Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Baby Gammy and the Sexual Politics of Mixed Race Asians

[Thailand] Baby Gammy with his surrogate mother, Pattaramon Chanbua

[Australia] Separated twin sister, Pipah, with Wendy and David Farnell (bio father)

by Sharon H Chang

A couple years ago young Thai mother Pattaramon Chanbua agreed to be a surrogate for Australian couple David and Wendy Farnell. It was a disaster.

Last week Thailand legally banned commercial surrogacy, which is now a criminal offense.

The law comes after many abusive surrogacy arrangements exploiting Thai women over the years. But the Chanbua-Farnell surrogacy in particular expedited legislation after snowballing into an international scandal that garnered the attention of the world and spotlighted inescapably the controversial ethics and regulation (or lack thereof) of global surrogacy. Chanbua’s 2013 fertility treatment in Thailand was successful and she carried mixed race Asian/white twins Gammy and Pipah to delivery for the Farnells by the end of the year. But while Pipah was born healthy and typically developing, Gammy was born with Down’s Syndrome and severe health challenges. Shortly thereafter he was left behind with Chanbua when his Australian parents took his sister back to Australia without him. Gammy’s story was internationally publicized summer 2014 when Chanbua, aided by fundraisers, worked to crowdsource financing for his expensive medical care online. The tragic story coupled with a plethora of images of surrogate mom and left-behind infant living with disability exploded across the media, touching the shocked hearts of millions.

Both sides have changed their stories to some degree none more so than the Farnells who first claimed they didn’t know Gammy existed at all, then conceded (in a very confused, bizarre interview with Australia’s Channel 9) that they did know and further were told during pregnancy Gammy would have Down’s. Chanbua claims the couple asked her to abort the diagnosed twin which she flatly refused to do because it is sinful, that the Farnells never wanted Gammy, wouldn’t even look at him after birth and so, abandoned him. The Farnells expressly deny ever having made an abortion request and fire back that Chanbua threatened to take their daughter postpartum so they had to get out of Thailand as fast as they could. But Chanbua’s story has held inconsistencies too including her later backtracking to the press that Gammy may not have been abandoned; that she did not allow him to go back with the Farnells because she was concerned for his safety.

However getting bogged down in the details of he-said-she-said is stupidly confusing, unnecessarily consuming (I know, I spent hours reading conflicting reports), and ultimately distracting from the real crux of the issue. And that is this – there is a sexual-political global system that allowed this to happen in the first place that has long permitted Asian female bodies to be exploited and mixed race Asian children to be the contested, “unfortunate,” and even throw-away outcome.

It’s easy to read “Thai mother,” “Australian couple,” and come away with "It's a Thailand v. Australia thing,” or, "It's a mother v. couple thing." In other words, it's their thing not our thing. Such readings are facile, incredibly insular and shortsighted. To really understand what's happening here we need to connect the dots and see ourselves as part of the picture. We need to grasp this concept of all being contained within a historically-rooted political system; a network that intricately webs the planet across time and space, restricting and directing everyone's movement, behaviors, choices all at once. And we also need to recognize this system as particularly meant to advantage some while holding down others. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in many countries such as the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria. Those who can't obtain surrogacy at home (and can afford to do so elsewhere) travel from all over the world to nations where commercial surrogacy is allowed:

" developing nations such as Thailand - where there are few restrictions on surrogacy, and predatory agencies link up cash-strapped mothers with wealthy foreigners — [commercial surrogacy is] a booming industry. Pattaramon says she was one such mother. The food vendor, whose monthly family salary was $622, claims she stumbled upon the Bangkok agency on Facebook...and was enticed by the pay." - The Washington Post

Interestingly the U.S. is another such destination. However U.S. surrogates enjoy legal protection, state monitoring/enforcement, and can command up to two, three even four times as much in compensation as Thai surrogates. Certainly the striking polarity between surrogacy conditions in Thailand versus the U.S. highlights the "predatory" nature of one as compared to the other. At the same time there's also a suspicious connectivity that's impossible to ignore. The U.S. supports surrogacy when many western nations do not and somehow this just coincidentally lands it in a category with Thailand? No way. The U.S. is actually a component part of the Chanbua-Farnell scandal though of course this goes generally unrecognized. For instance who owns Facebook, the $150 billion dollar online social network where Pattaramon was recruited? American founder, majority shareholder, white-male-billionare Mark Zuckerberg. And the agency that set up the Chanbua-Farnell surrogocacy in Thailand? Surprise! It wasn't Thai. It was reportedly American.

Starting to see the connections, the global network (system) at play yet?  

