- Derek Carlisle
Maeson Dewey was talking with a group of friends in her crowded high school cafeteria when a message popped onto her phone that would change her world.
The 17-year-old adoptee had signed up with the DNA testing company 23andMe a year earlier, hoping to better understand her health history.
That was her only goal. She had been adopted from China at 10 months old and, sure, she sometimes wondered about her birth family—but not enough to go on a search for them. Her curiosity was limited to a desire to understand her genetic roadmap.
Growing up in Salt Lake City meant Maeson could count the Asians she saw each day on one hand. But while she might not have looked like most of the members of her community, she felt fortunate to have been raised in Salt Lake City by parents who loved her more than anything in the world—especially given the small bits of information she'd been given about her birth, and the assumptions that filled in the gaps.
She'd come to terms with the idea that her birth family either couldn't have taken care of her or, due to China's restrictive family planning policies, did not have a choice.
And so, when Maeson would receive the 23andMe notifications that would frequently announce genetic matches to distant relatives, she simply didn't care much.
But this time was different.
It was 11:24 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2018, when it happened. For a moment, she stared in disbelief at her phone while the voices of hundreds of teenagers around her continued to fill the cafeteria.
"Holy shit, guys!" she said. "My birth mom just messaged me. I gotta go."
Tripping over a backpack, she stumbled from the table and raced to the hall to call her mom.
Donna Dewey could hear the distress in her daughter's voice.
"Do you want to come home?" she asked. Maeson said no. She believed she could keep it together and wait until school was over. But after lunch, as she sat down with the other five students in her small U.S. government class, she began sobbing, and called her dad to come pick her up.
At that moment, it could be said that her life was changing in the sorts of ways that have become quite common for people in a world in which genetic testing frequently connects adoptees and birth families—sometimes when everyone is ready, and sometimes when they are not.
It wasn't until everyone in Maeson's family got home, later that evening, that the details started to emerge. And that's when a tragic story began to unfold.
In 2002, Donna and Jon Dewey flew across the world with their 8-year-old daughter, Morgan, to China with six other families. They were all going for the same reason.
They were part of a larger phenomenon that began in 1992, when the country implemented a law allowing parents from other countries to adopt Chinese children. A couple hundred Chinese children were adopted into the United States that year. By the time the Deweys brought Maeson home, that number had exploded to 6,000. Still, it had taken 18 months to arrange the adoption, and the Deweys were eager to bring their new daughter home.
Their decision to adopt came after experiencing secondary infertility. Donna and Jon had one biological daughter before struggling to conceive a second time, but they desperately wanted another child.
The decision to adopt specifically from China was two-fold. In part, it was because Donna is second-generation Chinese. Secondly, it was because they didn't want to complicate the adoption process by dealing with birth parents. Adopting from China meant the chances of birth parents being involved in Maeson's life were slim.
"We just didn't want to share," Donna thought at the time.
Officials told them Maeson's background information was scarce. Indeed, it was limited to her measurements, what she liked to eat, and how she was found—abandoned at an orphanage, like so many children before her.
They never doubted those details.
And so, as Donna stood in the lobby of the Lakeside Hotel in Fuzhou, Fujian, holding her new daughter for the first time, "the experience was exactly the same as if I had just given birth to her," she recalls.
"It seems like the minute she was in our arms was the minute she became a part of our family," Donna says, "and there was never any thought of the fact that she wasn't biologically ours."
Maeson's childhood was largely similar to many Utah children. She learned to roll over, talk and walk just like normal, although her style of walking was more of a Frankenstein gait, Donna jokes.
She hated it when her big sister tickled her feet and she loved to hang out with friends. She recounts memories of her dad quizzing her on her math with flash cards, and of her taking the cards and throwing them across the room in frustration.
There were a few other Chinese adoptees in her elementary school. Their parents arranged groups in which they could get together to celebrate Chinese New Year and practice Chinese crafts.
Still, Jon says, Maeson's upbringing was decidedly western. "Although Donna is Chinese, she was raised in America, so we are pretty American," he says. "We've tried to implement some Chinese traditions in our family but that is not [our] culture."
Those with experience and expertise in international adoptions say a thirst for their birth culture sometimes drives adoptees to search for their birth families.
