Casting a Wide Net in China: A Birth Family Search

Jenna Cook and her mom, Margaret Cook

This week Tea Leaf Nation, an intriguing new blog following Chinese netizens, shared the story of a Chinese-American college student, Jenna Cook, who is looking for her birth parents in China.  Her interviews and related posts have gone viral there.

It takes an impressive amount of courage to go so public with a search.  There’s the real possibility of dead ends and bad news.  So far Jenna has found no answers, but she’s not giving up and says she never will.

What Tea Leaf Nation fixates on are the numbers of people in China–in the hundreds of thousands–already avidly following Jenna’s story. It’s often hard for people outside of China to grasp the sheer numbers of people who live there, and how those numbers also complicate an adoptee’s chances of finding her birth parents.  Looking for a lost family is like a quest to find a handful of needles in a hundred haystacks.  Mountainous haystacks, I might add.  But that massive population in Jenna’s case could turn into a source of strength because of the internet.

An interview Jenna gave on Weibo (a microblogging service) inspired over 330,000 posts. Her first tweet drew another 28,000 reposts and a stunning 4,000 comments.    If I could read Chinese, I would have devoured the commentary, I assure you.   Fortunately Tea Leaf nation translates or shares some of the English ones with readers.

One responder, for instance, wanted her to “stop trying to find your birth parents” because they could not match her adoptive mother in kindness or open mindedness. Another commenter said, “A birth mother is not as dear as an adoptive mother.”

As an adoptive mother, I admit feeling warmed by sentiments like these.  But here’s the rub: It’s not a competition, right? (A follow-up article by Tea Leaf nation says for some Chinese parents it might be.)

When I adopted my daughters from China in the early 2000s, there seemed little hope of finding their birth parents. When or how to search was not an issue.  There were no reliable records and no witnesses of their abandonment—at least none easy to find.  Even if a possible family were identified, DNA testing was still too expensive and inaccessible to be realistic except in the high case of a probable match.  Hope then rested on the emerging internet in China and its potential.  And that time has come. Jenna Cook’s search is an example of how it may be a netizens’ community effort that will reunite children and birth families.

So what will I do the day one of my girls asks to look for her people in China? I’ll say yes, of course, because  I am her mother and I support her decisions.  After that I’ll slip off for a few minutes, curl up in a ball and quietly give into panic over what I cannot control, including how she might be hurt by what she discovers or how our family might never be the same.  Then I’ll get up, take a deep breath, and help her take the first step–which will likely begin on the internet.


Jenna is also one of four Chinese-American adoptees featured in the documentary Somewhere Between.  I blog about the award-winning film here.  Tea Leaf Nation’s aim to track the Chinese populace by what develops in web land there is fascinating business.  If you “like” Tea Leaf on Facebook, they will donate to the Rural Education Program, a much needed support system in China.

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