Lost and Found
An abandoned baby on the streets of Shanghai.
I have started to hear more and more stories of foreign adoptive families that have, against the odds, located birth parents. Dr Chang Changfu, a Chinese academic, has recently made two of these stories into a heart-wrenching documentary film, Daughters' Return, about two Chinese adoptees, one Dutch and one American. They discover birth parents who went to great lengths to keep them, but in the end were defeated by the one-child policy and the traditional quest for a male heir. Both girls, now teenagers, are left torn between the family that bore them and the family that raised them.
Indeed, "root-seeking tours"—which sometimes include birth family searches—have become something of a cottage industry in China as more and more foreign families bring their children to learn about the land of their birth. Some unscrupulous orphanage directors exploit those visits for their own personal gain, soliciting or even requiring cash "donations" for those wanting to visit their child's orphanage—cash that sometimes never makes it to those children who remain there.
Beijing actively encourages orphanage reunions, even offering an all-expenses-paid culture camp this summer in Shanghai for adoptees willing to come to China. Several orphanages have held lavish reunions where overseas adoptees are feted and showered with presents. Some government officials and orphanage directors say privately that one goal of the tours is to counter the psychology of abandonment: they do not want Chinese adoptees abroad to think their homeland discarded them lightly.
So increasing numbers of families are taking the risk of looking for birth parents. Some are afraid of what they might find: what if the parents want the child back? What if, horror of horrors, they discover that their child was one of the small minority who were sold to an orphanage? Recently, adoption circles in the US were abuzz with reports that one adoptive family received a request from the US state department to provide a DNA sample to Chinese police, presumably to prove that their child was not abducted.
That story, coupled with recent increased Chinese media reports linking child trafficking with international adoption, has made some parents think twice about doing any "root seeking". On August 10, A Bright Moon, a website that offered to help adoptive families locate birth parents, said it was closing down because its office in Beijing was "constantly questioned by the police relative to families desiring to search for their child's birth families".
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Those who do look often find that things are not as random as they thought: sometimes the child's finder (whose identity is usually disclosed in the police report) may well know the father or the aunt or the grandmother—or may even be the grandmother. Some families designate a relative to "discover" the child—to make sure that it gets safely to the orphanage. Often they know much more than they at first disclose.
Officially, the Chinese authorities discourage birth-parent searches. But once local media get wind of a human interest story of those proportions they are often willing to help publicise the search. In many cases that leads to a reunion—with the parents or siblings of the searching child (and sometimes with the parents of a different child, abandoned around the same time).
After I had read several of these birth-search stories in the local press—and especially after meeting Donuts—I decided to dip my toe in, by trying to find the person who discovered my daughter Grace, the former Yang Shumin. To my secret relief, I failed: after nearly 12 years, her police report could not be located. I visited the police station, where the officers on duty showed not the slightest interest in my quest; and I visited the place where she was abandoned, where I found no one who remembered anything.
The next step would be publicity—but Grace Shumin does not want that. She says she only wants to know whether her birth father is tall—because she likes being the tallest girl in her class, and hopes she comes from tall stock. But she is not willing to take the risk of finding out any more than that. As a pre-teen now, the last thing she wants is more mothers and siblings to deal with: she is finding the ones she has quite annoying enough.
As China grows in confidence, in wealth, in world stature, the first generation of international adoptees will grow to maturity—and ask more questions. They will come to China, to study, to work, to seek an ethnic identity they lost at the moment of adoption. Some may find the ugly truth that they were abducted; others will find (as in one recent case from Jiangsu province) that they were a child who had simply been lost, but ended up in an orphanage believing themself to be an abandoned child. They will hear heartbreaking stories of why they were abandoned; they will meet mothers who feel no guilt—and others who have never recovered. And some of them will find nothing: lost police reports; obstructive authorities; false documents.
Perhaps my own children will want to know more about their birth parents, when they are 20 or 30 or 60 years old—or maybe they will never have the slightest inclination. Maybe they will never know what the weather was like when they were abandoned, whether it was snowing or balmy, dusky or crepuscular, whether their quilt was tied just so—or whether they had a quilt at all. Maybe they will never care.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT's Shanghai correspondent.
Photograph of baby by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.