feel we were doing anything kind or altruistic, but they did.) So these were people who had some feelings that ran counter to the culture situation my friend described, and perhaps even felt it cruel.

But there was another group of young women who were clearly very angry. My friend would try to talk to them and tease out their feelings. Some were just angry that China was losing its baby girls to Americans, and felt humiliated. But a very strong contingent felt it was unfair for our daughter, an orphan with no family, to suddenly jump to the head of the line and get to move to America, whereas they - with families- would never even be able to get a visa. She had won the lottery, when she should have remained - in the natural order of things - a marginalized victim.<<

Of course attitudes like these are not unique to China. Outlooks (b) and (c) have their obvious counterparts in American assumptions about the "deserving" (or "hard-working" or "intelligent") successful people and the "undeserving" poor. But the scale of China makes everything here more intense, and this explanation matches what I've seen here through the years. 

Deborah Fallows, a linguist, is the author of Dreaming in Chinese. Her site is here. In today's New York Times Book Review she has a review of 'Fortunate Sons,' by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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