Monday, January 04, 2021

It Is Time For the Adoption Community to Take Searching Seriously

Last week we were informed that one of the birth parents we tested had died. While most of the birth families we have met are between 30 and 60 years old, as time moves on the number of birth parents passing away will only increase. It is time that the adoption community collectively begins to take searching seriously, and take steps to maximize the efficiency of our collective efforts. Today, the searching has been by-and-large a collection of single efforts to locate specific birth families, with each adoptee and their family expending valuable time and efforts for their own search, with little attention being paid to the needs and success of the community as a whole. This must change. This essay is written with the desire to reframe the search efforts of everyone searching in China. The goal is for all of us to work so that the maximum number of birth families can be reunited with the largest number of adoptees, including our own. 

The following essay was originally given in the 2015 Heritage Camp of adoptees and their parents in Colorado.  It is hoped that the steps presented here will help any family in their search. 

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The idea of searching for our child's birth family is fraught with all kinds of emotional and financial currents.  What will happen if we are successful? How much will it cost?  Should I conduct a search before my child expresses an interest in searching?  While most of the answers will depend on variables unique to each situation, some basic foundational principles nevertheless apply to all searches. I have composed a list of ten commandments that everyone should consider before beginning a search. These commandments are largely chronological, in that the early commandments address concerns at the beginning of a search, and later commandments address issues that arise in a search itself. While targeting the adoptive parents as the primary audience, adoptees are also an important component and can easily place themselves into the intended readers. 

  1. Put Aside Your Own Fears
First, we need to acknowledge that searching, and finding, birth parents can be scary.  “Will they want my child back?” “How will finding my child's birth parents change my relationship with my child?” Anyone that has considered searching have had such questions run through their minds.  But the thing to keep in mind is that these fears are often about our fears as adoptive parents. They don't address the importance this may have for our children.  In other words, it is about our own insecurities, not what may be best for our children. Thus, the first commandment of searching is to put aside our own fears, and focus on what may be most important for our children. If we keep their needs (now and in the future) in the forefront, these decisions become easier. 

Adoptees tell us this. Zoë Halbeisen, a recent adoptee that we matched to her birth family in China, describes her experience thusly:

"I never felt like I had a piece of myself missing. I accepted the fact that I would probably never know my birth parents or my true origins. You can imagine my shock when a spontaneous DNA test turned into the biggest adventure of my life. I just wanted to find out if I was really 100% Chinese, and I ended up finding out much more. Connecting with my birth family has been an amazing and fulfilling journey. As an adoptee it’s hard not to question your history or wonder why you weren’t wanted. But I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was loved by a whole family an ocean away who never gave up or forgot about me. The best thing has been getting to know them and getting to know myself. I’ve loved learning about my history and culture. After meeting my family in China its all the little moments that are my favorites. Just staying up late talking to my birth sisters, going shopping at the mall, eating way too many dumplings, all these normal things were so extraordinary. Being loved by parents so far away, having similarities with sisters I’d never met, walking the streets where I was born, visiting the village of my grandparents, these were all things that I never thought would be possible. On an existential level its made me feel more whole and connected with who I am. By having all these questions answered I feel a sense of peace that I didn’t even know I needed. It feels good knowing I’ve given that peace and closure to my birth family as well. I could’ve never taken that DNA test, and I could’ve gone my whole life not knowing my birth family, but I would’ve never felt this level of acceptance with myself, or had known how much love one can feel. Now my family has doubled in size and I can’t wait to keep making memories with them."

As we talk to other adoptees, we repeatedly hear what Zoë communicated: It is not a replacement of family, but a growing of it. There are no downsides to being reunited. No family in China has asked for anything, no adoptee has ever been pressured or even asked about returning to China. It was for most adoptees just a filling of the emotional and intellectual hole of not knowing so much about their early history. 

  1. Start Now, Not Later
There is an unfortunate meme in the adoption community that searching for birth parents should be instigated by the adoptee, and not the adoptive parents. Many who embrace this idea are themselves afraid of searching, due to fear.  But the reality, especially in China, is that waiting until a child is 15 or 18 years old to decide to search will almost certainly doom a search.  China's population is very mobile, with huge numbers of people moving to cities for work, marriage, or other reasons.  Buildings are torn down, new ones built, nannies retire or quit, finders forget details. Keep in mind that even if an adoptee (or her adoptive parents) are not ready to have contact with a birth family, gathering information early, rather than late, for when and if an adoptee is ready for contact, will make later contact a possibility, when and if desired. In addition, a birth parent’s heart may receive healing simply by knowing that their child is alive.     

Time is the enemy for successful birth parent searching. 

The problem lies, I believe, in the assumption that an adoptee must know that a search is taking place, that they need to be aware of every development.  As I wrote about on our blog, for many it is an all or none undertaking – either I don't search and wait for my child to indicate a desire, but probably dooming our search, or I do the search now and involve my child against their will. 

The correct path, I believe, is a middle-of-the-road approach.  This involves searching, and stockpiling any information you learn until your child expresses an interest. So you search, but wait to inform your child until they desire it.  For me as a parent, it is risk mitigation  – Would I rather search for the birth family and have my child never express an interest in learning about her birth parents, or would I rather wait until she expresses an interest before searching, and having the waiting doom the chances of a successful search, leaving my child wondering for the rest of her life “what could have been.”  In my mind, the first risk is small, the second quite catastrophic.  

To put a finer point on the question – I view my job as a parent generally as primarily one of doing everything I can to help my child be happy in life, to be a whole person, to be in control of their own destiny. If I do (or don't do) anything that might impede that end result, I feel that is a dereliction of duty as a parent.

So, how would it go?  You search as much as possible, and if successful (or even if not) you periodically tell your child something like “You know, if you ever feel you want to know more about your time in the orphanage or your birth family, just let me know, and I can help you find answers.” This empowers your child to make the decision of when they want to know, how much, etc. They are in control. You don't need to say, “Listen I know who your birth parents are, so if you want to know what they look like or who they are, just ask.”  This does not empower a child, but takes away their control, since you have already pushed information onto them. 

This “middle path” allows you to take advantage of the opportunities available by not waiting a long period of time, but retains an adoptee's right to control her pursuit of information. As a result, the risk of having a failed search due to lost opportunities is greatly reduced.

We experienced this first hand with our youngest daughter. Adopted in 2004 at three years old, we learned who her birth family was when she was eight. Around dinner one evening shortly after learning the birth family's identity, we asked all three of our daughter's if they had a desire to learn about their birth family. My youngest said she didn't care. So we waited. A few more years went by, with us sending occasional letters to the birth family, but Lan and I not tipping the hand to our daughter. We would touch base occasionally. Finally, at eleven, our youngest expressed an interest to know what they looked like. Lan showed her a photo of her birth family. We totally expected a flood of questions like "How did you get this photo?" "What are their names?", etc. Nothing. Our daughter was satisfied for the moment. For a long moment. Finally, at eighteen, she asked if we knew who her birth family was. She was ready, ten years after we had located the birth family.

We allowed her to decide when, if ever, she was ready to learn of her birth family. But we began searching as soon as she was adopted so that we would not miss any opportunity to be able to help her when she was ready. Adoptees want control of the information and when it is presented, but few that understand the search issues in China truly want their parents to do nothing for eighteen or more years.  

  1. Discount Everything You Were Told
You have thought about it, and are ready to begin searching. The first actual step to a successful search is to discount everything you were told by the orphanage about your child's finding.  I am not saying it is all a pack of lies, but approach all of it with an open mind, making no assumptions that any of it is accurate.  This can be very, very hard to do.  The adoption trip is an emotional experience.  There is a huge feeling of love and bonding that occurs between ourselves and our child.  We emotionally bond with our guide, who takes us on this wonderful journey, and we often experience an emotional connection to the orphanage director, nannies, etc.  As a result, we feel a loyalty to them.  We come home and often fund-raise for the orphanage, we send letters and pictures back, etc.  We feel like we have a relationship of trust, that we are all on the same page. 

But the reality is that this is rarely the case.  Many directors are actually actively lying to you with a smile on their face, working behind the scenes to prevent you from learning the truth about your child's origins and early life. They will take you in the orphanage van to your child's finding location, point to where she was found, even bring forward the person that found her in a basket with some powdered milk and some clothes. All of this is to assure you that what you have been told is true. 

It may be.  But it probably isn't. 

Your job in searching is to see beyond the frequently fabricated finding stories and find the truth.  Keep an open mind.  Don't accept anything as fact until you have tested it.  Don't let your emotional connection cloud your judgment and the search steps you undertake. 

