At 4pm on August 26 last year, 22-year-old Catherine Su Pohler, whom everyone calls Kati, met her Chinese birth parents and older sister for the first time.
Kati’s biological mother, Qian Fenxiang, began to sob when the college student, from the American state of Michigan, arrived at the rendezvous: the Broken Bridge, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Qian ran up to the young woman, whose face so closely resembles her own, flung her arms around the child she had not seen since giving her up at birth, and said repeatedly in Mandarin, “I finally get to see you. Mother is so sorry.”
That heart-rending moment caught the world’s attention. Documentary filmmaker Chang Changfu had been instrumental in bringing the two parties together, and his crew was on hand to record the scene as it unfolded on the eve of the Qixi Festival. The festival is an auspicious one for reunions: the seventh day of the seventh lunar month is the only day of the year when, in Chinese mythology, two star-crossed lovers are allowed to meet on a celestial bridge.
Chang’s documentary aired on BBC World in December, watched by millions across the globe. This writer had interviewed Qian, her husband and Kati’s father, Xu Lida, and her adoptive parents, Ken and Ruth Pohler, for Post Magazine. The resulting feature story went viral.
Media in mainland China also gave a great deal of coverage to the meeting. It was, after all, the most universal of stories: one of love lost and found. It resonated with many of Kati’s fellow adoptees and their families, too.
The United States alone is home to more than 80,000 children who have been adopted from China since official records began, in 1999. About 85 per cent of those are female, because China’s draconian one-child policy (enforced from 1979 until 2016) meant many families – in a patriarchal society – chose to abandon or even kill baby girls so that they could try for a boy instead.
In many other cases, illegal second children were given up for fear of substantial fines and possible jail sentences, as was the case with Kati’s biological parents.
Reunions, experts say, are rare. Only 40 to 50 per cent of Sino-American adoptees opt to look for their birth families, according to Iris Chin Ponte, an early-education specialist, based in Massachusetts, who has spent years working with international adoptees. And she warns that the lengthy, costly and often futile searches can lead to despair.
That said, many people have been heartened by Kati’s story and have reached out to her for advice. She receives an average of three Facebook requests on the subject every day, usually from adoptees or Western couples who have adopted from China.
“It used to be a lot more. I’ve lost count of how many messages I have received,” Kati says. “I try to reply to as many as I can. They often ask if I can help them with their search in China, but there really isn’t a lot of help I can give since I didn’t look for myself.”
That, in part, is what makes her journey to Hangzhou so extraordinary.
China only allowed foreigners to adopt from its orphanages from 1992. The Pohlers – an evangelical Christian couple from Hudsonville, Michigan, with two biological sons of their own – visited an orphanage in Suzhou, more than 120km from Hangzhou and in neighbouring Jiangsu province, in the summer of 1996. They took home Jingzhi – the baby’s name had been included in a note written by her father, and left with her in a vegetable market.
The note, written in brush and ink, read: “Our daughter, Jingzhi, was born at 10am on the 24th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, 1995. We have been forced by poverty and affairs of the world to abandon her. Oh, pity the hearts of fathers and mothers far and near! Thank you for saving our little daughter and taking her into your care. If the heavens have feelings, if we are brought together by fate, then let us meet again on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou on the morning of the Qixi Festival in 10 or 20 years from now.”
Kati says she never felt different from others growing up in the largely white community of Hudsonville, and had no particular desire to dig into her own background.
“I had a solid, good childhood,” she says. “Everyone knew I was adopted, obviously, so I was never asked about it.”
She carried on the Pohler tradition by enrolling in the religious Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 30-minute drive from home, where her father and brothers had also studied. There, she worked hard and played hard – Grand Rapids is routinely voted as having one of the best craft-beer scenes in the US, and Christian students, like other young adults, are not averse to letting their hair down.
But after she turned 21, Kati made an off-the-cuff remark to her American mother about it being time she knew more about her origins. The Pohlers had known of Kati’s biological parents for some time, but had not told her for fear of disrupting her life.
Long before that, in 2005, the Pohlers had asked a friend in China to visit the Broken Bridge on the day indicated in the note delivered with Kati to the orphanage, and look for the Chinese couple. The Pohlers did not wish to provide their name or contact details – they simply wanted to tell Xu and Qian that their daughter was safe, healthy and happy.