That's how things went for Linde Welberg, who was born in the same province as Maeson and was adopted from the same orphanage by a family from the Netherlands.
At 17-years-old, Linde had walked into her parents' bathroom while they were brushing their teeth one evening and demanded they search for her birth parents. Although she was grateful to her adopted family, she couldn't help feeling she was missing something, or a little bit of many things. She wanted to know her birth culture, her heritage, her story.
Mieke Welberg felt a deep obligation to help her daughter make those connections, and set to work tracking down as much information as she could. She quickly became famous in Gutian County, where both Linde and Maeson were born. That's bound to happen when a foreigner arrives, asking a lot of questions and leaving flyers everywhere.
As Welberg spent time getting to know the people of Gutian County, both during her visits and long correspondences over WeChat, she began hearing a troubling story. She heard it again and again.
Parents told her about their children being taken from them—sold, it was presumed, to orphanages that would adopt them out to western parents who were able to pay thousands of dollars in fees.
Even after it was clear that these parents were not related to her daughter, Welberg kept listening. On her visits to China, she began to split her time between trying to find her own daughter's parents and trying to help the disturbingly large number of people she met who wanted their families to be whole again.
- Courtesy photo
- They Deweys were part of a larger phenomenon that began in 1992, when the country implemented a law allowing parents from foreign nations to adopt Chinese children. A couple hundred Chinese children were adopted into the United States that year. By the time they brought Maeson home, that number had exploded to 6,000.
Among the distraught parents she met in May of 2017, was Ye Qiao Ping, a mushroom seller from Gutian who had spent years building her business in order to search for—and, she hoped, later provide for—her lost daughter. Her search had taken her across China.
"She was desperately searching for her daughter and I felt so sorry for her," Welberg says. "I promised her that I would help her. I hoped, of course, that she was my daughter's mother."
23andMe is not available in China, but on a trip to meet Linde's birth parents, Welberg brought one of the company's test kits and gave it to Qiao Ping. The tube of Qiao Ping's saliva then traveled with the Welbergs around China, over to Hong Kong and then back to the Netherlands before being sent to America for processing.
Welberg managed Qiao Ping's 23andMe account as proxy and checked every day to see if there was a match. For weeks, there was nothing.
In the evening of Oct. 3, 2018, Welberg sat down with a cup of coffee and opened her email. Qiao Ping's DNA account had matched.
Her daughter was Maeson Dewey.
It was just after 7 p.m. in the Netherlands when Welberg frantically called her husband at work. "I think we found the mushroom lady's daughter," Welberg told him.
"I got goosebumps and couldn't believe my eyes," Welberg says. "We had found her."
It might be impossible to know how many of the children who have been adopted from China in the past 30 years were in fact part of the booming trade in kidnapped babies—a widespread scandal in which babies were sold to orphanages, often for hundreds of dollars, then adopted out to families willing to pay hefty adoption fees, which would sometimes be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
What is clear, is that the prevailing narrative surrounding Chinese adoptions by western families helped set the stage for these crimes. That narrative includes an often inaccurate understanding about China's so-called "one-child policy," which began in 1979 as part of an effort to stem the growth of the world's most populous nation. The policy was modified several times, beginning in mid-1980s, for rural Chinese and some ethnic minority groups, but one of the key things many westerners came to believe was that it contributed to a wave of abandoned infant girls, since boys are seen as more valuable in Chinese families.
That perception made it easier to convince foreign parents that the girls they were adopting were given up by their families. And, indeed, that's what officials at the orphanage told Jon and Donna Dewey. Maeson, they said, was found on the orphanage doorstep.
Maeson grew up with this story. In fact, it gave her comfort. If abandonment was her birth family's only option, and if her adoptive parents so badly wanted another daughter, hadn't it worked out for everyone involved?
But a few hours after Maeson learned her birth mother was searching for her, that story would begin to unravel.
Maeson's parents and sister stood around her, all too nervous to talk, as Maeson took a deep breath and began to type out a message to her birth mother.
"I think I am your daughter." Send.
"I kind of started tearing up. My mom was so stoic but my dad started crying too," Maeson recalls. "We were all just basically like a hot mess."
From the other side of the world came a response—a long paragraph of Chinese characters neither Maeson nor any of her family members could completely decipher, even with the app's translation feature.