I experienced this first hand in my search for the birth family of my oldest daughter. Her adoption paperwork listed two female finders who supposedly found her at the Civil Affairs Bureau one Summer morning in 1997. I discussed this experience in Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation."  When I went back to her orphanage in 2000, I asked the orphanage if I could meet these women.  When I got there, one of the women was there waiting.  I had my guide interpret for me as I asked her how she had come to find my daughter.  She said that she and her friend were on their way to work one morning, and as they approached the entrance to the Civil Affairs Bureau they heard a baby crying.  They walked over to a large tree, and found a cardboard box with a two-day old baby inside.  She was dressed in a red and white dress, "like those worn by farmer families," and had some cash, an empty bottle, and some powdered milk with her.  As this finder told me her story, I could see exactly what she was describing, as I had been to the Civil Affairs Bureau many times. When I asked about the other finder, I was told she had since moved away. I treasured her recounting of my daughter's finding, appreciating the immense detail she had given me. I was absolutely certain, given the unprompted details she had provided, that my daughter had actually been found as described. 

Ten years later, my wife and I began to dig more deeply into my daughter's orphanage data, and began to notice patterns that caused us to question our daughter's story.  So, Lan returned to the orphanage area, and dropped in on the women I had met ten years earlier.  My wife noticed that the finder was nervous when Lan began asking her questions, and kept asking if Lan had already visited the orphanage and gotten permission to talk with her.  Lan brushed these concerns aside, insisting that all she wanted to know was how she had found our daughter.  The woman professed no recollection of the details.  When Lan asked her about the other woman, she again insisted that she had moved away.  "Do you have her cell number?" Lan asked.  Yes.  After leaving, Lan called the number, and told the woman on the other end of the call who she was, and that she would like to take her to dinner. When she told the woman she was in Dianbai, the woman excitedly told Lan she was about 15 minutes away.  "I understood you had moved away," Lan told her.  "Oh no, I am just returning from a meeting in Maoming, about 30 minutes away."

A few minutes after Lan hung up with the second finder, she called Lan back. "I am sorry.  I can't have you take me to dinner.  We never found your daughter.  Our names were simply put into the finding document by the orphanage.  We had nothing to do with your daughter's finding."  As I reflect on my experience with the woman I had met in 2000, I realized that the orphanage had carefully prepped her before I had gotten there, given her a story to tell, and for ten years I had assumed it was the truth.  

Which leads us to the next commandment.

  1. Get to Know Your Child's Orphanage
So, how does one go about assessing the validity of their child's orphanage information? This is challenging for one main reason: Most adoptive families have been convinced by their agencies and the adoption community in general that their child's history should be private, and not to be shared with others. This mentality makes it difficult to gain a broad view of the overall orphanage landscape.  As a result, you see one tree (your child) and don't see the forest of all findings.  You are unable to answer questions such as how many kids were found at the same location as your child (important to ascertain validity), how many children were found the same day as your child (helps determine if Family Planning was a factor), etc.  By gaining a broad view of your child's orphanage you can assess the likelihood that their finding info is accurate or not, and whether the orphanage is engaged in unethical behaviors that will have an impact on your search. 

Let's take a look at how this would work in practice.  Imagine that you surveyed a thousand families in your city or town, and asked them where they would leave a child of theirs if they needed to.  A few of these families might say a neighbor who they know is childless, others might say an area school.  Others might choose a small business that an area resident owns, others might choose a hospital.  Most would probably avoid government offices, since that would decrease the odds of being caught and punished, but certainly a few might choose these kinds of locations. Of the 1000 answers, you would have a wide spectrum of answers.  Not all would be unique, but if you mapped out the finding locations it would appear something like this.


Now, let's compare this pattern to what we see in many orphanages.  Here is a three-month listing of children found in the Fengcheng orphanage in Jiangxi Province.  What do you see? One sees many of the locations being used over and over again. 


One can see the same thing in another orphanage, this one in Guangdong. The Jiangcheng orphanage has the same pattern of repeated locations.  In fact, when one maps the locations in Jiangcheng, one sees that they are almost all found within eyesight of two main areas – the orphanage and the People's Hospital.  There is little question that these locations aren't accurate.


Research-China.Org's goal is to provide adoptive families with the “forest” surrounding their child's finding to prevent them from wasting valuable time and money using search strategies that will be useless at best, and counter-productive at worst.  Many families approach their search assuming that their child truly was in fact found on the side of the road, and therefore they feel that they need to do posters, news stories, and other ideas to reach as many people as possible.  While those adoptive families are employing these strategies, the orphanage could be contacting the person who brought the child into the orphanage to alert them that the family is searching, telling them not to cooperate, and to make sure the adoptive family doesn't meet with success.  Thus, it is very important to know what you are dealing with before doing anything. Our "Birth Parent Search Analysis" looks into the patterns described above, and provides you with an assessment of how reliable the finding information is, whether Family Planning was involved, etc., as well as giving you a roadmap of the most effective steps to take if you decide to conduct a search.  

  1. Befriend Foster Families, Nannies, etc.
Wouldn't it be great to have someone “on the inside” that could help give you the true information about the orphanage and your child?  Perhaps this person had records that contained the names of your child's birth family.  Many adoptive families overlook a primary source of usable intel in their search: Foster families and nannies.

Foster families are usually hired by the orphanage to care for children in their homes from the time they arrive until they are adopted. They are uniquely qualified to know what is going on inside the orphanage. But usually the orphanage treats them so poorly that they have no loyalty to the orphanage and especially the director. For that reason, they are great sources of information because they know a lot, and aren't afraid to talk.

That was what we found in Yifeng, Jiangxi.  When we met with foster families, many of them had vaccination booklets for children they had cared for.  Although they were supposed to give them back, one foster mother had “accidentally” lost it, and still had it in her drawer.  This vaccination record showed that the child had been born in another Province and brought to Yifeng. It also had the names and residential information of the birth parents. 

Foster families we have met have reported being visited by birth families while they cared for their children prior to adoption. The truth is that foster families are one of the most important avenues of information. They may not know a lot about a specific child, but they always know information about what is going on in the orphanage, and that can be very important info for a searching adoptive family.

  1. Start Small
As you may have noticed, we have started discussing how to search and have not even talked about posters, news stories, etc., commonly used by adoptive families. That is for a very good reason: Such methods rarely work. I didn't say NEVER work, but rarely.  Unfortunately, these methods get a lot of play in the adoption community, so more effort is made to incorporate such “shotgun” ideas than they deserve. Additionally, using such methods too soon can damage your search success by needlessly alerting the orphanage that you are searching, allowing them a chance to contact and command a finder, foster family, etc., to refuse to cooperate should you then track them down. 

In your search, you should always start small and work larger.  It is much more effective to interact with a finder/foster mother/nanny, for example, and find out that the majority of children come from hospitals outside the city, than to blanket the city with posters that the birth family will never see. Recently we spoke with a foster mother of a closed orphanage who told us that almost all of the children adopted from the orphanage had been brought in from other cities in the Province; few originated in the area. But the problem is even larger than that. A lot of birth families are told that their child will be adopted by a local family. These birth families could look at the smiling face of a child on a poster and think, “That can't be my child, since this child was adopted to the U.S. My daughter was adopted by a local family,” and walk away. Combine this general problem with the fact that most searching families use incorrect birth dates, finding locations, etc. Posters and news stories may make it feel like something is being done, but they should only be attempted after every possible “discreet” method is tried.

  1. Use Social Media
You have a lot of info about the orphanage, and you are ready to start a search. One of the first steps is to get QQ International and WeChat and start contacting people in your child's orphanage area. Often the people on social media are young, mostly college students, and eager to help.  They may not get you to the finish line, but they can help you locate people, get behind the scenes information, look for records, etc.  QQ/WeChat is a great way to get in touch with people who live in the area, and will be able to help you understand factors that you face in searching.

One mistake searching adoptees and their families make is to spread information about themselves that is not accurate (on posters, etc.). 

Birth dates, finding dates, finding locations, and other information contained in a finding ad or adoption paperwork may be, and probably is, inaccurate. Keep the information vague to get the attention of as many birth parents as possible. Not only will your posting get more attention, but you will increase the chances of actually being seen by the birth family. By including inaccurate or falsified information, you are only making it more likely that the family you are searching for will pass over your posting thinking that since the finding location was not in reality used, that you must not be their child. Using a wider social media net will increase your chances of success, and will also allow other birth families to be located, helping the search community.  

  1. Be Careful Who You Use to Search and Their Issues
There are several “searchers” inside China that are very willing to assist an adoptive family in searching, but some are more effective and trustworthy than others. Like directors, these searchers are very friendly, beloved by many, but largely ineffective in actually locating birth familiesespecially if general background research and analysis of the orphanage history and the reliability of the adoptee’s finding place has not been conducted in advance. Private searchers are much more likely to be successful, if such advance research has been done Some of the problem lies in the previous relationship many of these searchers have with orphanage directors, and the significant conflict of interest these relationships represent. Since a searcher relies on the goodwill of the orphanage staff, their loyalty will be with the orphanage if problematic issues are discovered. This "split loyalty" should be kept in mind when considering a searcher. We have written about a few of these searchers on our blog, so won't go into too much detail here.  Whoever you use, make sure you get a clear idea what will be done for the money, and make sure it overlaps well with what you know about the orphanage.  In other words, don't pay for posters when interviews are called for.

