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.