Ricki Mudd lives in SeaTac, Wash. “Ricki’s Promise,” a documentary based on her reunion with her birth family, will be screened at the Library of Congress’s James Madison Memorial Building on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 12 p.m.
‘So what time does your flight get into Sea-Tac?” To me, it seemed a fairly basic question. But it confused my brother, Wu Chao, who was texting me from China. At 19, he’d never been on an international flight before. He hadn’t thought to ask about an arrival time, an airline or a flight number. All he knew was when his plane was supposed to leave Shanghai. I was going to have to figure this one out on my own.
Eventually, I got him to send me his ticket confirmation. It was written in Mandarin and exceeded my basic understanding of the language, so I plugged it into Google Translate, putting periods in odd places, as you have to, to trick it into recognizing Chinese words. Aha! I was able to decipher “Delta.” I e-mailed customer service, attached the confirmation notice and swore that I wasn’t trying to get any identifying information — I just didn’t want my brother to come through customs and find himself alone. Finally, I had my answer: He was supposed to arrive at the Seattle airport on Dec. 21 at 7:42 a.m.
Sometimes it’s odd to think that between us, Wu Chao is supposedly the privileged child — the boy preferred by Chinese society, the son my family held out for while I was hidden and ultimately put up for adoption.
I’m among the more than 100,000 children adopted from China by Western families since the early 1990s. Most of us are girls, byproducts of China’s one-child policy, which compounded the cultural gender bias. Few of us know about the families we left behind — or, in many cases, who left us.
When I was 9, I got a letter from my birth parents. Since then, I’ve made two trips to China to get to know them and to answer questions that gnaw at so many adoptees: What happened? Why didn’t they want me? Or if they did want me, why am I here? And what would my life have been like if I stayed?
The story I got from them is the one I imagine every adoptee longs to hear: My parents never wanted to give me away. In fact, they desperately wanted to keep me. Yet I’ve learned not to be nostalgic about what might have been. The one-child policy brought my family, and many Chinese families, immense pain. But by forcing my parents to give me up, it also opened incredible opportunities for me — opportunities so irresistible that my brother, the child my parents kept, moved here from China last year for the education and other advantages that time in America can provide.
For many adoptees, especially in the case of international adoptions, the search for birth parents is frustrating and futile. It’s pretty amazing I was able to find mine. It almost didn’t happen.
In 2000, when I was 7, I returned to China with my American parents to meet my new sister, Rebecca, the third daughter they were adopting. During the trip, we visited the orphanage in Quzhou where they’d met me, and we gave the staff medical supplies and money collected from other adoptive families. Our donation prompted an outpouring of goodwill. When my American parents pressed for information about my origins, we received an invitation: Would we like to go see my “foster family”?
We drove for about an hour and a half along pitted roads until we reached a small village deep in the mountains. There, we were introduced to Madam Fan, a woman with close-cropped hair, wearing a navy top and pants reminiscent of a Mao suit. She clearly recognized me. But she gave conflicting accounts of how I’d come to her. First she said she had found me at a train station. Then she revised the story: A family in a neighboring town had asked her to care for me. We didn’t know what to believe when, after we returned to the United States, she wrote to say that, actually, I was her daughter’s daughter — and asked for $10,000 in support.
Somehow — it’s unclear to me — my birth parents in Quzhou heard that Madam Fan had been exchanging letters with an American family. My birth parents would later tell me that when they went to her village and approached her about it, she was evasive. But her son slipped them an envelope with a U.S. address on it.
Two years after that trip to China, a letter marked with the wrong city but the correct Zip code showed up at my house in suburban Seattle. Its tone — sincere and compassionate — was convincing in a way that Madam Fan’s correspondence was not. The couple claiming to be my birth parents didn’t ask for anything. Instead, they thanked my American parents for taking care of me and offered financial and other support. The enclosed baby pictures confirmed that they were the real thing.
