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Adoptive families' quests to trace Chinese roots often meet dead ends

More families are traveling to China to unravel the mystery of where their adoptive children came from and who their parents are. For the few who are able to make any headway, luck is a big factor.

LA Times, December 28, 2009|By Martha Groves and Barbara Demick

Reporting from Los Angeles and Beijing — My name is Haley. I was adopted in 1995. I now live in America. I enjoy singing and playing the violin and hanging out with my friends. I have a good life, but I would like to find my biological family.

Just minutes after Jeannie Butler and her adopted daughter, Haley, tacked a Chinese-language poster with this message to a wall in the Yangtze River village where she had been abandoned, a woman emerged from a restaurant next door and did a double-take.

The woman stared hard at Haley, 14, then at the baby photo on the poster.

"Oh, my gosh, she looks just like my cousin's daughters!" she blurted out as an interpreter with the Butlers translated.

A flurry of cellphone calls ensued. By that evening, Haley had met her biological father and the eldest of three biological sisters. The reunion in July went so well that Haley and her parents are spending the Christmas season this year with her extended biological family in China. They hope to meet the birth mother Tuesday.

Such encounters are rare for the thousands of American families who have adopted Chinese children. But increasingly these families are making the return journey to China, not merely as tourists climbing the Great Wall and steeping their daughters (and they are almost all girls) in Chinese culture, but as detectives trying to unravel the most elusive mystery of all: Who is my child?

Who are her biological parents, and where are they from? Is she Han Chinese or a member of one of the many ethnic minorities? Does she have a biological sibling? And, most important, how did she come to be abandoned and referred for adoption?

The number of Chinese adoptees looking for their birth parents is expected to rise as the girls, most of them still very young, reach adolescence and then adulthood. But in China, the families often confront an entrenched culture of secrecy that clashes with Americans' presumed right to know.

"We were at the right place, at the right time. All the stars were in alignment for Haley to meet her birth family," said Butler, 49, a costume designer from Nashville who raises funds to help Chinese orphanages.

Many who try to investigate are frustrated by their inability to speak Chinese and unfamiliarity with the culture, incomplete or erroneous orphanage records and bureaucratic obstacles. In 2007, a delegation of American adoptive parents visiting an orphanage in Hunan province were allowed in only under the condition that they promise in writing not to ask questions.

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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