DNA databases have been a part of the post-adoption landscape for quite a while for adoptees from China. As more and more Chinese adoptees become legal adults, we are hearing from them as they navigate their biological and cultural identity as adoptees. While it is so easy for us to be siloed into our respective countries from where we came, there are some universal themes for all of us to consider as international adoptees. IAMAdoptee is about helping create a universal foundation of resources, all the while distinguishing the individual narratives of every internationally adopted person.
Katie Mantele, adopted from China, has been one of our more vocal advocates in ensuring accurate information and caution to her fellow adoptees considering DNA testing and birth search. She has agreed to share some of her thoughts and lend resources, as well as give us a fuller narrative on how DNA testing is impacting the Chinese adoptee community. With gratitude, here is our interview:
BASIC BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
Katie Mantele 郴巧玲
How do you identify yourself?
“Chinese” for convenience, but a more accurate identification would be “Chinese American” or “Chinese adoptee.”
Where were you adopted from, when and if you would like to share any aspect of your life before adoption?
I was adopted from Hunan Province, China in January 1996. I was supposedly from the second group to have ever been sent abroad for international adoption from my orphanage.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY and then in NJ; I currently live in NJ.
What is your profession/what are you pursuing?
I’m a graduate student pursuing a MA in Social & Cultural Analysis, which is essentially American Studies. My research interests include Asian American Studies, race and ethnicity, diaspora, kinship formation, and critical adoption studies.
Our paths have intersected a couple of times, but most recently, we have been talking about the impact of DNA testing in the Chinese adoptee community. What is the current landscape of DNA tests and databases in China, as you know it?
Within the context of Chinese birth searches, DNA testing has become quite the norm and essentially a required step in the Chinese birth search process, whatever that process is. I would argue that there isn’t really a set or systematic process, but over time there have been some patterns that I have observed as a member of various Chinese birth search Facebook Groups (e.g. the use of flyers, leveraging Chinese social media, contacting Chinese press, DNA testing), but the actual search can be very individualistic depending on one’s age, supposed geographic origin, and the amount/accuracy of any information from the orphanage.
There are a handful of in-China DNA databases that were originally created to address the amount of missing children who were already living in China, i.e. were not adopted internationally. The most well-known database within the Chinese adoption community is called Bao Bei Hui Jia (寶貝回家/宝贝回家) which translates to “Baby Come Home.” People can register a missing person through this website, and many adoptees have been registered. The website is in Chinese, but there are a few Chinese birth search Facebook Groups that have created English-language resources for how to register and navigate the site, as well as other Chinese social media like Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Chinese-Seeking.net is another similar resource.
Additionally, there is another resource created by an adoption agency (CCAI) called MyTapRoot which offers DNA tests to potential first families in China. Chinese adoptees can register through their website. Only specific DNA tests are used in China, therefore Chinese adoptees outside of China looking to do DNA testing must use the same or compatible tests. MyTapRoot offers the necessary DNA test, making it a popular option. They have also partnered with Bao Bei Hui Jia. Their Facebook page provides updates of matches.
MyTapRoot has also partnered with the Nanchang Project, an initiative started by two adoptive mothers who arranged trips specifically for finding potential Chinese first families. The Nanchang Project, while originally focusing their work in Nanchang, China, is (at the time of this writing) able to offer a free DNA test to any Chinese first parent through MyTapRoot, even if they are not from Nanchang. Their Facebook provides regular updates on matches, new searches, etc.
There are also many Facebook Groups that are province-specific, but this Group is for all of China and is quite popular with over 3,000 members. The documents under “Files” may be helpful if you are just starting: Family Ties: Chinese Adoptee Birth Family Search.
What is working well in regards to this resource?