  1. Submitting DNA to 23andMe/GedMatch
Whatever your position relative to searching, at a minimum you need to submit your child's DNA to 23andMe and then upload the results to GedMatch. 23andMe is the largest data base of Chinese adoptee DNA in the world. GedMatch is a free "consolidation data base," where DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage, etc., can be uploaded for matching across platforms. Our sister company, DNAConnect.org, submits all DNA that we collect from birth families to GedMatch. Aside from a ton of fascinating information, you might find a connection to a sibling, cousin, or even a birth family. Trying to save a few bucks by purchasing an Ancestry.com or other company's kit is ok if you have done 23andMe already, but don't hurt yourself and your search by not getting 23andMe as the first test. Just don't do it.  

An area where the China adoption search community is significantly hurting itself is in the collection of birth parent DNA of families located during searches in China. By not focusing our attention on getting birth parent DNA into the most effective autosomal data base, we make searching more expensive and less successful for everyone. 

There are a few autosomal DNA companies that can be used to test a birth family, but the most important thing to remember is to make sure whatever company is used, that the DNA is uploaded to GedMatch. The most widely used data base for birth parent testing is again 23andMe, but this company explicitly states they will not knowingly accept a sample that originates in China. Several alternatives exist, however, if you find this problematic. MyHeritage, Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA all accept DNA samples from China, so sending those kits to China to collect birth parent DNA is possible (MyHeritage will even ship the kit to China for you). The primary objective with ANY birth parent DNA is to get it into a data base where it could be most easily matched to adoptees. Those are 23andMe and GedMatch. As long as you test the birth family with an autosomal test that allows you to upload the results to GedMatch, it will be most easily accessible for adoptees to match to. 

But why is an autosomal test so important? To understand the power of autosomal testing, imagine you are walking through a dark forest with just a small pen flashlight. You can only see a super limited area in front of you. Now imagine instead you have a large, big-battery flashlight which lights up the entire area in front of you. That is the difference is power of simple paternity/maternity tests using allele technology when compared to autosomal tests. With the allele tests used by MyTapRoot and others, the only possible match is with a parent to a child. In other words, the match must be a direct hit; sadly, extended family members are not detected with these tests. With autosomal testing such as 23andMe, Ancestry, etc., not only is a direct hit detected, but also near misses such as siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Additionally, even further relatives such as second cousins can be detected and networked to locate birth families. Quite simply, autosomal testing magnifies the detection "flashlight" hundreds of percent. Instead of detecting just one match, it can result in the detection of 20 or more possible matches. As an adoption community we simply should not be supporting ANY effort to put Chinese birth parent DNA into any non-autosomal data base. If a birth family agrees to be tested a second time (many won't), then other alternatives can be explored. But the first time a birth family is found and tested, we MUST get them tested with autosomal technology and uploaded to GedMatch for matching with international adoptees. 

The problem is deeper than just relationship detection. Chinese birth parents are very skeptical of going to the police to be tested, often with good reasons. Not only are they skeptical of the police in general, but experience has shown that the police are often not on the same page when it comes to reuniting separated parents and children. As one searching birth father wrote Lan, "Families who have lost children are almost all the people at the bottom [of the social ladder]. It’s very easy for [illegally obtained] children to be brought in to be registered, and you can spend money to do that. Suppose I were the director of the police station, and I helped many families who bought [from traffickers] their children to register the children illegally. I would not send the blood samples of these children to [the data base], because a match is evidence of a crime." (See here and here for well-known examples of this kind of story). This is one of the main differences between eastern and western experience -- the police in China often bury evidence, secretly throw away blood samples, etc., to protect the government and each other, as well as the financial business they receive from registering black-market children. The buying side of the black market are usually wealthy families, while the other side, as pointed out above, are the poor and uneducated. Thus, the political power resides with the buyers of trafficked children. One birth father that we met had himself tested five times with the police. Each time, the police apparently told the father his sample would be included in the police data base, but in each instance his sample was thrown away. It was only when he tested with a sixth police station, that did submit his DNA (because he insisted that he witness the entire process), that he located his son inside China.

It is this skepticism that will prevent the police data base from ever being a successful matching tool for international adoptees. The dominant population inside China that does go to the police are those whose children were kidnapped, since legally they are on the "right side." Those who relinquished children illegally, the vast majority of the birth parents of our children, will not submit their DNA of their own accord to the police data base. Since most of us are looking for just this segment of the population, using an inside-China allele test will fail to locate the birth parents we are searching for. Of course, it doesn't cost much for us to send in our child's DNA through MyTapRoot to compare, but it truly is the longest of shots, and is the reason that success has been limited to mostly targeted matches -- ones where the birth family came forward with information regarding the identity of the adoptee (adoptive parents names, etc.), the adoptee was contacted and told to put their DNA into the data base, and the match made. The adoption community must understand that ANY DNA data base can make "targeted" matches. To be viable for the Chinese search community, the data base must be able to make random matches, where the birth family and the adoptee are not known prior to the match. This is the way most adoptee will locate their birth families, and as a community we must make sure we all contribute to that data base. Right now, that data base is the combination of 23andMe and GedMatch, but primarily GedMatch.

Again, this is not meant to slight any particular program, but to promote "best practices." Because autosomal DNA tests are absolutely the most successful at locating birth parents (fully 20% of our matches began as "indirect" hits that we networked to the birth family), as a community we should make sure that any birth parent we locate inside China is first tested autosomally. While 23andMe is the best data base since so many adoptees have already tested there, any autosomal DNA company will work as long as the results are then uploaded to GedMatch. Only after this test is done should a birth family be told to do other tests. Only then.

I call on everyone that interfaces with a birth parent in China to first collect a sample for autosomal processing. If the birth family agrees to doing a second test, an allele test inside China is fine. But no birth family should be sent to the police station or other location to be tested with an allele test if the autosomal test has not been done. Doing this damages the search efforts of all, and is not good searching practice.  

To re-emphasize: The largest component of the search community inside China are birth families whose children were taken from them, either by a kidnapper or by Family Planning. Relatively few of the families who relinquished their child willingly will be actively searching. As a percentage of the international adoption pool this is a small segment of the birth parents we are searching for (Although Family Planning confiscations are not rare, as a percentage of the total it is smaller than willfully relinquished children, and kidnapped children are a smaller segment still). The birth families that we are looking for are the "silent majority", those who relinquished children and are not even searching. These families will not go to the police to put their DNA into a data base, because culturally they have no right to do so (They view themselves as having given up their child for another family to raise, and most Chinese families keep these adoptions a secret, even from the child. Thus, there is no point to searching, these birth parents believe). The only way these families will be tested is by locating them, letting them know their child is possibly searching for them, and asking them to spit into the autosomal DNA vial. This is the best and most successful method of searching, and the one that will result in the greatest number of matches for the community. Conversely, most adoptees will never do an allele test and submit it to a Chinese data base. Nearly all adoptees do 23andMe as their first test, and most never do another. 

Allele tests suffer from a triple downside: Poor matching characteristics, poor participation by the Chinese birth parent side, and poor participation by the international adoptee side. 

If you do go to China to search and meet a birth family, even if they are not your child's birth family, get contact information so that DNA can be collected for inclusion into the GedMatch data base.  Either arrange yourself for them to be autosomally tested, or contact DNAConnect.Org and we will arrange for them to be tested for free.  Do not encourage or facilitate birth families to test with allele testing inside China until AFTER they have submitted their DNA for insertion into GedMatch. Since many will refuse to do a second test, this insures that their DNA is put into the most effective and likeliest data base that will locate their child, and allow other matches to be achieved. In this way, over time, more and more searches can be successful. There is no cost for doing so, and you just might change an adoptee's life!! 

  1. Stay in Yearly Contact
You have searched, and have successfully located your child’s birth family.  Now what?

First, realize that the birth family is just as uncertain as you are. They never thought that anyone would try finding them. They are not interested in having their birth child back, and they are thrilled that she will have a better life than they could have provided. 

But now that they have been contacted, they will want to know that their child is doing ok.  In our research, many, many times we have been asked if the kids adopted by Westerners are healthy and happy.  This is because there is an idea, especially in rural China, that foreigners adopt Chinese babies to use for nefarious reasons such as organ harvesting, the result of a story from the late 1980s. So, you should do everything you can to reassure the birth family that their child is happy and healthy. This need not involve your child directly, but may be as simple as a yearly letter with some updated photos.  This will allow you to remain in contact, but also allows your child the space needed to determine when, or if, they want to make direct contact.  

There are community benefits to doing this. Many of the birth families we have located were found as a result of a successful match to a family member or friend. In other words, birth families talk to other birth families, and if the matching experience was a positive one, then the matched birth family will "spread the word." This is critical for the adoption community. If we are to ever locate a majority of the birth families inside China, we need the help of people inside China, especially first-hand witnesses like birth families, to help us. So, as an adoptee/adoptive family who has been successful, the burden is on you to magnify that success by encouraging that word is spread. 

So, to recap:

1) Test your child or yourself with 23andMe first. Don't go for the cheapest option, go for the most effective one.

