Lily Poynter would sometimes cry herself to sleep at night, wondering about her birth family back in China — a family she almost certainly would never know.
In spite of a loving relationship with her adoptive parents, Bryan and Carrie Poynter, the Centerville teen ached to see her birth family again. “She would lie in bed at night and she would cry,” Carrie recalls. “She couldn’t understand why her family would leave her.”
When her parents tried to console her by saying they would take her back to China one day, Lily would respond, “What’s the point? I am not going to find a family member anyway.”
More than 80,000 Chinese children have been adopted by American parents since 1999 — and until recently the vast majority had virtually no hope of finding their birth parents. That is slowly starting to change, and Lily’s story provides a dramatic example of how DNA is transforming the landscape for international adoptees searching for birth families.
“DNA is the future of searching,” says Brian Stuy, founder of Research-China.org, which conducts research into Chinese adoptions and helps families in their search for birth parents. “Collecting DNA and submitting it to a global database allows for matches to be made that wouldn’t have been possible in the past, due to the inaccurate information that families receive and the migrant nature of the Chinese population.”
There is no official record of the number of such reunions, Stuy says – perhaps only several hundred – and they are still rare enough to make national and even international news. But the trend will expand, he predicts, as the word gets out that Chinese officials are embracing these reunions instead of thwarting them as they did in the past.
“The change of heart is a recognition that it will occur whether or not they are on board,” Stuy explains. “So they are trying to manage the searching, control the database and the DNA that is being collected, and to make sure the reunions that do occur are cast in a China-friendly light.”
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The Poynters hardly dared to imagine they would find Lily’s birth family. They submitted her DNA to 23andMe on the remote chance of finding a birth relative, perhaps a sister also adopted in the United States. But they never truly expected to find any leads, let alone to uncover a tragic story surrounding Lily’s birth.
Then one day in March 2018, Carrie received a message from a New Zealand woman, Julie Jones, from the Facebook group for the Guangchang Social Welfare Institute, the orphanage in southern central China from which Lily was adopted. “I have been trying to find our daughter’s birth family and was doing some research this evening and came across some info about your daughter’s birth family,” she wrote, attaching an article from the Jiangnan Metropolis Daily.
At first, Carrie was skeptical, but she grew more and more intrigued after reading the article about a woman whose sister had given birth to a baby girl shortly before her death. “My sister was seriously ill at the time,” the woman told the reporter. “When the doctor had emptied all the family savings, her relatives and friends had also borrowed. But she still passed away.”
Unable to care for the infant, the family placed her in the care of the Guangchang Social Welfare Institute, where caregivers named her Guang Si Liang at the time of her adoption by an American couple.
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The newspaper reported that the Chinese family only wished to locate their lost daughter and to be reassured that “the bright light in a foreign land could grow up healthy and happy.” The article concluded, “Although the hope of finding her is very slim, as long as there is one-millionth hope, the family will not give up looking for her.”
The time frame, Chinese nickname – LiangLiang — and orphanage all matched. “At first I thought, ‘Holy cow!’” Carrie recalls. “Then I thought maybe it was a scam.”
But the most tantalizing detail appeared at the end of the article: the passport number for the American father, issued in Chicago. A frantic half-hour search for Bryan’s expired passport bore fruit: The numbers matched those in the newspaper article. “I was blown away,” Carrie says.
“It took everything Carrie had not to tell Lily,” Bryan says.
Only one thing could resolve their uncertainty: DNA testing.
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“We were completely shocked, but so excited at the thought of it,” Carrie recalls. “I had a feeling early on that this family was Lily’s birth family, but I had to wait until the DNA came back to prove it to protect Lily’s heart.”
The couple contacted a reporter in Guangchang who quickly connected them with the aunt who had been interviewed in the article. The Poynters then reached out to DNAConnect.org, a nonprofit sister organization of Research-China.org. Brian Stuy’s wife Lan happened to be in China on business, and she contacted Lena Wong, the older daughter of the birth mother. Lena was so determined to find her little sister she took a bullet train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou the next day to meet with Lan to submit a DNA sample.
The day before Mother’s Day, the Poynters received the news from Research-China.org: It was a match. Lily’s birth family had been found.
After a family dinner on Mother’s Day, her parents urged Lily to log into her 23andme account.
Lily looked up from her phone and exclaimed, “I have a sister!”
“Your family had an article published in a Chinese newspaper, looking for you,” Carrie explained.
Lily marveled, “They wanted to find me — they have been looking for me?”
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Carrie recalls, “I will never forget her tears. She was so relieved that someone had been looking for her. You could just see the weight being lifted off her shoulders.”
And then came the blow, the heart-wrenching news her parents had been rehearsing for weeks.
“What about my birth mom?” Lily asked.
Bryan and Carrie gently explained that her birth mother had died not long after giving birth to her. She clung to life in the hospital for weeks and defied expectations by living long enough to deliver a healthy child at home.
“She chose you over medical treatment because she wanted you to be here,” Carrie told her.
“With your birth mom passing away, your birth dad was so burdened he didn’t know what to do,” Bryan explained.
Lily cried for a while, hugging her parents tight. Even in the midst of her grief, Lily recalls, “I was really happy. I never thought I would find a family. Now I have a sister and a brother-in-law, niece and a father and a grandmother.”
Her grandmother in China was overjoyed to learn that Lily had been found, but Lily has talked directly only with her 28-year-old sister Lena, who was 14 when Lily was born. She had met her little sister only twice.