The two parties missed each other on the bridge but later connected through a local television station, and the case was reported in the media. Intrigued by the story, Chang – a native of Jiangsu but living for many years in Pennsylvania – got in touch with Kati’s Chinese parents. He also conducted some clever sleuthing, which led him to the Pohlers in Hudsonville.
The Pohlers told Chang they would not tell Kati about her birth parents unless she were to ask about them, which the youngster eventually did, in the summer of 2016. One year later, she was standing on the Broken Bridge.
Chang’s cameras and the language barrier made an emotional first meeting even more fraught than it might have been. When, after a few days in Hangzhou, Kati said goodbye to Xu, Qian and her sister, Xiaochen, there was no guarantee they would see each other again.
Chin Ponte says it is not uncommon for there to be no attempt to build a relationship after a child has been reunited with his or her birth parents.
“In some cases, they just wanted information about their Chinese name, their real birthday and their genetic information. They call these [details] ‘truth’,” she says. “They want access to that biological information but are not interested in seeing them again or having a long-distance relationship.”
Happily for everyone in Kati’s case, however, nobody has walked away. They have been messaging regularly through Baidu’s near-perfect voice-to-text English-Chinese translator. And now, Kati, freshly graduated from college in the US, is back in China.
The young American arrived at the start of September, in Huaian, a city in Jiangsu some 450km north of Hangzhou, where she will teach English as a foreign language for a year. Xu and Qian drove for five hours to their second meeting but Kati was in bed with the flu, so interaction was limited.
On September 22, Kati made an eight-hour bus journey to spend the Mid-Autumn Festival weekend with her Chinese family, at their home in Hangzhou. Xu, an intense, thoughtful, chain-smoking 47-year-old, who might have been a beatnik poet in another life, was waiting in his new car with Xiaochen.
The family were anxious to ensure Kati’s visit would be perfect. Mid-Autumn Festival is the Chinese equivalent of America’s Thanksgiving, traditionally celebrated with a family feast that is finished off with mooncakes, fruit and wine, and Qian, 48, had cooked up all manner of treats. They pick me up on their way home from the bus terminal, having decided that more media intrusion might prove beneficial: a bilingual journalist could be a handy translator. Language, though, is only one of the many challenges facing them as two utterly different worlds collide.
On one side, stands a fiercely independent, all-American girl who has travelled widely, plays the viola and has a boyfriend living in Scandinavia. On the other, a Chinese couple who have spent most of their lives barely subsisting. They have not travelled overseas, or even taken a holiday beyond the annual Lunar New Year break. They have lived through social and economic changes in China that outsiders can barely imagine. In less than two decades, Xu and Qian have gone from being desperately poor to living in a middle-class residential compound on the outskirts of one of China’s wealthiest cities.
We arrive at the family flat at about 8pm. Kati will spend two nights here, sharing Xiaochen’s bedroom.
There have been two major changes in the household in the past year: the parents closed their second-hand white-goods business and are taking a break for the first time in their lives; and Xiaochen has a doting boyfriend, a property agent who goes by the name Kevin, who joins us for dinner.
Qian comes out of the kitchen to give Kati a hug. She appears relaxed; a huge grin remains on her face all evening. Xu and Zhiping, his gregarious nephew, who lives nearby, make a swift run to a nearby shop, returning with a box of Yanjing beer. “I heard Kati can drink, even baijiu,” the cousin says. That Kati downed some fiery Chinese liquor when she was taken to the Xus’ ancestral village last year has entered family lore.
Soon, dishes start to pile up on the table: stir-fried vegetables and shredded meat, a tureen of turnip broth, piles of freshly steamed prawns and tiny langoustines, and the star of the show: hairy crabs – a seasonal delicacy in the eastern provinces of China.
Kati gamely tries everything (hairy crab and thumb-sized langoustines are challenging for a chopsticks novice). There is much good-humoured banter, and gentle teasing of Kati’s beginner-level Mandarin, which she started learning in her final year of college. The cousin tops up her glass – and his own – over and over again, with an exclaimed ganbei, or “bottoms up”.
At one point, Qian, watching Kati struggle with a langoustine, picks up an expertly shelled white nugget of flesh with her chopsticks and feeds it to the American youngster, thrilled to be exercising the parental prerogative – seemingly unchanged the world over – to embarrass one’s child.