2) Educate yourself about the reality of the China adoption program. While many of us entered the program assuming that our children were abandoned at some location, we now know that such a scenario is seldom based in fact. In fact most children arriving at orphanages were brought there directly, often by relatives or professional intermediaries and sometimes by family planning officials who had seized the child. Communicate with your child that the information provided by the orphanage is probably inaccurate, and that films like "One Child Nation" and other sources of data show that their adoption story may be much more complicated than previously assumed. 

3) Learn about your orphanage before you start a search. We just matched an adoptee from Huazhou city orphanage with a birth parent in Wuchuan City, some distance away. All of the searching, posters, etc., will not work if this is the situation you are in. 

4) Require searchers inside China to provide you with the contact information for ANY birth parents that come forward. Make this a requirement to hiring them. Test all located birth families with an autosomal DNA test and get that DNA into GedMatch. This can be done yourself (if you buy the kits and agree to remain in contact with them for the next two decades, as well as work the "near hits") or send the info to DNAConnect.Org for free testing. We have the infrastructure inside China to make it all very easy. If you provide such contact information, any future match to your child through DNAConnect.Org will also be free of fees to you.  

5) Open your heart to the benefits of reunion. Every adoptee that we have matched has been benefited by knowing their actual life story, not the myth that the orphanage provided, which is emotionally damaging. Many adoptees are understandably angry and reluctant to search/make contact with birth family due to internal anger and grief that mistakenly are based on orphanage fabrications.  We saw this first-hand this week when we attempted to contact an adoptee whose birth family we have located in China. After forwarding a letter from the adoptee's birth sister to her, the adoptee's father angrily wrote back: "We have told you my daughter doesn't care to have ANY interaction with or about these people who left her to die. Inform the lady who sent you the letter that if [our daughter] is her sister she should consider her dead. Because that is what her biological parents did to her. They left her to die on a street corner."  We know, of course, that this never happened since we have interviewed the birth parents, and the midwife involved in the delivery had connections to the orphanage, but that is the damage that fabricated orphanage finding stories can have. 

In all your searching, work to benefit the rest of the search community. If we all exercise "best practices," we will bring greater search success. You may find my daughter's birth family, and I may find yours. 




Friday, November 27, 2020

A Recent Search Article Inside China, and What it Means About the Chinese Government's Desire for Reunions

One of the avenues of searching for birth parents in China are "search articles." Although most often these are very narrow in their search scope (looking for a single birth parent), the articles that gain the most traction inside China are "wide-net" articles -- those that search for literally any birth parent in China who may have had a child brought to an orphanage and adopted internationally.

Research-China/DNAConnect focuses mostly on producing "wide-net" articles. Over the past few years we have had several such articles published by various new and social media organizations. These experiences have resulting in a data set of which articles were allowed to remain available (not shut down), and those that were almost immediately forced to be taken down by the national government. When we look at these experiences it becomes clear that the driving force is how popular the article becomes. If it is not seen by a lot of readers, the government will let it pass. If it "goes viral," the government quickly steps in squash the article, although Chinese media have gotten very adept at moving stories from one platform to another. 

It is clear that the Chinese government is still very, very sensitive about problems in their international adoption program. Articles must avoid, in order to even get permission to be published in the first place, any reference to Family Planning, baby-buying, or other issues that would make the government lose face. As a result, articles already must be somewhat vague as to who is searching and being searched for. But by remaining non-accusatory and vague, search articles can avoid front-end censorship and end up on a media webpage for viewing. 

But, in our experience, if the article becomes a popular media event, and begins to show rapidly increasing viewership, the risk returns. Our most popular articles have later been removed as more and more people inside China have read them. This becomes a game of cat and mouse, as one iteration of the article is shut down, and another is created on another platform. One could see this happen in real time with the excitement over Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation." The national government tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to hide the film's very existence from the Chinese people. One link after another were taken down, only to have others pop up. Eventually efforts to suppress the film tapered off. 

We saw this cycle again yesterday. Lan has been working with a reporter for several weeks, putting together a "get to know who Lan is" kind of article. One of the big barriers to getting birth families to test is to convince them that we are not out to scam them. So, we have been working to do PR pieces to help us become more well-known and trusted inside China. Yesterday's article was an effort to do just that.

Overnight the number of hits on the WeChat channel of the article and on the main web article spiked to over a quarter million viewers, by far the most viewers we have seen for such an article. By this morning, the WeChat links had been deleted, but as of this writing the webpage version is still available. 

Below is the article. We may try to get it translated, but Google does a descent job. We just want to reaffirm that despite the trappings of cooperation displayed by the Chinese government, they still want searching done on their terms and with their knowledge. This has implications when it comes to DNA testing, etc. 

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

兰妮(@兰妮爱心寻亲)/口述

祖一飞/撰文


我叫兰妮(@兰妮爱心寻亲),今年50岁,是一名美籍华人。2004年,我远嫁重洋,从广州移居到了美国。我的家庭情况比较特殊,老公是美国人,三个女儿都是从中国福利院领养的孤儿,一家五口没有任何血缘关系。

但是,我们之间比亲人还要亲,如果家庭也有幸福指数排名,那我家保准能排前几。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

2006年,我们一家人在登山时的合影。

都说父母的爱是无私的,我和老公向来把孩子当亲生的看待,一个挣钱养家,一个相夫教女,日子过得悠哉悠哉。

我从来不跟女儿隐瞒她们被收养的事,还让她们看领养时的录像。也许是年龄太小,她们在六岁之前从未觉得自己有什么不同,慢慢懂事后却有了身份认同的困扰,特别想知道自己的根源在哪。于是,我决定帮她们寻找亲生父母。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我已经十几年没出去工作,当完全职妈妈又当家庭主妇。

我总觉得冥冥之中自有天意,某些事好像注定会由某些人来做。帮女儿寻亲,对我来说就像是重新改写自己的童年——小时候的我和女儿们一样,也曾离开原生家庭,被别人领养。

我出生于上世纪七十年代,父母都是生活在广州郊区的农民。当时重男轻女比较严重,为了传宗接代、养儿防老,没有几家不想生个男孩。虽然我家穷得经常连下锅米都没有,但爸妈还是“搏”了一次又一次。

结果,我妈连生了六个女孩,在最后一个孩子因病夭折后,才因为伤心体弱不再生育

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我家的老房子,当时满满当当住了一家七口。

村里人都知道我们家有“五朵金花”,一些人见到我爸总开玩笑,说你生那么多女儿不如过继一个给我。也许是因为实在养不起,同时还想再“搏”个儿子,爸妈曾先后把我大姐、二姐和我送人。

大姐被过继给我爸在广州城区的一位好友,后来她不小心打死一只鸭子,怕养父母怪罪,死缠着我爸要回家,到家就再也不愿意回去了。

二姐被送养的人家要去新疆定居,来我家领人时,二姐听说以后不能吃米饭只能吃窝窝头,哭着闹着不肯走。爸妈又一次心软了,没舍得送走她。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我们姐妹几个的合影,大姐出嫁后很少能和我们聚在一起。

我小时候懵懵懂懂,只听说两个姐姐曾被送人,却一直不知道自己也被送养过。直到上了中学,我发现隔壁班的一个班主任总盯着我看,回家跟我妈说起这事,她才告诉我这位老师曾经收养过我。

那是在我出生后不久,老师找到我家说想要个女儿,爸妈觉得老师家庭好,就让他抱回去了。过了几个月,我爸找到老师商量能不能不改我的姓,人家不同意,我爸本来也有点舍不得,就又把我抱回了家。

我早已忘记当时听到这番话自己是什么反应,成年后再和父母谈起这件事,倒一点不怨恨他们,只觉得父母用心良苦。

童年熬过的那些日子实在太苦,所以我很能理解父母把我们送人的初衷:不是不爱,而是希望孩子有一条更好的生路。我后来早早踏入社会打拼的经历,恰好从反面印证了这一点。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

1987年,在广州打工的我。

由于家里条件不好,17岁那年没考上重点高中的我决意弃学,独自离开家乡来到广州城区。没有文凭和工作经验,我处处碰壁,最终还是在父亲好友的帮助下进入一家酒店做服务员,月薪只有120元。

为了改变生活,我只能努力追赶,下班后经常要走路半个小时或挤公交车赶去夜校,上各种各样的职业学校班来充实自己。年少轻狂的我也曾经迷茫过,不知何去何从。

我曾换过好多份工作,打字员、电话接线员、电脑输入员,文秘......

1996年,厌倦了工作的我重新走进校园。那年学外语比较流行,我在中山大学报了一年制的日语班,想着以后可以当一名日语翻译,毕业后,却阴差阳错地做起了生意。

我拿着跟亲友借来的几万元,在旅游区开了家工艺礼品店。后来发现来店里经常有欧美人光顾,其中有很多是来中国收养孩子的家庭,为了能和他们交流,我又自学了英语。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

1996年,我在中山大学校园里的留影。

​我现在的老公,就是礼品店的顾客之一。他那时订了张油画肖像,寄货的时候我们互留了邮箱。之后的一天,我突然收到一封邮件,他说自己要和美国朋友来中国参加义工活动,知道我会英语,想请我当临时翻译。

这是善事,我很爽快地答应了。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我在工艺品店的照片,当时雇有两名店员,所以我的时间比较自由。

​交流中,他告诉我此行来中国是因为了解到福利院没有空调,所以和其他国外收养家庭一起来捐赠。我当时挺不理解,孩子都领走了怎么还管福利院缺不缺钱,这些外国人也太善良了吧?

