It is 6 p.m. on May 7, and Cai Fengxia is sitting at the dinner table with her biological parents in Jiangyin City, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. This is the first meal she has eaten with her birth family since they abandoned her 37 years ago. Now, having finally found the people she sought for 12 years, she is unsure of how to act.
“It’s like a dream, seeing my birth parents,” said Cai, who has spent half her life seeking closure about her origins. After finally reuniting with her biological family, a lot of the tension has been released.
I first met Fengxia as part of a research project I undertook into the Chinese and American adoption systems. Between 2014 and 2015, I spent 18 months in America on a Fulbright scholarship. During that time, I traveled across the country visiting 30 Chinese adoptees in 20 American families.
For a long time, Fengxia had given up trying to get her adoptive parents to tell her about her biological family. Her childhood, spent in Dangshan County, Anhui province, was filled with rumors and neighbors’ idle gossip. “Her mother is barren,” they would say, “so she’s adopted.” She dared not ask her parents where she came from and felt the subject was taboo.
In 2004, just before she passed away, Fengxia’s mother told her daughter details about her biological parents. But the information didn’t help her enquiries, until four years ago, when the now mother-of-two joined an online volunteer group that helps reconnect adopted children with their families. Soon afterward, she took a DNA test. In March this year, she found out that she was a 99 percent match to a mother in Xiaoqi.
In both Chinese and American families, adopted children often struggle with identity issues as they grow up. They commonly feel self-conscious or out of place in their new environment, curious about their origins, and frustrated at the difficulty of finding their birth families. However, the way that adoptive families treat children’s early memories and their wishes to find out more about their biological parents varies substantially between cultures.
In 1979, Cai Fengxia’s adoptive father, Cai Xiling, collected the baby girl from an orphanage in the nearby city of Changshu. With only 30 yuan ($4.43 at today’s exchange rate) in cash, he started the train ride back home to Dangshan.
Fengxia was small and malnourished, wrapped in a large bedsheet her father had brought from Dangshan. This bedsheet was the family’s only possession that told the story of that day. But when they got home, it was discarded.
None of the 17 Chinese families I visited kept their children’s original clothes as a token of their previous lives. However, all 20 families in America kept the original objects or documents of their adopted children.
Last year, I met a girl called Xijin, now aged 12, in New York state. She was adopted by Suzanna when she was just over a year old, and brought to America.
On top of Xijin’s wardrobe lies a red package. Inside, there are the clothes she wore as an infant at an orphanage in Anhui. To preserve Xijin’s connection to her birthplace, Suzanna brought the clothing back to America with her.
Xijin first became curious about the circumstances of her birth at around 7 or 8 years old. She started asking her mother why she was in America, how big China was, and whether her birth parents wanted to find her as much as she wanted to find them. She joined a Facebook group for adopted girls, looking for people with similar experience among her peers. Everything about China interested her.
Suzanna believes it is harmful to the child to keep his or her origins a secret, and transparency is therefore the healthiest option. However, she dislikes the word “abandoned” because it is hurtful and carries implications that are not always accurate.
Attitudes towards adoption vary greatly between China and America. Most Chinese adoptive parents keep information from their children as a form of protection. Worried that their children will feel hurt, parents try to shield them from social stigma.
However, adopted Chinese children in America are often visibly different from their new parents. For that reason, their new guardians know from the outset that talking about the child’s origins is inevitable. It is therefore helpful to keep anything that could aid in easing the confusion their children might feel when such conversations arise.
The Chinese government recognizes 54 international adoption agencies currently operating in the United States. Every summer, many of these agencies organize trips for adopted children in an effort to help them find their roots. These trips allow adoptees to volunteer at Chinese orphanages and learn more about their native culture. Local organizations also exist to help them search for information about their birth families.
Although some volunteering organizations work with DNA testing centers, the lack of a nationwide database in China means that for many adoptees, finding a match is like searching for a needle in a haystack. With information stored in different places and across different systems, many children never come across their birth families.
China has taken significant steps to reduce numbers of abandoned children, but major barriers still exist for those seeking to learn about the circumstances of their adoption. What is needed is a state-funded nationwide platform for adoptees, as well as a central DNA database. Perhaps then more families, separated by the vicissitudes of time and place, will finally be able to bring closure to the often traumatic experience of adoption.
After 12 years of searching, the moment of reunion between Fengxia and her mother was bittersweet. But communication between them was difficult. While Fengxia spoke fluent Mandarin, her birth mother spoke only the Wu dialect.
In the Jiangyin region, it is traditional for mothers and daughters to share a bed if the daughter returns to visit after marriage. On the first night of Fengxia’s visit, both of them lay silently on either side of the bed. Their occasional conversations had to be translated by Fengxia’s niece.
(Header image: Cai Fengxia cries before a portrait of her deceased adoptive mother in Dangshan, Anhui province, April 27, 2016. Han Meng/Sixth Tone)