Brian and Long Lan Stuy are a Utah couple who have adopted three daughters from China: Meikina from DianBai, Meigon from Guangzhou, and Meilan from Luoyang. After discovering that documentation for one of their adopted children was fake, Brian and his wife created their home-based company Research-China, with the mission of reuniting adopted children with their families in China through DNA testing. Both Brian and Long Lan are featured prominently in Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s acclaimed documentary One Child Nation, about the ripple effects of China’s one-child policy, the extreme population control measure that made it illegal for couples to have more than one child.
In one of many heartfelt scenes in One Child Nation featuring the couple, Long Lan tells this story: “My eldest daughter has been wanting to find her birth parents since she was very young. One day she ran to me and asked, ‘Mama why didn’t my birth family want me? Why? Why? Why?’ Then she ran back in her room and hid under her bed. When I went to her, she started to cry. Oh my god… I really didn’t know how to answer her.”
So the couple become fully engaged in finding answers. Not just for their own daughters but for others like them.
While they were with the film’s team at the Television Critics Association panel in January 2020, I spoke to the couple about their experiences being in One Child Nation, about powerful stories they can’t shake, what they think has changed for China since the one-child policy was eased, and how this film can change the worldview of many adoptees and adoptive families.
How did you first connect with Nanfu and her team? Were you initially hesitant?
Brian: We were approached not frequently but not infrequently by people wanting to do films, so we’d already been through cycles of devoting a lot of time to interviews, and then not having it go anywhere. So when Nanfu initially approached us, at first we were like, this is just another person who wants to make a film. We were also concerned that we were presented well, that it’s accurate and a good presentation. Primarily our focus for participating is always, “Will this help adoptees and adoptive families know more about what we can do to help them reunite with birth families?”
But when we Googled who Nanfu was, saw that she’d done a film called Hooligan Sparrow, we watched that, and we were blown away by the quality of her filmmaking. I mean she had a very personal style — frequent cuts to a mirror where you see her holding the camera and so on. It just feels like you’re immersed in her actual story. So once we saw that we became pretty excited about working with her.
What are some of the most common misperceptions people have about the stories of adopting children from China? And what are some myths that you try to bust about what you two do?
The primary myth is one that Nanfu interviewed us about. When we approached the China adoption program we assumed and bought into the myth that these kids were just being found wholesale on the side of the road, basically, and that there was a true humanitarian crisis in China of millions of unwanted baby girls being abandoned, sitting in orphanages being raised in orphanages, having no future. That’s what drew me and 100,000 other families into the China program, this idea that there would never be contact with the birth family, because they didn’t want the girl.
That there was no possibility of getting any of that history. That the families had abandoned them. This is still a mindset. It’s almost a religious myth for many families. Many families approach adoption from a very religious mindset, that “it’s God’s purpose for us to bring this child home.”
As a result, when we started writing about problems in China’s program in 2005, there was a tremendous negative response from the adoption community, because if you talk about an orphanage buying babies and coercing birth families to relinquish children, that seriously cuts against the whole “it’s God’s plan” emotional belief system.
Early on we were the subject of huge negative comments and attitudes among the adoption community. As press stories continued to trickle in and expose things in China, that tide has turned. Now that this film is out, with the families, the comments are by and large more like, “yeah it’s sad that this kind of stuff has happened.” There’s no longer resistance to it. They accept it.
One myth that we are seeking to bust is the myth many adoptees have that their birth families are not interested in knowing what happened to them, that there’s no love for them as children. [We can] show them through the documentary, no, you were not abandoned at the side of the road or left alone unprotected by your birth family. Almost always you were transferred from a person to a person who then brought you to an orphanage, under constant supervision and protection. I think that is a revelation to many adoptees.
Is there any especially memorable story you can share (even if without names for privacy reasons) of children and families you’ve helped? A story that stands out in your memory…
Long Lan: There are so many stories of families reunited, so many stories out there. Because of the one-child policy these families had to give up their daughter who ended up in an orphanage. Lots of those birth families spend the rest of their life looking for that kid. It’s very heartbreaking.
Brian: The one that keeps me awake at night was the story from the Hunan scandal profiled in One Child Nation, the Gaoping village story. It was about family that brought their kids to family planning, one of them was a father by the name of Yang Libing, who Lon is talking about when she has that moment in the film where she pauses for what seems like hours. Yang Libing, like with many Chinese families then, was working in a completely different province when family planning authorities took his child. So he came back as fast as he could and tried to work with the family planning office to get his daughter back.
They’d say, if you want her back, the price would be 10,000 yuan. So he’d go and visit friends, and say, can you guys loan me 10,000 yuan so I can get my daughter back? By the time he’d get the money, he’d go back to family planning and they’d say, “Oh now it’s 100,000 yuan.” At a certain point they’d say “you can’t get her back no matter how much money.”
That was concurrent with the orphanage publishing the finding ad for their daughter, basically putting her into the international adoption pipeline. The orphanage at that point was no longer willing to give Yang Libing the opportunity to get his daughter back, because her file was in Beijing and already referred to an American family.
When that American family came to adopt Yang Libing’s daughter, the orphanage director told the mom, “the interesting thing is your daughter was by the window in the orphanage saying ‘mama mama,’ calling for you to come,” and the adoptive mom was like, “Oh my gosh, that makes me feel so great.” Then you realize she was not calling for her adoptive mother, she was calling for her biological mother.