聊着聊着,这个美国男人还坦然地跟我谈起了他和前妻的婚姻故事:他们俩都认为地球人口过多,对环境造成负担,所以共同决定不生孩子。

三十多岁时,他自己跑去医院做了节育手术,和妻子一起到中国领养了一个九个月大的女婴。因为观念不和离婚后,他又独自收养了第二个女婴。

相处中,我了解到他的为人,也理解了外国人在养孩子和做公益上的观念,心里很是敬佩。我们之间的陌生感越来越小,不经意间陷入了一段浪漫的跨国恋爱。

为了追求我,他每隔两个月就从美国飞过来一趟,好几次大早上突然出现在我家门前,让我很感动。

认识他的时候我已经32岁,三年前就靠自己在广州买了房。当时追我的男生不少,却都是擦肩而过,我这个人在感情上又比较执着,本来已经想好碰不到真爱就孤身一生,结果他的出现让我改变了主意。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

2003年,热恋中的我们在云南泸沽湖旅游。

​2004年,我跟老公在美国举行了婚礼,回国探亲时还是会一起去福利院做义工。有次我们在一家福利院参加捐赠,院长组织孩子们表演唱歌,其中一个小女孩唱的是《小燕子》.

我觉得她好可爱啊,不理解她为什么三岁多了还没被人收养?当时我就动了心思,想带她回家。

院长劝了我,说这孩子有癫痫病。我和老公都觉得没什么,坚持走完领养手续,2005年把孩子带回了美国。幸运的是,后来她一次癫痫也没犯过。

为了让老三和她的两个姐姐了解自己的身世,每年,我都带她们参加领养家庭聚会,和其他小孩一起过中国春节,让她们知道自己根在中国,身体里流淌的是炎黄子孙的血脉。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

三个女儿在放风筝,我告诉她们,“无论你能飞多远,都别忘了你来自何方。”

​稍微长大一些后,她们意识到肤色和身边人不一样,甚至和自己的爸爸也不一样,特别想知道自己是从哪里来的。老三的反应最强烈,有一天她突然很生气地跑到我面前质问:你为什么把我丢在福利院?你知道被抛弃在福利院是什么感觉吗?

听到她的伤心责问,我才知道原来孩子误解得这么深!她对领养没什么概念,还以为是我丢了她,后来又把她领回家。

从那时起,我就下定决心要帮三个女儿寻找亲生父母,哪怕只是见一面,看看彼此长得像不像也好。

老三的捡拾证明上写的是她是在民政局门口被发现的,我联系上了福利院的院长,却没能得到更详细的信息,后来又想办法联系上老三曾经待过的一个寄养家庭,那家人如实告诉我,孩子是他一个亲戚的女儿,当年听说孩子去福利院会被外国人领养,将来能上好大学,他才瞒着老三的亲生父母悄悄把孩子送进去。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

寻亲途中,我在村子里张贴的启事。

​一听我在找他们,那对夫妻立马同意见面。和老三相认的时候,他们哭得很厉害,解释说当年是因为没生出男孩又不想结扎,只能把孩子送到亲戚家,后来被送去福利院的事压根不知情。

老三虽然没有哭,但很理解他们,她终于明白了自己当时并不是被故意抛弃,回到美国后整个人自信了很多,也变得更爱笑了。

直到现在,我们一家还和老三的亲生父母保持联系,每个月都会约时间打视频电话,聊聊最近过得怎么样。孩子们中文不太好,我就在旁边一句一句翻译。

看到老三找到父母,老大和老二也有点眼馋,寻亲心情更急切了。可惜到目前为止仍然没有结果,离成功最接近的一次,我通过DNA比对发现了老二的一个表姐,偏偏那个女孩也是被领养的,所以找到她也还是找不到亲属。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我带女儿们(前排左一至左四)参加领养家庭群体举办的夏令营活动。

​有寻亲想法的,不只是我的三个女儿。1992年中国开放涉外收养渠道后,很多福利院儿童都拥有了海外家庭。随着年龄增长,他们也都想知道“我来自哪里?”,渴望见到亲生父母。

有些外国领养家庭听说我在帮女儿寻亲,而且既懂英语又懂中文,就把孩子的领养资料发给我,托我帮他们打听。最开始找我的都是领养家庭团体里的熟人,虽然我也有想到寻亲很难,但还是想帮他们,反正也要回去给女儿寻亲,顺带帮忙看看也没什么,我就都答应了。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

利用回国探亲的机会,我(右三背包者)去了很多山村走访,向村民打听弃婴信息。

​2004年,我第一次帮别人寻亲。求助人是一个被领养到美国的江西女孩,按照收养材料上的地址,我找到了一位住在村里的老人,收养材料指明就是这位老人捡到的孩子。

见面之后,他跟我说了实话,孩子其实就是他的亲孙女!原来当年他是因为想要男孙所以把孙女送去了福利院,假装是自己捡的弃婴。

这之后,我手里又攒了六七十个江西地区的寻亲线索,第二次回国寻亲,我竟然成功找到4个。当时很意外,帮别的家庭团聚也没想象的那么难嘛。

后来我就知道自己错了。因为国内很多人根本不理解我在做什么,沟通起来太难了。记得当时帮一位在西班牙的中国孩子找到了父亲,那个男人情绪很激动,说当年明明是隔壁村的哥们说亲戚要收养个女儿,他才把孩子抱给对方,怎么可能会到西班牙?

他一直在质问我,好像是我卖了他女儿,怎么解释都不听。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

报纸上的弃婴认领公告,除了身体原因,还有很多是送养之后被转手送进福利院。

​我接触到很多中国父母都是这样,他们不相信自己的孩子已经被外国人领养,即便找也是在国内找,这就像在淡水湖找一条海鱼,怎么可能找得到呢?

很多父母知道DNA,但实际上了解有限。他们不知道的是,即便两个样本只有第一代表亲、第二代表亲关系,国外的一些机构也能检测出来,而国内大部分机构仍然只能进行父母和子女之间的直接配对,和海外的数据库也不相通。

所以我经常要说服父母一方做DNA采样,再送入海外库进行比对。万一孩子的DNA已经在库里,一下不就对比上了。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

寻亲途中,我陪领养家庭一起在医院找线索。

​为了确认孩子在不在国外,我简直把自己锻炼成了侦探。听说福利院在送养孩子之前,都会给孩子刊登一份寻亲公告。找到这些信息说不定能帮到忙,为此我走过全国19个省、3个直辖市,去各种报刊杂志上“寻宝”。

我每年回国两三次,每次回国待五个星期,除了和家人短暂相聚,剩下的时间几乎都用来做这件事。哪个地区有领养儿童到了国外,我坐火车、转汽车也要去。

老公留在美国照顾女儿没办法陪我一起,每天要打七八个跨洋电话,就怕我遇上危险。

皇天不负苦心人,十几年跑下来,我收集记录了十几万条信息,回美国后再亲手输入到电脑上建了个数据库。里面详细记录着大量弃婴的出生年份、失散年份、地区、身体特征等等。

虽然这些信息不一定完全属实,但如果能找到某个孩子,确认他的出生年份、入院时间和捡拾地区,再对比有相似经历的海外弃婴,我还是可以推断出孩子被收养到国外的可能性。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我收集到的报纸,上面登满了弃婴认领公告。

​只要有百分之七八十的可能在国外,我就会给父母一方寄去DNA采样容器,他们只需要吐口唾沫,再封好寄给我们等待配对结果就行,连邮费都不用出。

这笔钱也不是我来出,而是成百上千个海外收养家庭在分担。在美国,几乎每个地区都有收养家庭团体。为了支持寻亲事业,他们每年都会通过募捐的方式筹集资金,一家捐几美元到几十美元不等,聚少成多。

然而,即便有这笔钱免费支持寻亲,要说服一些父母配合做DNA也很不容易,他们有的失望过太多次,有的是被骗怕了......

大部分人都不相信我说的,有的不听完就认定我是骗子,直接将我拉黑,还有的甚至要报警抓我,真是气得我没话说。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

前不久,我又一次被寻亲者删除好友,他认为我在冒充华人。

​今年6月,我帮浙江衢州的一位父亲找到了失散25年的女儿。她女儿生于1995年,而我接触的几位来自衢州地区的弃婴也都是同一年份出生的,所以判断她们极有可能是同一批被领养到美国。

一开始这位父亲怎么都不信我说的,坚信自己孩子在国内,他觉得多年前就已经做过DNA,没必要再做一遍。

我反复劝了七个月,又发动已经寻亲成功的人现身说法,他才同意重新做DNA采样送入海外库,没想到几天后就配对成功。

原来三年前,他的女儿就因为对自己根源感兴趣,将DNA入了海外库,但当时并没有和亲生父母相认的打算。配对成功后,我花了很长时间讲述她父亲的情况,她最终同意和父亲视频,还计划疫情之后见面。

七个月的努力总算没有白费,我打心眼里为他们父女高兴!