American attorney Sunny Woan* reminds us it was imperialistic conquest by Americans that jump-started the sex industry and exploitation of Asian women's bodies in Thailand (typically by white men). During the Vietnam War, between 1966 and 1969, as many as 70,000 U.S. soldiers came to Thailand for "Rest and Recreation." However this doesn't render the rest of the white west innocent by any stretch. It's too easy to blame America for everything. After the war a major tourist campaign targeted white men to sustain what had become a lucrative sex trade in Thailand. By the early 1990s several million tourists from Europe and the U.S. visited Thailand annually, many of them specifically for sex and entertainment.

Today the oppressions women of Asian descent face all over the world emerge from what Woan coins white sexual imperialism:

"The history of Western imperialism in Asia and its lingering effects present the greatest source of inequality for diasporic Asian women today. White sexual imperialism, through rape and war, created the hyper-sexualized stereotype of the Asian woman. This stereotype in turn fostered the over-prevalence of Asian women in pornography, the mail-order bride phenomenon, the Asian fetish syndrome, and worst of all, sexual violence against Asian women." - Sunny Woan

Case in point, it probably wouldn't seem unusual to most that of TopTenz’s 2014 sardonic list “Top Ten Countries That Offer Mail-Order Brideshalf are Asian including No. 8 China and No. 6 Thailand. White western men are notorious and much criticized patrons of Asian mail-order bride services including - guess who? That's right let's come full circle. David Farnell. His wife Wendy Farnell, formerly Wendy Li, is Chinese. She connected with David through an online agency that organizes mail-order brides. They met in person one time June 2004 before they married in China October 2004. Oh, and guess when they met? Shortly after David Farnell was released from prison for serving time as a convicted sexual predator of young girls. That's right. David Farnell, 56, has been convicted of over twenty child sex offenses, which included luring girls to his home. Remember which twin Wendy and David took home? Exactly. Their mixed race Asian daughter.

Wendy and David Farnell [image source]

As Twitter user @Hermit_Hwarang aptly points out:

Who indeed. Consider that it is not one but four Asian diasporic female bodies who have been negatively impacted by this oppressive mess serving a white man’s interests: Chanbua (surrogate), Wendy Farnell (mail-order bride), the egg donor (who was not Chanbua or Wendy but an unidentified and likely very underpaid Thai woman), and Pipah (the mixed-race Asian twin daughter). Think about the system which allowed a white male felon to be incarcerated but then quickly access post-incarceration a comfortable, privileged life as a well-compensated electrician who could then leverage his financial resources and position of power to target again.

Consider also, very importantly, that "who gets left with the consequences" is not just Asian diasporic women but a vulnerable population arising from the exploitation of Asian diasporic women -- mixed race Asian diasporic children. It is of natural consequence that multiracial offspring would result from western dominance over Asian female bodies. Such children have historically often been the carnage left behind, "the casualties of war," an afterthought quickly unremembered, swept under the rug and discarded. What is happening to Baby Gammy has happened before and keeps happening because global systems of sexual-political dominance are still in place. As I just wrote about last week thousands of Asian/white children have been abandoned throughout time by their white fathers; left impoverished, homeless, sick, sometimes crippled, susceptible to discrimination.

Yet what ends up happening to these children beyond infancy and childhood has seldom held much public interest. As the media storm quickly whisks itself away to swallow other current events in service of a digital age that needs content to have happened in the last 60 seconds, Pipah is left living at risk with a convicted pedophile. Baby Gammy, at one-years-old, is already facing marginalization in Thailand for being "different."

Baby Gammy with Chanbua and the Pattaramon family
"'See how everyone looks...They call him a farang ["foreigner" in Thai] because they don't believe he's mine he's so white.'"  
'When strangers ask I just say he's albino because it's too painful to have to bring up what happened each time.'" - Chanbua 

I always try to remember these children in the work I do. I consider them my brothers and sisters, part of my diaspora. Though sometimes distant in miles (sometimes not), our histories are nonetheless connected, fates intertwined, stories interwoven. I know in working to hear the experiences of their lived lives I can better understand my own and the life I now live with my family. Certainly I often find we have more in common than I would have ever thought. My hope is you can join me too in thinking about the painful patterns - the system - I have unveiled here; in sitting with the discomfort, reflecting on your connections to something that most refuse to even look at. There is so much to be gained from seeing and so much lost from leaving anything behind.

Never forget.

* Sunny Woan, "White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence," Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice 14, issue 2 (2008): 275-301.

1 comment :

  1. There are train wrecks all the time, but the trains keep running.

    Surrogacy laws need to be written to include background checks and written so that no one is allowed to take advantage of the other.

    Surrogacy needs to be win-win or no deal.

    I asked myself how the dad ever got out of jail, then I realized - white privilege.

    PS - I know surrogacy is big business between India and the U.S.