“I imagine that I was abandoned in a basket, like in the films… but, well, not everything is a fairytale,” says Irene Rong, smiling timidly into the camera. Now aged 18, Irene has known that she was adopted ever since she can remember, or when she first realized she looked different to her parents. She was among the first 100 Chinese children to be adopted in Spain, back in 1995, and the first in the northwestern city of Salamanca. She says she remembers trying to make her eyes round by pushing them with her fingers when nobody was looking. But she has overcome her childhood insecurities, and says she is now as proud of her origins as she is of the country and family that adopted her.
Irene was 17 months old when she was brought to Spain, and her life has not been easy since then. The biggest challenges she has faced have been coming to terms with her feelings of being abandoned by her parents and fitting into a society that 20 years ago had little experience of immigration. She says she has always felt she was two people trapped in one body.
My eyes are Chinese, but I can’t speak Chinese; my language is Spanish, but I don’t look Spanish, so I feel like an outsider everywhere”
Irene’s story, along with five others of the first Chinese children adopted by Spanish families, is now the subject of a documentary called Generación Mei Ming: miradas desde la adolescencia (or, Generation No Name: looking back from adolescence), directed by David Gómez Rollán, whose parents adopted a Chinese baby girl. “We face the added challenge of constantly thinking about where we really come from, why we were abandoned… these are questions that somebody who hasn’t been adopted never has to think about,” says Irene.
Over the last two decades, around 18,000 Chinese children, most of them girls, have been adopted by Spanish families. China introduced legislation in 1979 to curb its population explosion by limiting families to one child. Huge numbers of baby girls were abandoned as a result. A British documentary called The Dying Rooms, depicting the appalling conditions in many Chinese orphanages, was shown in Spain in 1995 and prompted a huge response. By 2005, of the 5,423 children adopted in Spain from overseas, 2,753 were Chinese.
The number of Chinese children adopted by Spanish families has fallen sharply since 2005, when more than 2,750 arrived, after Beijing began taking a more restrictive approach.
In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, just 447 Chinese children found a new home in Spain. “The decline is largely due to the increased waiting time and bureaucracy involved after the law was changed in 2007: it now takes up to seven years,” says Andeni.
The Chinese authorities now require applicants to be in a stable relationship (single parents are no longer able to adopt); they must have a university education, and the household’s earnings must be equivalent to at least $10,000 a year for each family member, including the to-be-adopted child or children. Applicants must also not have any disabilities or suffer from certain illnesses.
Ángel González says the key to a successful adoption is telling children openly and honestly from an early age. “Irene went into a rage when she was three, after she saw a photo of my wife pregnant with our eldest daughter; she wanted a picture of herself before she was born,” says González. “So we had to explain to her part of her story, in a way that a girl of her age can understand.”
Generación Mei Ming will be showing at film festivals throughout Spain over the coming months. Gómez says the film has helped many adopted children understand that others face the same difficulties, as well as helping families who have seen it to talk about the challenges they face.
“I would have loved to have been able to talk to other Chinese children when I was small, I think it would have helped many of us to talk more openly to our parents,” says Ana Ling.
“After seeing the documentary, many parents have told me that they had no idea their adopted children were so worried about this issue of where they come from,” says Gómez: “Now they are talking to each other.”
“We called the documentary Mei Ming in remembrance of the many children who were never able to leave the orphanages, but who inspired many people to adopt, and give a new life, and new name, to other children,” says Gómez Rollán.
The young women and girls in the documentary tell their stories: about the hostility and racism they face, for example. Estela, a 12-year-old living in a small community in northern Spain, was bullied when she started high school last year. “One boy in particular had it in for her: he called her a Chinese whore, and told her to go back to her country,” says Estela’s mother Mariví.
“It hurts me when people reject me for being Chinese, it hurts that they won’t accept me,” says Estela.
“My eyes are Chinese, but I can’t speak Chinese; my language is Spanish, but I don’t look Spanish, so I feel like an outsider everywhere,” says Marina, a 17-year-old living in Seville. All the young women in the documentary say that at one point or another in their lives, they have wanted to simply fit it, to not stand out for the way they look. Their adoptive parents have worked hard on improving their sense of worth, of self-esteem, but say they are vulnerable.
“It is difficult to protect them from the rough and tumble of the world out there, just like it is for any other child. But we talk to them, we give them the tools to help them come to terms with who they are, and to understand that they were adopted, and how the process worked. Everything has to be out in the open, it’s vital that they don’t feel that there are any secrets that they have to find out,” says Ángel González, the father of Irene Rong and president of Andeni, the National Association for the Defense of Children. But he admits that this is no easy task: the Chinese authorities provide little information about the children who have been adopted. All that he has been able to find out about Irene is that she was abandoned when she was less than two months old outside an orphanage; Ana Ling, a 14-year-old now living in Santander, only knows that she was adopted from an orphanage when she was 10 months old. Estela says she was told that she was wrapped in a red blanket. “It’s the color of good luck in China; perhaps my parents thought it would help,” she says.
Many parents who have adopted Chinese children face uncertainties too: “A lot of people are afraid to adopt because they think that when the children grow up they will try to find their biological parents, and leave their adoptive families behind,” says Gómez Rollán.
But none of the young women in his documentary want to return to China: “I have sometimes thought that I might be better off in China, but I can’t know that for sure; I wouldn’t have any family there; I wouldn’t have the love that my mother gives me,” says Estela. “I don’t feel as though I am adopted, my parents are my parents, and that’s that. My biological parents are in China, but that’s all they are: I don’t know them and they are not part of my life,” she says.