JIANGSU, CHINA: The moment she saw her daughter, Madam Shen Mei Zhen sprang forward and hugged her tightly, tears of joy streaming down her face.
She had, against her will, given away her then two-day-old baby Wu Xue Ying nearly 39 years ago.
The two embraced in an emotional reunion in August 2017 – their first meeting since Ms Wu was given up for adoption.
“My daughter, I have wronged you. I am so sorry. My daughter, have you suffered much?” wailed Mdm Shen. “I’ve cried so many tears for you. I’ve been searching for so long and have been so heartbroken.”
Seeing her lost daughter in the flesh after so many years, the older woman could not stop caressing her child’s face and wouldn’t let her go, overwhelmed with feelings of both relief and guilt.
“I am responsible for sending her away. I have done her so much wrong,” she said brokenly. “After we sent her away, I could not sleep that night. I quarrelled vehemently with my husband. I asked him to retrieve her, but he said we could not afford it.”
Under China’s then newly-implemented one-child policy - which mandated that couples could only have one child because of the rapid population growth – Mdm Shen and her husband had to give up one of their four kids.
As the couple told the investigative programme Get Real, defying the law and keeping their youngest would have cost them their jobs and taken away their only means of survival in their village in Jiangsu Province, north of Shanghai.
Mdm Shen vividly recalls the day she gave her baby away – she had dressed her in a rabbit sweater and a cotton jacket, with a piece of paper with her birth details carefully tucked inside her clothes.
“My husband brought her to a bridge and passed her to the middlemen,” she recounted. “I wept and wept.”
This family’s story is echoed across a country where at least half a million children – mostly girls - were abandoned by their parents or put up for adoption because of China's family planning policy, leaving families shattered and causing decades of pain.
A very few rare and fortunate cases – like Mdm Shen and Ms Wu – have now found each other again, after years of searching and anguished wondering, thanks to the efforts of a volunteer group.
Get Real documents the mission to such reunite families, and the miraculous, emotional result for some. (Watch the episode here.)
DON'T LET THE DOGS GET THEM
Under the population control policy, China’s government imposed expensive fines on families who violated the limit, forcing women to choose between abortion or abandonment. The policy was eventually scrapped in 2015.
Some parents who chose to abandon their kids left them in public places, such as bus stops, markets and government offices, in the hope that someone would pick them up.
Mr Li Yong Guo, who is working to reunite such families, said: “After leaving their child at these places, the family members would not leave immediately, but hide at a distance to watch lest stray dogs or cats take the child away.”
In 2011, Mr Li founded the volunteer group Jiangyin Relatives Tracing Association, to help the city’s elderly parents locate the children they had abandoned.
In the past seven years, they have helped to reunite more than 100 families. But in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, finding one’s family is a formidable task, as he admitted:
The probability of finding a match is similar to striking first prize in lottery.
His team of 300 volunteers – many also searching for their own families - go online to reach out to children who believe their birth parents were from Jiangyin city. At the same time, hopeful parents sign up with the association through registration drives.
Blood samples are collected, and DNA testing is used to link these parents and their children.
The association holds these events every weekend during the summer holidays and has amassed a database of more than 2,000 old folks looking for their children.
“If we do not organise these kinds of events, these people have no way to find their family,” explained Mr Li.
A CHANCE TO RIGHT THE WRONGS
For birth parents like Mdm Zhou Juying, the registration drives offer a glimmer of hope, and the chance to right the wrongs of the past.
“Family planning officials came to my house and stayed for three days and nights. I did not want to give the child to them,” she recalled.
“I try not to think too much, otherwise I will cry even more. I think about him all the time, wanting to get him back.”
Teacher Zhou Xiao Yun has been searching for her birth parents for over 20 years. While she had very loving adoptive parents, her childhood was not easy, she said.
I am especially sad during festivals. I wonder if my birth parents left an extra pair of chopsticks for me; just the thought of it pains my heart.
