“An adoptee’s curiosity about one’s past is not a rejection of one’s present nor a sign of unhappiness or dysfunction. It’s exploring what should be the adoptee’s already — knowledge of one’s personal history and family members.” – Tara Vanderwoude, Social worker, advocate, educator
For Christmas this year, my five-year-old daughter asked for a special Christmas wish: to have her adoptive parents and her birth family in the same room. I explained to my daughter that I thought this would be impossible, but that for Christmas, we would take her to China to begin a search for her birth family.
Last week, we journeyed to rural China with our searcher to start our search for her birth family, and in less than 26 hours after arriving, we were all shocked when we found them.
My daughter’s Christmas wish came true. A beautiful Chinese family got to see their daughter and learn that she is safe and happy. Suddenly, my daughter could see where she got her chubby ears and where she got her cute fingers. And my husband and I had the opportunity to tearfully tell Lydia’s biological parents how much we love her and how precious she is. Together, each person in the adoption triad, gathered around a smartphone to see images of Lydia as an infant. It was surreal.
Though the details of our reunion are sacred and private, I have had many requests to share our process that led to a successful and expedited search. If you are an adoptee or adoptive parent who wants to search, I hope that this post helps you organize your search.
I am not an expert at a birth parent search but have now joined a small and growing number of adoptees/adoptive families who have located their child’s first family in China. Here, I share our process, not necessarily my expertise.
When we started our search, I often wondered where to begin. So let’s start where I started.
Before We Were Ready to Start an Active Search in China
Before I started an active search in China, I submitted my daughter’s DNA to 23andMe. DNA kits are currently on sale for the holidays. 23andMe is the site most Chinese adoptees use to submit their DNA. It is advantageous if Chinese adoptees submit their DNA to the same place. One free feature you can opt into is to connect with DNA relatives. I used a pseudonym for my child’s profile.
Many of us do not find DNA relatives closer than third cousins. However, I firmly believe that as more Chinese adoptees submit their DNA to 23andMe, first cousins and siblings will be matched. When we did our search on the ground in China, a few women shared with us that they relinquished several daughters each. With time, more matches will be made.
I studied the locations my daughter’s DNA relatives were from, but it never led anywhere. I uploaded her raw DNA data to WeGene to learn more specific information about her ancestry composition than what was provided by 23andMe and this became a helpful piece for her life book.
I searched Baidu.com using Google Chrome to try to learn as much as I could. My friend Jaime taught me how to search this Chinese search engine for more information about my daughter’s orphanage, her finding area, etc. Some of my friends have found news articles written about their child’s finding.
The Google Chrome translate feature makes this relatively easy, though it is time-consuming. In Google Chrome, go to Baidu.com. Then, copy and paste the Chinese characters for your child’s social welfare institute into the search bar. Once the results pop up in Chinese, hit translate to translate to English. You can also scroll through images to find relevant information.
Continue this search with your child’s Chinese name, orphanage director’s name, finding date, child’s birthdate, any hospital information you might have, child’s special need, finding location, finder’s name, police officer’s name, etc. I found helpful Chinese characters and information in my child’s referral paperwork (prepared by the orphanage) and in the abandonment certificate that was signed by the notary in China (mine is in a white booklet). My child’s abandonment certificate included more details about her finding than the referral paperwork.
To make sure I remembered what I searched for, I kept a list of my search terms in English and the Chinese translation and labeled if the search terms were dead ends or led to more helpful information. I kept all of this in a Google drive document, and would email links to an email account I set up just for our search for Lydia.
Some friends found more detailed information like news articles about their child’s finding and others found pictures of their child at the orphanage through Baidu.com. I found neither, but learned more about the town my daughter was from. If I found anything interesting, I copied and pasted it into a Google document for Lydia to have one day or to use in her life book.
Locate Child’s Finding Ad
Many of my friends found their child’s finding ad by searching Baidu (see above), getting a copy from the orphanage during the adoption trip, or by asking Brian Stuy for assistance locating it. Having the finding ad was an important part of creating a poster for Lydia’s search.
Gifts and Communication to Aid Relationship Building
We did not know many people in our daughter’s hometown, but over the last few years, we kept in touch and sent small gifts periodically to let them know their relationship was important to us. Gifts were never lavish but included simple things like stationary, bookmarks, etc.
