It was a rainy day in February when Esther Frederick and her family drove south from the city of Changsha, China. After a few hundred miles, the roads became narrower as they roped around the mountains and through villages hidden by clouds. Esther’s mind was racing. She was on her way to meet her birth parents and identical twin sister for the first time.
What would they think of her? What would she think of them? As the car approached the Gaofeng village, they saw a girl standing in the middle of the road. Esther’s heart began to race. She knew in her gut that it was her twin sister, Shuangjie.
This is the story of how a set of identical twins, one American and one Chinese, reunited after nearly 17 years.
On a cold day in 2017, Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick was about to crawl into bed when she got a Facebook message: “You contacted me a long time ago? Are you still interested in talking with me? If so, my family and I are interested.” As a journalist, Demick reached out to hundreds of people over the years.
She was also in the aftermath of covering the inauguration, and she was exhausted. She couldn’t remember who this person was, nor did she particularly want to at this exact moment. But then another message popped up. “My mom adopted a little Chinese girl years ago,” he continued. “It appears she has a twin sister still in China.”
Demick’s eyes widened. Of course, she hadn’t forgotten. She remembers exactly who this person was. In 2009, Demick worked as a Beijing-based correspondent for the L.A. Times. She traveled to the rural area of central China to investigate the roots of more than 80,000 baby girls who were adopted in the United States.
Popular opinion dictated that many rural Chinese families essentially gave away their female infants because the government limited them to only one child, and the Chinese preferred boys. While this was often the case, reports that government officials were snatching babies to make money in the lucrative adoption market began to surface. With more of these reports coming out, Demick went to investigate.
The reporter traveled to remote villages in the mountains, often leaving her car to hike because roads were nonexistent. In one village nestled between rice paddies in the Hunan province in southern China, Demick met a family who had lost one of their twin daughters. While twins were normally allowed, this family already had two older daughters.
The mother had given birth to her twin girls in a bamboo grove in order to avoid detection by government officials. To further cover their tracks, she and her husband fled to a different province, but they only took one twin with them. The other twin was left with an aunt and uncle.
Then, one day, their lives changed forever. When the twin girls were almost two years old, five workers for family planning stormed the house. The men restrained the aunt while they picked up the screaming toddler and walked out the door. The family was devastated. Demick met with the twin, who stayed behind with her family.
The nine-year-old’s name was Shuangjie, which means “double purity” and acknowledges her status as a twin. She sat next to her mother, Yuan Zanhua, on a plastic stool in front of a wooden shack. Zanhua told Demick that her daughter still grieved her missing twin. “She’s always asking me, ‘When will you get my sister back? Where is she?’”
The mother thought that her missing daughter might have been adopted overseas. “She could be anywhere in the world,” Zanhua said. “I wouldn’t know where to look.” When it was time to say goodbye, Zanhua told the journalist that she was always welcome to come back but “next time bring our daughter.”
After Demick’s piece on Chinese government officials abducting babies was published in September 2009 (including the story of the stolen twin), she says that Zanhua’s story always remained in the back of her mind. She wanted to help the two reunite, but it was a daunting task. Lucky for Zanhua, Demick was always up for a challenge.
As Demick began her search, she found a Yahoo chat room for parents who had adopted babies from the Shaoyang Social Welfare Institute. The journalist was certain that the twin had been taken to this orphanage. After sharing Zanhua and Shuangjie’s story with the chat room’s moderator, Demick began looking through photos and descriptions.
One girl immediately caught her eye. The girl’s parents were evangelical Christians who had adopted two girls from the orphanage. They were an older couple, and both had children from previous marriages. Demick had a strange feeling that this was the missing twin’s adoptive family.
On a website called Adopt the World—which was created to help families adopt internationally—the adoptive mother explained how faith guided her. “When God births His passion in you, it doesn’t matter what the obstacles are. It had to be because it was and is His will,” she wrote.
“God loves the orphan. God defends the orphan. God is a Father to the orphan and is just waiting for us to care for them the way He does.” Sadly, the adoptive mother, like many families, had no idea that her child had been stolen as a baby.
On the website, there were two photos of the girl that Demick suspected was the missing twin: a blurry shot of a toddler who wouldn’t look at the camera and another of a smiling 4-year-old in a nice blouse. Not wanting to create any false hopes for Zanhua and Shuangjie’s family, the journalist decided to use a technique that she borrowed from police questioning.
She arranged the two photographs on a page along with random photos of Chinese girls she found on the Internet. Demick then mailed the page to China with a note saying these were adopted girls, and maybe one resembled their missing daughter.
The day that the family received the letter, they phoned Demick’s office. They had picked out not just one, but both photos of their daughter, who had been named Fangfang at birth. Demick immediately reached out to the American family, but it became clear they didn’t want to cooperate.
Demick’s calls remained unanswered, and they removed their daughter’s pictures from the Internet. A few years later, the reporter learned that the adoptive mother’s husband had passed away less than a year before. Through his obituary, Demick discovered the names of the couple’s older children, who were now adults.
The journalist began sending messages, but they went unanswered. “She and her family are still deeply grieving her husband’s death, and I don’t think she is ready or able to deal with this at present,” the chat room moderator wrote. This presented Demick with an ethical dilemma.
Which family did she have an obligation to? Was she to tell the Chinese birth parents where their missing daughter was? Or protect the adoptive family’s privacy? Demick was stuck between a rock and a hard place, but in the end, she and her editors came to an agreement.
