Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Meia Geddes
by Meia Geddes

China’s one-child policy left countless children bereft. It can help to ease the pain of loss

  • Beijing should face up to the repercussions of its strict population policy. For the many thousands of children abandoned then adopted overseas, the government can begin to make amends by helping to bring together those it has separated

In 1992, I was abandoned as a baby and found in a public place in Hefei, China. For almost two years, I lived in an orphanage and with a foster mother. Then my adoptive mother flew me to Sacramento, California, where I grew up.

My existence here in the United States is due to China’s infamous one-child policy, which was imposed for more than three decades before it was eased to a two-child policy in 2015. I am one of more than 90,000 children adopted from China and raised in the US between 1992 and 2018. About 40,000 other children went to families in the Netherlands, Spain and Britain.

In her devastating poem, One Art , Elizabeth Bishop writes of loss in a way I relate to. She describes misplacing stuff like keys and a watch, but also losing things a little less trivial: names and places; rivers, cities and continents; and finally, that mysterious “you”.

China’s international adoptees like me have, in most cases, lost “you”: our biological mother, father, sister, brother, and extended family. We have lost a continent, a nation and citizenship. We have lost a thousand names and places, and in many cases, a language.

When we go to the doctor’s, we realise we have lost our family’s health history. And we have lost less tangible, but no less significant, things like the answer to a question once articulated by a Korean adoptee: “Do I look like somebody?”

In some cases, international adoptees in the US have even lost the country they called home because their parents failed to file the correct paperwork to ensure their citizenship. The Adoptee Citizenship Act attempts to address this issue. It was introduced to the Senate and House in May.

With losses can come gains: new names and places, opportunities and languages. I received an excellent education, became a citizen, and found family, friendship and a home here. Mom and I marvel at the mysterious fortune of having been paired.

Why China’s population numbers are almost certainly wrong

Yet the fact remains that my life, like those of thousands of other adoptees, has been indelibly shaped by a coercive and strictly enforced government policy on the reproductive rights of millions of women.

China must address the repercussions of its policies. It must consider the lives it has affected through its one-child policy and is continuing to affect through its two-child policy. It could begin to make amends by helping to bring together those it has separated.

Some adoptees abandoned due to the one-child policy are left with a note: their name, birth date, perhaps a message expressing heartbreak. Some adoptees, like me, are told there is nothing in their file. During adoptee Jenna Cook’s (unsuccessful) search for her birth family, she found 50 families who had left a baby on the same street in Wuhan in March 1992.
Xu Lida shows an image of his second daughter, Kati Pohler, as he stands on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou, China. She was raised in the US after she was abandoned as a baby due to the one-child policy, but father and daughter reunited on the bridge in 2017. Photo: Simon Song

Recognising the difficulties of such searches, China’s Children International, an organisation created by and for Chinese adoptees around the world, has compiled an “interim Birth Parent Search Guide”.

Korean adoptee Thomas Park Clement has financed DNA kits to help connect other Korean adoptees with their birth parents: a similar process may work for Chinese adoptees.

Adopted girl, reunited with birth parents on Hangzhou bridge, returns to China

Some Chinese adoptees have sent saliva samples to genetics companies in hopes of finding blood relatives. In Philadelphia, Stefanie Beard was matched with a biological cousin, Claire Mitchell, by 23andMe. Zoe Halbeisen, raised in Michigan, connected with her birth parents through the non-profit, DNAConnect.Org.

China could play a more active role in supporting voluntary DNA testing. DNA tests can be costly. China could donate to organisations that aim to connect international adoptees with birth families through DNA testing. It could promote awareness of the existence of such opportunities. And it could ensure birth families understand there will not be any repercussions for those who abandoned their children.

With greater financial support, more officially sanctioned testing, and an international non-profit intermediary managing sensitive information, adoptees could locate their birth families if they so wish.

This would have major implications for thousands of adoptees and families around the world. It could create a network of interlinked families and relationships unlike anything we have seen.

China could take other actions to support adoptees. It could offer them subsidised homeland visits. It could make official apologies to survivors of the one-child policy. It could thank the adoptive families around the world who raised its children.

Are there 50 million ‘missing’ Chinese girls? We will never know

It could specifically offer international adoptees a path towards citizenship. And it could eliminate its equally authoritarian two-child policy.

We have no way of knowing the number of forced abortions, infanticides, sterilisations, abandonments, separated families, or children trafficked for adoption due to the one-child policy. There are also many children who were kept legally invisible. Are there 50 million “missing” Chinese girls? We will never know.

We do know China did not foresee the many consequences of the policy. In 2016, men in China outnumbered women by 33.59 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that 30 to 40 million Chinese men will have a difficult time finding a wife.

Due to China’s skewed sex ratio, brides are being trafficked from neighbouring countries.

International adoption has often been a topic of fascination for the media and I am happy to see more coverage. One Child Nation, a powerful documentary about the painful effects of the one-child policy, has been shown in theatres around the US and is available online.

We adoptees are global citizens. China may see us as living reminders of a troubled past, but we also embody hope, survival and new lives. While I do not speak for all those adopted from China, it is safe to say we literally are children of different nations.

Meia Geddes is a librarian at the Boston Public Library, assistant at MIT's Sloan School of Management, writer, artist, and bookseller