This is the story of how we found our daughter YuChen’s birth family 10 years and 5 days after she entered an orphanage in Ankang, Shaanxi province, China.
I am trying to do my best to guard the hearts of two families and one very special little girl, so I will carefully share some of the details of our process to find her birth family, but will be omitting much as ultimately it is our daughter’s story.
Please know that we entered into our search after careful consideration, our daughter was involved in the decision to search, and we have discussed the possibility of finding them with our family therapist who will be available to help guide us through this journey. There was a 3.5 month gap between making contact with the family in China and us getting confirmation that it was indeed them. We chose not to share our findings with our daughter until we had confirmation. We came to this decision after careful thought, discussing it with our therapist, and listening to the advice of other families who have walked this path. We also decided that it would be easiest if just one of us were in communication with the potential birth family as we navigated the wait for DNA confirmation so this is written from my perspective since I was the one in contact with them.
Every family’s journey that ends in finding a birth family will be different, this is ours.
We met our 10 year old daughter YuChen in Xi’an, China, 6.5 years ago on a cold December afternoon in a crowded room in the Civil Affairs office. In the flurry of activity that transpired over that day and the next, we were pulled aside at one point and her orphanage co-director told us through our guide that she had been the one to find our daughter. In the moment we were new parents, overwhelmed with love for the little girl who had been placed in our arms a few hours earlier, and all I could do was thank her repeatedly for making sure she was taken somewhere safe and that she received the care she needed.
The co-director gave me her email and an original copy of our daughter’s finding ad. I tucked them both in the folder of paperwork I was carrying across China and at the time, didn’t think much more of it as we continued our journey. For the past 6.5 years I have relived that moment over and over and have repeatedly beat myself up for not having the clarity of mind to ask her for more details.
where did she find her?
what time of day was it?
was there a note with her?
what was left with her?
was a photo taken of her that day?
I felt as if I had neglected to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Shortly after arriving home I started working on our daughter’s lifebook. I had very little information to go on, just a few details from her referral file, 3 referral pictures, and a few pictures I had found online via Baidu (a Chinese search engine similar to Google) of not only her orphanage but her as well. I pulled her finding ad out of the stash of paperwork we had accumulated in China and had it translated. There wasn’t much info in it and what there was I assumed was probably fabricated as notes left on red paper and a finding spot of a government building often are. I also ran across the co-director’s email and sent her an update. I never received a response but hoped she received it and knew that our daughter was flourishing in her new home. We continued to send updates for a few years, but each one went unanswered.
Once I completed her lifebook, I would tell her story to her (in age appropriate language) and very early on she grasped the concept that she had been abandoned and that she has a family somewhere in China. As soon as she understood those concepts, she would tell me that she wanted to find her birth family. She needed to find them. She would often sleep with her lifebook tucked into bed with her.
We always told her that we supported her efforts to search and would someday look for them. That someday quickly turned into years and through those years she continued to voice that she wanted to search. I twice reached out to a searcher, but finances halted us both times from moving forward with a full search.
When we returned to China in 2015 to adopt again, we made a side trip to the CCCWA in Beijing to view her file in the hopes there would be a clue there. We were hoping for a copy of her police report or maybe a copy of the note that was mentioned in her finding ad. Neither item was there. I spent hours online searching via Baidu and Baidu image search for clues. When I discovered Weibo I searched the archive of news articles there as well, but still came up empty handed.
Returning to China made our daughter long for connection even more and her birth parents were often a topic of discussion in our home after returning home. Shortly after Christmas of 2017, I once again reached out to a searcher. At this point we knew we needed to make the financial investment. We knew the odds were stacked against us but we needed to start the process if for no other reason than to show our daughter that we knew this was important to her and that we supported her.
We included our daughter in the decision to begin a search and prepared her for the very real possibility of not finding them. We told her this was the first step in what would probably turn out to be an endeavor that would last many years. We all agreed to move forward and figured if best case scenario we got a copy of her police report and pictures of her finding spot it would be worth it.
We arranged everything with our searcher (we used Xixi to conduct our search) and were told that a member of her team would travel over the second half of Chinese New Year to the town our daughter is from to distribute posters and start a search. Her search would include distributing 150 posters, visiting her finding spot, going to the police station to try to get a copy of her police report, searching for her finder (someone other than the co-director is listed in her abandonment certificate), and attempting to reach out to the co-director of the orphanage. Our searcher told us they usually don’t interview orphanage staff but, because of the fact that the co-director told us she found our daughter, they agreed to talk with her.
On the poster our searcher created for us, we added my WeChat QR code. WeChat is a social media platform in China similar to Facebook that is very popular. Anyone who saw our poster could scan the code with their phone and I could then add them as a contact on WeChat. We anxiously awaited for the day our daughter’s search was to begin and, sure enough, in the first few hours a few people added me on WeChat.
The very first person who added me turned out to be a gentleman who works at a university in the town our daughter was found who speaks fluent English. We introduced ourselves to each other and within minutes he was sending me pictures of her town and told me to wait 20 minutes and he would go to her finding spot! A few minutes later, the first pictures we saw of her finding spot popped up on my phone. I was both overwhelmed by these images and also by this stranger’s willingness to do this for us.
