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Lost families, longing hearts

International adoptees from China, now adults, often grow curious about their hometowns and birth parents—and some make the trip back

Lost families, longing hearts

The first time 23-year-old Charlotte Cotter spoke with her Chinese birth parents over the Skype telephone app last summer, she had a list of questions prepared: Why did you give me up? Do I have any siblings? Did you give me a Chinese name before you abandoned me? What was your life like in Zhenjiang city in eastern China? She also wanted to tell them that she was doing well, that she was now a senior at Yale University, and that she didn’t hate them for abandoning her: She understood how China’s one-child policy had placed many couples in extremely difficult situations.

With the help of a Chinese reporter, Cotter tracked down a couple who claimed to be her biological parents. Days later, they agreed to a Skype chat, since Cotter was still in America. The reporter helped translate Cotter’s questions into the couple’s Huai’an dialect, and Cotter got her answers: Her birth parents were farmers living in a mud hut at the time she was born. Cotter was their third daughter. With little money to spare (couples had to pay a fine for each extra child), they decided to give up their baby girl in order to keep trying for a son who could help with farm work.

The birth parents heard of a military family in a nearby city who wanted to adopt a girl, so they arranged a drop-off. They placed the 40-day-old baby on the steps of a residential building where an intermediary was supposed to pick her up and deliver her to her new home. Instead, unbeknownst to the birth parents, a stranger found the baby first and brought her to a police station. From there she was placed in the local orphanage. Four months later, she was flying to Boston with her new American parents.

Christopher Capozziello/Genesis

Cotter on the Yale University campus (Christopher Capozziello/Genesis)

Until the reporter tracked down Cotter’s birth parents, they thought their daughter was growing up two cities away. They watched a reality TV show about reconnecting birth families with missing daughters, hoping to catch a glimpse of their own daughter. When they finally learned she had grown up in the United States, they were shocked.

Three weeks after the Skype call, Cotter returned to her Chinese hometown, tailed by news cameras, and met about 60 of her relatives. She couldn’t stop staring at everyone around her, marveling at how much they looked like her. Cotter noticed she and her sister had similar hands, and all her family members were short, just like her. Like many girls abandoned in China, she also had a younger brother—the male child Chinese parents often strived for.

“Dad has wronged you,” her birth father said tearfully during their reunion, according to Chinese news reports. “Welcome home.”

SINCE CHINA BEGAN ALLOWING U.S. adoption in 1991, American families have taken in more than 88,000 Chinese children, mostly girls. Twenty-six years later, the oldest girls have come of age and are asking questions: Who are my birth parents? Why did they give me up? Many of the girls are now making the journey back to China to better understand their heritage and, in some cases, to find their biological parents. Some, like Cotter, are able to reunite with family members. Others struggle to find them amid a mass of regretful Chinese birth parents, pressured to give up their babies years ago under the country’s former one-child policy. (It now has a two-child policy, and the rate of abandonment has declined.)

In the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, director Linda Goldstein Knowlton followed four Chinese adoptees, all teenage girls, as they searched for their identity and contemplated the differences—both cultural and socio-economic—between their birth and adoptive families. (Most Chinese parents who abandoned their daughters are from poorer areas of the country. Wealthy Chinese families could afford to pay the fines for extra children.) Knowlton created the film after adopting her daughter Ruby from China. As a mother, she wanted to understand the identity struggles her daughter would one day face.

One girl highlighted in the film, Jenna Cook, then 15 years old and excelling at an elite private school in New Hampshire, described how her perfectionist tendencies arose from a desire to prove herself worthy of the family that had abandoned her. When Cook was a rising junior at Yale in 2012, she received a grant to document her search for her birth parents in Wuhan. Accompanied by her adoptive mother, she handed out flyers with her photos and the time and location where she was found: March 24, 1992, at a busy Wuhan bus station. The story went viral, with local newspapers, TV stations, and Chinese social media buzzing about her search.

Chutian Metropolis Daily

Cook posts flyers while searching for her birth parents in Wuhan (Chutian Metropolis Daily)

Hundreds of people reached out to Cook, and she ended up meeting 50 birth families, “each of which had left a baby on one single street in Wuhan in March 1992,” Cook wrote in a Foreign Policy article. During heart-wrenching interviews, she chatted with each family to learn what led them to abandon their daughter, while also looking for physical resemblances to see if they were indeed related. A total of 37 families took DNA tests, but Cook never found a match.

Cotter, who found her birth parents within a week of searching, said she sometimes feels guilty that she found them so quickly while many other adoptees continue to look.

