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American Journalist Returns to Taiwan to Meet Her Birth Family

Mei-Ling Hopgood was born in Taiwan, the fifth daughter in a family that was desperate to have a son. So her parents gave her up for adoption and adopted a boy in her stead. In Lucky Girl, Hopgood shares her experience growing up with her American adoptive family and recalls her journey to Taiwan for a reunion with her birth family.

At 7 months old, Hopgood was adopted by a couple from suburban Detroit, Rollie and Chris Hopgood.

"I was always a daddy's girl," she says. "People always kind of said we had the same personality. My mom and I have a more subtle and close relationship. We - especially after my dad died - we've been very close."

Hopgood grew up in the Midwest with two younger brothers, who were adopted from Korea.

"During that time - that was in the 1970s and 1980s - there were not so many of us out there," she says. "I mean, there are so many more Korean adoptees and Chinese adoptees that I see all the time now, and there weren't at that time. But we were a pretty quote-unquote 'normal' American family in terms of our culture. My parents really tried to expose us to the Chinese and Korean cultures, taking us to different cultural events, joining the adoption groups that there were in the area. For a little while, I resisted it."

She says that's because she wasn't curious about her Asian roots.

"When I was very young all I wanted to be was American," she says. "All I wanted to be was accepted in the world that I was growing in. I really didn't feel curious. I thought maybe someday I might…"

She was in her early 20s when her birth family, the Wangs, first contacted her. They sent her e-mails, faxes and letters full of information about the family.

"One of the strangest requests was, 'Please, buy clothing for your brother, who is adopted,'" she says. "They kept talking about this boy in a very direct fashion. I found as well through my birth documents a notation by the nun who was a nurse that arranged my adoption saying that my birth mother requested that they don't dry up her breast milk because she wanted to give it to this adopted boy they had. So it was a confusing revelation at first, and later, I just sort of accepted it. I understand the culture."

An emotional reunion

In 1997, at the age of 23, Hopgood visited Taiwan to meet the Wangs in person.

"I told myself, 'This is like meeting some new friends,' sort of playing down what a big emotional deal it was," she says. "I think I was protecting myself a little."

In her memoir, Lucky Girl, Hopgood recounts that meeting.

"When I saw my birth mother and father, I broke out in tears," she says. "They called all the relatives, all the sisters. I have six sisters who were raised in Taiwan. At that time, five of them had husbands. They had all their kids. I had some aunts and uncles who came as well. So it was a very tearful and chaotic reunion."

That was the first in a series of visits Hopgood made to Taiwan to reconnect and forge a relationship with her birth family, especially with her mother.

"I've tried harder to get to know her," she says. "I studied Mandarin, although that doesn't help all that much because she [mainly] speaks Taiwanese. I went on a trip to China with her. I took her and one of my sisters to try to get some alone time."

But her efforts didn't seem to bridge the gap between them.

"We're just very, very different," she says. "She is uneducated, illiterate, and I went to the university and I'm a journalist. We have very different cultural backgrounds. We've very different personalities. She's very wedded to her traditional role as a Chinese woman, and I am an American woman, very opinionated, independent. We are friendly, but we barely talk. We maybe talk once a year at the Chinese Lunar New Year for a couple of seconds."

Writing her own story

Hopgood says it took her around a decade to write about the experience of reuniting with her birth family.

"It took me that long to process everything that happened to me and get to know the people involved and get to know more about my own story," she explains.

Writing her own story, Hopgood says, helped her redefine her own identity. It made her more appreciative of the opportunities her adoptive family had given her and more forgiving and understanding of her birth family, who felt forced to give her up for adoption. She says it also helped her become a better mother to her own daughter.