An Abandoned Daughter Returns to China

Editors Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and David Wertime talk to Jenna Cook about how the quest to find her birth mother captivated China — and why she finally decided to write her side of the story for FP.


In the summer of 2012, 20-year-old Jenna Cook of Newburyport, Massachusetts, decided to return to China, the country of her birth, in order to find the parents who abandoned her in the city of Wuhan in March 1992.

A local newspaper in Wuhan picked up the story, and it soon went national. Countless readers, viewers, and web users began to follow Cook’s search. Dozens of families — who had also abandoned a baby daughter in the same month, on the same year, and on the same street in Wuhan — came forward, hoping Jenna was theirs.

These families told devastating stories of loss, poverty, and shame. Although Cook has yet to find her own birth parents, her quest, and the connections she forged with other families, brought her a deeper understanding of the country where she was born, what her birth parents may have faced, and her own place in the world. In May 2016, after years of reflection, Cook wrote her own article about her findings for Foreign Policy. It published online in both English and Chinese — the first such bilingual article in FP’s history — and was widely shared and discussed in both languages.

In this episode of The Backstory, Cook joins her editor, David Wertime, and host Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian to discuss her remarkable story, the larger issues of adoption and family it engages, and how Cook turned it all into a remarkable piece of journalism.

About the participants:

Jenna Cook received a Fulbright scholarship through her undergraduate institution, Yale College, to study orphans and adoption in China.

David Wertime is the co-founder and senior editor at FP’s China channel, Tea Leaf Nation, and focuses on Chinese Internet freedom, social trends, politics, and law. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, Wertime first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. Follow him on Twitter at: @dwertime.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Tea Leaf Nation. Before joining FP, she lived and worked in China for more than four years. Bethany is a Jefferson fellow with the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Follow her on Twitter at: @BethanyAllenEbr.

Subscribe to The Backstory podcast and other FP podcasts on iTunes here.

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