Once We Were Serious About Searching in China
Most Important Step – Hiring a Qualified Searcher in China
I joined some of the birth parent China adoption search groups on Facebook to learn about best practices in the search process. I don’t want to share the links publicly, because many of these are only for adoptees or adoptive parents who are serious about searching. These are not the groups to ask questions about IF one should do a search, but HOW one should. If you are serious about starting a search, ask in the China Adoption Facebook group and people will share with you the search groups that pertain to searching for a birth family in China.
I think the most important step is hiring someone extremely experienced in searches. A birth parent search requires a different skill set than simply translating or being an adoption guide. One of the mistakes I think some families make is hiring an adoption guide or translator new to searching to search for them.
We hired XiXi’s team to lead our search. After studying the birth parent search groups for several months, I decided to hire XiXi to help us with our search. She is not in Lydia’s province, but I hired her anyway. I cannot stress to you how impressed I was with her honesty, integrity, attention to detail, and rapid communication with me. She’s very upfront about the costs and she is the epitome of a professional. The search posters she made for Lydia’s search were outstanding quality and laminated better than anything I could get in the US. I respect XiXi a lot. Her nephew was the person who did the search with our family and he was outstanding. He could quickly build rapport with people and he provided expert advice during the search, birth family reunion, and during the four days we spent with the birth family. He was also exceptional with our five-year old daughter.
People interested in a search can often go one of two ways. You can hire a searcher to go to the city where the orphanage is to search without you and they’ll send you a detailed report back or some searchers allow you to travel to China and do the search with them.
For Lydia’s birth parent search, we had other reasons we wanted to go to her hometown, so Lydia, Bryson, and I traveled with the searcher to do our search. We allotted six days in her hometown because we planned to search in town and surrounding villages. Lydia is from a “small town” of 400,000 people and people in this community are not accustomed to visitors from the United States. Our physical presence attracted a lot of attention and assistance for our search because for some, we were the first caucasians they’d seen in person, and we were with a Chinese girl (our daughter). Though this added to the cost of our search, I absolutely believe that our presence was an important part of finding Lydia’s birth family.
XiXi’s contact information is available in the search groups on Facebook.
My husband is a professional cinematographer and owns a creative agency. We believe that video is a powerful tool to aid in a search.
I believe our video compelled key people to help us find our daughter’s birth family. As we met people we thought were important to our search, Bryson and I would show them our video. Overwhelmingly, it caused people to help us in ways that were humbling.
I believe that the video was effective for a few reasons. First, we had all of it translated by a native Chinese speaker who is a personal friend and used written Chinese characters as subtitles. Second, because we were going to a rural area, our friend advised us to add her voiceover in Mandarin in case some could not read. Third, when our daughter spoke in the video, it visibly moved each person to help us. This was authentic, unscripted, and Lydia’s own words. Lydia moved people to help her. Fourth, I also think it is important that our video was not too long, though ideally, Bryson and I wanted it shorter than 90 seconds. Though our video was longer than we wanted, it still got people to help us. We expected people to lose interest, but it captivated them through the entirety of the video.
We made our video to give to the media and to share on Chinese social media towards the middle of our trip in case we did not find leads in our search on our own, though we never had to do this because we found her birth family so quickly. Did our video go viral? No, that was not the aim for us. However, if we had not made leads, we had a strategy to push our video hard to local media and people on WeChat in hopes that it would go viral to help us find more information.
We brought the video on USB drives so that we could easily share. We did not post this on YouTube as YouTube is inaccessible in China.
For the purpose of this post, we edited out details surrounding Lydia’s finding and relinquishment, so you might notice her finding ad is blurry. In the original video that we shared in China, these details were included. We wanted to share an example video with families and adoptees wanting to search while also protecting key details of our daughter’s history. To watch the video, go here.
Surprisingly, this video became a gift to Lydia’s birth family. We never imagined that when we created it. They cherished hearing her words and seeing video of her as she grew.
Research-China recently shared their perspective on search videos here.
WeChat is an important communication tool that I believe is essential to a search (it is kind of like the Chinese equivalent of Facebook). On our poster and in our video, I included my QR code so that people who saw our search pieces could easily add me on WeChat. In addition, as we met people in town, they would often request a photo with us (we were like celebrities). I would send the photo to them in WeChat along with a digital copy of our search poster.
