The deep wounds of the one-child policy


Lexi Palubiak was left on a farm in the Chinese province of Sichuan shortly after she was born. It was winter in 1988. Her parents had wrapped her in a blanket and enclosed a piece of paper with the date and time she was born. April fourth, four o’clock. Three times four: That doesn’t mean anything good in China. The word for four sounds like to die in Chinese. But Lexi was lucky. She was found by farmers who took her until she was five or six years old. Then the foster parents took her to an orphanage in the megacity of Chongqing because the girl did not have a birth certificate and so they could not enroll her. In addition, the family already had a son and no more children were allowed. Lexi’s name is now Lexi because she was later adopted by an American couple. Her name was Jin Yan until she was 14.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

Like her, hundreds of thousands of girls were abandoned in streets, squares and train stations in China between 1980 and 2015. The reason for this was the one-child policy. Most parents would rather have a son who, according to tradition, would look after them in old age. And they couldn’t afford the heavy fines for a second child. The orphanages were quickly overcrowded and financially overwhelmed, so that in 1985 China began placing children abroad. According to a report by the American Pew Research Center, almost 270,000 Chinese children were adopted by foreign parents between 1999 and 2016 alone. Almost a third of them live in the United States. In the beginning it was 98 percent girls.

“She could have killed me too”

Most of them are now adults. You have gone through phases of life in which questions about yourself play a major role. Some now have children of their own, like Lexi, whose daughter is four months old. Two thoughts have not gone out of her head since she was born. Her daughter’s need for attachment and warmth made her “aware of how much I needed my parents and that that is the reason why I hated them,” said the 33-year-old American in a video conversation. As a mother she now also understands “how difficult it must have been for my mother to get rid of me”. Lexi is sure that her mother still wonders every day what has become of her daughter. “I would like to tell her that I am fine. I want her to know that the decision she made wasn’t necessarily a bad one. She could have killed me too. ”As soon as the pandemic is over, she wants to travel to China with her child and her husband.

Lexi tried to find her birth parents eleven years ago. While studying in China, she placed ads in the local newspaper and inquired at the Chongqing orphanage. At least she found the foster parents with whom she had lived her first years. She doesn’t remember much of it. A shabby housing estate. A pasta restaurant. A peasant woman, a factory worker. She doesn’t remember their faces or their names. “Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to block out the memory,” says Lexi. Her encounter with the director of the orphanage, who had helped her with the adoption at the time, is more noticeable to her. During the reunion, she asked Lexi to send money and bring her to the United States. “That broke my heart. I thought she really wanted to help me. Then I understood that she only wanted to help herself. ”It must have been especially tough for someone who has always found it difficult to trust adults.


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