Over and over through this process I have been humbled by the kindness of strangers who have shared our poster through social media, sent well wishes, and who have checked in throughout the months to see if we had made any progress.
Even though we made quite a few contacts over the first few days, we didn’t have any leads so I reached out to the gentleman who works at the university and asked if he could message me the names of local media outlets so that I could contact them. He didn’t get the media names for me, he instead took it upon himself to schedule an interview with a local radio station to share our story.
In turn, the radio station not only ran the interview on air on March 12th, they also ran a piece on their social media accounts of our story supplemented with our finding poster and pictures I had sent to my new friend. (We had exchanged pictures over the course of the time we had been communicating. Pictures from his commute to work, pictures I took around our town, and family pictures.) Once again, I was humbled and overwhelmed by the generosity of others. After the interview aired, I received a couple more WeChat contact requests, but again no leads.
On the morning of March 14th my husband and I were sitting on the couch after returning from taking our daughters to school. We were watching tv and discussing what we were going to accomplish that day but then my phone alerted me to a WeChat contact request. I accepted and glanced at their profile. It was of a young woman in the town our daughter is from so I sent my standard greeting introducing myself, shared our daughter’s poster, and asked if she would share it. I put my phone down and it immediately lit up again, it was a message from my new contact that translated to, “I can help you with this.” My first thought was that she was willing to share our info with friends and help spread the word. While I had my phone in hand I received a notice that I had a new email. I checked and it was from our searcher and subject line said that it was good news.
Now my heart stopped. I opened the email, which explained that a birth family had come forward and that a relative of the potential birth family would be adding me on WeChat. That relative turned out to be the young woman who just told me she could help. I am so thankful that my husband was off from work that day so that we could be together as this unfolded and be on the same page. I am so thankful that our girls were at school so that we had time process (the best we could!) what was happening without them there.
And I am so, so thankful we had the guidance of a searcher to help us through what was happening. She sent us messages in Mandarin to send to my new contact. Yes, WeChat has the option to translate what you type from English to Mandarin, but it is not always accurate. In a situation like this, you do not want there to be any margin of error in what you are trying to communicate. I cannot imagine trying to navigate what was transpiring without the help and guidance of someone familiar with what both families were going through and feeling. Someone who could help navigate the enormous cultural differences of both families.
The relative of the birth family continued to send messages. First I received a picture of the birth father. I could see similarities to our daughter. They then sent a picture of the birth mother. I could definitely see similarities. They sent pictures of our daughter’s potential siblings (plural!).
Eventually, later that day, I received a WeChat request and the profile picture was the same as the picture of the potential father that I received earlier in the day. Hands shaking, I accepted the request and started a conversation that would continue through the night. Eventually that night the birth father gave me birth mother’s contact info and I added her. Both of them very quickly agreed to DNA testing.
Even though we chatted throughout the night, very little was shared in the way of information. Our searcher advised us to take things slow and not to ask questions, to build a relationship and to build trust. She explained that on top of the emotions the potential birth family was feeling, shame would also be present. As much as I wanted to ask for answers to the many questions we had, I refrained. 3.5 months later I have still not asked any direct questions related to our daughter’s birth and abandonment. The family has asked me several questions, which we have answered, and in return we were able to receive bits of information from them.
Understanding cultural differences is so, so important in a situation like this. Knowing the culture of shame and that little lies to protect someone are ok. As Americans we are very direct and want answers to our questions immediately. Our searcher assured us that the distance between us and the birth family and the time it would take to verify DNA were gifts. It would give us time to let emotions settle and to build trust. Yes, these might possibly be our daughter’s birth parents, which brought feelings of elation, but they were also strangers who had made a decision that resulted in our precious girl living in an institution for 3.5 years without a family.
I had a cocktail of emotions that changed hourly running through me that needed to be worked through so yes, time and distance at this point were most definitely a gift… a gift that was initially under-appreciated by me at the time.
After a few messages back and forth the first couple of days, I stopped hearing from the potential birth mother. As hard as that was, I understood why and did not press her. The father and the relative on the other hand continued to message regularly. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like both of us (the potential dad and I) felt the same way: that we had finally made a long lost connection and that we were terrified of losing it. I felt like we were each holding on to the end of a string that reached across to the other side of the world and each message sent was a tug to make sure the other one was there. Every “good morning,” “what is the weather like today,” and “what did you have for dinner?” was a benign way of reassuring each other that we were still in this together.
The first few weeks the messages came very regularly several times a day in the early morning and in the evening. I was soon on “China time”, staying up late in the evening to chat with the father. After a month or so we had established and built enough trust so that if we didn’t hear from each other for a day, we knew the other would still be there when we did message. Ambiguity was something I had to get used to quickly. I would get a random video clip in the middle of the night without any accompanying information to go with it. I desperately wanted more pictures of the family but instead I settled for short video clips of where the father worked.
