The Home of a Spare Child


Shen Yang was born during the fiercest years of China’s one-child policy. As the second daughter of the family, she was a massive liability – an excess child, a product of illegal birth to be sent away from her parents and raised in secrecy. Shen Yang's memoir More Than One Child (Balestier, 2021) provides a vivid account of the family planning era in China, while sharing the adventures and sorrows of her childhood. In the essay that follows, written specially for Read Paper Republic, she reflects on what home meant to her as she grew up, an unwanted daughter.

The Home of a Spare Child
Under the rays of moonlight, missing dad,
Tear after tear trickling down my face.
I’ve learned to bear my hardships alone,
I’ve learned to wipe my tears alone,
To give however much emotion there is to dad.
There’s a warm home in my dreams,
Oh, there’s a warm home in my dreams.
Under the pitter-patter of the rain, calling for mum.
Endless words from the bottom of the heart,
Two little hands pulling on one big hand.
In the rain and wind, home bears me up.
Give however much love there is to mum.
There’s no warm home without you,
Oh, there’s no warm home without you,
Oh mum! Oh mum!
There’s no warm home without you.

As this theme song “There’s No Warm Home Without You” rang through the cinema during one particularly touching scene between the mother and daughter leads, little me sat in the corner sobbing even more desperately than the girl in the film. It was my third year of primary school, and I was there with all the teachers and students from my school, watching a film based on true events called “A Single Child’s Story.” The boys in my class who sat beside me laughed at me for getting too into the story, but as I wiped away my tears, I told them that they didn’t understand a damn thing. The girl from the film was desperate for a loving home – and I was no different. Once I had grown up, I would often wonder whether I would have been so obsessed with home if I’d been properly loved and cared for in my aunt’s home.

“Yang Yang, once you’ve finished primary school, your daddy and mummy will come and take you home.”

In 1998, the year that I finished primary school, Hong Kong was handed back to China, but I still hadn’t gotten to go home.

“Yang Yang, they’ve pulled down the houses in the village and resettled the occupants. Give it another three years, wait until the new house has been built, then your daddy and mummy will definitely come and take you home.”

To think they had the nerve to come up with such a rubbish excuse. I couldn’t care less about the old house or the new house or whatever. If I had the chance to live with my family, I’d have been willing to move in even if it meant living in an old, thatched hut. For them “wait another three years” was just some casual remark that they blurted out without thinking, but for me, who by that point had already been living under the roof of a home that wasn’t my own for eight years, it was a period of endless, protracted, and gloomy waiting.

Because of the birth-control policy and because I was a spare, illegal child, born above the quota specified by the one-child policy, as soon as I was born, I had to go into hiding in Yanzhou, Shandong, in my maternal grandad and grandma’s house. To avoid the birth-control policy enforcement personnel, who used encircle-and-intercept tactics to catch families with extra kids and issue large fines, I was uprooted again, this time to Nanyang in Henan to the house of my aunt, who’d moved away after marrying a man there. That was when I became a sent-away child living under another’s roof - all before I’d even started primary school.

“That little girlie’s an illegal kiddo who came over from Shandong because her folks didn’t want her no more, she’s living in her auntie’s house…” The endless gossip of the people in the village was a constant reminder that this place wasn’t my home. I was already well aware that this place wasn’t my home, I didn’t need anyone to remind me, but if I didn’t live there then where else was I supposed to go? I had no choice, so the only plan I had was to accept my fate.

Everyone in my aunt’s house was hot-tempered. Whenever anyone was in a bad mood they’d use me as a punching bag. One second you’re eating food, next second you’re trying to follow your bowl through the air as it’s sent flying… One day she greets you with a smile, next day she gives you such an almighty slap that you start to wonder whether or not you’re still alive. Living in such a perpetually explosive house, I was constantly desperate to return to the beautiful and distant home that was in my dreams.

