Monday, August 03, 2020

Searching Family Overseas: Blood Ties and Hopes

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.