From a young age, Cotter’s adoptive parents took her to Chinese cultural events hosted by a group of families with adopted daughters from China: Together they’d celebrate Chinese New Year and eat mooncakes during Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

At 14, Cotter visited China for the first time for a summer program. Later in the year she made another trip to visit her orphanage and the spot where she was found as a baby. Several travel agencies focus specifically on China heritage trips, bringing adoptees and their adoptive families to visit Chinese tourist attractions to learn about Chinese culture—and also to visit their specific orphanage and their “finding spot.” Some groups bring along counselors and facilitate discussions among adoptees to help them process their emotional journey.

Cotter was happy to find her parents, yet felt overwhelmed learning about her previously unknown family background. ‘It was hard to take in because it felt surreal.’

Soon after her China trip, Cotter wanted to connect with a community of Chinese adoptees who could understand her situation and experiences, but she felt aged out of the networks and cultural events she grew up attending. She found a small Facebook group started by fellow adoptee Laney Allison, and together they formed China’s Children International in 2011. The organization puts out newsletters, plans volunteer trips back to Chinese orphanages, organizes mentorship programs, and helps connect Chinese adoptees.

Cotter had never thought seriously about searching for her birth parents, but when her friend and fellow adoptee confided that she wanted to go back to China to search, Cotter decided to join her. She created a poster with her photo and what she knew about her birth and orphanage, and placed it on Chinese social media.

A Chinese reporter saw Cotter’s post and reached out to her, offering to help find her family. While flipping through Cotter’s adoption file, the reporter found a note: a vaccination record for Cotter as a newborn. The reporter then contacted the hospital and tracked down the name and contact info of the parent who brought Cotter to the hospital. As it turned out, Cotter’s birth parents happened to live at the same address as they did 20 years earlier—albeit with a new house, a sign of the family’s improved financial condition and China’s economic growth.

At first, Cotter wasn’t certain the couple were actually her parents—sometimes families come forward to claim an adoptee for financial reasons, or they get their missing daughter mixed up with another. But after a DNA test confirmed a match, Cotter was a bundle of emotions. She was happy to find them, yet felt overwhelmed learning about her previously unknown family background. “It was hard to take in because it felt surreal,” she said. “I was glad to find them and let them know that I’m doing well … and I was able to see that they were doing OK too.”

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Haley Butler, one of the four Chinese adoptees featured in Somewhere Between, and director Linda Goldstein Knowlton pose at the premiere. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

NOT ALL ADOPTEES are so interested in their origins, as Kay Andrus realized about her daughter Claire. In 1997, Andrus and her husband, Mike, flew to a small town near Shenzhen in southern China to pick up Claire, who had lived for 15 months in a local orphanage. Her birth parents had left her on the steps of a grain factory when she was just two days old, and Andrus believes Claire had never stepped foot outside the orphanage walls until the day they adopted her.

Soon afterward they brought Claire and her adopted brother Aaron with them to Cameroon, where the couple served as missionaries with Wycliffe, a Bible translation organization. Ever the extrovert, Claire became the life of the party in the small villages where Andrus and her husband worked. “We were known by the villagers as ‘Claire’s parents,’” Andrus said. Five years later the family moved back to Tallahassee, Fla.

Andrus said her daughter never showed interest in China or in finding her birth parents, but simply considered herself an American. On the other hand, her brother Aaron, who was adopted domestically, was always curious about his birth mother: Andrus had the name of the birth mother, and she agreed to a meeting with her son.

Recently Claire, now 20, has become more receptive to the idea as well. She agreed to visit China later this year to get to know her roots: The family plans to tour the major cities in China, then extend their stay for three days to visit the area where she was found. Claire’s orphanage has already been torn down and rebuilt, yet Andrus believes it’s a journey her daughter is now ready to make.

The trip is likely to be an “emotional and wild rite of passage,” Andrus said. She struggles to imagine what Claire’s parents must have gone through. “It’s a terrible thing when I think that we were able to get Claire because some mother in China was forced to give her up,” Andrus said. “I know that was a heart-wrenching decision for her, she must still think about her daughter. … I just know she wonders whatever’s become of her.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


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  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Fri, 09/22/2017 12:03 pm

    This is a fascinating article. I recently started teaching English to Chinese children online, and have become enamored with the familial culture of China. My students (age 4-12) will, within context of the lesson material, say members of their family. It's usually mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather, and brother/sister. There is often a baby crying in the background, which is a beautiful sound to hear. It's very nice to see the Chinese families that are having more children without penalty. I pray for them specifically during the minute or so before class begins.