I used to like watching the manga Doraemon, and my family would make fun of me and say I was childish. But they didn’t know that what I liked about the show was that no matter how naughty Nobi was, no matter how much trouble he caused, he could always rely on the unconditional support of Doraemon and the love of his dad and mum. I lost count how many nights I dreamt of Doraemon’s ‘anywhere door’: as soon as I opened the door, I would return to my home. As I grew up and started middle school, my relationship with my aunt and uncle didn’t get better. On the contrary, the relationship between teenage me and them became so frosty that it almost froze entirely. On the worst occasion I even entertained the idea of leaving, fleeing to the mountains and living like a hermit. What kind of home environment leaves a teenage child hating it so much that she wants to flee? In this so-called home, where the husband didn’t love his wife and the wife didn’t dote on her children, of course the children were never going to grow up to be kind towards this little irritant of a cousin who appeared out of nowhere one day and only knew how to sponge off of others. Eat too much at the dinner table and they’d call you a pig, eat too little and they’d say you were picky, don’t eat and they’d say that you deserved to go hungry. Even if your chopsticks hovered a bit too long over the meat dish, they’d have something to say. “If you like meat so much then why don’t you just take your shoe off and scoop out your pile of meat that way!” Even as you slowly shoved rice into your mouth, all sullen, tears pitter-pattering as they plopped on the bowl, you still wouldn’t get a drop of sympathy. All they’d say is, “Cry, cry, cry, that’s all you know how to do! Where on earth does this bloody little girl find the tears to cry all day like that!” There was no such thing as speaking nicely in that home. It was as if you’d turned up there just for the sake of satisfying their wicked tongues, for the sake of draining and collecting their negative emotions.

Every day of my third year in middle school was torture. It was in that period that I acquired the habit of not wanting to go to that house. If I could go to my friend or classmate’s home, then there was no way I’d be going to that house. If I could wander around aimlessly on the street, then there was no way I’d be going to that house. If I could sneak into the cinema and watch films all day, then there was no way I’d be going to that house. At my friends’ homes, I could feel the love of other people’s parents. On the street, I could observe households beaming with happiness. In the cinema, I could imagine that I was that happy child on the screen.

If other people’s homes were a safe harbour of protection from stormy winds, then my home was the mother of all storms; all of my hardships came from that tumultuous home. For other people, leaving a home that they’d lived in for years is an occasion full of sorrow, whereas I couldn’t wait to leave the home of my auntie and uncle in Henan and was ecstatic when I finally could. The moment the train set off I felt a sense of liberation, as if I was finally being released from prison after an eleven-year sentence.

The ridiculous thing was that it was only when I really did return to the home of my biological parents in Shandong, which I’d been thinking of day and night, that I realised all I’d done was swap one “prison” for another. It turned out that after eleven years apart, absence had not made our hearts grow stronger; on the contrary, their politeness made me feel estranged from them, their intimacy made me feel alien. That place wasn’t my home either, I was only a guest there. But this guest was far from well-behaved. If anyone provoked me, I’d turn into a spiky hedgehog and barge around the place pricking people. They couldn’t bear me, and I didn’t like them either. They didn’t know what I’d gone through all alone for those eleven years away. They never showed any active concern for me. They never asked, and I didn’t tell them. If I had told them, they wouldn’t have been able to put themselves in my shoes anyway. There were only five people whose names were in the official residence booklet that was hidden away in the drawer of their big cupboard; those five were the real family that loved each other. I was just a spikey intruder in their home. They spoke Shandong dialect; I spoke Henan dialect. They drank their jellied tofu salty; I drank mine sweet. They called their parents daddy and mummy; I would just shout an ‘ey!’ or ‘oy!’ to get their attention or greet them. When they were dishing out rice, they scooped it out from the sides; when I was dishing out rice, I used the whole spatula to dig out a massive hole right in the middle. They resented my lack of etiquette and housetraining; I resented their fussiness. They spoke in a refined and delicate way; I was used to telling people to get lost like nobody’s business. If they had a problem with someone, they rarely took it up with them directly; if I had a problem with someone, I’d go ballistic in front of them. They felt as if no one owed me anything; I felt as if the whole world was in my debt. They liked to chat and laugh loudly in the sitting room; I was more used to being peaceful on my own in my bedroom.

I stopped seeing Doraemon’s ‘anywhere door’ in my dreams, and I was no longer desperate to return to anyone’s home. When I was eighteen, I just wanted to be far away from everything. In 2006, the moment I got on the train to Xi’an, where I’d got a place at the university, that same liberating feeling of breaking free from my cage swept across my whole being. From being desperate for home to being disappointed with home to fleeing from home, it had taken me twenty years, but I’d finally understood the truth, and I finally understood my fate. Home no longer seemed that important. I had turned into a small snail, carrying my little shell on my back: wherever I crawled to and wherever I stopped, that was my home.