Now they can speak face to face with the help of a WeChat account. On one occasion, a Chinese translator helped with the painful conversation about the circumstances of Lily’s birth and adoption. As the sisters talked, Lena’s 4-year-old daughter shyly approached the camera. “Every time we have a FaceTime, Shiya wants to come over,” Lena says. “Your grandmother is bedridden and can’t talk to you, but she is so happy you have been found.”
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Then the conversation veered to the sensitive topic of the death of their mother. During her pregnancy, Lily’s birth mother, He Gui Rong, suffered from hydrocephalus, a condition in which excess fluid builds up within the cavities of the brain and may increase pressure within the head. She was hospitalized during her seventh month of pregnancy, drifting in and out of a coma after returning home.
“The hospital sent our mother home to die, but she lived another month,” Lena told her newfound sister. “Our mother tried really hard, even though she was so sick. She was almost paralyzed and couldn’t move much, and she had so much swelling.”
Lily finally asked the question that has been weighing on her for months: “Is it my fault our mother died?”
Lena reassured her, “No, no, it’s not your fault. Our mother lived another month because she was determined to stay alive and give birth to you. If our mom could see you, she would be happy you are growing up so healthy and happy.”
The story of what happened next is very different from what the Poynters were told at the time of the adoption — that the infant had been left in front of a government building by an unknown person. Instead, Lily’s father, Huang Zhe Xue, agreed to an “arranged abandonment,” in which the infant would be placed in the care of the orphanage until the family’s circumstances improved. He felt overwhelmed by caring for his dying wife and by the crushing debt caused by her long illness.
It’s not uncommon to find such a stark disconnect between the official Chinese version of the adoption and the reality, Stuy says. In some cases the families were pressured to give up their babies or misled about whether they could get them back, as in Lily’s case. “Sometimes the birth family finds out the orphanage was not acting in the best interests of the birth family,” he says. “It’s distressing to learn that what the families were told was not what happened.”
Huang He Gui Rong died only two weeks after giving birth to Lily. “The day she passed away, she had been trying to find the baby girl in the bed around her,” according to the birth family report prepared by Research-China.org.
One month later, her mother’s sister, He Gui Xiu, visited the infant at the orphanage, only to find the orphanage already had sent Guang Si Liang’s paperwork in for international adoption, and they would not return her to the birth family.
“All these years, the birth family has always been thinking about Guang Si Liang and wondering how she was doing and worried about if she was still alive,” the birth family report stated. “In 2012, the aunt, He Gui Xiu, started her search and was able to find out Guang Si Liang’s adoption information in the orphanage with a friend’s help.”
It would be another four years before that article would reach the Poynter family, changing the lives of both families forever. “There’s a difference in how she carries herself,” Carrie says of Lily. “Whatever she has imagined in her head all these years, she is reassured now that her birth family did what they had to do, hoping she would be healthy and happy. It’s not like they wanted to give her away.”
Observes Lily, “There a lot of feelings that come with all of this and with being adopted. Here and there I think about it, but I try not to think about it too much.”
It’s as if a psychic weight has been lifted, answering the kinds of questions that haunt many international adoptees: Where did I get my musical talent? Why is my hair this shade of brown? What is my medical history?
And, most of all, “Why did my parents give me up?”
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Since finding her birth family, Lily, now 14, seems less preoccupied with her adoption, focusing more on school, friends and dancing. She practices more than 20 hours a week with the Miami Valley Dance Company in Kettering.
Lily knows she is one of the lucky few: “So many people who were adopted internationally don’t know who their birth parents are.”
Some day soon, her story may not be so unusual. Adoptive mom Erin Valentino of Ft. Collins, Colo., calls the search for birth families “a small, strange industry,” but predicts that searching and reunions will continue to grow in popularity. Professional searchers can be hired in China at an average cost of $600, and tour companies such as Lotus Travel are offering customized family search trips by province.
Valentino became part of that trend when she co-founded the Nanchang Project with fellow adoptive mother Faith Winstead in February 2018 with the goal of reuniting children born in Jiangxi Province with their birth families. Even though they don’t speak Chinese, they immersed themselves in Chinese social media and created media content to advertise their searches. Fellow adoptive families from Jiangxi Province joined them in creating a group search video. So far they have found six matches, although they are still searching for their own daughters’ birth parents.
One key factor to their success: The Chinese government and official media have celebrated the reunions, instead of pursuing criminal charges against the birth parents. “China and the government media have really embraced the reunions, and that is encouraging more birth families to come forward,” Valentino says. “We are thankful they are taking notice in such a positive way and spreading happy endings.”
Carrie says she still cries when she thinks about finding Lily’s birth family: “Lily has answers and she has a sister. It fills that hole in our hearts we felt for her when she didn’t know her story. It fills the hole in her heart she felt when she didn’t know why she wasn’t with her birth family.”
The process is healing for birth families as well, according to Stuy, who has found more than 400 birth families that have so far matched to more than 60 adoptees through DNAConnect.org. “It’s extremely fulfilling,” he says. “Finding out that the child is alive and healthy brings tremendous peace to the birth families.”
Lily still longs to meet her birth family in person, fantasizing about a meeting orchestrated by her favorite talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres. Even if Ellen doesn’t come through, the family plans to visit China some time during the next several years. “I would love to meet my birth family,” Lily says. “It’s a gap that’s still there, and I would like it to be sewn together.”
One key person will be missing: her maternal grandmother, who died recently from complications of a stroke.
“I would love to meet her in heaven someday,” Lily says. “I am sad for my sister Lena even more than for myself. But I am very glad that my blood grandma found out that I am living the very best life that I can.”
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