AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Imagine knowing you were born with a twin but not knowing where she was or even if she was alive.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She says, actually, if my sister isn't taken away, she'll be as old as me and we can play together.
CORNISH: The story we're about to tell you begins in rural China. In 2009, Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick was investigating rumors that some Chinese officials were kidnapping Chinese babies to feed the demand of American families looking to adopt. This was during the time of China's one-child policy. Demick found a family in rural China that had lost a child. After having twin girls, one was taken from them when she was a toddler. At the end of their interview, the twins' mom had a message for Demick - come visit again, and next time, bring our daughter.
BARBARA DEMICK: I felt like the mother had challenged me. And I thought, let me see if I can find this twin who was taken away.
CORNISH: Demick had an idea which orphanage the girl might have been taken to. In a Facebook group, she found adoptive parents of kids from that orphanage sharing stories and photos from their lives.
DEMICK: One particular girl caught my eye because she looked in the pictures they posted kind of like the twin I'd met. So I took two photographs that the family had posted, and I mixed them in with, like, random photos of Chinese baby girls. And I printed it out, sent it to the family in Hunan Province. And I said, maybe one of them resembles your daughter. And they got right back to me, and they had identified correctly two pictures of their daughter.
CORNISH: So essentially, through your own kind of detective work, you're able to track down this twin. And now her family in China is wondering what's happened to her. But this American family that's adopted her, they don't really know what you're up to. So what was it like trying to reach out to them?
DEMICK: It was clear from the outset that they didn't want to cooperate. And that left me in a strange position because, you know, I felt obliged to the Chinese family to tell them where their daughter was. But I also, you know, I couldn't just, like, out a child as being a stolen twin. So, essentially, I did nothing. But I sent the information I had to the American family. And I said, you know, don't worry, your daughter is young. I'm not going to publish anything - but you should know.
CORNISH: Then many years later, in 2017, you get a message on Facebook where essentially someone says, you contacted me a long time ago. Are you still interested in talking with me? If so, my family and I are still interested. So this is the American family of this young Chinese twin. They're finally deciding to open up. Tell us the name of the twins and what it was like when they first met.
DEMICK: Zeng Shuangjie is the Chinese twin's name. The American girl was named Fangfang (ph) when she was born, but her name is now Esther. She lives in Texas. And they communicated through a messaging app for about a year. And they met in February of this year. I traveled with the American family to China, to this very remote village in the mountains. And the girls were almost frightened to look directly at each other. They kept on giving each other sort of sidelong glances.
We finally got them alone together, and they just immediately fell in to, like, the childhood that they'd never had together. They did each other's hair. They played patty cake. They gossiped using an interpreter. I remember Shuangjie saying, wow, you look like me. And Esther said, I was going to put on makeup, but I figured you know what I look like anyway.
CORNISH: What were the barriers between the parents? I can imagine both being fearful in this instance.
DEMICK: The parents were not as fearful as you might think. Marsha, the adoptive mother, was really keen to give Esther this opportunity to meet her birth family and I think felt confident enough with her bond with her daughter. And the Chinese family, they had given her up for dead or permanently missing years back. And they said repeatedly, we're just happy to know that you're alive and that you've been brought up well. And so the parents really bonded. Marsha has said repeatedly to the Chinese family, you know, I love Esther, and she's been like a star in my life. But I wouldn't have adopted her if I knew she had been taken from you.
CORNISH: Does this also affect the kind of common story that Americans have about the one-child policy and the children that they were adopting?
DEMICK: The Americans who adopted Chinese girls really felt that they were helping to rescue abandoned babies, and for the most part, that is true. But especially in the later years, starting around 2000, there weren't as many discarded baby girls, and some of them were taken under duress. And even if the children weren't grabbed physically, families were threatened, houses were demolished, people lost their jobs. And I think you'll see more adoptees going back to China to look for their birth parents. And I don't think it's as impossible as people think to link the adoptees and their birth families.
CORNISH: That's Barbara Demick, national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. We reached her via Skype.
Thank you for speaking with us.
DEMICK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.