Fiction / November 2008 (Issue 5)

New Baby

by Tai Dong Huai

[Read  A Cup of Fine Tea: Tai Dong Huai's "New Baby".]

My adoptive mom's best friend, Rachel, comes over to our house with her new Chinese baby. Her American name is Cynthia, she's eleven months old, and she's already a brat. People expect me to make a connection. They grin at me as if to say, "Look. One of your people."

But it's not Cynthia's overwhelming smell of baby powder that gets my attention. It's not her porcupine hair that sticks straight up, or her still malnourished body. It's the toy she was given at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, just before she and her adoptive mom got on the plane aimed toward the U.S.A.

It's called Going Home Barbie. I know this because it's still in the box and, from the way Rachel handles it as if it were rare art, it probably always will be. Inside are two dolls: Barbie, white, blond and dressed for what looks like divorcees-night-out at the Holiday Inn Lounge, and her small baby who appears more Aztec than Chinese. She's huge, this Barbie, actually dwarfing the cardboard house and picket fence that attempt to confine her. And she's too young — twenty, at most. Rather than an adoptive mom returning with a baby from China, she resembles a steroid-soaked Swedish nanny who's making off with a small, Mayan child.

Were this an accurate representation — were this to look more like the photograph of my mom and me as we left the Kennedy Airport terminal for the first time — it would appear this way: Barbie would be middle-aged, sleep-deprived and bloated. She would be pushing a stroller she'd purchased for fifteen bucks in Nanjing, and inside that stroller would be a screaming, frightened, uncooperative child. Barbie would be dressed in something oversized and wrinkled and, for the first and only time in my memory, would have a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

I imagine the purpose of this plastic duo is honorable: to help the woman — the adoptive mom — explain the process to her adopted daughter. The abandonment, the discovery, the orphanage, the bureaucratic coupling, the endless trips to and from.

But I'm 13, too old for dolls, and I see something else. If there's no adoptive dad doll, I see a woman who will be referred to as "dyke" and "lesbo". "I guess no man wanted to get on her and complete the act," they'll laugh when they think no one can hear. And if there is an adoptive dad, people will wonder if he "wasn't up to the task." Or perhaps he just doesn't enjoy doing the things that real men do.

The adoptive mom will be asked questions in front of the child. Questions like, "Why didn't you adopt American?" or "How much did she cost?" or "Do you think you can love her as much as if she were your own?"

 And kids like Cynthia? They'll go to middle-class schools where most of the kids are white and they're made to feel uncomfortably "special." The teachers will celebrate Chinese New Year with red money envelopes and moon cakes. Geography lessons will include the facts that the Chinese invented umbrellas to keep people dry, and gun powder to keep them away. On Thursday, the cafeteria will serve General Tso's Chicken, and be amazed should any Chinese kid request a hot dog instead. There may even be a small statue of the Buddha in the classroom, although it will be stressed that he was a man like Lincoln, not a god like Jesus.

I study the dolls and a final possibility strikes me. Perhaps the adoptive mother, finding she is finally pregnant, is returning the baby to the orphanage. Perhaps the baby, able to speak at a very young age, refuses to call this stranger "mommy," and instead refers to her by her first name. In that case, the punctuation on the box simply needs to be amended.

"Going Home, Barbie?" it should read.

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