Abducted, Sold, Lost: A Lifetime in Search of Family
SICHUAN, Southwest China — Yang Haijun doesn’t have many memories from his early childhood, but he remembers being abducted. When he was 5 or 6 years old, he got into a stranger’s car, thinking it was good fun, and was driven to an unfamiliar city. “I played for a while after getting out of the car,” Yang says. “And then, a man and a woman came over, saying that they would take me to find my parents.” Instead, he was taken to a distant village, sold to a family that wanted a son.
It was 1983, and the kidnapping marked the beginning of a life spent wandering around China, from the countryside of Anhui province, Yang’s adoptive hometown in eastern China, to Sichuan, more than a thousand kilometers away, where he believes he lived as a child. Yang doesn’t know his exact age or where he used to live. “Only the two people who abducted and sold me would know,” he tells The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication. But that pair seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.
Questions about his identity have consumed Yang for half of his life: “Who am I? Where am I from?”
Through a middleman who sold him for 200 yuan — a small fortune at the time — Yang ended up with the Feng family, who soon sent him to live with his “uncle.” But Yang couldn’t adjust, and when the father of the Feng family was hit by a car and couldn’t afford to raise Yang anymore, he was sent away again to the next village to live with a couple, Cui Guihai and Chen Lanying, who had no children of their own.
Yang had become one of the many children, mostly boys, who are abducted and sold in China’s black adoption market every year. Official statistics for the number of children reported missing are not made public, but according to media reports, authorities solved 13,000 such cases in 2014. Buyers are commonly couples like Cui and Chen, who believe that by adopting a son, they can carry on the family line and have someone to care for them in old age.
But since he was young, Yang was determined to find his parents and had little interest in staying with the Cui family. They changed Yang Haijun’s name to Cui Beiping, but he refused to answer to anything other than “Little Jun.” He only attended the village school for a few days before refusing to go. “They called me a Sichuan barbarian, so I didn’t want to go back,” Yang says. He would often run away from “home” for long stretches of time, which would earn him a beating when he returned. “I would clean him up every time he came back filthy, but he never saw me as his mother,” his adoptive mother, Chen, tells The Paper.
When Yang was a young teenager, he fled to Bengbu, a city over 40 kilometers away. There, he begged, scavenged for rubbish, and ate scraps left by strangers. In 1989, Yang was found guilty of theft and sentenced to six years of re-education through labor. He was sent to a farm where he planted rice and looked after the cows. After his release, he briefly thought about turning over a new leaf and living with his adoptive family in earnest. But he soon left again, taking up odd jobs while looking for his birth parents in his spare time.
Yang met his first girlfriend, Li Li, around the year 2000, and the pair got married in a ceremony but didn’t obtain a marriage license. Their daughter was born two years later, and they went back to the Cui home to celebrate the wedding and the baby’s customary 1-month birthday. Villagers remember that Yang stayed for over two years, the longest stretch of time he lived there since he was a child. His adoptive mother says, “Li asked me to help raise the child, but I told her to raise the child herself. Little Jun left to find work elsewhere, and soon they were both gone.” She never saw them again. Yang says that after becoming a husband and a father, he initially decided to settle down with the Cui family and give up looking for his birth parents, but he felt his adoptive family didn’t accept him. He then decided to leave them for good.
Yang says he knows deep down that he is Sichuanese, in part because he has a fondness for the province’s signature spicy cuisine. But he has no idea where exactly in Sichuan — a province roughly the size of Spain — he is from. In 2005, the young family visited Jiangyou City, which Yang had chosen at random as the area where he might be from.
A few days later, Li suddenly left with their daughter. “She went back home to marry someone else and didn’t even let me see my daughter,” Yang says. He went back to Anhui to look for her, without success. He had lost another family.
While back in Bengbu, Yang took up a job as a cook. In 2007, he saw a woman pass by his restaurant and enter the job center next door. When she exited, they struck up a conversation. She, Jia Jiehua, had grown up with adoptive parents, too. Her birth family gave her away when she was a child. Jia tells The Paper that she had a good relationship with her adoptive family. But when she was 19, they married her off to a 50-year-old man. Unhappy with her marriage, she ran away.