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

这是衢州本地媒体采访我的画面截图。

​十几年来,我总共帮助了近200个海外弃婴和中国家人团聚。寻亲成功后,经常有人发红包给我,我一概拒绝,告诉她们我是义务寻亲,不收费。

有人以为我特别有钱,或者嫁了个富豪老公,所以才做志愿者。其实并不是,我一直在家当全职妈妈,老公只是一家公司的普通职员,每个月工资4000多美元,养活一家五口,我们完全是普通家庭。

这些年做下来,我也会累,经常疲惫不堪,心情总是不自觉地跟着寻亲进展“坐过山车”,时而哭时而乐,导致常年失眠,身体状况越来越差......

有时候我都问自己:干嘛要做这个,图什么呢?

老公和女儿觉得我和他们相处时间不够,经常把我的手机藏起来,他们支持我做这件事,就是觉得我花费的时间精力太多。我试过强迫自己一个星期不看手机,却从来没有坚持到底,因为每天都会收到一些家庭的寻亲信息,总忍不住要回复。

我34岁嫁到美国,和老公不生育,领养三个女婴,全家没血缘关系

我在后院开辟的小菜园,现在得从繁忙的寻亲工作中挤出时间才有空打理。

​以前,我是个热爱户外运动的人,现在几乎变成了“宅女”,还不得不放弃外出工作挣钱的大好机会。我经常和女儿开玩笑,说你们三个都比我都有钱。

孩子们一边上大学一边在饭馆兼职,一小时能挣14美元,现在经济独立且都有自己的存款。而我因为常年做义务跨洋寻亲,完全没有收入。

我也想过像常人那样出去工作,做一份自己喜欢同时又能挣钱的事业。但心里始终放不下寻亲这件事,因为我不做,那些家庭可能永远不会团聚。

虽然没有金钱和物质回报,但我还是收获了满足感和成就感。赠人玫瑰,手有余香,我相信有些东西远比金钱宝贵,所以我还会继续做下去。

Monday, August 03, 2020

Searching Family Overseas: Blood Ties and Hopes

9/25/20 Update: After a long struggle, our friend's article was finally published:
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We have been working with a student inside China who grew up under the One-Child Policy. She decided to write a "search" article for an adoptee (Anna) who is searching for her birth parents in Hunan Province. Our student/reporter friend also grew up in Hunan. 
The intent of the article was to encourage Chinese birth families to contact us for testing and assistance in locating their relinquished children. After almost a year of research and writing, our reporter (Tian) approached several media outlets to publish the article. 

Sadly, none were willing to.

"I have talked with editors and reporters of several news media. They all said that the current censorship is very strict and the topic is very sensitive. Media units generally will not publish it publicly, because the domestic news environment is also very cautious. Huge pressure. After the journalists and editors have patiently communicated with me, I can also understand, so I think the probability of being able to publish in the news media is still relatively low."

Bottom line: If Family Planning or orphanages are involved, there will be no love from the Chinese government. 

Special thanks to Liuyu Ivy Chen, who volunteered to translate Tian's article into English for free. If Tian is able to post her article on a Chinese blog or other space down the road, we will link it here. 

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Searching Family Overseas: Blood Ties and Hopes

by Yue Tian

Now that the One-Child Policy is becoming a bygone memory, we are facing the broken lives of 150,000 abandoned Chinese children and hundreds of thousands of torn families. “Reunite family members” has become an eternal theme in their lives.

Anna, 23, has healthy sun-kissed skin. When she smiles, her brows arch and her lips spread warmly. If you run into her in the streets of South China, you’d mistake her as one of many friendly girls living in the neighborhood. But when she speaks, you’ll immediately realize that she is different.

Anna, with Asian features, was raised by an American couple. She spoke fluent English and clumsy Chinese. Now that she’d grown up, she wanted to return to her hometown to find her biological parents.

According to data released by China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption in 2016, since the implementation of foreign adoption, China has established partnerships with 17 countries. Nearly 150,000 Chinese infants or young children have been adopted by foreign families. More than a decade later, they’ve grown up and many have chosen to return to look for their families in China.

In the summer of 2018, accompanied by her American parents, Anna took a 20-hour flight from Louisiana to Changsha, China, and began her family-searching journey. Coming back to her homeland after 20 years, Anna was filled with curiosity and found the place both strange and familiar.

“Changsha is much more developed than I thought! Modern high-rises stand in lines; the streets are broad and clean; every restaurant I pass by waves at me.” Anna was excited and eager to take her American parents to taste Hunan gourmet at a local restaurant. The family used chopsticks skillfully and enjoyed the spicy Hunan dishes. Anna’s adoptive mother Mary said: “Anna was born in China and we felt she should understand the culture of her motherland. That’s why when she was very young, we helped her learn to use chopsticks, and together we learned about China as much as we could.”         

When the waiter brought a bowl of Hunan rice noodles to the table, as if touched by a fragile memory, Anna winced a little. “I think rice noodles might as well be the umbilical cord connecting me with my hometown,” she quipped. “When I was little and had rice noodles for the first time, I teared up. I had no idea what China and Changsha was like then. My Chinese friends told me that Hunan people love rice noodles and spicy food. It’s very interesting because my American parents have a light diet––salad and lasagna are their favorite food––but I’ve always loved spicy and hot food since I was a kid. I’m still a big fan of spicy food.”

Joy and pride filled her voice. “I have a precious Hunan tummy.”

Anna’s adoptive parents were over 60 years old. To help fulfill Anna’s wish, they insisted on traveling long distances to Changsha with her to search for her biological parents. “We respect Anna’s decision and don’t want her to live with regret. So, we’ll be with her no matter how far the road. Her family is our family,” Anna’s adoptive father David said with a smile.

The Only Trace

Anna was a little nervous when she arrived at Changsha Social Welfare Institute, standing at the turning point of her life. With a serious look, she glanced around, trying to conjure a distant memory. But she was just a one-year-old baby when she left, having no knowledge or memory of what happened.

The employees who took care of little Anna 20 years ago saw that the baby girl in a swaddle had become this healthy grown-up now standing in front of them. Overcome with complex emotions, they wept. Among them, Aunt Wang tenderly held Anna’s hands and said, choking with sobs, “In the past, I often held you, a little bundle. You didn’t cry or kick. Now we’ve grown old. I never expected to see you again. How have you been all these years?”

Before a staff member could translate Aunt Wang’s words, Anna looked at the old woman with gray hair and a hunched back, now weeping for their reunion. Anna felt deeply moved. She realized that she had come back too late. “I can’t believe anyone here remembers me.”

With enthusiasm, the staff helped Anna find her adoption file and said they’d do everything in their power to help her find her biological family.  

“Anna, female, born on April 9, 1997. Abandoned on Changsha Station Road on January 3, 1998. Sent to Changsha Social Welfare Institute by the local police. Adopted by an American couple in June of the same year.” This passage written on her adoption paperwork was the only information for Anna to trace her family.     

“The Lucky Child”

“I knew I was adopted when I was little. I’d ask my American parents why I looked different from others, and they always explained why to me kindly and patiently, helping me approach the topic of adoption with a very positive attitude. But whenever I thought of being abandoned by my Chinese parents, I couldn’t stop feeling sad. I wanted to know if I’d done anything wrong.

“I really miss my biological parents even though I don’t know anything about them. But after I learned more about Chinese history and culture, I felt they might be people with very strong hearts, but had to give me away for reasons outside of their control. Perhaps for survival? I couldn’t help but imagine all kinds of possibilities. Only the truth could give me peace of mind.”

Anna left her DNA sample at the Changsha Police Station and posted the information obtained from the welfare institute on family-search websites in China, hoping for a reply. But all the comments she received either discouraged her from searching. One comment said: “Every time I see a foreigner searching for her Chinese family, I feel speechless. What’s the point of finding someone who ditched you.” Others expressed envy towards her: “I really envy your good fortune. I also want to be taken to the United States and live a cool life.” Someone even remarked, “Now your biological parents are going to strike it rich!” 

Every comment confused Anna.

But even before this, she’d received many seemingly thoughtful pieces of advice. Except for her adoptive parents, it was very hard for others to understand why she insisted on finding her Chinese family.

“Some think I live a very happy life and should look forward rather than dwell on the past. Others often say that I’m very lucky to live in the United States and have two doting parents. I agree with them. I am very fortunate. But I believe only by understanding my past can I move forward.” Anna explained with a serious expression, but what she didn’t have the courage to say was, “Isn’t it lucky for you to never have to experience the pain of being abandoned by your biological parents?”

“I feel very conflicted because people always tell me that I’m lucky, but it’s hard for them to understand the pain and loss I’ve gone through in my life, regardless of how lucky I am.”

