We are so grateful to be sharing this piece today from Erin Valentino, co-founder along with Faith Winstead of Nanchang Project, an NGO working to connect adoptees from China with their birth families and culture, along with other educational and awareness work about the complexity of adoption in China and internationally.
My name is Erin, and I am the co-founder of a nonprofit called “Nanchang Project”. Our goal is simple, to assist Chinese adoptees in reconnecting with their birth families in China. I, along with my friend and fellow adoptive mom Faith, started Nanchang Project in 2018 as a group video featuring 32 searching adoptees from just a single orphanage (Nanchang SWI, Jiangxi Province). The video went viral in China, and soon we were being interviewed by The Beijing News and being contacted by a well-known journalist who offered us a press conference if we were able to visit Nanchang in person. Within 6 weeks of the video premiering on Weibo (Chinese Twitter), we were on a plane to China.
Since that time, we have added over 200 Jiangxi adoptees to our group, we have been able to provide free DNA testing to approximately 50 birth parents (from all parts of China), and we have assisted in 15 reunions. We believe it is a fundamental right for adoptees to have access to their roots. Our group is 100% volunteer-run by both adoptive parents and adoptees. We offer assistance with utilizing Chinese social media to increase searching efforts and free DNA testing for birth parents. Yearly, we visit China along with two adoptees (we have been able to cover the costs in full for our adoptee travel mates since 2019). These trips have become the soul of Nanchang Project. We spend each day of our visit meeting people in parks, markets, and squares, handing out posters, and hearing their stories. Our initiative has been covered by many major Chinese media outlets, including South China Morning Post, Tencent News, iFeng News, and Jiangxi TV. Phoenix TV featured our story in a two-part documentary that aired throughout mainland China (for those of us outside of China, the series can be viewed on YouTube).
I have learned a lot in the years I have spent privately assisting my daughter with her search and since forming Nanchang Project. I will share with you some key takeaways for anyone who is considering searching but may feel overwhelmed by where to start.
The very first thing I recommend doing is gathering all of the documents you would have received in China, along with the adoption file sent to you by your agency. Have them retranslated. It wasn’t until I went back through our paperwork that I realized my daughter’s finder was listed by name. Things like this can easily be missed or forgotten if you haven’t read through it in detail. From there, I connected with others from the same orphanage (there are many Facebook groups dedicated to specific SWIs, cities, and provinces in China, join them!) to compare our information with other adoptees. Was the finding spot unique or were there many babies “found” there? Did my daughter’s note appear to be similar to other notes? Was our finder also listed in other adoptee’s paperwork? Comparing this info with others will help you draw a more realistic idea as to what you are working with.
Hiring a Searcher
Coming from a smaller town or village and/or if your information appears to be “unique” compared to others from your SWI, will increase your chances of success utilizing a private searcher. Typically, the searcher will visit the area you are from, they will try and make contact with the police officer who filed the paperwork, and they will try to contact your finder. They may attempt to check hospital records in the area, and they will most certainly hang posters in various public places. The price to hire a searcher will vary greatly, much of the fee is their travel costs as many searchers will search in any part of the country. I would expect to pay a searcher around $500-$800 for a 3 day search.
While I know there are lots of different thoughts and opinions on doing DNA, ultimately a DNA test will need to be done in some manner as a way to confirm a biological connection. I will provide you with some basics to get started searching with DNA, and then it should be up to the adoptee how he or she would like to move forward.
Two main types of DNA tests should be considered, the first one is known as a CODIS test in the US or STR DNA globally. This is a very simple test, similar to a paternity test. It works best for parent to child matches (although some sibling or other close relatives have been found this way) and is the most prevalent type of DNA test currently used in China. For any Chinese adoptee starting their search, I highly recommend obtaining this test. Currently, we are partnered with MyTaproot.org for CODIS testing. From their site, “MyTaproot is the first large-scale, internationally-coordinated effort to provide an opportunity for Chinese adoptees to potentially reconnect with their birth families”. In addition to MyTaproot, there are multiple localized family reunion efforts throughout China. Historically, these groups have focused on domestic cases, but as we have been able to bring greater awareness to the sheer number of children who’ve been adopted overseas, many of these groups have started welcoming International adoptees to join their databases as well. Currently, they all are working with the CODIS style test, so you will need this type of test to be added.