The new, grown-up, and independent version of me was even bold enough to resist my family in Henan and Shandong. I no longer had to be subservient towards them, nor did I have to tread on eggshells under other people’s roofs, and I definitely didn’t have to worry about being kicked out of the house and made homeless. Whenever I appeared, by now as an adult, at my aunt’s home in Henan or at my parents’ home in Shandong, if they made me unhappy then I would just assert myself and my independence: “I’m no longer the little girl that I was then without a home. If I’m not happy, I’ll waste no time in packing up my things and making myself scarce without a second thought!” On my path to growing up my parents only took upon themselves the responsibility of putting a roof over my head and feeding me, but they didn’t teach me how to interact with my family, let alone how to be a magnanimous and optimistic person. Other people’s fathers tell their children that no matter how many setbacks they suffer out there in the big wide world, their home and family will always be their rock, whereas our father only knew how to tell us to get out of his hair. There was a time when I really tried to integrate into my Shandong family home, but after all the endless arguments over little, trivial things, after all the times the word “scram” came bursting out of my so-called father’s mouth, after my very own mother and sisters scolded me, I finally realised that it’s better to let the family disintegrate than force the relationships with family members if they’re not willing to make the effort themselves. I cut ties with all of those people and vowed never to set foot in that house again. That year I was twenty-eight.

The twenty-eight-year-old me had a partner and little home of my own. At twenty-eight, I began to understand ways to have friendly relations with my aunt and uncle, how to listen patiently and attentively to their stories, to understand their grievances and difficulties, and so I also made the decision to forgive them for the harm that they had once caused me. Every year I went back to Nanyang to see them, I bought loads of gifts for them whenever I could, and every now and then I would videocall them to chat about the little things. They boasted to everyone about how Yang Yang was a good, dutiful, and devoted daughter to her aunt and uncle. When they asked me when I planned to go back to Shandong to see my parents, I told them that my parents were here. When they told me not to squabble too much with my parents, I told them not to grumble too much otherwise I’d cut them out too. So they stopped trying to force me to do things that I didn’t want to do and stopped encouraging me to make peace with my parents. They started treading on eggshells and being subservient to me; they were afraid that I would also disappear from their world. Whenever I left, they’d cry and not want me to leave and phone me, “Whenever you leave, darling, it’s like a sudden thump that leaves a hole in my heart. When’s my darling going to come back?” I so wished that they’d said these sweet words to the child Yang Yang and not to the Yang Yang who was already so tough that she no longer shed so much as a tear when she was leaving home.

In those years when I had broken off relations with my family members, my younger sisters in Shandong had kids in quick succession. It was after becoming mothers that they gradually started to put themselves in my shoes and see things from my point of view. They said that they didn’t dare to imagine their own child being thrown out as soon as it was born. The thought of their kids being so lonely and helpless out there in the world was unimaginable for them. They asked to make amends with me, and I, for my part, agreed to make peace with them. They thanked me for making them see themselves more clearly, and I thanked them for making me more magnanimous and stronger.

In 2021 I turned my childhood experiences into a book, got on a podium and shared it with strangers. Some people said that I was playing to the crowd, others said that I shouldn’t air my family’s dirty laundry in public, and there were even people who said that it was all made-up nonsense. I just laughed and said nothing. They would never be able to understand what this book meant to me and my family, nor would they ever know how much love and friendship I had received thanks to this book.

It took one Chinese girl who had been adopted by a western couple coming up to me at a new book release event bawling her eyes out and giving me a big old hug; it took another adopted girl who had been brought up by Chinese parents being brave enough to come right up to me and share her story; it took other spare children who got in touch with me to thank me for giving a voice to this generation; it took readers who I’d never met sending me letters on New Year’s Day to wish me a happy birthday; it took an adorable German girl and Italian boy, Mariah and Lorenzo, happening to choose my book as their final-year thesis topic; it took friends who’d bonded over my book so generously expressing their love and support to me… it took all that before the previous me, who had been so lacking in affection, was totally cured by these people and their offers of love. I wear the sweater that they knitted for me out of love. I’m no longer the little girl who from an early age was envious of other people’s sweaters with cartoon characters on the front, because now I have my own, one-of-a-kind sweater!

“Sister Yang Yang, I got home a while ago, but as I sit on the sofa I can’t stop thinking about how to express what I felt today. It’s as if I’ve gotten closer to a sun-like warmth.” That was the first message she sent to me after bravely coming up to me in person at the book signing earlier in the day. What she didn’t know was that her words also warmed my heart. After being born on a little boat in 1991, she was given away by her biological mother and father to a family of relatives in Haimen. She said that she was a little fish that had swum ashore to find her mummy, so I said to her, “How do you do, Little Fish.” On that bright and sunny afternoon after she approached me, our conversation ranged from each other’s childhoods to our current situations, from the prejudices that “normal” people hold towards us to our pursuit of our dreams. That kind of tacit understanding, the one where you don’t need to say too much but understand each other instantly, made us feel as if we’d each met our kindred sister.