A volunteer with the association, Ms Zhou recognises that many abandoned children, who are now adults like her, want to close that circle in their lives – to find out more about their roots, their surnames at birth, and where they were born.
“What they most want to know, is why they were abandoned,” she said. “Some hate their parents and want to know why they were the ones who were given up instead of the other siblings.”
WATCH: The faces of anguish - and a special reunion (5:03)
‘NO’ TO REUNION
But not everyone is so keen to reconnect with their lost loved ones. Some birth parents fear being hated by the child they left behind, said volunteer Wang Zhou Li.
Others are worried their existing children would object violently to their search.
“They are afraid that if they find their abandoned child, their other children would stop supporting them financially. So they don’t even start looking,” said Ms Wang.
Then there are the adoptive parents, some of whom resort to extreme measures to prevent reunions from happening, said fellow volunteer Ms Zhou. They move homes multiple times, or simply lie to their children that they were not adopted.
“In the north, a lot of parents keep the child away from school, afraid that the child will take off and forget about them. If the children are illiterate, then they will remain farmers,” she said.
You can’t leave because you can’t read – so you won’t be able to find your family.
Ms Han Feng Ying from Handan city discovered the fact of her adoption when she was six from other children in her neighbourhood. Her adoptive father never spoke to her about it
“He treated me like his own and probably did not want me to find my birth parents,” she said.
SEARCH, OR REGRET FOREVER
Fortunately for Ms Wu Xue Ying, her adoptive mother Mdm Yang Ai Yun did not stop her searching for her birth mother. This was despite the older woman’s constant fear that she might lose her adopted daughter once she found her roots.
“If she visits me, then she cares. If not, then that reflects on her maturity,” said a teary Mdm Yang, who has two children of her own.
Ms Wu, 39, had sent her blood sample to the Jiangyin association from her home town in Anhui some 500km away. She hoped for a match but was aware that the odds were extremely low.
“At this age, if I still don’t look for my birth parents, I may regret it forever,” she said.
When she was seven, she found out from her classmates that she was adopted, and they refused to have anything to do with her after that. “They said I was … not my parents’ natural child. They belittled me and refused to play with me,” she said.
For years, she kept her feelings of insecurity and unhappiness a secret. “On the outside, I come across as a cheerful person and someone who gives joy to others. But the pain I feel inside, no one knows,” she said.
She was one of the lucky ones – three months after she sent in her blood sample, her wait finally came to an end. She received news from Mr Li that her sample matched that of a couple in their records.
“I didn’t believe it. My mind was a complete blank. I was frozen and I thought I was dreaming,” she said. “I was extremely excited, so much that I secretly cried.”
MORE WORK AHEAD
During the emotional meeting with her birth parents, Ms Wu comforted her guilt-ridden birth mother as Mdm Shen repeatedly apologised.
“I don’t blame you, it was a long time ago. Living conditions were hard or you wouldn’t have given me away,” Ms Wu told her, assuring her that she felt no resentment.
She now has two families – but there’s no fairy tale ending for her yet, as she has to tread carefully between the two, so as not to upset one side or the other.
Her anxious adoptive mother and brother are still trying to come to terms with the new situation.
“Even now, they when I try to talk to them about it, they will cry,” she said. She reassured them that she had no plans to move away to live with her birth family.
On her part, Mdm Shen missed her new-found daughter greatly after Ms Wu returned to her hometown.
“I can’t bear to be parted from her, so far away in Anhui,” she said. “But I’m still really elated. Being able to reunite with my daughter, my life is now complete.”
The efforts of one volunteer group has transformed the lives of these women – but in the Jiangyin association’s DNA database, there are still 3,000 seekers waiting for their own happy ending.
For Mr Li, the feeling of successfully reuniting a family is indescribable.
“Seeking relatives after many years of separation and reuniting them is no simple feat,” he said. “I hope we will continue to have such positive results, even surpass what we have already accomplished.”
Watch this episode of Get Real here.