I think the idea of DNA testing as a search method is effective because it offers Chinese adoptees, and perhaps even Chinese first families, hope that reunion is possible. Most Chinese adoptees do not have accurate (or any) information about their lives pre-orphanage/pre-adoption, and so searching is nearly impossible. Record keeping by Chinese orphanages was little to none, especially if you were adopted in the earlier years of mainland Chinese adoption like I was, and China also has a history of child-trafficking, making the search even more difficult. Therefore, DNA testing becomes a legitimate, and sometimes only, option for Chinese adoptees who may not have enough information to search by other means.
I also like how some of these resources are working together through partnerships to expand their reach and thus increase the chance that there will be a successful match. Since some of these resources, like Bao Bei Hui Jia, also cater to separated families within China as well as adoptees, these initiatives have become unique spaces of transnational cooperation. That said, sometimes these groups–especially the Facebook Groups, which are usually run by adoptive parents–can overlap too much, making the process somewhat overwhelming or more difficult than intended.
What are some of your concerns?
My main concern is how birth searches are essentially new business ventures for people, both inside and outside of China. There are already a few well-known individuals within China who do private searches for adoptees, some having done them for years and with varying degrees of success, and at various costs. I think it’s safe to say that these types of services were not available, or even imaginable, 15-20 years ago when the demand for this type of service was little to none. (For reference, mainland China did not officially open its doors to international adoption until 1992).
I understand that DNA tests, travel, interpreters, etc. cost money; however, what I am strongly against is any individual or group that aims to profit (or is not being transparent with where funding goes and how it is being used) off of the pain, trauma, and perhaps desperation that may accompany the search.
If anyone who is reading this is familiar with Chinese birth searches, then they have probably noticed I left out a well-known search group in the last question. I did this intentionally. While I acknowledge that the data this group has collected is invaluable and that it has lead to some matches, I cannot ethically support them because of their lack of transparency (in terms of where the money they accumulate goes), the way they have treated concerned adoptees in the past who have legitimate concerns about their business, and because they rely on taking DNA tests out of China in order to test them in the United States, which is against Chinese law. Additionally, they previously used 23&Me to process the DNA they collected while in China, but received a cease and desist letter from the company after 23&Me was made aware of it. However, many adoptive parents support this service, probably because of the plethora of information they have managed to collect over the years, there have been some successful matches, and it is run by adoptive parents.
This concerns me because they are essentially holding a monopoly on this precious information that they charge approximately $35-$400 to access, depending on what the information is and if the person interested has or has not donated to them in the past. It is also gross in that their Facebook pages constantly market this data in ways that literally commodify information that most people (i.e. non-adopted people) take for granted: “Don’t settle for a black & white xerox of this wonderful piece of your child’s history. Get a razer-sharp [sic] color scan of their [finding] ad¹, and possibly the actual newspaper it appeared in. These photos are awesome!!” There is certainly a level of commodification that is involved in adoption in general (check out Korean adoptee and scholar Elizabeth Raleigh’s book Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets, and the Color Line for more on this) that is worth discussing, but the fact that some people willingly capitalize off of the desire to search post-adoption is still appalling.
I truly understand why some people may choose to use this service: they have a lot of information, it is marketed in an effective way (i.e. using a framework of time, before time runs out, etc.), and one of the people who run it is fluent in Chinese and has Chinese cultural capital that most of us adoptees have lost. But I fear that, given their lack of transparency and their standing by removing DNA from China, they are putting DNA testing/birth search in jeopardy, and that some/all of this information may eventually be lost or locked up if no one is able to or willing to pay for it. I even asked what would happen to the information if someone could not afford to pay to access it, and they would not give me a direct answer, but instead twisted my words to make it look like I didn’t want adoptees to find their first families. On a related note, this resource was featured quite prominently in Nanfu Wang’s new documentary One Child Nation; however, none of the pricing or other business-related details were shared, and unfortunately those who run this resource stood in as the de facto voice of Chinese adoptees in the documentary.
Of course, any other searcher may pose the same/similar risks as this particular group. But what makes this situation different is that they accumulate information systematically, and then charge a lot of money to access it from adoptees and adoptive families who are just trying to piece together any missing information.