The second type of test is an autosomal test. This type of test takes a much larger sample and more complex look at the DNA and can provide biological relatives going back multiple generations. The most common autosomal testing company for Chinese adoptees is 23andMe. Doing this type of test will not only allow you the opportunity to potentially connect with siblings or cousins that were adopted but in some cases, birth parent DNA has been added there as well. *Please note, 23andMe does not operate in China, so you can expect that most of your matches in this database will be people living in various countries outside of China, mainly in America. Like all of the various CODIS databases existing in China, the same is true for autosomal tests. ICSA (https://www.icsachina.org/adoptees) has a detailed breakdown of all the places your DNA results can be added to, increasing your chances of success.
Please keep in mind, although “surprise matches” do occur, most families are reunited by utilizing a mix of search efforts including hiring a searcher, visiting China to search in person, and Chinese social media, in addition to just doing DNA.
Chinese Social Media
In the absence of being able to travel to China, utilizing social media can be a very powerful tool to help spread your search info quickly. I do recommend hiring a searcher first to conduct a private search (as finances permit of course), but there is no denying that social media has allowed us to connect quickly and conveniently with people all over the world. Most adoptees who utilize Chinese social media are using a few main apps including WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, and Youku. There are so many apps and platforms to look into, I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but these are some of the most popular ones to start with.
On a personal note, many of our matches with Nanchang Project originated from social media. In fact, our very first match occurred because someone shared one of our digital posters to a local WeChat group, and as luck would have it a family friend saw the girl’s info and thought it sounded a lot like their friend’s daughter. They sent the family the poster, and DNA was confirmed a few weeks later. After being separated for 20 years, it was just a single post to social media that helped reunite a family. Miracles do happen!
One of the most common questions we get is, “Will there be legal ramifications for Chinese parents by coming forward”. No one can know for sure what the future holds, what I can tell you is, to my knowledge, there have not been any documented cases where this has happened. In fact, in recent years, China has really embraced these reunions. In 2017, all of China (like much of the western world) become swept up with Kati Pohler’s story, “Meet Me on the Bridge”. Since then, many reunions between adoptees and their birth families have been showcased both locally and nationally in the media. There is no doubt in my mind that Nanchang Project’s success is in part due to the changing public opinion of searching and reunion within China.
Searching can take a huge emotional toll on you. Make sure you have a good support system in place both during and after your search efforts. It’s ok to take breaks as needed and start back up when you feel like you are in a good place to do so. Some people search for years, including visiting an area multiple times, going on TV, using social media, etc., before the right connection might be made. Some people get lucky with a single poster. Searching is not “one size fits all” and realistic expectations are important. It seems like most databases or searchers who are open to sharing their success rate, all sit at right around 10%. I also feel like this is a fair representation of what we’ve seen with Nanchang Project.
There are many Facebook groups dedicated to sharing information about searching in China. Many have existed for a number of years now and provide a wealth of information.
For general searching information, start with Family Ties: Chinese Adoptee Birth Family Search , from there you can connect with more regional based groups. If you happen to be searching in Jiangxi, please also join us in the Jiangxi Province Birth Parent Search Group.
Any searching adoptee needs to keep in mind, if a birth parent comes forward, even if the info doesn’t match yours, they are someone’s parent. Submitting DNA will increase their chances of success in eventually being reunited with their child(ren). Please refer them to our group so we may provide them with further assistance in locating their child, including a free DNA test.
To learn more about Nanchang Project’s work, or to donate to help keep DNA testing free for birth parents in China, please visit their website or connect with them via social media below: