I’m in an elevator, with my 10 month old twin daughters in their obtrusively large twin stroller. We are headed to the pediatrician’s. Several other people are in the elevator with us, and most of them are staring at my daughters, which is a common response to babies in general, twin babies in particular, and Chinese twin babies with a Caucasian mother most of all. Though I have only had the girls for a few weeks at this point, I am already used to the stares. My husband says that going out with them is like going out with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who are still married; it is 2001) because of all the attention. We make jokes like this; we think we are unflappable. We think people who adopt children from other countries and then freak out because people stare or ask questions are freaky and uptight.

A woman in the elevator turns to me and says, “Oh, they’re darling!” and I smile. I am still smiling when she says loudly, “How much did they cost?”

Here is a list of some of the more insane/offensive things I have heard in reference to my daughters:

*Aren’t you worried about bad genetics?

*Are you planning to teach them English?

*(in a public restroom: one friend calling to another in a toilet stall) Oh my God, Mary! You have to get out here and look at these adorable little twins this lady got in China!

*What a wonderful/heroic/noble thing you did! You saved those girls!

*So, have they attached to you yet? (I think they were 3 at the time we were asked this. We adopted the girls at 9 months of age.)

*Oh, Madeleine and Kenza are great—but you’ll see (I was pregnant with my son at the time), there’s nothing in the world like having your own baby!

Yet through it all, nothing has ever topped “What did they cost?” Perhaps because every other asinine question or statement has simply been . . . well, asinine (um, no, I was planning to converse with them in Mandarin forever and shield them from the English language, because the moment the adoption papers went through, I immediately became fluent in Mandarin through some kind of Republic of China thought control . . . ) Whereas the question “How much did they cost?” has a concrete answer—because every parent who adopts a child, in the United States or elsewhere, has to eventually make their peace with the fact that their child was once “for sale.”

In 2001, adopting twins in China cost roughly 23K. My husband and I called it the “two for one special,” since adopting a single child was at least 20K. The vast majority of the costs go to agencies in the United States, which is why getting two babies is barely any more expensive than getting one: the paperwork is the same. In China, there is mercifully little worry that somehow your child was “bought” from her birthparents as has been the case in Vietnam and other countries, since child abandonment, especially of girls, is common and no one would need to bribe an unwilling mother to part with her child. (Incidentally, on a statistical level a greater percentage of women in the U.S. give up their babies for adoption than in China, but because of China’s staggering population, a greater number of actual babies are available in China. Still, this is worth specifying since the U.S. conception of the Chinese tends to be that they’re tossing baby girls out as a norm, but a greater percentage of Chinese keep their babies than Americans.) Yet even if babies are not being “bought” from poverty-ridden parents, economics is what drives most who abandon their girls to do so.Prohibitive taxes on second children make admitting to having one impossible for many poor, rural families, and these same families need to have a son so that there is someone to work the land and care for them in their old age. In China, girls go to live with their in-laws when they marry, so elderly couples with only a daughter would be abandoned on a farm they can no longer work. In China, more than 75% of the country still farm for a living. In China, there is no Social Security.

They told us to bring crisp, new bills. This gave us the creeps. We felt like drug dealers. To assuage our feelings of uneasiness, we took the following photograph of our daughter Kenza Ling with the spanking new money we would turn over the next day to “purchase” her and her twin as our own:


We made jokes about Demi Moore and Indecent Proposal. We wanted a baby more than anything, and I was (at the time) infertile.  We would have done anything, you see.  Crisp new bills were nothing.

Now I wish they could have asked for something else. A kidney, maybe. A piece of my lung. My left hand. I would have given it gladly, in exchange for my daughters. If I had given a kidney instead of crisp new bills, when someone asked how much they cost I could say “Fuck you” and show them my scar. Instead, there is a concrete answer: “They cost 23,000 U.S. dollars.” An answer I obviously would not give in a crowded elevator, with my daughters right there. An answer I carry.

In the United States, I have heard of couples desperate for a white newborn paying six or seven times the amount I paid, often with most of it going directly to the birth mother. Yet because their children look like them racially, they are not asked this question in parks, in elevators. They will not be asked it someday, ten years from now when the fact of their adoption is so old hat that we barely even think of it, while helping to buy their daughters dresses for prom.

A kidney. A lung. My right hand. Take them. You can have them all.

I just want my daughters.

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GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

4 responses to “A Thousand Words: A Decent Proposal”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Fuck, I love this.
    So brilliant.

  2. Thank you, love. Hey, is Brad still putting that A Thousand Words book together?! I should ask him. I’d forgotten all about it until now. See you soon.

  3. Barren Lazza says:

    Hi Gina
    Zara passed this onto me. I loved this too-it made me laugh! People are crazy with their assumptions aren’t they?
    How old are your daughters now and did u find the adoption process tricky or lengthy?
    My hubby & I are about to undergo ivf using my sister as a donor and the cost freaks me a bit-makes me feel as if we are commodifying our child. It’s good to get your outlook on it.

  4. My daughters are almost 10 now! It’s surreal. The adoption process was pretty easy, but China is much, much more difficult now, with waits up to 5 years (our wait was about 11 months.) My friend just adopted from Ethiopia though and it was easy for her. Good luck with your IVF. Thanks for reading!

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