Childhood—Feeling Inferior 

Anna lived in an urban area of Louisiana with very few Asians.

In junior high school, she was the only Asian student in her class and bore the brunt of constant mean jokes, such as, “Anna, did your parents ditch you in the trash can or the sewer?” “Look! That’s Anna whom nobody wants!” “How shameful it is to be adopted.” This kind of mockery stabbed the girl’s heart. Anna felt very embarrassed, fighting back her tears and lowering her head without a word.

After school, she ran home with a tear-streaked face. For the first time, she confided in her adoptive mother Mary: “I don’t understand why my parents abandoned me. Whenever I think of how my own parents don’t love and want me, I feel very hurt. I always slip into the mental trap of ‘I’m a child unwanted by my own parents’, pitiful and inferior. It’s impossible to fit into my surroundings. Am I American? I have yellow skin and black hair. I’m different from all the kids around me. And I’m different from my parents. Everyone is curious about me and asks me many questions––I always have to answer those embarrassing questions. But who can answer them for me? Am I Chinese? Why am I growing up in America? Why don’t my Chinese relatives come to take me home? Where are my parents?...”

Mary held Anna in her arms and gently stroked her back with her warm palms, trying to calm her. She kept promising her, “Regardless of your past, we’ll always treat you as our own child. We’ll always love you.”

When recalling this distant memory, Anna smiled with a bitter sweetness. “When I was young, for some reason, I always had a lot of angst coming from nowhere. I later realized that the reason I bore so much anger in my heart was because I was wounded. My American parents never made me feel I was adopted; they always gave me all their love and care, protecting me in their own ways. But outside of their wings, I had to face the cruel reality on my own.”

Young Anna and Her Adoptive Mother Mary

Entering high school, Anna saw more Asian faces on campus and no longer felt so out of place and helpless. But when she hung out with her new Asian friends, she realized that the transparent barrier was still there. “Growing up in America, I didn’t understand their culture. To them, I was ‘not Asian enough’.”

Like Anna, most Asian children adopted by white families would encounter identity crisis and ethnic discrimination when growing up. Some children find it particularly hard to cope with and choose to end their lives. According to the New York Daily News, Emilie Olson, a Chinese girl adopted by American parents, fatally shot herself at age 13. Her adoptive parents said that their daughter had long been a victim of school bullying against her Asian identity.

Lan, a Chinese-American volunteer helping worldwide clients find lost family members, said that she once received a phone call from an American adoptive mother whose Chinese daughter had just been found after making her fourth suicidal attempt. As her daughter was being rescued in the hospital, she called Lan in a dejected spirit.

Professor Margaret Keyes from the University of Minnesota pointed out in her report that the suicide rate in transracial adoption families is much higher than that of same-race adoption families. For small children, the trauma of having been abandoned while having trouble fitting in their social circle can easily trigger psychological disorders. They are far from being lucky.

Accompanied on the Family Search Journey

Through the internet, Anna met many Chinese adoptees who, like her, were adopted by families in the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan, or Canada. The members in this group far exceeded what she’d expected. When she first joined, there had been 1,655 members; now there were 8,000 and growing. 

The abandoned babies, now grown-ups, desire to find their Chinese families, completing the missing puzzles in their lives. Lily, a Chongqing girl adopted by an American family, said: “It’s very sad not to know who my biological parents are.”

Members of oversea support groups share their life experiences and family search stories, and organize volunteer trips to aid Chinese orphanages, providing love and support for other orphans. Close friendships blossom during the journey. Anna smiled: “This is a great way get to meet friends all over the world, thanks to the families around the globe who adopted us. I always feel comfortable to meet another adoptee because we share similar experiences and feelings––we don’t have to answer any demoralizing questions concerning our origins.”

Many adoptees have started learning Chinese, studying Chinese culture, and discovering a hidden part of themselves. “Searching for family is a healing process. Hopefully one day we will calmly answer the question ‘Who am I’.” Members return to the orphanages to do research, post online inquiries, enter their DNA sample into the database, cooperate with media reports, and spread hopeful seeds every step of the way.

The Chinese children raised overseas have very remote and blurry impressions of their Chinese parents. They ache to find out why their parents abandoned them, how their parents have lived, and what they really feel. They want to know if their parents miss them as much as they do. Anna admitted: “Because we rarely see coverage on Chinese parents searching for their children, I once thought that perhaps these parents are indifferent to their lost children or have long forgotten them. That’s why I felt really uneasy before I came to China to search for my family. Then, my friend Lan told me the story of Li Guoming’s family from Jiangxi province, which gave me great courage and strength to follow through.”

Lan said: “After contacting the oversea adoptee groups, I’ve also seen many Chinese parents worrying about and missing their lost children. I hope more parents can step up to look for their children, so that more adoptees can hear stories from the Chinese parents’ perspective.”

Story of a Chinese Family Searching for Their child––“We Have Never Abandoned You or Given up Looking for You.”

When registered with the orphanage, Li Guoming’s daughter was given the name Lv Er [er: second], a random name jotted down by the village head who had carried her there. In the orphanage, the girl was called Jiang Li [li: beautiful]––Jiang was the last name of the orphanage head at the time; all the orphans were named after him. Li Guoming had named his daughter Li Mengyan [meng: dream; yan: beautiful].

Li Guoming, a shy speaker, hesitated for a long time before he explained the name, blushing up to his ears: “I named her Mengyan because I dreamed of my daughter leaving me and hoped to see her when I woke.”

Passing Down Ancestral Lineage During the Family Planning Era

Wuli village in Jiangxi province is home to a rural community with a deep-rooted patriarchal tradition––sustaining ancestral lineage through male heirs remains a sacred creed. The family planning policy implemented in the 1980’s struck the village like a thunderbolt, shattering the rigid feudal nerves. Villagers made observations and plans.

“In the village, if you don’t have a son, you’ll forever be shamed. You’ll be called ‘that extinct one’, meaning your root is cut, a terrible things to say. Everyone knows that daughters are more well-behaved than sons, but you can’t change a rural mind.” When Li Guoming’s older brother had two daughters, he threw a banquet at home to celebrate. But Li Guoming’s father, after a few drinks, ran out to cry in the mountaintop where no one was around, save for sagging graves everywhere. The old man’s wailing pierced the sky. “We were all tormented seeing the old man so sad.” Li Guoming decided to shoulder the responsibility of passing on his family’s line.

In the 1990’s, the family planning policy carried out in Jiangxi allowed a rural household to have a second baby if the first one was a daughter, but if the family already had two daughters––it was called a “two-daughter family”––the mother would be persuaded to have a sterilization procedure. In Wuli village, in order to secure a male heir, many families hid their second pregnancy like soldiers fighting a guerrilla warfare.

Having had a daughter, Li’s family decided to take the risk [of hiding the second pregnancy] to save the second and last legal opportunity for a possible son.

Li Guoming’s wife Li Fen’s stomach swelled as the grip of family planning regulation tightened. “If caught, they would not only destroy our house and burn the furniture, but also abort my baby with force and sterilize me––no hopes for more babies.” When hiding at her mother’s home, Li Fen lived in fear and anxiety every day during her pregnancy. On the due date, December 9, 1993, she endured severe pain to give birth to her second child, a translucent and beautiful baby girl.

The joy of welcoming a new life and the anxiety about an uncertain future overwhelmed the family. Li Guoming’s brother-in-law proposed an idea: “My brother-in-law’s family have always wanted a daughter, why don’t you entrust them to look after your baby girl?” The mentioned brother-in-law was the head of a neighboring village a couple hundred li away.

At the time, the officials searched every household for law breakers; a newborn’s cry would be an unmistakable loud whistle. After looking after their daughter for a week, Li Guoming and his wife decided to send the child to be cared for by the village head. At the break of dawn, the baby girl wailed. Li Fen––recuperating in bed––also cried, and Li Guoming quietly wiped his tears outside the house. The family cried in waves. Li Guoming’s brother-in-law urged: “Don’t be late or others will see it.”

The couple prepared cash, baby formula, clothes, shoes, nursing bottles and other necessary items for their daughter. According to local customs, when sending a child away, the adults should buy noodles and rice candies so that the child will remember her way back to eat home-made meals in the future––Li Fen prepared these as well. At the time, she was convinced that the separation was only temporary, and she would bring her daughter home as soon as the political whirlwind quieted.

Li Guoming carried his sleeping daughter and walked to the village head’s house with his brother-in-law. Li knocked on the door three times. The village head then opened the door and took the baby. Li and his brother-in-law turned and left. Without extra words, Li Guoming quietly suffered from the pain of separating from a loved one––described as “flesh peeling off bones” in television dramas.

In order to make a living and to dodge the family planning officials’ search, Li Guoming and his wife decided to go to Guangdong as migrant workers. While in Guangdong, they regularly called their brother-in-law to check on their daughter, and always received reassuring news.

Lifelong Regret

In 1998, the couple returned home. They bought new clothes, toys, and snacks to visit their daughter, but were told that the village head’s family had sent her to the orphanage after looking after her for just two days.