I was 12 when I met them for the first time — or, at least, the first time that I remember. At the airport, my birth mother clung to me, sobbing, like she would never let go of me again. I was both excited and nervous to see them, but the reunion was somewhat overwhelming. Not knowing Chinese, I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on around me.
I went back again at 18 and stayed for six weeks. This time, being a few years older and having learned some conversational Mandarin, I was able to begin piecing together my story. Some of the details remain hazy, and I may never know exactly what happened. I’ve found that the Chinese tend to be more comfortable than Americans are with ambiguity.
When I was born — on April 26, April 30 or May 5, 1993, depending on whom you ask — I was a disappointment to my family. They called me Mengting, combining words meaning “dream” and “pause.” My father’s mother pressured my parents not to apply for a birth certificate for me. “Here, in a rural place like ours, a family can’t do without a son,” she explained. “It was common for families to abandon girls until they got a boy.”
My parents say they resisted the pressure. My mom told me: “I begged your dad’s family to keep you. But your grandma said no. I said, ‘It’s fine to have a daughter.’ But your grandma wouldn’t budge.”
My paternal grandmother held a lot of power in the family. So my parents agreed to try for a boy, and meanwhile they hid me from the authorities.
For the first few years of my life, I was illegal and invisible — carried in a grocery bag outside, asked to stay silent upstairs at home, always in the dark. When I ran into the courtyard once, my maternal grandmother slapped me. Everyone was petrified that I would be discovered.
“It was terrifying if you had an over-quota child,” my father says now. “If the government knew, you would be in trouble. People would come to your house, remove all your grains and do anything they could to you. And sometimes, they’d destroy your house.”
My mother recalls: “Even for a new house, they’d get on the roof, rip it apart and bulldoze the entire house. We had to keep moving and hiding. It was really painful for us. We knew it wasn’t a long-term solution.”
I don’t know how they came into contact with Madam Fan. My parents are vague about it in their accounts. But they told me that sometime after Wu Chao was born, they worked out a deal with her. She would raise me. Her brother, who had never married, would adopt me. And my parents would send money to the Fans while maintaining a relationship with me in secret.
One of my few memories of the time at Madam Fan’s is of being so hungry that I ate chicken bones off a dirty floor. I wasn’t there long, though. After only 100 days, I was seized by birth-control officials — Madam Fan maintains that someone in the village tipped them off — and put in an orphanage.
My father says he tried to get me out but was chased away. My mother blamed him for not trying harder. At one point, the story goes, my mother was so distraught that she stabbed him in the stomach with a knife, sending him to the emergency room and ultimately contributing to their divorce.
I was upset when I learned about the one-child policy, introduced in 1979 and relaxed only last year. And when I learned about the preference for boys, I bristled at the idea of being a victim of blatant sexism. But talking to my birth family, I began to see how, from a Chinese perspective, there’s a certain logic to it. China has a lot of farmland, and many families’ survival depends on the success of their farms, so boys are valued for their utility when it comes to physical labor. Boys also provide insurance that aging parents will be looked after, since a wife is understood to marry into her husband’s family, obligating her to care for her in-laws ahead of her own parents. And boys are better positioned to carry on their family’s honor, since only a man can pass his surname on to the next generation. Of course, these traditions are themselves rooted in a sort of sexism. But it’s not as simple as liking boys better than girls.
I guess you could say I’ve made peace with the idea. I’ve even reconciled with my father’s mother. I’d been afraid to meet her. But I was also curious about the person who had had such outsize influence over the trajectory of my life. So, during my extended stay, my dad and I drove to her village. “You’re back home,” she exclaimed, leading me into a small house with crumbling stucco. She joked that I was chubbier when she last saw me. Then she insisted on preparing a full table of food for me, to welcome back the granddaughter she never wanted.
Rather than feeling rejected, I felt extremely fortunate when I glimpsed how much harder life is for my family in China — and would have been for me if I’d stayed.
