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Adopted teen finds answers, mystery in China

Christian Norris of Easton, Md., remembers little of his pre-U.S. life. A reunion at a Beijing hotel helps fill in some of the gaps.

August 30, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — The father fell to his knees, weeping. The mother quietly buried her face in her hands. The 17-year-old boy stood upright and motionless -- whether out of shock or stoicism, no one knew.

Christian Norris, who had just returned to China for the first time since he was adopted by an American eight years ago, didn't know what to think.

The interpreter stood quietly on the sidelines waiting for what seemed an eternity, the only sounds were the sobs and the clicking of cameras that filled the room.

"Honey, are you OK?" Christian's adoptive mother, Julia Norris, finally asked. He nodded affirmatively, but said nothing.

The reunion between Christian, a high school student in Easton, Md., and his birth parents took place Saturday in a Beijing hotel room crowded with well-wishers and media on hand to witness the virtually unprecedented event.

Since the early 1990s, an estimated 75,000 Chinese-born children have been adopted abroad, and although they increasingly visit China on heritage tours, Christian is one of only a few who have managed to chase down their personal history.

"I'm not sure yet," Christian answered with a teenage boy's characteristic reticence when asked what he hoped would come of the reunion. "I want to move on."

Christian's case is unusual in several respects: He's male, whereas most adoptees are girls abandoned because of the Chinese preference for boys and the government's "one child" policy. And unlike most adoptees, who are given up as babies, he lived with his family until he was nearly 7, leaving him with fragmentary memories that became vital clues in the search.

His birth parents were medical researchers, better educated than most who give up their children, and it was possible to track them down on the Internet.

It also helped that his U.S. mother, who works for an adoption agency, is both a firm believer in open adoptions and a tenacious investigator who once worked for the television show "America's Most Wanted."

Julia Norris was able to enlist an army of volunteers through a Chinese nonprofit called Baby Come Home, which helps Chinese parents search for lost children.

"This is the first case we've handled where an adopted child came back to find birth parents, but I expect it is going to happen more often," said Yang Guan, one of the agency's founders. "I hope that China can move to a more transparent system where orphanages are more able to make information available."

Like many families, Christian's had its secrets and silences.

He was born Jin Jiacheng in 1991 in Yinchuan, a city in the Ningxia region several hundred miles west of Beijing, to a couple who both worked in a hospital and already had a son. Because his parents could have been penalized for having a second child, he was sent as a newborn to his father's home village to be raised by his grandmother and a 23-year-old uncle, who pretended the infant was his own son. When he turned 6 and was ready to start school, they sent him back to the city.

He had lived only briefly with his birth parents when he somehow got lost, his family says. His father, Jin Gaoke, said that they were on an excursion by bus and that he got off for a few minutes to buy food at a market, returning to discover that the bus had driven off.

"I hope you can forgive our mistakes," the father mumbled repeatedly during the reunion.

The family was wrenched apart by the boy's absence. His mother went into a deep depression. His father and uncle stopped speaking to each other, the younger one blaming the father for losing the child.

"He was like my son. I felt so bad when he was lost, I would drink liquor to take away the sadness," said his uncle, Jin Xiaowang, now 40 and still farming wheat, potatoes and corn at the village home.

Jiacheng somehow ended up 350 miles to the east in Henan province, where he was found wandering under a bridge and brought to an orphanage in the city of Luoyang.

In 2000, Julia Norris was touring the orphanage on a business trip when she met the boy and fell in love. She returned the following year to adopt him, becoming a single mother. Three years after that, she adopted a Chinese girl as well.

Growing up, Christian was frustrated by the fragmentary nature of his memories. He could remember only a house in the country, mountains in the distance, grazing yaks, a few names. How he had gotten lost had been erased from his memory, perhaps by the trauma of it all; he remembers only a man buying him food and giving him money.

"I thought they abandoned me. It didn't feel good," Christian said.

Julia Norris decided to pursue Christian's origins because she worried he would be tormented for life by nagging questions.

"He needed the peace of mind of knowing what happened," she said.

She worries that many Chinese adoptees, now young children, will eventually be asking questions that will be almost impossible to answer. Adoptees usually have no information except the date and place they were found.

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