There are video calls from relatives all evening, all hoping to catch a glimpse of Kati.
“All the extended family want to meet her, of course, but very few of them live near Hangzhou,” Xu says.
Xiaochen is two years older than Kati and the only member of the family with some English. She is kind towards the sibling she was told about as a child, but always assumed she would never meet. On the surface, the two young women are chalk and cheese. Kati is outdoorsy while Xiaochen is slight, delicate and has the pale skin of someone who avoids the sun. Xiaochen was not encouraged to work outside school because her parents slaved away for decades so that she would grow up middle class and go to university.
Kati, while coming from an equally loving family, is from a world where the young are encouraged to be independent. She worked at a summer camp in Colorado straight after graduation, even though she was about to start a challenging teaching job in China.
Yet, they have found they are surprisingly similar in temperament. Both are softly spoken, reserved and courteous.
“It has felt quite natural spending time together,” Xiaochen says. “We get along easily and I don’t feel I’m with a stranger.”
After dinner, against the din of a typical Chinese household (musical ringtones of phones; a television variety show that nobody is watching; Qian washing up), the conversation turns more serious. Taking a deep breath, Xu asks Kati if she hates them for giving her up, and whether she had a tough time growing up without them.
“Look deep inside your heart, and tell me if you have more tolerance or hatred for us,” he says.
Kati makes several attempts to reassure them that there are no hard feelings, and that she had an enjoyable childhood. But the question keeps returning under different guises – 22 years of guilt cannot be dislodged so easily.
Cultural differences also hold a great deal of fascination, and Xu says Kati would not have come back to see them if she had grown up Chinese.
“Foreign girls and Chinese girls think differently,” he says. “A Chinese girl who was given away would never have forgiven her birth parents. It’s cultural.”
And the Chinese couple give credit to the Pohlers for allowing their daughter to come to China.
“It must have been so hard for them to let her go, especially to such a faraway country,” Qian says.
Chin Ponte has co-written a paper called “Letting Her Go”, about what a reunion between an adopted child and birth parents means for Western adoptive parents.
“It’s hard enough letting your child go to college,” Chin Ponte says. “Adoptive parents are more likely than birth parents to ask if they have done enough for the child anyway, and to ask, ‘Can we have the same emotional closeness without sharing genes? Do they love us?’”
Initially, when she found out that the Pohlers had hidden from her their knowledge of her birth parents, Kati was upset, but she has forgiven them.
“There can always be more communication, but I think my parents have made a lot of progress,” she says. “They have done a good job to try and look at how I feel, without fogging things up by telling me just how it looks their way. That’s one big step forward. They have only met the Hangzhou family on a computer screen and they want to come and visit.”
Kati says she is considering further studies, either in the US or Europe, in the future. She chose China for her gap year because an American acquaintance involved in a new international school in Huaian offered her a job, and because it “makes sense” for her to be here so that she can learn more about herself and her family.
As at many family dinners the world over, the group stays clear of two topics: religion and politics. The Chinese are aware of Kati’s Christian faith, but do not consider that to be any more odd than other Western habits. And the American president’s name is not mentioned once, despite the raging US-China trade war.
More important is the subject of boyfriends, and Kati mentions that she plans to spend the 2019 Lunar New Year holiday in Denmark, where her sweetheart is a graduate student. “Bring him here instead,” Qian and Xu say in chorus, offering to take the pair “to many different places”.
The warmth the group shares is infectious, but Kati knows there are still issues to work through. How, for instance, should she address Xu and Qian?
“I call Xiaochen ‘sister’ in Mandarin, because I don’t have a sister in America,” she says. “But I do not call my birth parents mother and father, because I have a mother and father at home. I don’t call them anything at the moment.”
The Chinese couple, however, are unequivocal when it comes to calling Kati their daughter.
“I left the note because I hoped we would see her again,” Xu says. “We didn’t mean to abandon her forever.”
As Qian brings out the mooncakes and fruit, she asks Kati if she knows how long she will stay in China. Kati gives a vague answer, and observes that parents everywhere are alike. “They never want to say goodbye,” she says.
“Of course, your parents would worry when you come so far on your own,” Qian says.
“But I don’t like people worrying about me,” Kati protests. And that, of course, is the prompt for a universal truth that parents of all races, creeds and colours acknowledge.
“Just wait till you have kids,” Xu says.