My home town, Quzhou, was once the southern home of Confucius. There’s a famous temple and a scenic lake. But it’s also a dirty city with holes in the streets.
Although my parents are considered middle class, they’re just getting by. My dad lost nearly all his money a few years ago investing in a soft-drink business that failed. Now he gets up at 2 a.m. to deliver dairy products to breakfast stands and stores. He drives the sort of truck in which, the Chinese say, everything makes a sound except the horn. He lives in an unfinished house; dirt covers the floors, wires snake through jagged cutouts in the walls.
My mom lives in a relatively nice apartment. But when I stayed with her, she had recently gone through chemotherapy for cervical cancer, and, as I understand it, China doesn’t offer much of a social safety net when people aren’t able to work. She had to rely on the support of her boyfriend.
And then there is Wu Chao. Our parents’ divorce seems to have been especially tough on him. When I saw him in China, he was withdrawn, often looking at the ground. He didn’t like going outside or having friends over. He wasn’t doing well in school. Our mother blamed an addiction to video games. But she didn’t make things easy for him. Almost every day I was with them, she yelled at him about something. One time she slapped him, and he ran off into the night. She admitted saying things like: “If you don’t listen, I’ll want your sister back. I’d rather keep your sister, not you.”
She says she knows it hurts him, but it makes her feel better — and less sorry for what happened to me.
Tears stream down my face and snot flows from my nose in the video my American dad recorded in the hotel after collecting me from the orphanage. I was nearly 5 years old. I look terrified. And I had a temper. I would bite people and spit food on the floor, which made my adoptive parents wonder if they’d made a mistake. I also had horrible nightmares: In my dreams, I saw loved ones killed.
But with the support of my new family — Bill and Wendy Mudd, their five adult children, and what would eventually be three of us adopted from China and two daughters adopted from Vietnam — I settled into my American life. My parents aren’t wealthy, but they’re comfortable. My dad worked in the King County fire marshal’s office and my mom was a cosmetologist at Macy’s before they launched a business selling toys and collectibles on eBay. We live in a six-bedroom house in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb five minutes from the airport. There’s a pool and a swing set out back.
One doctor predicted early on that I wouldn’t do well in school. But, after being diagnosed with and treated for ADHD, I defied expectations. At 18, I graduated from high school and at the same time received an associate’s degree from a community college. That gave me enough credits to start as a junior at the University of Washington, where I went on a full scholarship and finished in two years. After college I worked as a research assistant in the university’s psychiatry and behavioral sciences department, and this week I start a two-year master’s program there in human-centered design and engineering.
I’m the most highly educated person in either of my families. I’ve worked hard to make both families proud.
My brother’s flight arrived on time, and I was there to meet him. He had a carry-on and two checked suitcases — one full of gifts for my American family, along with a stuffed panda and clothes for me.
My American parents had offered to host Wu Chao if he ever wanted to do a student exchange. He didn’t end up doing one in high school, but after he failed to score high enough on his exams to get into a top-tier university in China, my birth family asked if hosting was still a possibility. The thinking is that a degree from an American school and, more important, a chance to learn English will help his job prospects when he returns to China. This fall he’ll start an accounting course at a community college. My Chinese parents are paying for his tuition. My American parents are covering everything else.
Wu Chao didn’t know much about the United States before arriving here. “Do they have rice in America?” he wanted to know. He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him a lot of Americans shower every day.
Living in the same house has allowed us to learn more about each other. When we talk about what happened to me, he gets quiet, with a faraway look in his eyes, and tells me he feels partly to blame. I try to reassure him that I don’t hold any grudges. I admit to feeling guilty that I wasn’t there for him through our parents’ divorce and the fights that came after. We’ve made a pact to be there for each other going forward. “When I’m successful in my job and make a lot of money, I’ll be sure to come back and visit you,” he says.
Chinese society may have had room for only one of us. But our lives will be forever intertwined.