Lisa Reff and her daughters Sarah (left) and Katie (right).
For more than a decade, China has been the top country for international adoptions to the United States. Since 1999, American families have adopted more than 60,000 Chinese babies and toddlers. But that's all changing, as China has tightened adoption rules in the past few years.
Lisa Reff, of Bethesda, traveled to China in 2002, to adopt her first daughter, Sarah, who was then 10 months old.
Reff is a single mom and she says she chose to adopt from China, in part because back then it was in some ways simpler for a single person than adopting domestically.
"You knew what the paperwork was, you knew what the timing was," she says.
The Chinese adoption system was transparent, and the babies were healthy. So, there was a rush of Americans adopting Chinese children. Almost 8,000 were adopted in 2005, the year Reff returned to China to adopt her second daughter.
"Most people stayed at a hotel called the White Swan, which we affectionately called the White Stork, because it was just filled with Caucasian parents and Chinese children."
But starting in 2006, adoptions dropped precipitously, as China changed its policies to promote more internal adoptions. The result, in the United States, is that among kids currently in elementary school, there is a uniquely large cohort of Chinese American girls.
Discovering the past
Ninety percent of adoptees from China are girls, due to China's one-child policy. And because Chinese families can't just go to an orphanage and give up a child, parents often leave baby girls in public places, where they will be found quickly and taken to an orphanage.
That was the case for Lisa Reff's two daughters: Katie and Sarah.
"I was, I think, not sealed closed, but put in a box, 'cause I remember I was near the orphanage when that happened," says Sarah.
"My mom told me that I was left in front of a school in a box," says Katie.
The story about the box is all they know about their birth parents. But this summer, the family is planning a trip back to China. They'll hit all the tourist sites, but they'll also visit the orphanages where the girls spent their first few months. Katie's interested in seeing a particular piece of furniture she knows from a baby photo.
"Seeing if there's a red couch, that, all the children there, they took a picture of all the babies and me on a couch."
These "heritage tours" as they're called, are pretty common. It's a way for adoptive parents to help their kids understand where they came from. Janice Morris, a mother from Arlington, took her daughter three years ago.
"It was an opportunity to see what life would have been like for her in China, and for girls in general, both good and bad," says Morris.
At the time, her daughter Claire was 10.
"It was sorta sad, because I saw how lucky I am to be here, in America. But I also was happy to see where I came from," says Claire.
They visited the orphanage, and they also went to her finding place — the farmers market where Claire's birth parents left her.
"There were a lot of rice farms there," she says. "So if I was still there, I would have to do a lot of growing rice."
Connecting with culture
These trips can be important for adopted children as they get older and start to grapple with questions of identity, according to Ellen Singer, a social worker at the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Burtonsville, Md.
"Sometimes it helps fill in the missing pieces to the questions they have in their minds. So for some children it's extremely powerful and healing."
She says it's also important to tell children the story of where they were born, and how they were adopted, even if that story includes potentially difficult elements, like being left in a box.
"We always counsel parents how to do it from an age appropriate perspective. What you tell a three year old is different from what you tell an older child."
As the children adopted from China in the early 2000s get older, some will of course have more questions about their background. But for these kids, it may be hard to get good answers: there are no records to help track down birth parents; even things like exact birthdates are uncertain.
Still, many adoptive parents, like Lisa Reff, are making an effort to connect their kids to the culture. Reff’s daughter Katie takes Chinese dance lessons, and she’s learning Mandarin.
“‘Ni hao ma’ means like, ‘How are you?’ And then ‘Wo hen hao’ is usually the regular response, which means, ‘I am fine, thank you.’”
[Music: "Mama You Sweet" by Lucinda Williams from West]
Photos: Asia Moms