A year after they met, Jia joined Yang when he decided to move to Jiangyou permanently. Together, they spend every bit of free time scouring the region looking for Yang’s birth parents. He has joined several groups on messaging app WeChat for people who are looking for their relatives, keeps a piece of paper on his car asking for tip-offs, and has even attempted hypnosis to try and bring back memories from his early childhood.
In 2011, Yang registered on a family-search site called Baobei Huijia, which loosely translates to Loved Ones Return Home. His profile lists the possible names of his birth parents as Guo Jicai and Zhou Suzhen, but he doesn’t know the exact Chinese characters. They divorced when Yang was little, and his mother took him to live with his stepfather, whose surname, Yang, he uses to this day. Later, his mother gave birth to a daughter. His biological father had two older brothers — or perhaps one older sister and one older brother.
He remembers that his stepfather lived in a courtyard house surrounded by earthen walls: It had a straw-thatched roof, the house was close to a well, and the villagers would dry their wheat nearby. He attended the village’s kindergarten and remembers he had to cross a bridge when he left home. He knows the vegetables that grew in the village: peas, beans, yams, and peppers. Yang has held onto these memories for over three decades. But at the same time, he doesn’t know if they are accurate. Even his own age remains murky to him. And with the dramatic economic changes since the early 1980s, he is unsure whether any of the places he remembers from his childhood are still recognizable.
Zhang, a volunteer for Baobei Huijia, traveled to the countryside with Yang on numerous occasions to search for his family. Zhang — who did not wish to give his full name — recalls Yang as being strong, dedicated, and willing to help others, but says that years of repressed emotions and anxiety have also made it hard for him to live an ordinary life. Sometimes Yang would call him in the middle of the night, saying, “I don’t know where I’m from or where I should go.”
Finding one’s family requires relatives “to be searching for you at the same time you’re searching for them,” Zhang tells The Paper. People who are looking for their relatives can enter their DNA into a government database that matches kidnapped children with parents and other family members who are searching for them. But nobody knows if Yang’s parents are looking for him, or if they are even alive. Yang often daydreams that maybe after he was abducted, they searched for a long time but never found him. Maybe they thought he fell into the river and was carried off by the water. Maybe after he disappeared, his mother went off to look for him and was met with misfortune.
On several occasions, Yang mentions “Lost and Love,” a movie about a Chinese farmer looking for his abducted son, and a young man who, similar to Yang, is looking for his birth parents. The latter, at one point, says that when he was young, he worried about dying before he’d grown up and could look for his parents. Now that he’s older, he says in the movie, he’s worried his parents might die before he finds them.
Yang has no hukou, or household registration. This means he has no ID card and must rely on Jia, who has become his girlfriend, for all kinds of tasks, from renting a house and opening a bank account to buying train tickets. It also means the couple cannot legally marry.
Because he feels that deep down, he is Sichuanese and has lived in Jiangyou for eight years, he would like to register his hukou in the city. But according to He Jun, an official at the Jiangyou police service center for administrative issues, Yang lacks the necessary paperwork. Yang would need to prove that Jiangyou is his place of birth or track down relatives who could sponsor him for his registration in the city. One reason the city cannot allow people to re-register without documentation is that it might allow criminals to clear their record, He explains.
Back in Anhui, where Yang’s adoptive family lives, Ji Ming, an officer at the local police station, tells The Paper that Yang was registered there under the name that the Cui family gave him: Cui Beiping. In 1989, following his conviction for theft, his hukou was transferred to the re-education unit. After he served his time, Ji says, “[Yang] should have taken his release papers and hukou booklet to the police station to register again.”
But Yang never did, and he says he never will.
He’d rather go through life without his papers, without an ID card, he says, than register as a member of the Cui family.
A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Kevin Schoenmakers and Fan Yiying.
(Header image: Yang Haijun sells books and other items on the sidewalk in Jiangyou, Sichuan province, Aug. 16, 2017. Ming Que for Sixth Tone)