Should 'Going Home Barbie' go to more homes?
By Maria DiDanieli

     If a little girl is on your shopping list this holiday season, rest assured the popular Barbie line of dolls will be foremost in your mind. (And if not in yours, it certainly will be on hers) Although the basic Barbie, now with a smaller chest and finally wearing knickers, is always a good choice, there are many permutations of Barbie from which to choose. International Barbies, princess Barbies, single Barbies enjoying lives of frolic and more sedate, domesticated versions that represent the young beauty's wishes to settle down.

     But there is one Barbie that cannot be found in any store or through any website. She is officially called 'Going Home Barbie' but her nick-name is 'White Swan Barbie' after the one location in the world, The White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China, where she can be obtained. But, ask not 'where can she be found?' Rather, ask 'what do I have to do to get her?' The answer to this is quite specific. To become the proud owner of a 'Going Home Barbie', you must: a) adopt a child from China, and b) stay at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou while awaiting clearance for an exit visa, for your baby, from the U.S. government. There is no other way to come into possession of the 'Going Home Barbie'. No amount of money will get you one. Even if you are an avid collector of the ever growing, plastic bombshell species, this particular version will remain beyond your reach. Furthermore, even if you adopted a child from China and would like one as a souvenir of this important event in your life, Mattel simply will not send one your way.

     How did these seemingly unconnected elements, Chinese orphans, Barbie and a world-class, five-star hotel, become such a closed-circuit entity? In 1993, the Chinese government opened up adoptions of Chinese children to international parents. The number of children waiting for adoption in China is mind-boggling. Official estimates quote 160,000, but experts feel that the real figures may be up to 10 times higher than this. By 1996, there was such a high international demand to adopt orphaned Chinese babies that the Chinese government designated the Ministry of Civil Affairs to deal with them all and the China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA) was established in Beijing. One of the first regulations set stated that all adoptions had to be handled through adoption agencies that were registered with the CCAA, and that all social workers who conducted home studies of prospective parents had to be employees of one of these registered adoption agencies. Thus began the Chinese adoption industry.

     Given that a high portion of these Chinese orphans have been adopted by parents in the U.S., the Chinese and U.S. governments have finely tuned their adoption mechanisms. Adoption officials in China match Chinese babies to U.S. parents while registered adoption agencies in the U.S. orchestrate the process of gathering documentation and making travel arrangements to the appropriate area within China for the parents. For American parents adopting children from China, the final part of the adoption on Chinese soil is to obtain clearance for an exit visa through the only U.S. consulate that provides processing of documentation required by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. This consulate is located in the city of Guangzhou.

     Enter the White Swan Hotel. The White Swan Hotel is a five star, internationally acclaimed hotel that is found on lovely Shamian Island in Guangzhou. It is considered an oasis in a city that has a substantial crime problem and happens to be located just around the corner from the U.S. consulate that processes INS documentation. Although adopting parents are not obligated to stay at the White Swan Hotel while in Guangzhou, for safety reasons, and convenience, most of them, roughly 6000 a year, do. Despite the interesting link that this hotel shares with the international adoption process, there is no mention of it on the White Swan's website. You will find many accolades that the hotel has enjoyed over its years of service, and the many contributions it has made to its community and country. But nothing is said of the thousands of U.S. parents that come through its doors each year and leave with a Chinese child. Also, there are some adopting parents from countries other than the U.S. that join the flotilla of strollers in the hallways of the great, floating adoption Mecca. So, the White Swan Hotel enjoys, on an ongoing basis, the business of thousands of parents adopting Chinese children all year, every year.

     And now, enter Mattel. The toy giant and gestational epicenter of the ever-popular Barbie saw, in this hotel's influx of international parents with a common cause, an irresistible marketing opportunity. Not only does Mattel run a play center, stocked with its own toys, in the White Swan Hotel, but it gives, to all adopting parents who stay there a Barbie doll holding an androgynous Chinese baby. (Perhaps blatantly making the baby female was too strong a political statement and one lacking in business finesse.) According to Victoria, an assistant manager at the White Swan Hotel, the doll has been issued on a donation basis from Mattel since 2001. According to a customer relations representative at Mattel, it is exclusive to adopting parents - from the U.S. or otherwise - who stay at the White Swan Hotel.

     There has been a movement appealing to Mattel to issue 'Going Home Barbie' to all parents adopting Chinese babies, whether or not they stay at the White Swan. A petition written by Rochelle Talton on behalf of parents, grandparents, relatives and friends of Chinese children surfaced after Mattel opted for the doll's exclusive presence at the White Swan. The petition does not actually ask that Mattel give 'Going Home Barbie' to these other parents but that the toy magnate allow them to purchase her. To date, approximately two years after the petition first surfaced, this wish has not been granted.

     Is 'Going home Barbie' really appreciated and wanted, or is her significance as a gesture - rather than her value as a toy - the reason she is coveted by those who were not allowed into her circle? In her article in the Boston Globe (October 3, 2004) Janice Page speaks lovingly about her adopted Chinese daughter and reminiscently about the time she spent in China working through the adoption process. However, on the topic of 'Going Home Barbie' her warmth chills to an icicle carved in the shape of a question mark. She seems to almost resent Mattel's audacity at presenting her with the Barbie. She refers to the gift as 'an absurd surprise'. And in the end, she waves her hand and brushes the gesture aside, not even mentioning if she kept the doll for her child, or as a collectable.

     Other uses for the 'Going Home Barbie' have included relinquishing her on E-bay to raise money for charity or to help fund adoptions. Here is a use for the Barbie that Mattel may not have counted on! To go forth and multiply...not children, but money. To these people, actually owning her does not seem that important - she is a vehicle to something more important. On the other hand, there are some who consider her a desirable commodity. Those who have signed the 'Make Coming Home Barbie available to everyone' petition to Mattel have mentioned that they want the doll for their children to play with. Others have kept this Barbie as a souvenir of their journey through the adoption process and their time in China, and consider her a valuable keepsake. In this regard, the donation of 'Going Home Barbie' to adoptive parents at the White Swan has had a positive effect.

     Mattel has cleverly put together a way to gain exposure for the Barbie line by providing a 'collectible' to a select number of parents - likely of little girls who will play with the doll. By refusing to issue her beyond this specific group, the toy company has created a controversy. One wonders if this was intentional. Did Mattel know that her perceived worth would be raised by making her inaccessible? Will the company wait a couple more years and then spring her on an eager Barbie-collecting community for exorbitant amounts?

     Mattel must be given credit for creativity in marketing and public relations; the White Swan for latching on to the idea. In some cases, the gift of 'Going Home Barbie' is a positive thing for the families who receive her. But is this another example of how business can overtake the human issues in life, like the position that orphaned Chinese children are in? Should a symbol such as 'Going Home Barbie' be governed solely by business interests? Are we perpetuating the message to adopted Chinese children that they were part of a 'lucky trend' that served those who could most cleverly ride the wave?

     This year, as Barbie and her peers come to flood our homes and occupy our children's psyche, should we give thanks that Mattel found a way to capitalize on the international adoption network in the form of a keepsake doll? Or, perhaps we should take a moment to remind the Mattel Corporation that she belongs in every home where parents have welcomed a Chinese baby into their hearts and lives.