Making important connections on WeChat allowed for us to start building relationships with locals who wanted to help us locate Lydia’s birth family. Everything in China happens through relationships. (We also brought small gifts like chapstick to thank people who wanted to help us).
WeChat is part of life in China. It is so important, within minutes of meeting my daughter’s birth mother, we also exchanged WeChat information. The WeChat translation feature makes it easy to chat with locals if you do not read and write in Chinese.
To download WeChat go here.
Study the Certificate of Abandonment for Important Details
Lydia’s abandonment certificate was detailed and based on what the orphanage knew, all of her paperwork was very accurate. The name of the person who found Lydia (often referred to as a “finder”) was identified and because of this, we were able to locate her.
At first, the finder said she was too busy to meet with us. Our searcher and friends delicately and persuasively were able to arrange a meeting with the finder and our family 24-hours after we arrived in town. At that meeting, the finder initially lied to us. We let her know that we had a meeting with the newspaper and TV station the next morning (truth), and if she knew the birth family, we did not want to cause embarrassment for them by going to the media (truth). We were not there to create a spectacle, but Lydia simply wanted to meet them. Our goal was to do this as private as possible. At this point, the finder let us know that she did know the birth family and would ask them if they would be willing to meet Lydia the next morning.
At 8:00 AM the next morning, we learned that Lydia’s birth family would meet us at 9:30 AM. We told Lydia that we thought we found her birth family and asked her if she still wanted to meet them. She did.
That morning, we experienced one of the most sacred, emotional, and private experiences of our lives. It changed all of us.
Lydia’s birth mom provided a DNA sample. Though the DNA sample is currently being analyzed, the near identical physical features in our daughter and her birth family give us complete confidence. Our daughter was born with a limb difference, so it was easy to confirm it was her in their pictures.
Our skilled searcher was crucial at beginning to build a relationship between two families brought together by the complexity of adoption. Instead of searching the remaining four days, we spent this time with Lydia’s birth family to begin learning more about her heritage.
Why I Think We Had a Successful Search
We searched. I have heard several adoptive families say they think it is impossible to locate a birth family, and so I think because they do not think it is possible, they do not search. I know that some families do not want to search, but I think that a lot of families who want to think it is impossible. It is hard, but possible.
We hired an exceptional and honest searcher. XiXi’s nephew often said we got lucky, but his skill was also key. He knew when to apply pressure. He knew when to give space. He knew what questions to ask and what to say and what not to. He was warm and kind and could gain trust. When he cried with me as he translated my words to Lydia’s birth mom, I knew we had the right person with us. He was so kind to Lydia’s birth family (and to us) and educated them on adoption, US culture, and our little family. He was one part guide, searcher, mediator, and therapist. And now we love him. He changed Lydia’s life.
Our searcher says luck played a part. We are religious and think God played a part in orchestrating this reunion. Whether you think it is luck or I think it is God, something much bigger than us orchestrated each detail at the right time.
We searched in a “small town.” Lydia is from a town of 400,000 people. This meant we did not have as much territory to cover. The people of her town were kind, hospitable, and wanted to help us.
We traveled with our searcher. I completely trusted our searcher to do a search without us, but for Lydia’s situation and in her rural town, I think it was important to have us there.
We did not wait. China changes rapidly. Time is of the essence. Finders pass away or move. Birth families pass away or move. People who know key details pass away or move. Paperwork is thrown away or gets lost. Because we did not wait, the key pieces to our daughter’s birth family were still there. We followed that path.
We know the culture and continue to learn more. We have studied and continue to study the culture. My husband and I understood that we were searching in a culture that is completely different than our own, and we needed to respect that it is different.
We went with the long-term view in mind. We never expected to find her birth family on our first search trip. We viewed a birth parent search as a long-term process. When we met our searcher, I told him our goal was to go to her hometown to build relationships with people who would eventually help us find her birth family. Our goal was relationship building and collecting new pieces of information about Lydia. Anything new we learned would be a gift.
Even though we found her birth family, we still approach everything with the long-term view in mind. Did I ask Lydia’s birth mom the 50 questions that were swirling in my mind? No. Why? Because that’s not the way to build a relationship with her. At this point, it wouldn’t be kind. I did not want to overwhelm them more than our surprise visit already did. I asked two questions upon meeting her birth mom. It took all restraint.
As we get to know her first family, I know that these early days are laying the foundation that will give Lydia a place to ask questions that are important to her, her story, her heritage and identity.