A year after Little Fish was adopted when she was a child, her foster mother, who initially couldn’t give birth, got pregnant with a child. The birth of her little brother turned her into the spare child, the one everyone shunned. Her daddy and mummy gave all of their love to her little brother, which meant that she staggered into adulthood in a home that perpetually ignored her and was not her own. She grew up to be sensitive, lonely, and low in self-esteem. She grew up to be independent, brave, and strong. During those years of grinding away on her own out in the world, her biological parents, who had abandoned her, tried to reignite their family ties. From the fierce conflicts at the very beginning, to the later silence, to her final decision to summon up the bravery and record everything, Little Fish’s maturation and transformation allowed me to see my former self. On many occasions we examined what “home” actually meant to us spare children, and through the process of ceaseless examination and consideration, we gradually acquired a deeper understanding of what this word meant. When she decided to turn our stories into a documentary film, I offered my full support and total cooperation. Is there anything more meaningful than supporting another spare child as she stands up and speaks out?

No one had predicted that the first time Little Fish turned the camera on my uncle, the old man would blurt out, “you and Yang Yang are different – you were abandoned by your parents; she was fostered by us, her relatives.” He didn’t spare so much as a thought for her feelings.

“In their eyes I was given to someone else to be raised, but in my eyes I was abandoned. Little Fish, I’m so sorry. They speak so directly, and they never think about other people’s feelings. You absolutely mustn’t take it to heart,” I jumped to apologize on behalf of the old man, but Little Fish was laughing as she reassured me. “Don’t worry about it, really. For a battle-tested veteran like me, these kinds of words no longer have any power at all.”

Then as soon as my uncle’s wicked tongue ran out of poison, out came my aunt to add her toxic two cents, “You’re already thirty something and you still don’t have a partner? That’s not good, you know. You’d better hurry up and find a partner, get married, and start a family and make a home.”

“Even if I don’t get married and I’m on my own, it doesn’t mean I can’t have a family and home of my own.”

“Exactly. Who said there’s a rule that you can only have a family and home if you get married?”

Little Fish and I fired back at the two old fogeys in unison.

After we’d finished shooting the film and were leaving Nanyang, my aunt couldn’t stop herself from crying. In the car, Little Fish asked me why I didn’t cry. It was my turn to laugh as I told her, “For a battle-tested veteran like me, this kind of thing no longer has any power at all.”

Last Autumn, Little Fish and I went to Finland for a book fair. Not only did we meet an adorable Chinese boy who’d been adopted by a Finnish household, but we were also invited to dinner by a Finnish mother who’d lovingly adopted a Chinese girl. As we sat on the bus that went all the way from the city centre to the suburbs, we looked out the window as we passed along little streets that were covered in fresh flowers and cute house after cute house, and after we got off the bus, we also picked two red apples from an apple tree that was brimming with perfectly ripe fruit. As we munched and walked, we both sighed, “God, how good would it have been if our home had been here?” After we’d arrived at the kind and lively home of Manna and Ossi, and met the youthfully exuberant Linnea, after we’d eaten their grilled salmon and apple pie, and after we’d sat in a circle and looked at their family photo albums and heard them tell us with evident love about how they’d adopted Linnea - as well as some funny stories from when they were raising her. After we had left and gotten on the bus to go home, Little Fish and I again, without meaning to, sighed in unison, “God, how good would it have been if we’d been adopted by them when we were little and could’ve grown up in such a loving home!”

“My daddy and mummy love me very much, and I love them very much too. It’s not important whether or not I can find my biological father and mother; what’s important is that this is my home, and we will be together forever as a family.” The touching effect Linnea’s words had on me and Little Fish cannot be described. What is home if not a place that gives you ample love and fills you with strength?

Finland has over nine hundred adopted Chinese children. In the world there are over two hundred thousand children who were adopted from China. If it weren’t for the one-child policy, would these children still be with their biological parents, unabandoned, and living happily in the country of their birth? Linnea was lucky, because not all Chinese children who are adopted have a happy home, and moreover, not all can avoid the question of identity as they grow up in a foreign land. It was just like that for us in China, where we were labeled as “spare”. For a long time I really resisted the “spare child” label. It wasn’t until much later that I suddenly realised that “spare” can be explained in a totally different way: spare vitality! Are we not just a group of children with vitality to spare?

As the folk saying goes, “we are just passing through this world, and know not whence we came, we have no home of which to speak, for everywhere is our home.” No matter where us children with spare vitality go, we can always find a little niche for ourselves, we can always blossom into gorgeous flowers.


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