¹ Finding ads are usually newspaper ads that the orphanage puts out once children have been found or brought to the orphanage. They can vary depending on orphanage, the time they were created, etc. Many have photos of the children, while others may not, and usually include information such as the sex of the child, an approximate age, and where the child was found.
What would you like your fellow Chinese adoptees to know about DNA testing and submitting their biological data?
DNA testing has its pros and cons. While some people (and adoptees) aren’t comfortable with using DNA tests, I also understand how using them may feel necessary as there are very few, if any, alternatives. However, I would caution Chinese adoptees who are interested in doing DNA testing to be aware of the Chinese laws regarding DNA testing. It is illegal for people to remove any bodily fluids, which includes DNA, from the country; in other words, if someone is trying to collect DNA from Chinese first families within China but test them in the United States, it is illegal. While I understand the concerns some may have about the validity of tests within China versus outside of it, I would not want to take a chance with this as DNA testing is still relatively new. Additionally, I fear that if individuals or organizations continue to transport DNA tests outside of China, it could negatively impact the searches for others in the future, especially as DNA testing for the purpose of searching is becoming more popular. Please see this document, which was created by an adoptive parent active in Chinese birth searches, with more information about the specific Chinese laws regarding the removal of DNA from China.
What would be a good few steps about searching in China that you would like adoptees to know?
From my personal experience, the process of searching has been incredibly difficult, emotionally draining, and at times quite demoralizing. I’m proficient enough in Chinese to be able to use Chinese social media in order to spread information, but the interactions I’ve had with people through these platforms have been mixed. I have gotten many messages from people wishing me the best and offering to help; however, I’ve also gotten messages from people who question why I’m searching and who claim that I am not being filial/loyal to my adoptive parents. I understand where these sentiments come from, and have come to expect them at this point, but they still hurt. I don’t say this to discourage Chinese adoptees from using these platforms in their search–in fact, if you can use them, do it–but instead as a warning and to urge you to be as prepared as you can for such moments. I think it is helpful if you have an adoptee friend that you are comfortable with to talk to about the search, and who can help you process what is happening, because there is so much emotional labor on your part that goes into it.
What is the conversation in adoption you would like to have more of? What is going on in the adoption community you wish would get more air time?
Rather than a specific topic, I would love to see the adoption community move outside of the binary framework that usually portrays adoption. In other words, instead of thinking about adoption as either “good” or “bad,” or of adoptees as either “happy” or “angry,” let’s try to move past that. From both my academic work and personal conversations with other adoptees over the years, it is very clear to me that adoption is not black and white. Complicating strongly held understandings of adoption, especially for non-adoptees, may be difficult and even messy at times, but I think it is necessary in order to be able to better understand why adoption is what it is today.
ADOPTEE to ADOPTEE
What is the best part of being an adoptee?
The community of adoptees that I have been privileged to be a part of. There is truly something very special and powerful about adoptee friendships, and I consider myself lucky to have them when I know so many others do not.
What is the hardest part of being an adoptee?
I think one of the hardest parts for me personally is how adoption is almost always framed within a binary narrative: it’s either a “good” thing or a “bad thing,” or adoptees are either “happy” (i.e. grateful) or “angry” (i.e. ungrateful). Adoption is so nuanced; there are so many other aspects and factors that encompass adoption that are historical, political, geopolitical, sociological, etc. that oftentimes get overlooked. I believe these other factors deserve more recognition and to be taken seriously when thinking about and discussing adoption.
Is there something of the Chinese culture you have incorporated into your daily life?
I’m not a very superstitious person, but whenever I see the number 4, which is pronounced in a way that sounds similar to the word for “death,” I do feel a bit uneasy, at least initially. In fact, one of my best friends, who is Chinese American, and I changed the amount of tip we gave on a bill at a Chinese restaurant because we realized the original total ended in 44.
If you’ve been to China, please finish this sentence – Next time I go to China, I…..
Next time I go to China, I would like to walk around my hometown without anyone with me, and just blend in.