Emmas original passport
Emma's original passport. Courtesy of Emma

A Seattle woman is using her free time in quarantine to try to unravel the mystery of her own identity. She hopes to answer fundamental questions about who she is, why she was abandoned as an infant, and whether there’s any truth to her suspicion that she could have been sold to an orphanage.

Emma (not her real name) was adopted from China in 1995 before she was a year old. She grew up in an Italian-American family in Northeast Seattle, and it was when she was attending Catholic elementary school that she first began to notice that she was the only Chinese girl in her class.

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“I told my mom, ‘Obviously I look different from my peers, so how do I reconnect with my culture?’” she says. “I wanted to go to China. I wanted to see my orphanage and reconnect.”

So the family found a tour group and visited China in 2003, mostly doing tourist-stuff like holding pandas. But they also visited Emma’s orphanage, and there they received a red envelope that raised more questions than it answered.

The envelope from Emmas orphanage.
The envelope from Emma's orphanage.Courtesy of Emma

The envelope, the family was told, came with Emma when she arrived at the orphanage. “Please take care of this baby,” it said, along with a few scant details about Emma’s date of birth.

Looking back, she says, “I’m pretty sure they gave everybody the same envelope... It is common for the orphanage to give red envelopes to families as a way of appeasing them.” But it wasn’t until years later that Emma began to collect clues suggesting a cover-up.

At the time, Emma says, the trip focused on her unexplored connection to the culture. “I realized had I not been adopted, this would have been my life… I came home and I wanted to take it a step further and learn Chinese.”

In middle school, she started taking Mandarin classes, and she took a leadership role with a nonprofit that advocates for families with children from China. She organized additional group trips to China, and helped organize a fundraiser to benefit babies born with cleft palates.

When she was in high school, she volunteered as an English teacher at a community center in the Chinatown-International District. There, Emma helped senior citizens prepare to take the U.S. citizenship test. As they learned to assimilate into American culture, Emma pressed them for details about growing up in China.

In college, she minored in Chinese, absorbing as much literature and history as she could. She also showed her Chinese professor the letter that she received from the orphanage, and that’s when a few details about her origin started to look suspect. The handwriting, her professor pointed out, suggested it was written by an educated woman, but whoever wrote it used a farming calendar to indicate dates. That seemed oddly inconsistent.

The extent of the information about how Emma came to the orphanage.
The extent of the information about how Emma came to the orphanage.

Her curiosity was piqued further when she watched a documentary on Amazon called One Child Nation. The doc mentioned that China's one-child policy caused some babies to be abandoned, and others to be bought and sold to orphanages because the international demand for Chinese babies was so high.

Questions lingered in her mind about what brought her to the orphanage, and so earlier this spring she got a DNA kit. The results came back a few weeks ago, and indicated that she could have as many as 859 relatives in the DNA company’s database, spread all across the globe.

Emma’s now in the process of trying to verify those relations. She brought her test results to a DNA expert who is helping her figure out which matches are actually viable; she’s working with a family in Utah that keeps a massive database of adoptions and possible birth-parent DNA; and she’s chasing a lead on someone who might know a caretaker who worked at the orphanage in the '90s.

But the sheer volume of data to sift through is overwhelming, Emma says: “How do I go about this? There’s 1.3 billion people in China, and I feel like I have needle-in-a-haystack chances. It’s very daunting to even begin pinpointing the people I’d need to contact.”

For her, this isn’t about just figuring out the details of her adoption — it’s about figuring out her place in the world. “I've always grown up in Seattle with my family, and living my life as a normal American,” she says. “When you grow up straddling two cultures and grappling with identity, it’s important to understand the other half of yourself.”

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Ultimately, Emma says, she still feels very American; she considers her adoptive mother to be her true mom. “I’m glad that I was put up for adoption,” she says. “If not, I wouldn’t be in America living this life.”

Still, the curiosity about her origins is part of a mystery that she can’t drop until she gets some more answers.

“I feel like I’m an investigator,” she says. “But the person being investigated is myself.”