They did understand the gist, however. Qiao Ping was telling the story of what had happened to Maeson 17 years ago.
And no, she had not given up her daughter. In fact, Maeson's birth was not only planned but joyfully anticipated.
In the days that followed, the details acquired greater clarity. Qiao Ping's family had arranged for a midwife to supervise the birth, but complications during labor resulted in a significant amount of blood loss, and Qiao Ping slipped into a coma.
Maeson's father, overwhelmed with caring for an 8-year-old and newborn, reached out to his family and passed her on to relatives who agreed to care for her. Those relatives then passed Maeson off to their neighbors.
That's when the trail goes cold.
When Qiao Ping woke up a month later, her new baby girl was not by her side.
Qiao Ping named her daughter Ye Lin Yan. And she never stopped looking for her.
It was hard for Jon and Donna Dewey to process what happened.
"We had first come from a selfish perspective, hoping that we wouldn't have to share," Donna says. But having realized what had happened—their unintended complicity in the theft of a child whose family wanted her—how could they stand in the way?
They sought advice from Brian Stuy, who is the adopted father of three Chinese children and the founder of Research China, an organization he created to help Chinese adoptees learn about their families and history.
"When I adopted my oldest I thought, 'Wow this is something that needs to happen, these kids need homes,' and so I got on that train," Stuy says. "As we dug deeper and deeper, we realized that things were not as ethical as we had all thought. Things changed."
They adopted their youngest daughter in 2004.
"We were already pretty aware of the issues in China so we did everything we could to avoid falling into that trap," Stuy says. "We interviewed the director, got all the information. There was no way this kid would get adopted domestically, and no way this kid got to this orphanage unethically. We were safe. We adopted her and then found out later that it was one of the most egregious, ethics-violating orphanages in China."
Stuy notes that he has dedicated years of research to Chinese adoptions. "Oh my God," he says, "if we can't avoid this, nobody can avoid this."
Although she was 17 when she was first contacted by Qiao Ping, Maeson would wait until she was an adult before traveling to China to meet her birth family.
That's not of small consequence. Had she been younger when her birth mom found her, things might have been different.
"Timing is everything, and if this had occurred at any other point in her life, I don't think the outcome would have been as good," Donna says.
Although Maeson's age precludes an international custody conundrum, it doesn't change the emotional implications.
"I think at times it can be very overwhelming for her," Donna says of her daughter, "but she's able to keep it contained so that it doesn't spiral and she can keep hold of it and what it means."
The trip was hard on everyone.
Maeson says extensive planning began months before, including not just packing and booking flights and hotels, but mental preparation. The Deweys sought mentorship from Stuy, who advised them to manage expectations.
"I don't want to say it's like a Christmas present, because that denotes a positive reaction and sometimes it's not," Stuy says. "It is a shock. However, it is almost always a net-positive. Yes, things will grow slightly more complicated, but that is still in the control of the adoptee."
Stuy told Maeson that it was fine not to feel ready to meet her birth family. When Maeson's family asked how long they should plan on staying in China, he suggested no more than a couple of days, to minimize the emotional impacts of taking on too much, too fast.
They left for China in July.
After landing, Maeson and her adoptive family planned to meet her birth family in the lobby of the Lakeside Hotel—the same place her parents had picked her up when she was first adopted.
If this was a movie, Qiao Ping might have stepped through the doors and she and Maeson might have burst into tears, running into an emotional embrace. But Maeson says it wasn't like that at all. If anything, it was emotionally awkward.
"She didn't cry at all," Maeson says. "And if she would have cried, I probably would have cried—but I didn't cry either. There was kind of like an awkward side hug. And then a lot of it was, like, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know whether to go up to her and put my arm around her or sometimes I'd grab her hands, but it wasn't natural. Like, does she want this right now? What do we do? How do we act around each other?"
Jon and Donna stood by, equally unsure of what they should do or how they should act. They were also trying to figure out what to do with the 20 pounds of white peaches that had been offered to them as a welcome gift.
Maeson says she noticed almost immediately how similar she and her birth mother looked.
"It was trippy," she points out. "We had similar eyebrows and noses. Our toes were the same."
Qiao Ping and Maeson's birth father have been split up for years, but Maeson notices her resemblance to him in photos.
