Abandoned in China and adopted to the US, an American teen’s journey in search of her roots
High-schooler is among a growing trend of adolescent Chinese girls, given up for adoption to the US as babies, now returning to explore their identity
Almost 17 years after she was found abandoned in a cardboard box Lily Xiazhen Broach returned from America to a small Chinese city to search for the parents who had given her up.
Now a student at a high school in Pennsylvania, Lily is one of a slew of Chinese-born girls adopted by Western families who have returned to search for their birth parents over the past few years.
At the end of last month, the 16-year-old travelled with her adoptive parents to Daye, a city in central China, where she was abandoned 17 years ago.
During their four-day stay in the city,which was widely covered by local media, they went out on to the streets to distribute leaflets about Lily, and visited a village they assumed was her hometown.
Although they did not find her biological parents, they said they had not expected too much from the trip.
However, Lily said it was still important for her and she felt excited by this experience.
“It’s part of understanding for Lily the actual place she was born,” her adoptive mother Susan Craft told the South China Morning Post.
“It’s great for her to meet many people on this trip who were born in Daye and grew up in Daye. [They] could be her neighbours and friends. It’s important in that way.”
Lily said the coverage her story had attracted could not only enhance her chances of finding her birth family, but also could help other people tracing their roots.
Early in the morning on September 7, 2000, Lily was found left alone in a box on a stone alleyway near the local civil affairs office. A note left in the box said she had been born seven days earlier.
A civil affairs official, Ji Zhenzhu, picked her up and took her to an orphanage. About 16 months later, Lily, who was given the name Guo Xiazhen, was adopted by Craft, a data management worker at a hospital, and her husband Jim Broach, a professor of medicine now working at Penn State university.
Since China started allowing international adoption three decades ago, more than 110,000 children have been adopted, most of them girls.
Many of these adoptive children have since returned to China to look for their biological families.
One of them is Marinna Tang Yi Echel, a young woman from Texas, who was abandoned at birth in Shanghai around 20 years ago. As the Post reported in January last year, she returned to the city in a fruitless attempt to find her birth parents.
Ren Yuan, a professor from Fudan University’s Population Research Institute, said the majority of abandoned babies were girls, due to the traditional concept that favours boys than girls.
Many of those abandoned girls have birth defects. For example, Echel was born without a left hand.
Some demographers contacted by the Post refused to talk about the correlation between the country’s notorious one-child policy and the number of abandoned girls because of the sensitivity of the issue. Domestic reports have concluded that some families tend to dump baby girls in order to gain permission from the authorities for the birth of a baby boy.
Lily said she was happy with her life in the US – where besides her high school studies she has learnt to play the flute and taken up ballet and figure skating – but was still eager to find her biological parents.
As a little girl she noticed that her appearance was different to that of her parents and, when she asked about it, they told her she had been adopted from China.
“Since I was young, I thought part of my identity, my sense of self was here in China,” she said. “Because of that, I’ve always felt going to know my birth parents, my heritage, my culture and my birth place in China was very important to me.”
Since the age of six, Lily has felt a deep sadness about this missing part of her story.
“She lives a great life. But she wants to know someone who looks just like her. She would like to know what happened. She’d like to let them know she is not angry and to give them a big hug,” said her mother. “She regards them as her family and they are missing.”
“She once asked me, ‘Mom, can you Google her [the biological mother]?”
Lily did not want to delay the search for her biological parents because “people’s memory fades over time”.
She was also helped by Chen Yijing, a Chinese exchange student who was studying in Lily’s home town of Hershey, Pennsylvania last year, and other members of the Chen family.
During the visit to Daye, a city of one million people, they were contacted by local residents who were searching for their own missing family members.
One of them was a young woman who hoped Lily would turn out to be her lost sister. The girl had been taken away and abandoned by her grandfather – a loss that had haunted the baby’s mother for the past two decades.
However, it emerged that the girl in question had been abandoned in 1997 – three years before Lily’s birth. But the girl’s sister remained friendly towards Lily and her family, helping them hand out fliers in a local shopping centre as they sought more information.
The family also met a father who had abandoned two girls and hoped that Lily would be one of them.
But once again, they concluded this was not the case because the girls in question had been left at an orphanage – whereas Lily had been found near the civil affairs authority.
They also had the chance to thank Ji Zhenzhu, the official who found Lily, for what she had done.
One character of Lily’s Chinese name – Zhen – comes from Ji’s name. Since she was born in early September when the weather was still hot, the orphanage also chose the character Xia, which means summer in Chinese, giving the name Xiazhen.
Like other children in the orphanage, Lily was given the same surname as the director of the institute, Guo.
Although her appearance is Chinese, Lily does not speak or read the language. However, she has travelled to many different countries with her parents and is adamant she will return to China to continue her search.
Because her father is a geneticist, he can collect DNA samples at his laboratory.
The family has authorised a friend in Daye to collect blood samples from people who think they may be Lily’s birth parents, and send it to the US for checking.
“I don’t hate my birth parents,” said Lily. “They had good reasons to do what they did since there was still a one-child policy at that time.”
“They left me with clothes and half a bottle of milk. They abandoned me near the civil affairs authority, instead of other places. I am thankful for them.”