WUHAN, China — A woman in her mid-40s cradled a scrap of blue cloth checkered with red. “Have you seen this before?” she asked. “Do you recognize this pattern?”
I held it up to the light and noticed the cotton edges had frayed and tattered over the years. “We already had three girls,” she explained. “We needed a boy. We were too poor. I saved up money for the cloth, and I spent a month hand-sewing you a little baby suit and matching hat. After 50 days, I abandoned you by a bridge.” But she used the Chinese word for “lost” instead of “abandoned.”
“I dressed you in the new clothes for good luck. I kept this scrap for 20 years to remember you. My little baby, you must have seen this cloth before! You must have the matching clothes?” No, I shook my head. I had never seen it. Her face fell and she began to sob.
This was the summer of 2012, in the oppressively humid, industrial city of Wuhan, China. I grew up in Massachusetts and had returned to Wuhan with my adoptive mother in search of my birth parents. I felt I owed it to my birth family to try to locate them; but most of all, I owed it to myself. I never expected that the search would attract an outpouring of media attention; bring forward dozens of families, all claiming that I was their lost daughter; and uncover a nationwide pain, forged over decades, with which the country is still reckoning.
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