That story haunts me. The level of uncaringness on the part of the orphanages sometimes.
Long Lan: She was nine months old when she was taken. So she doesn’t have memory of her family…
Also there are so many families inside China who did not know where their daughters went in international adoption. For some of those birth families I have located their kids. Later some found out they were adopted by people all around the world, and they were shocked. Because during the one-child policy, some of these birth families ended up hiding their daughters in other families’ homes, for later when the one-child policy slowed down they could go back to that house and pick up the girl, bring her back home. They had no idea the girls were given over to orphanages to be adopted overseas. There are lots of kids like this…
And you’ve been researching this for 20 years. Have you noticed any changes over that time in China with the easing of the one-child policy, that affected how the adoption process works or doesn’t work? And the numbers of children in orphanages?
Brian: Things have slowed down as far as sheer numbers, though I don’t know if it’s necessarily tied to the change in the policy as much as the orphanages … For example, before 2005, between 1992-2005, 95%+ of the adoptions were for young, healthy infant girls. In 2005, when the Hunan scandal broke, it’s like an awareness spread across China that the international adoption program existed. Prior to that there was very little awareness on the part of the average Chinese person that international families were adopting the kids from these orphanages. These [international] families would come to the provincial capitals, stay in fancy hotels, go out and back and then go home.
There was just not a real presence for the average Chinese family living in the countryside that these kids were being adopted internationally. When the Hunan scandal broke, it became a big story inside China, and that’s really the first time the average citizen even realized this was going on, while orphanages had been recruiting their children for a decade.
The Chinese government in 2006, right after the scandal broke, approached the orphanages in kind of a nationwide meeting, and said “watch what you’re doing, don’t offer too much money, and feel free to submit any child you want for international adoption.” So you begin to see a shift after 2005 in who was being adopted from China. The children became older, more gender-neutral or even, so today it’s more like 50-50, about half the number of boys as there are girls being adopted from China. That has been a significant demographic shift in China’s program. It’s now more special needs-based, though there are still a lot of healthy kids adopted. But the number of healthy infant girls cratered.
What the impact of the change in 2015 has had, it’s a little early still to see that. It should reduce the number of children going into the orphanages, but it’ll be interesting to see. I think part of the problem is the orphanages have modified a lot of their programs. It’s no longer buying an unwanted child, but it’s approaching birth families and saying, hey your child can go to the United States and get an education, then come back and take care of you in your old age, calling it an “education program.” Families enter the program knowing they’re gonna be adopted internationally, but what they don’t understand is the orphanages don’t tell the adoptive families who they are and that their child will probably forget who they are. And never be able to come back and find them.
And this is considered a “legitimate” program?
Well it’s not legitimate ethically or under The Hague Agreement on child welfare, but it’s the program some orphanages employ to get kids.
Have your daughters seen One Child Nation and if so what did they think of seeing your story and theirs in this film? How did they feel watching themselves in the movie?
We’ve watched it as a family a half-dozen times. We had a conversation one time with my oldest daughter who, in a moment of frustration and anger, told her sisters, “We were all left at the side of the road, we were not wanted.” Watching the documentary changed her ideas on that. Which is our hope, that it changes the ideas of many adoptees. That they were not unwanted, that it’s a very complicated situation in China. There were a lot of players not always acting in the best interest of their birth families and themselves.
How did they watch the film emotionally?
We’ve had conversations about the film’s structure, the cinematography, haven’t really sat down and asked “How did that make you feel?” Our girls are all very private girls, they don’t share their feelings, they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. So we kind of let them bring it up and talk about it. But the main takeaway that all of them have had is that their stories are much more complicated than they probably initially thought.
Our youngest daughter, we located her birth family almost ten years ago. We went back and visited them in June for the first time. So my youngest Meilan got to meet her birth family. It gave her an intellectual understanding of her story, but we didn’t see anything after the trip that indicated there was an emotional change in her. She came home and it was like, “Alright I’m getting back to my life, I’m going back to school.” Of course she’s 18, so it might be still too early.
Is anyone in your family now interested in getting into documentary filmmaking?
Hard to tell but Lan and I, the reason we wanted to work with Nanfu was, we have thought there was a real good documentary in that subject. Everyone knows a family who has adopted a child from China, that’s the thing that makes the film so interesting to people generally is they know a family down the street that has a daughter from China. We’ve always thought, man, I wish I had the capability to film a doc, because there are so many stories in this, the family planning confiscation stories, there’s the baby buying stories, the “education” story, there’s even stories outside of those that would be amazing, compelling documentaries.
What do you hope people feel and take from watching One Child Nation? Your story in it and just the film in general.
So I got an email from an adoptive mom who said, “I was one of those that adopted from China, with the idea that I would never have to deal with birth families. I was just never interested in that, my daughter’s never been interested. We didn’t want to have anything to do with that.” But she said, “watching One Child Nation changed my mind, it has softened me considerably. To think not just of myself but the pain that the birth families have gone through.” That is one of the important takeaways that I’d hope adoptive families would take from the film. That you don’t need to be afraid, there’s a family on the other side of the ocean that every day wonders what happened to their child.
It’s in an adoptive family’s power to bring peace to that [birth] family, by getting tested and getting a match through DNA. I would hope that most viewers in the adoption community would feel that way. “It’s time for me to not be afraid anymore. It’s time for me to rectify this wrong that was done.”