One morning a picture popped up of about 30 school children and we were told that this was our daughter’s sister. Finally, a picture! But which one was her? No further information was provided so we did our best to maybe figure out which one by comparing features with our daughter.
We partnered with our searcher again to have them return to our daughter’s home town to help us with the DNA testing. Both parents agreed to testing, but the birth father is a migrant worker who currently works in a neighboring province, so our searcher met with just the birth mother. We received an updated picture of the mother (one in which she looks like our daughter’s twin) and she talked with our searcher and provided a little more information. They were told why our daughter was abandoned and who left her.
Almost 3 months after initial contact, we finally had answers to 2 of our gazillion questions.
And then a few weeks later we had the answer to our biggest question: were they our daughter’s birth parents? The answer came through early on a Friday morning 3.5 months after receiving the message from the potential father’s relative…
I wish I could share that it was one thing in particular that we or our searcher did to successfully find our daughter’s birth family, but it honestly was a combination of circumstances lining up at just the right time that led to them. We assumed that after 10 years we would have a difficult time finding them if at all, but in our case that amount of time wasn’t a factor. Had we started our search one of the other 2 times I reached out to our searcher previously, we probably would not have found the birth family.
Even though our searcher did not find the family while they actively searched in our daughter’s home town, the posters they hung led to me connecting with the gentleman who worked at the university which led to him reaching out to local media which in turn led to the birth family learning of our search efforts.
Because our searcher’s QQ info was listed in addition to ours, the family felt comfortable reaching out to the searcher initially, who vouched for us, which made the family feel comfortable enough to reach out via WeChat. Our searcher was also able to get our daughter’s police report, they talked with the orphanage co-director and put us in touch with them via WeChat, they also provided hundreds of pictures and videos of the town our daughter is from and her finding spot.
And, as mentioned before, our searcher has been invaluable in guiding us through this process. They have helped translate messages that have been lost in translation, called the family, and have been able to navigate getting additional information from them. Some people say not to hire a searcher unless you have credible leads or information to follow. In our case, we had very little to go on and no, the searcher did not directly find the birth family, but they were still instrumental in our search. When we decide to return to China to visit our daughter’s birth family, we will use our searcher as our guide.
I thought those results that popped up on my phone early on that Friday morning would finally put me at ease. The opposite was true. What was once abstract was all of a sudden very real at 4 a.m. in the morning and a whole new cocktail of emotions was surfacing.
For 3.5 months, my husband and I had discussed what was happening and how we felt. I am more active on social media than my husband and am a member of several groups that focus on searching for birth parents in China. I am in contact with a family who had very recently found their child’s birth family and we chatted regularly. I was somewhat prepared. What was transpiring was all very new to my husband.
There were 2 movies we watched together during the search that were invaluable in helping us both understand what finding our daughter’s birth family may looks like. Somewhere Between and Ricki’s Promise both are adoptee focused films that address the topic of reunification with Chinese birth families and I cannot recommend them enough. After watching them, as emotional as the journey was for our whole family, he agreed that searching for our daughter’s family was the right thing to do.
The day we received the DNA confirmation we told YuChen the news. As much as I knew the news of finding them was going to make her happy, my stomach was in knots. I went over in my mind a million times how we were going to tell her but, instead of the articulate way I intended to break the news, I instead told her through (happy) tears that we had found them. We showed her pictures and video clips, and we shared everything or searcher had shared with us.
We could tell her the names of her birth family. We could tell her that she has siblings.
That afternoon we sat down with my phone and printed the pictures that we had of them. We purchased a small photo album and she decided in what order she wanted to put the pictures in the album. We hope this would help her feel like she had some control over the situation and I do think it helped. She chose what order to put them in the album and came up with a narrative to go along with her decisions. She told me, “Mom, I feel warm inside knowing where they are.”
We know those warm feelings will ebb and flow over time on both sides, but we also know that for her and for our family, searching was the right thing to do.
Now we are navigating what this looks like from the other side, the side of having found them with the huge question of, “Now what?” hanging over all of us. There is so much information and training on how to prepare for adoption and how to parent your child once home, but very little on how to navigate that we are now going through. We have our family therapist for support, if needed, and we are always thankful for adult adoptees who are willing to share their stories. There is also a small but growing Facebook group for parents of children from China who have found birth parents.
It is the huge cultural divide and language barrier that is hardest to navigate at this point. For now, we are back at the point of taking things slowly, building trust, and not asking questions.
Even though both sides had 3.5 months to prepare for the DNA results, the reality of that positive test and the accompanying emotions have opened some very deep wounds. In typical American fashion, I want to run to the birth family, hug them and tell them everything will be ok and that we are in this together. That is not the Chinese way and we need to respect and honor that. Initially we thought we would get on a plane asap if these were YuChen’s birth parents, we are now once again thankful for the gift of time and distance as both sides process what has happened. We have been invited by the birth family to visit, and we will definitely make the trip once finances allow.
That imaginary thread we once so desperately held on to has been replaced by a tangible connection that both families now share, our daughter.
– guest post by Martha