Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chinese Chess

Ma Lei's mother spent the weekend with us. Saturday afternoon, she got a phone call that got her very upset. Later, Ma Lei explained it to me.

The call had been from Ma Lei's aunt, to say that her son had just split from his wife. They've got a five-year-old daughter who doesn't really have a good place to live after the divorce. The purpose of the call was to see if Ma Lei and I might be able to take in the little girl.

Me being me and, well, not too savvy about such things, my immediate thought was "okay, let's think about it." I've wanted to adopt at some point in our future anyway, and wouldn't it be better to adopt from a family member? I'm not exactly ready yet, but I'd hate to leave a little girl homeless...

Ma Lei knows me too well, or maybe my face gave me away, but she cut me off before I could even start to consider the idea. "No way," she told me, it's all a scam. Here's how it works.

If we took in the niece, we wouldn't be able to transfer her hukao (residency paperwork) to our home. The hukao is a holdover from the totalitarian communist days, and it ties you to your residence. It's not like a driver's license you can switch around from address to address; once you're registered someplace, you're welded in place. Since we rent, and who knows where we'll be living in two years, the girl's paperwork would have to be connected to Ma Lei's parents' home in the country.

That home is scheduled to be plowed under in a some two or three years, to be replaced by one of these monstrous marching high-rise suburbs that are bankrupting China. When it happens, the government will recompense the residents for their land with a per-capita cash payoff and a new apartment in town.

As soon as the cash comes, Ma Lei explained to me, the child's grandmother will find some excuse to sweep in and take the child back. And of course, since the money "belongs" to the child, she will also insist that we give her the money.

If we were to fall for the scam, we would invest two years of love, care, and expenses, only to be left with a hole in the heart. Grandmother would end up with the little girl and a big pile of money.

Fortunately, Ma Lei's mother deflected the issue. We're planning to go back to America any day now, she said, and anyway we don't speak the girl's language. (She speaks the dialect from the next province over, Shandong, which is only partially comprehensible to a speaker of the Dalian dialect.)

This sort of thing is the reason Americans get carved up by the Chinese. We look at the surface of things and taken them at face value, never dreaming there's a whole planned-out chess game going on around us. I'm lucky my Chinese family is looking out for me!

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