What happens to adopted children when they reconnect with their birth family? These subjects have been the subject of several compelling documentaries over recent years. Three Strangers Identical TwinstersThey are. It is possible to join them FoundAmanda Lipitz has released a new, heart-breaking documentary called “The Adopted Teens”. It is available on Netflix.Across America, they discover that their Chinese blood relatives are close to them.
As the cousins bond and decide to learn more about their roots, they hire a Beijing-based genealogy researcher named Liu Hao, who quickly becomes one of the documentary’s most riveting characters. The documentary shows Liu spending months traveling across the country in a quest to track down the trio’s birth families and orphanage nannies and confronting her own past as a family outcast. As their mentor, tour guide and pseudo-therapist, she eventually joins the relatives on an emotional journey across China.
TIME spoke with Liu about the unique relationship she has with her cousins in Zoom, Hong Kong. She also talked to TIME regarding her breakthrough at the movie’s end. Warning: This article may contain spoilers Found
A Lost Generation
Although Found focuses mostly on the personal journeys of the three cousins, Lily, Chloe and Sadie, it also touches on the historical reason for their adoptions: China’s one-child policy, in which the government mandated that most families only have one child in an attempt to curb rampant population growth. This policy has been in effect for over three decades. The government placed fines and other sanctions on any family that had more children. In some instances, the government even required sterilizations or abortions.
Many secret abortions were the result. infanticideabandoning babies in public areas. One farmer in Find According to him, he could not pay an $8.500 fine to allow his child to be kept, so he abandoned her at the hospital’s door. Given the often patriarchal nature of Chinese families, baby girls were more frequently sacrificed, leading to the country’s population having one of the highest gender imbalances in the world.
These cousins are Found These are just three of the more than 100,000 Chinese children Western families adopted between 1990-2015. Washington PostIt is. Liu nearly joined them: Liu claims several of her family members gave up their female children, and her parents considered giving her up for adoption before she was saved by her grandparents. “It was very difficult for me because you know you are not welcome. You are in the wrong gender, they don’t want you, and you know that,” she says in the documentary.
This history led to Liu joining My China Roots two years ago as a researcher. (She’s since moved on. “I think what they are doing is really interesting because they help people find their past and try to connect them to their culture that they are not so familiar with,” she says.
Liu was reached out to by his cousins. Found, she was especially excited to take on the case given that they were from Liu’s home region: the Western Guangdong province. Liu posted ads to social media, television and cold-called orphanages. She also consulted governmental records and medical records. In-person interviews were conducted with several parents who lost their baby decades back and wanted to reconnect.
These interviews revealed a side of Liu that was achingly compassionate: the parents loved their children deeply, but they didn’t have the financial means to support them. In one of their wrenching stories, a parent waited until early morning to put a baby on the side of the road, so the baby wouldn’t have to spend too long in the cold. Liu says those conversations were agonizing but ultimately rewarding: “It is very emotional and a very difficult job to handle those parts. But I’m very grateful I can be a part of it, to learn so many people’s stories.”
Liu said it was special that she could do the research in her home town. “Because I’m from the same place, people can open their hearts to me to talk about a lot of stuff. They trust me, and they talk about a lot of stuff they usually won’t share with others.”
A Surprise Ending
After searching for months, Liu was ultimately unable to track down the cousins’ birth parents. Liu discovered a remarkable fact at the end: she had interviewed one of her interviewees.—who owns a clothes shop in Yangjiang and says she gave up three daughters—was a DNA match with another one of Liu’s clients, a teenager named Amanda Phillips. It was the first time Liu successfully linked a child’s birth parent and their biological parents. “I cannot believe it happened: It’s so unreal for me,” Liu says. “It’s just something that can only happen in a movie or something.”
In the film, the birth mother, who didn’t want to be filmed or identified, expressed guilt and trepidation that her daughter would be angry with her. Liu said that Phillips and her mom have spoken over WeChat, with the help of the translation function. Liu says that Phillips has been trying to learn Cantonese and sometimes asks her to help her translate one of her birth mother’s messages; that Phillips was planning to travel to meet her birth mother, but COVID-19 delayed the trip.
Liu keeps in touch with three of his cousins from the middle. Found, sending and receiving “silly photos” via Snapchat with them. According to her, she was moved by the documentary when she viewed it.She felt that her feelings and relationship with her girls were true to their experience. “I think it’s a lovely story, and I loved seeing their faces again,” she says. “That Chloe and Sadie and Lily had the courage to come back really inspired me. I think that is a really precious quality they have—and I want more people to have the courage to do something they are afraid of.”