A ‘Lost’ Daughter Speaks, and All of China Listens
I went to China to find the birth mother who left me on a street corner. Instead, I became the focus of a nation’s buried pain.
Even if most Chinese hadn’t lost children themselves, many had at least heard the stories. I discovered that almost everyone — from waiters to taxi drivers — seemed to have a personal connection to someone who had lost a child to abandonment or adoption, or had adopted a child, or had been adopted themselves. But many were unaware that those children could end up abroad. As one man who had mistakenly assumed he was my birth father told me in 2012: “We came to the city from the countryside because we hoped a wealthy, urban family would adopt you. We never thought you would end up overseas.”
After an additional year of researching Chinese domestic adoption as a Fulbright scholar, I see how profoundly American views of adoption and family differ from traditional Chinese conceptions. In 2012, I found myself baffled by Chinese journalists’ questions. They’d ask, “When did you find out you were adopted?” (In contemporary American society, people are usually told from the beginning that they are adopted, particularly in mixed-race families like mine.) They’d ask, “How could your adoptive mother possibly support your search?” (In the Chinese adoption community in the U.S., families are so eager to search that there are panels and talks and books for adoptive parents on how to search for birth parents.) They’d also ask, “If you find your Chinese birth parents, how are you going to rear two sets of parents into old age?” (American parents usually save for retirement and don’t expect to rely on their children for financial support.)
I now understand why my adoptive mother’s decision to join my 2012 search shocked the Chinese public. During my follow-up research, many mainland adoptive parents confided that they felt it was best if their children never found out they had been adopted. Chinese adult domestic adoptees who had discovered their adoptions and had reunited with their birth families often described being pulled between their two families in a competition for attention, love, and loyalty. That explains why strangers would stop us on Wuhan streets to commend my mother’s selflessness while scolding me for “turning my back” on my adoptive mother. Chinese people often assumed that by searching for my first family, I was hurting my American mom. In my later interviews with Chinese parents who adopted Chinese children, I found it common for adoptive parents in China to worry that if their child discovered the adoption he or she would no longer accept the adoptive parents.
As one Chinese grandmother explained to me recently, “You are very strange. Over here, only kids who are not doing well will want to search for their birth parents. Your adoptive mom treats you well. You went to a good school. You are healthy and happy. Why do you need to search for your birth family?” It’s a typical view, reflected widely in the comments section of Chinese articles about my search and in the private messages and emails I’ve received. Yet, in the United States, adoption experts and professionals characterize birth search as a normal developmental step for an adopted person — a universal desire to know one’s origins.
The Chinese public’s polarizing views on my decision to search also hinged on how they imagined my birth parents. Those who supported the search portrayed my birth parents as kind people who faced hard times and had no other course but to abandon their daughter. Those who disapproved tended to envision birth parents as cruel and greedy. One person wrote, “Your birth parents were callous and heartless to abandon you. You shouldn’t search for them because you don’t owe them anything.” Some people warned that my birth parents would try to take advantage of me: “You shouldn’t look for your birth parents because when you find them they will want things from you, like money, or to go to America.”