We are delighted to welcome Erin Raffety as our guest blogger for our Christmas message from Grace & Hope. Erin holds a B.A. in Anthropology from Davidson College, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is certified to receive a call with the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University, where her interests include kinship, foster care, and domestic adoption in China, and theology and anthropology. She has worked in Asia, along the US-Mexico border and Puerto Rico, and in Washington, DC on international poverty and hunger with Bread for the World and The ONE Campaign. Erin recently returned from conducting her dissertation fieldwork in Southwest China, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband, Evan. Erin can be reached via her blog, Little Sacred Space. As someone who has been intimately connected to the work of Grace & Hope, she offers a unique perspective this Christmas season.
Nearly three and a half years ago I came to China hoping to do dissertation research with foster families. I remember vividly the first few moments in the Nanning airport, where my halting Mandarin got a pungent taste of Southwest Guangxi’s linguistic plurality and thick Southern accents (yep, there are Southern accents in China, too!). I remember not only this cacophony of languages upon touching down in Nanning, but also the pervasive smell of mildew, the sea of e-bikes stretching across the broad avenues, and my first forays through neighborhood markets searching for foster mothers alongside a friend who swore they could be found.
I met not a single foster mother that first summer. Instead, I met many people, all Chinese, who told me, emphatically, that they did not exist. Our research design is open-ended in anthropology, meaning that we spend a lot of time in the places where we study and live, and we often expect even the topic of our research to change along the way. People who I met in Guangxi apologized obsessively for the “backwardness” of their region, and urged me to go somewhere of real importance in China. Chinese professors of anthropology wondered why I wanted to study foster mothers, rather than the Zhuang minority culture, for which Guangxi is famous.
But oddly, for some reason, it never occurred to me to abandon the project. I had this strange, absurd, yet resilient hope that foster mothers were out there somewhere, and that they were worth studying and worth knowing. So my husband and I moved to Nanning the following summer, on a wing and a prayer. And then finally, in March of 2011 in an unassuming concrete office, buried in the middle of the city, and through a roundabout network of friends and acquaintances, I was introduced to a small NGO staff who told me they supported hundreds of families in Nanning and thousands outside of the province who took orphaned and abandoned children into their homes. Their name was Grace & Hope. That April, in a nearby city orphanage, an elderly woman with a kind smile told me how she’d started foster care projects in Guangxi in the early 1990s out of necessity, poverty, and concern. Guangxi, it turned out, despite the naysayers, and in no small part due to Grace & Hope, was at the center of a disperse, yet expansive foster care movement.
When you’re sitting in classrooms and carrels imagining anthropological fieldwork, you can only think in systems and power and theories. It was no different for me, and when it came to contemporary China, I conjured a sophisticated state, modern cities, and rapid social change. But instead what I found is time nearly standing still in the cinder-block homes of foster families, whether they lived in the capital city or off the rice paddies between mountains where people plowed with oxen, a rickety tool, and their own two hands.
I discovered the literature on families and family life in China hardly prepared me for the sudden expressions of emotion I encountered inside foster families’ homes—the their pain, their joy, and how they clung to me briefly and then even physically pushed me away, so taboo were these moments in a typically reserved culture. So powerful and yet fleeting were these displays of emotion that I often wondered whether I imagined them, or if they did occur, what it was that elicited such rawness, such intimacy.
The author with a foster family in Nanning.
I gradually understood that my time with families felt so saturated with emotion, because emotion is the work of foster parents. Their emotion, their love, their care, such precious gifts, are on loan to children who come to live in their homes for often brief periods of time, but who remain in their hearts and their memories. Whenever I would walk into a village or a courtyard, foster parents would crowd around me with photos of foster children they had raised and who had been adopted abroad. They not only inquired about their whereabouts, desperate to know that these children had grown up beautiful and loved, but they relished the opportunity to tell their stories, to speak of each precious child by name, often remarking that those who were the “most difficult,” either because of their disabilities or behavioral problems, were those most cherished in the end.
When I would thank these parents, whose backs had grown curved, their hands withered over the many years of rearing children who are not their own, they would shoo me away with flippant gestures, downcast eyes, and polite words. But while their concrete highrises or country homes are not much to look at, I’ve come to believe that they are the embodiment of hope. Most obviously for abandoned and disabled children, they provide love, care, and bright hope of a future that includes all of these. But for the surrounding communities, for all those who doubt the value of disabled kids, who see only their limitations, they bring good news. While others say these children can’t walk, talk, or learn, the foster moms, intimately attuned to the rhythm of the kids’ daily lives, excitedly point to the milestones only a doting parent could see. Perhaps the greatest hope they bring, not only to the kids, or their neighbors, but to China, is the gift of open eyes, open ears, and open hearts.
This season, as we consider the birth of the Christ child, of Mary and Joseph’s willingness to accept their fate in humility, I can’t help but think of these parents and children in China. I will think of how my own journey is now inexplicably tied to theirs, my own eyes, ears, and heart have been opened because of the ways that they serve. I will think of how, much as God fills all of us with heightened expectation and hope and joy this season, how their gifts of love and care, and the work of Grace and Hope in China, have brought hope and joy to so many. I will pray for the staff of Grace and Hope in China, that their long days and fervent efforts on behalf of these children and these families, will be received with open eyes, ears, and hearts. I will pray for the moms who have just let a child go to be adopted to a new home, for their faith, their sacrifice, and their pain. I will pray for the moms who welcome a new child into their homes, though they know not what to expect, or even how to care for children with disabilities and special needs.
But mostly, I will praise God for hope, in the most unlikely places. I will praise God for the awe that each of us feels when we hold a child, a child who God has fearfully and wonderfully made, and for the savior that came to us in such a humble state. This Christmas, for these mothers in a faraway land who hold children with loving arms and who in so doing share this good news, please join with me in giving God honor and praise.