Terracotta Daughters

Sep 14, 2014

terracotta daughtersMy daughter called me Friday just as my husband and I were entering a downtown gallery. We had gone to see an amazing installation: “Terracotta Daughters” by French sculptor Prune Nourry. The exhibit consists of 116 statues, lined up in rows, modeled on eight real girls in Chinese orphanages. Each statue has slight variations in its hairstyle or expression or garb, making it unique. The girls represent the missing girls of China—the abandoned or aborted girls whose absence has led to a gender imbalance in the PRC—calculated in 2012 as 117.7 boys to 100 girls, and expected to grow larger.

The work refers to, of course, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi-an, that unimaginably massive display of 8,000-plus clay soldiers that were buried along with Emperor Qin Shi Huang c 210 B.C.E. Legend has it that the workmen on the tomb were trapped inside it and left to die when the tomb was finished. At the end of “Terracotta Daughters’” world tour, Nourry plans to take it back to China and bury it—to be unearthed in 2030, when demographers predict China’s gender imbalance will have hit its peak.

Nourry’s work was surprisingly moving to us—I started crying the moment I saw it. Or maybe not so surprisingly, considering that eighteen years ago we adopted a daughter from China, and that she recently left for college. Seeing the rows of girls immediately evoked all the heartbreak of the one-child-policy, which, because of harsh penalties and a traditional preference for boys, led to thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of girls going “missing.” And it made me think about what my daughter’s life might have been like had she been left in her orphanage—an undereducated, never-fully-accepted member of Chinese society.

Her phone call threw a spotlight on the immense gulf between what might have been her fate and her current situation. Why was she calling? Because she needed my credit card number, so that she could preorder the iPhone 6.

Is my girl spoiled? Well, yes – although the phone is a deferred birthday present. Does she take her privileges for granted? Maybe. Does she think, as I do, about how different her life might have been, either as a poor girl in China or as an orphanage resident? She’s never said anything about it, and I’ve never asked her—because the question would imply that she should be grateful to me and my husband for “saving” her.

I sat down and gave my child the information she needed and debated with her the merits of the champagne- vs. silver-colored phone. I was in two different emotional states: teary-eyed as I recalled the circumstances of how she came into our lives—both the pain and heart-stopping joy—and annoyed at her desire to get the new new thing asap. It was a moment that captured the dichotomy of parenting—our underground intense attachment to our kids and the surface ups and downs of our interactions with them.

Then, after we hung up, I walked back and forth amid the girls. I stared at each face, looking for my daughter’s.