The cultural differences, however, were glaring.
"The banquets that were held were unbelievable," Jon says. Some of them had over 70 people. Everyone was celebrating the return of Qiao Ping's daughter."
The Deweys were showered with gifts, "to the point where we had no room in our suitcases to bring them back," Jon says. "The generosity and graciousness was so far beyond what we expected. We had brought gifts as well, but they were just tokens in comparison."
Jon says he knew the trip would change many things for their family, but he wasn't prepared for how much.
"When I was younger, I thought that nature and nurture were about 50/50 and your kid is born who they are and you can guide them the other half," he says. "I don't believe that anymore. I believe that you are born who you are, nurture can help or hinder, but I believe Maeson was born to handle this. Of course we helped, supported and accepted her, but she was born with a strong foundation."
While initially nervous about how things might change, Donna says she has embraced the new situation.
"Now that we have had over a year to process what this means, we have open arms to the situation," she says. "Her birth family is now part of our extended family because any family of Maeson's is part of ours."
Whenever she talked with her birth family, they always needed a translator, which Maeson says was frustrating, especially for Qiao Ping. Because they only had two days together, they stayed up late into the night talking until Maeson was half-asleep, but hesitant to tell her mom she wanted to go to bed.
"You know, she was just trying to take advantage of the two nights she had with me," Maeson says.
Those nights went by fast, but the Deweys were glad they took Stuy's advice; Maeson was exhausted.
To that point, Maeson had not seen her birth mother show any emotion, but that changed on the day they parted ways.
"When I left, she started crying," Maeson says. "Everyone started crying."
- Courtesy photo
- Left to right: Maeson's adopted sister, her cousin/translator, Maeson and her birth sister.
Sometimes, when Maeson looks at pictures of her birth sister, she wonders how her own life might have been different if she'd never been taken out of China.
Although the circumstances of her adoption are unusual, that feeling is not.
Jae Ran Kim, a University of Washington professor who researches race and adoption, says international adoptees often endure a "transracial adoption paradox," in which they must negotiate and navigate two realities: their birth family and culture alongside their adoptive family and culture. This process of forming an identity that holds space for both is no simple task.
"Everyone thinks of adoption as this wonderful thing that solves everyone's problems, but it's more complicated and nuanced than that," Kim says. "There's a lot of loss associated with it, lots which goes unaddressed."
In an effort to reconcile these two parts, Maeson took Chinese classes in high school, and part of the reason she chose to go to the University of Washington in Seattle was because of the large Chinese population.
"I used to count all the Asians I saw in a day," she says. "I don't do that anymore."
And Maeson, of course, isn't just reconciling a trans-cultural identity—but the very circumstances that made her an adoptee in the first place.
Sitting in the busy cafeteria of U of W's Husky Union Building, she pulls up pictures in her camera roll of her birth mom and sister. Her sister was married last January and, in October, gave birth to Maeson's nephew. Qiao Ping wants Maeson to come back and visit so she can meet him.
- Courtesy photo
Maeson plans to return someday, but she doesn't know when. She says Qiao Ping has urged her to learn Chinese so she can talk to her family when she returns, but she doesn't feel confident she can be fluent in Mandarin anytime soon.
On top of the life-altering change that came with discovering her birth family, Maeson is navigating her first year in college and her first year living on her own. There's a lot to do and think about outside of her family; she has homework, roommates and clubs.
She chose to keep the story of how she reconnected with her birth family private at first. "I didn't want people throwing their expectations on them," she says. "And I didn't want people to romanticize it, like, 'Oh, you're going to have a great relationship with them. It's going to be so beautiful.' Because there's so much at stake when there are too many expectations."
While it's unclear when exactly she'll visit China again, Maeson is now preparing to see her birth mom again. She joined the Chinese Student Association and signed up to take more Chinese classes next semester.
In the meantime, Maeson gets notifications on her phone from WeChat almost daily.
The translations are imperfect, so sometimes, to skip the hassle, just photos are exchanged. On one recent day, Qiao Ping sent a picture of her and her friends at a theme park. Maeson replied with a picture of her eating out with friends.
"I wish I could be there," Qiao Ping replied. "If you weren't so far away, I'd be cooking you food."