In the early 1990s China made it easier for families from abroad to adopt Chinese orphans, most of whom were girls. Today about 60,000 adopted Chinese children live in North America, and about 15,000 live in Europe. Many families take special tours to give their adopted daughters a chance to experience Chinese culture and visit their orphanages.
When parents from other countries adopt a Chinese orphan, they are often asked to promise that they will teach their child about Chinese culture.
Many families go a step further and bring their children back to China. They often sign up for what are called homeland tours.
American Sharon Whitney adopted two daughters from different Chinese provinces. She says there are many reasons for bringing the girls on a homeland tour this summer, at the ages of seven and 10.
"To connect with their home culture, to see where they came from and have some understanding where they came from, and without doing it in a heavy-handed way, show them what their life might have been," said Whitney.
The Whitney family is on a tour with a U.S. company called China Cultural Exchange. Minghua He says she founded the company because of her experiences as an adoption coordinator. She saw families wanted to return to China, and orphanage employees were curious about what happened to children after they were adopted.
"I think it's more important just to show them how the child is being loved and cared for, and that's very important for the orphanage staff," added Whitney.
Parents say child development specialists advise them to bring children back before adolescence. Younger children are more likely than teenagers to remain open and excited about the experience, like nine-year-old Sarah Lapino.
"We're going to see the Great Wall of China," said Sarah. "I'm excited about that because I think that's the longest wall."
A homeland tour group usually visits traditional tourist sites, such as the Great Wall or a panda reserve. Then the group disperses so families can go to orphanages where their children lived.
Many families do not actually go inside the orphanage. The experience might be overwhelming for a child, and many orphanages have strict rules about who can enter. Instead the family will take the orphanage director and other staff out for a meal, and exchange gifts.
Lapino's older sister, 13-year-old Julie, is looking forward to meeting the staff when she visits her orphanage in Anhui province.
"We're giving them some photo albums of us when we were younger and how we grew up basically," she said.
The other big feature of an orphanage visit is going to where an abandoned child was found. Most adoptees know they were left in front of a police station or a temple, near a factory or at a train station.
He says through these visits a family can gradually unravel the history of a child.
"For example talking to the orphanage director you find out this child was brought over by staff from the civil affairs office," said He. "Then we go visit the person from the civil affairs office, and that person says, 'I remember the person who brought her over to us.' Then from that we track down the person who actually found her. So there are many interesting moments linked with that orphanage visit."
In rare cases, families meet the birth parents of their child. Jane Lietke runs the non-profit Our Chinese Daughters Foundation. She knows 11 families over the past 12 years who found their child's birth parents by going to where they were abandoned and talking to local people.
Lietke says that because of China's population control laws, most orphans are not orphans in the sense of having no living parents.
"I call the children over-quota kids more than orphans. A family had one girl, then they had a second girl and they wanted to have a boy," said Lietke. "Then they abandoned the second child and waited to have a son. Is that child really an orphan? No, they've got siblings, they've got aunts and uncles, they've got grandparents."
China limits most couples to having just one child. There is a cultural preference for boys, so most abandoned babies are girls.
Tour guide He says the most important goal of homeland tours is to give adopted children a sense of pride in their Chinese identity.
"We have many girls when they came to China they didn't want to come, but when they came to China they say, 'Mom, I love Chinese food! I love the rice, I love to use the chopsticks, I love the Great Wall.' And the Mom is just so happy, she says 'Ming, you're right, they fall in love with China,'" said He.
He says that homeland tours require a lot of money and preparation, but families who come back to China always feel it was worth the effort.