Li Fen broke into tears: “Why did they send her away after just two days? Oh, my daughter.” Li Guoming immediately ran to the orphanage to look for his daughter, but was stopped by employees.

While his wife cried from dawn to dust demanding to see her daughter, Li Guoming stood all day long outside the orphanage, inquiring whenever he saw someone walking in. Nobody said anything. He stood there until dark, and returned the next morning.

A week later, one of the staff members asked Li Guoming for his daughter’s birth date, searched for it, and told Li Guoming that she went overseas and was living a life ten thousand times better than him, advising him not to worry.

Li Guoming stood there in shock, his legs turning into jelly. He’d never thought that he’d forever lose his daughter.

The remorse of losing the child tormented the couple day and night. Whenever Li Fen thought of her, she wept. She’d thought the pain of labor had pushed her physical limit to the extreme, but the pain of losing her daughter was beyond what her body could take. Li Guoming began to suffer from insomnia, worrying that his daughter would be mistreated by her foster parents, that she would be discriminated and bullied in a foreign country, and that she would resent him… He swore that he would one day find his daughter: “Even if she doesn’t want to acknowledge us, as long as we know she is healthy and happy, we’ll feel relieved.”

Never Give up    

A small village is a small society. Every son and every abandoned child in a family is public knowledge. But in this village, the only couple that never gave up looking for their child were Li Guoming and his wife.

They went to the village and town government offices to explain the situation, wrote a letter of regret, and showed willingness to pay the fine. Li Guoming said: “To us, the fine was an astronomical amount which we couldn’t pay off right away. We both toiled as migrant workers far away from home. Every time we saved a little money, we went to the government bureaus to pay the fine, and slowly we paid it off.”

Others mocked Li Guoming for being unnecessarily honest. He answered not without embarrassment: “What if my daughter comes back to look for us? We registered our information at the government bureaus so that she can find us.”

Li Guoming also contacted the city’s newspapers and TV stations, hoping to publish a missing person notice, but was rejected every time. He was told: “Given your situation, how dare you make it public?” Li Guoming explained with grievance that he had never abandoned his child; he left her to someone else’s care only temporarily, but never thought she’d be gone. He wouldn’t rest in peace without finding his child.

He left his cell phone number and home address to the newspapers, TV stations, orphanages, government bureaus, and hospitals. He never changed his number or turned his cell phone off for 25 years, fearing he’d miss any useful information.    

The couple worked in remote towns as migrant workers for seven years before they finally paid off the fine. Li Fen’s health deteriorated. With borrowed money and a loan, the couple opened a car wash shop by the road leading to Wuli village. “Because I only have an elementary school education and know very few people, I figured I could meet more people from different backgrounds by washing their cars and filling their water. I’ve met officials, foremen, and tourists; the more people I could meet, the more chance to find my daughter.” Li Guoming printed out stacks of missing person flyers and handed them to whomever entered his shop. Some people found it bizarre and teased him: “I’ve seen parents giving their children away, but never saw any looking for them.” Some ridiculed him: “If you want a daughter, go pick one from the temple.” At the time, many unclaimed babies littered the village; walk through the temples and ancestral halls and you’d pick up seven or eight abandoned babies,” said Chen Yi, who worked at the local orphanage in the 1990’s.

Hearing these biting remarks, Li Fen would comfort her husband: “There is nothing to be ashamed of to look for our own child. No matter how awful the stuff they say, we’ll keep looking. What’s there to be afraid of when looking for our own daughter?” 

Whenever he had time, Li Guoming went to the orphanage. He didn’t bother the employees, but stood at the gate, looking if any foreigner was bringing a child back. When his financial situation improved, he bought a cart of baby clothes worth 11,116 yuan and donated them to the orphanage. It was the first time he entered the orphanage. Babies filled the hallway, some crying, some sleeping, some sucking pacifiers--the sight greatly depressed Li Guoming.

It was the first time someone donated so many things to the county orphanage. The staff enthusiastically pulled Li Guoming and his wife aside and said they could call a reporter to publicize their good deeds. Li Guoping said: “No no, I’m terrified of that. I only plead that you tell me if my daughter returns one day.”  

First Glimpse of Hope in Ten Years       

For Li Guoming, searching for his daughter was like walking in the dark––without direction or light. But he insisted on going forward, to find his daughter when he was still alive. “Home is where parents are; if we’re gone, our daughter will have nowhere to return to.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that Li Guoming’s decade-long search saw the first glimpse of hope.

A regular customer at his shop admired Li Guoming’s character and was moved by his persistence. He told Li Guoming: “I have a good relationship with the current head of the orphanage. I can help you get your daughter’s adoption profile, but I’m going to need some cash.” Li Guoming immediately understood. He withdrew a stack of cash from his savings and gave it to the customer. As long as he could find his daughter, he was willing to pay any price.

The next day, Li Guoming received his daughter’s adoption profile, which he held like a fragile treasure while happy tears filled his eyes.

With a new hope, Li Guoming searched online for updates on oversea adoptees every day. He’d type in the key words: hui guo xun qin (return to China in search of family members). “To be honest, I didn’t even graduate from elementary school, but I learned to explore the internet using my cell phone in order to find my daughter.” He felt envious and sad whenever he saw oversea adoptees returning home to look for their parents.  

He thought that as long as he paved the way, when his daughter remembers to look for him, she wouldn’t be disappointed.

Sometimes, Li Guoming left comments online to encourage oversea adoptees and send them good wishes. He reflected: “Whether it’s the adopted child looking for parents or the parents looking for their child, it’s not easy for anyone.”

In 2016, Yang Bing, a Hunan girl who returned to China to look for her parents, contacted Li Guoming. She told him: “I’ll recommend a friend to you. She can help you find your daughter.”

This friend was Lan, the Chinese-American volunteer with 18 years’ experience helping oversee adoptees to find their biological families. With her help, more than a hundred families around the world have reunited.

Blood Ties and Hopes 

Lan, who lives in the United States, followed the address on the adoption profile and found Jiang Li’s American adoptive mother’s email address. She wrote to her and collected Li Guoming’s DNA sample. While waiting for a reply, Lan felt Li Guoming’s anxious expectation. She often received messages from Li Guoming between one to three in the afternoon (one to three in the early morning in China): “Hello, is there any news about my daughter? Please help me!” Every time, Lan felt sorry to disappoint the father on the other end.

Sometimes, Lan felt Li Guoming on the fringe of a breakdown. His message read: “Greetings, Ms. Lan! Are there still no updates on my daughter? Should I give up? I feel exhausted looking for her. It’s all my fault. It’s been too painful thinking about her day and night for more than ten years. I feel guilty. I shouldn’t have given her away. Sorry, please help me. Thank you!” But he didn’t give up. He collected himself and continued looking.

Five months later, Lan received a call from Jiang Li. With great excitement, she asked: “Is everything you wrote in the email true? Have my parents been looking for me all these years? Is it true?” Lan, choked with tears, answered: “Yes, it’s all true.”

Lan had thought the story would have a happy ending. But since Jiang Li was raised by her American mother alone, to respect her adoptive mother, she decided not to contact her Chinese parents. “Thank you for telling me that my biological parents didn’t abandon me and have been looking for me. This fact is very important to me!”

From 1998 to 2018, for two decades, Li Guoming had never stopped looking for his daughter.     

At first, he felt shocked and surprised when hearing about her. Slowly, he tried to understand her decision. He said: “Parents should never blame their children. She has her concerns and we won’t disrupt her life. But whenever she wants to find us, we’ll always be here.” Upon hearing the news, Li Fen broke into sobs at home: “I want to kneel down in front of her [American mother] and kowtow to her, thanking her ten thousand times for raising my daughter. She is my life savior. But we’ve never given up on our daughter; we’ve been looking for her all these years. We understand her. As long as she is doing well, we’ll accept any conditions.”

Lan often remembers the story and feels deeply moved by the kindness and persistence of Li Guoming’s birth family. “Searching for one’s family is an arduous, long process. Hopes are slim and challenges abound. Many people give up halfway. It’s really remarkable that Li and his wife carried on for twenty years.”  

After visiting different parts of China and contacting tens of thousands of broken families, Lan learned about the many reasons that forced parents to abandon or give away their children, or find a temporary lodging place for a child as in Li’s case. “Some parents feel it’s impossible to find their child, so they don’t look. Some parents feel guilty and conflicted for having ‘abandoned’ their child in the first place, so they avoid the topic. If Anna’s birth parents think this way, Anna will never find her parents. How pitiful and sad that would be! Yet most parents don’t know how to begin the process because they live in rural China with little education or information. I hope more and more parents will contact me to help them. I’m willing to do my best to support them.”

Family Search Continues, Hopes Gleam in a Sea of Crowd

“It is the blood ties and the hopes for family reunion that have guided us to arrive here. But only when both parties––parents and children––reach out to each other can they finally hold hands.” Whether it’s oversea adoptees or Chinese parents, the journey of reunion has never been a one-way odyssey. Only when both sides step up can they hope to see each other again.