The "China Doll" Syndrome

Even positive comments can betray subtle prejudices.

Dealing With Prejudice in Transracial Adoptive Families

When I go out in public with my three-year-old daughter, Tessa, I have to prepare myself to deal with her hordes of admirers. My husband and I jokingly call her our little ambassador of goodwill because of the smiles she elicits, although she does nothing to encourage people and seems oblivious to the attention. I can’t get through the supermarket without being stopped by a stranger or two exclaiming over her beauty; little old ladies have practically chased me down the aisle to tell me that my daughter is adorable.

Because we are an interracial family — we adopted our daughter from China — I am relieved when the comments we receive from strangers are friendly instead of rude or confrontational. But sometimes the attention makes me uneasy. I wonder whether Tessa would get as much attention if she were with an Asian family, for example. She is undeniably beautiful, but I’ve been out in public with other attractive children and never drawn as much attention. I am especially bothered when strangers call her “a little China doll,” as though she were a fragile piece of chinoiserie. How much are the compliments inspired by her personal qualities, and how much by the obvious contrast between our Caucasian faces and her Asian one?

Most adoptive families are familiar with the fielding of intrusive comments and questions. But what about positive comments, compliments and praise? Many parents, including my husband and me, suspect that these well-intended comments betray subtle prejudices, and hint at more blatant prejudices our children will confront as they get older.

Children May Be the First to Notice

How could compliments be a problem? For most of us, words of praise for our children, from friends or strangers, sound sweet. They echo our feelings of pride and support our decision to adopt. With all the challenges we face as adoptive parents, and especially as interracial families, why go looking for trouble?

This is one of those instances where our children may recognize a problem before we do. Susan Avery, whose daughters, Emily, six, and Cara, four, were adopted from China, became concerned about the attention her girls received after she began to notice her older daughter’s discomfort.

“After I first came home from China with Emily, I welcomed the nice comments,” she says. “And I got a lot — mostly about how cute and adorable she was, even though she would hardly look at a stranger, and never smiled in public. I knew that most people wouldn’t have said anything if Emily had looked like my biological child, but I wasn’t bothered because I figured kids benefit from any positive attention, regardless of its motivation.

“After Cara came home, the comments multiplied — with two kids we stood out even more,” says Avery. “At first it was okay. But when Emily turned five, I started to notice that she didn’t appreciate the ‘Aren’t they just adorable!’ comments we’d get as we walked down the street.”

Leceta Chisholm Guibault, whose daughter, Kahleah, was adopted from Guatemala, made a similar discovery. “It is true that not everyone we meet is malicious,” she says, “but I must be on guard. I used to love it when my daughter was a baby and people would stop me and exclaim, ‘What beautiful black eyes she has! Look at that straight black hair! And nice brown skin!’

“Although I thought these were positive comments, by the age of four, my daughter had had enough. One day, after having numerous people make these same observations over and over again, Kahleah buried her face in my stomach, overwhelmed. She said she was tired of people ‘always’ pointing out the same things: her hair, eyes, and skin.”

Comments Reinforce Differences

Young children may object to attention at first because it’s intrusive and embarrassing. Later, they realize that it is the differences between them and the rest of their family that attract the attention. When her daughter, Emily, began to feel uncomfortable about comments from strangers, Avery says, “I started to understand the argument that such comments may be seen by the child as signs of differences, and thus have a negative connotation, despite their positive words. So now I don’t respond as I once did. I try to minimize the interaction saying that all children are cute. I am still polite to the other person.”

Guibault also became aware of the way that “compliments” set her daughter apart. “I realized that they were pointing out her racial differences, and her differences from me, her mother. Kahleah was reading between the lines. Maybe this was just her perception, but she was feeling it. I ask you, what child deserves to be made to feel different, simply because of race?”

Good Intentions Can Go Awry

Most people who gush over our children believe they are just being nice. They may not recognize their own motivations. That enthusiastic stranger in the checkout line may simply think your child is lovely; or she may recognize that, as an interracial family, you probably have to deal with prejudice and criticism, and she wants to express her support; or she may see your child as a curiosity, an exotic objet d’art: in other words, a China doll. Since we can’t read minds, it’s impossible to know what people are thinking when they compliment our kids. But it is safe to say that what brings our children to most people’s attention is the fact that they look different from us. Sensitive children pick up on that distinction.

