Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


An Adoptee's "Back to" China Odyssey

By Andrew Miller
An intimate, candid conversation about one woman’s journey back to her birth family in China took place recently at the Columbia College campus in Chicago. The woman at the center of the conversation was Mei-Ling Hopgood, reporter and author of a memoir called A Lucky Girl. Her book recounts her experiences as an adoptee from China and her trip back to meet her birth family over twenty years later. The moderator for the evening was Vikki Ortiz, a journalist at the Chicago Tribune.

The discussion opened with a video introducing Mei-Ling’s early life. She was born in Taiwan in the year of the Ox, but was put up for adoption by her impoverished parents. Later she was to find out that the primary reason her birth family gave her up was that they had really wanted a boy. As an eight-month old baby, she arrived in America for the first time in April 1974. The video continued described Mei-Ling as “a sleeping ox waiting to be discovered.”

Following the video, Mei-Ling, a petite, cheerful woman, talked directly to the audience and described her life with disarming candor. She began her story with a quote from her adoptive mother, who said she, “for one split-second,” saw the “discarded dark bundle” as “foreign,” but when the baby was in her arms, her mother knew that “[she] was theirs.” Mei-Ling then talked about her childhood in Taylor, Michigan, and how she interacted with her family, stating that she always desired to be an all-American girl. Her family was truly international, with two brothers who had been adopted from South Korea. Although Mei-Ling’s childhood was happy, she was straightforward about the isolation she felt as an Asian-American living in an overwhelmingly white town. Her parents dealt with her physical difference by assuring her that she was beautiful. Even this positive and loving reassurance could not quite mask the stark reality that she looked different from those around her.

Having adjusted very well to her new life over the years, Mei-Ling was taken aback when the nun who organized her adoption called her two decades later. Saying that she had news of her birth family, she wondered if Mei-Ling wanted to know more about them—perhaps even to meet them. She found out from the nun that both her parents were 59 and that her mother was a homemaker and her father a farmer. The nun told her that she had six sisters and a single brother who had been adopted from South Korea. To Mei-Ling, these statistics felt dry, even cold.

One colossal misconception about adoptees, she told the audience, is that “adoptees all want to know about their past.” Wrong! She elaborated on that by using herself as a model: “I’m adopted and that’s that.” She was quite frank in saying that she didn’t want to know a lot about her family, let alone meet them.

On February 7, 1997, the new Chinese year came—a perfect metaphor for a second chance and even rebirth for Mei-Ling. But she continued to be tormented by all the questions that bombarded her mind and weighed her heart—and soul—down. “What if I’m hurt even disappointed by the ugly truth?” she thought.

After finally having decided to meet her birth family, Mei-Ling told her adopted parents about her decision, not daring to say “my” mother and father to her adopted family. As any loving, protective parents would, they supported her odyssey with apprehension and hope.

Although she at first saw this as a journalistic exploration into the past, she began to be nervous when she landed in Taiwan’s colossal, noisy airport, and saw a sign with her name. Behind that sign was a crowd of Asian people—not only her immediate family, but also her extended family, including biological siblings’ spouses and a myriad of kids. In retrospect, she said she was shocked by how “pushy” they were, especially at the first reunion. She seemed a bit amused as she recalled the first reunion as “chaotic,” even “intoxicating.”

At this point, for the first time, Mei-Ling’s voice began to break—her eyes blinked more rapidly as if she were trying to block any tears that might slip out. She tried to calm herself with a quick hearty laugh after recalling the trite, even misleading, reunion movies in which people cry and exclaim, “We love you!” Yes, she recalled the crying—but they were strangers crying and hugging while meeting each other for the first time.

She described the complex nuances of her relationship with her birth family, saying that she has grown closer to her sisters and brother over the ten years since that first reunion. But she still has some frustration with her birth father because of his philandering.

Towards the end of the discussion, one member of the audience asked the essential question: “Would you still feel complete if you hadn’t gone back to meet your birth family?” To the apparent surprise of some in the crowd, she simply answered, “Yes.” She emphasized that each adoptee has a personal perspective on the situation. As she did, they all must deal with it to the best of their ability. What more can anyone ask?

I am myself an adoptee from Romania and thus was particularly attuned to her ordeal and her emotional anxieties and frustrations. I know vaguely where and who my birth parents are. I was born in Turnu Măguerele, Romania in 1988 and was adopted in 1990—one year after the bloody Romanian Revolution. I have my two birth parents’ names on a sheet of paper. As with Mei-Ling, the names seem so removed from my life. Unlike her, however, I yearned to know my past and my birth parents and potential siblings when I first realized that I was adopted—and I still do. Because I know some other adoptees’ interactions with their past lives, I emphatically agree with her that non-adoptees mistakenly think that all adoptees want to know who their birth parents are or to meet them. I occupy a middle ground. Although I have not gone back to Romania, I want to, and hope to find out what happened to my birth parents—I did not just say “parents,” for my mom and dad are my “parents.” Life is a journey of discovery for each of us, and each of us must find our own paths to self-understanding.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at