Seemingly harmless comments can also foreshadow the more overt prejudices our children will face when they get older. Cheri Register, in her excellent book Are Those Kids Yours? American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries, noted, “My daughters are both very pretty, but when people enthuse over their beauty, it makes them uncomfortable and me wary. The ‘exotic flower of the Orient’ is another seemingly positive stereotype that can have negative consequences. The image of Latin women as flirtatious and hypersensual ‘Carmen’ types falls in the same category.”

We should be aware of these stereotypes so we can help our children deal with the expectations others may have of them as they get older, and especially as they begin dating.

Gender Plays a Part

All children in interracial families attract a certain amount of attention, but little girls are especially apt to be complimented on their looks. Many parents of children adopted from China, the overwhelming majority of whom are girls, are acutely aware of the praise their daughters get for their beauty. Parents who are hoping to raise children free of stereotypical gender roles find that they have to fight the idea that girls are objects of beauty above all else, a message that is reinforced through constant repetition.

Gail Coad, whose daughter, Linnea, was adopted from China, says, “I think that the issue of compliments for our daughters, such as ‘Isn’t she cute’ or ‘She’s so beautiful,’ is one of raising daughters in general, not an adoption issue. Children will fulfill our conception of what we consider good and wonderful about being a daughter. If we admire their beauty above their strength or smarts or kindness to others, then they will focus on their beauty. It’s about balance and direction and openness to their interest and skills. So at this point, my reaction to ‘She’s so cute’ is to say, ‘Yes, and she’s smart and strong too,’ or emphasize other personal qualities.”

“Positive” Stereotypes Go Beyond Looks

It’s not just looks that attract compliments. Strangers knowingly assure adoptive parents of Asian children that they’ll be good at math, and African-American children may be expected to be outstanding athletes. Register observed, “Racism can take seemingly benign forms. Those of us who have very bright Asian children are easily seduced by the stereotype of Asians as intellectually superior. It is nice to think of your child as gifted….This stereotype causes difficulties, however, for children who were placed for ‘special needs’ adoption because they have developmental delays or learning disabilities. It is also hard on children of average intelligence whose teachers have inordinately high expectations of them.”

Like any other prejudice, positive stereotyping can place limitations on a child, taking away his or her right to be perceived as an individual with unique gifts.

Maintaining Balance

What can parents do? Short of taking our kids out in public with paper bags over their heads, there’s not much we can do to keep them from attracting compliments. But we can soften the impact. Here are some suggestions for minimizing the effect of excessive attention:

Even if you enjoy the compliments, your child may not. If the attention seems to bother him or her, you may need to change your approach. Keep the interaction brief and polite. When strangers compliment your child, simply smile, say thanks, and move on or redirect the conversation.

Deflect the pointedness of the comments yourself. If one of your children is routinely singled out for attention, to the exclusion of the others, try to share the wealth. When a stranger exclaims how lovely your daughter is, while ignoring your son, you can respond, “Thank you, I am lucky to have such beautiful children.”

Talk with your child about the situation. When you sense discomfort on your child’s part, let him or her know that you understand that it must be difficult to be the focus of so much attention. Together, you can discuss ways of dealing with talkative strangers and the feelings they provoke.

Help your child to see himself or herself as a whole person. Take opportunities to praise your child for qualities other than physical beauty — strength, intelligence, a pleasant singing voice, or a gentle way with animals, for example.

I can’t deny that my daughter is beautiful; part of the joy of raising Tessa is the sheer aesthetic pleasure I get from watching her. But I never forget that she is a three-dimensional person with many other gifts to offer. When strangers gush over her, I smile and say, “Thank you, we think she’s beautiful too,” and keep pushing my cart down the aisle. Then, when we’re out of earshot, I remind her that she is smart and strong too — not a China doll at all.


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