They decided that it was unethical and unfair to write a story that exposed a young girl as being a stolen Chinese child. So, she decided to send the adoptive parents all the information she had gathered throughout her search.
Demick also wrote to the birth parents, informing them that she believed their daughter has been found alive and well in the United States but could not be contacted at this moment. Demick didn’t hear back from either family. Meanwhile, the September 2009 story of government officials abducting babies created quite the stir in China.
Threatening the billion-dollar adoption industry, several Chinese journalists flocked to Hunan to write about the missing twin. From time to time, these journalists would contact Demick, asking for the whereabouts of the girl in America. However, Demick never released her name. “The family says you know where the twin is but won’t tell them,” one journalist wrote.
Demick stuck to her guns. She knew that releasing the girl’s name without her consent was wrong and could cause psychological damage. Demick, however, continued to explore the issue. She wrote about a family that had a trafficking business and about an OB-GYN who stole babies.
Years passed until one fateful winter day in 2017 when Demick received a message on Facebook. The man who sent her the message was the girl’s adoptive mother’s son from a previous marriage. He told her that the missing twin’s name was Esther Frederick, and she lived near Fort Worth, Texas, with her older adopted sister and mother, Marsha Frederick.
Esther was now 16 years old and interested in contacting her twin. The Fredricks trusted Demick because she had kept their secret for eight years. Now they wondered, could the journalist help? Of course, Demick could help. She had been waiting for this day for years.
The journalist contacted a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Chinese family planning. After some convincing, they agreed to hand over Zeng Shuangjie’s contact information on WeChat, a messaging app. Since Esther didn’t remember a word of Chinese and Shuangjie wasn’t fluent in English,
Demick sent and translated messages between the twins. “Dear Shuangjie, I’m Esther,” the first letter began. “Please allow me to introduce myself.” Esther went on to explain that she had just completed high school (she had been homeschooled) and was starting her own photography business.
“I am very happy and want you to know that I have a caring and lovely family whom I love dearly,” Esther wrote to avoid any expectations that she would move back to China. Her twin sister immediately picked up on Esther’s fear.
“We very much want to see you and hope your family is not afraid. We won’t snatch you away from your family,” Shuangjie wrote back. “We understand. I hope we will keep in touch in the future.” As time went on, the girls became pen-pals, writing back and forth to one another.
Shuangjie wrote that she loved ping pong, badminton, and writing Chinese characters, while Esther wrote of her hobbies. She loved art, baking, fashion, and photography. Sadly, the girls struggled to find common ground. “They were like pen pals without real intimacy,” Demick wrote in 2019.
A few months passed, and the girls decided that they wanted to talk. Coincidently, Demick was on vacation in China, so she arranged a trip to Hunan to set up a video call. By then, Shuangjie had moved a six-hour drive away to Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
Shuangjie was attending a special high school for teacher training there while she was working as a teacher’s aide at a nearby kindergarten. When Shuangjie arrived at Demick’s hotel, the journalist says that she didn’t recognize the girl she had interviewed in the bamboo forest eight long years ago.
Demick also noted that Shuangjie was nervous and had brought her roommate along for emotional support. The twin took out her smartphone and phoned Esther in Texas. After a few rings, her twin sister’s face appeared on the tiny screen. The twins stared at each other, 7,000 miles apart.
The girls stared at each other for a long time without speaking. “I’m so happy I can finally see you,” Shuangjie finally said in Chinese. Demick’s colleague from The Times’ bureau in Beijing translated it into English. “You look so much like me,” Shuangjie said.
Then Esther made a joke that she had debated putting on makeup before their video call, “but I figured you already know what I look like.” According to Demick, it was an awkward conversation, and the girls’ need for an interpreter didn’t help. Without a shared language, the girls related best through gestures.
Esther pulled back her waist-length hair to look more like Shuangjie. The girls smiled. Then Shuangjie revealed a birthmark on her back, which Esther didn’t share. But even with these gestures, the girls had a hard time making a connection—their dialogue was often lost in translation.
The girls spoke about their birthday. Shuangjie said that she and her sister were born on August 9, 2000, but that was according to the lunar calendar that people in rural China use. It took some research and quick back and forth to confirm the twins’ official birth date: September 6, 2000.
The twins learned that while they both suffer from nosebleeds, Esther has many allergies (to soy and dust, among others). Shuangjie does not. Esther spoke about her love for swimming, while Shuangjie—like many people in rural China—never learned how to swim.
Zanhua, the girls’ birth mother, told Demick that she didn’t know if her girls were identical or fraternal twins. Zanhua said that she and her husband were able to tell the girls apart because Esther, the firstborn, was larger and had a small tag on one ear. A DNA test later revealed that the girls were identical with a 99.99 percent probability.
During the video chat, Demick says that Esther was more confident than her twin. “She spoke with a bright, chipper voice that sounded more California than Texas and had a stereotypical American “can-do” attitude,” the journalist wrote in 2019.
Esther worked as a photographer and had a steady stream of work shooting weddings. She liked to wear makeup and feminine clothing, which made her appear older than her sister. Shuangjie, on the other hand, was shy and modest. She was the youngest of four girls living in a country where birth order matters and boys are preferred.
After the video chat, Shuangjie and Demick took a car from the hotel to a village named Gaofeng, where her family built a home with the money they earned after years of migrant labor. The brick house was three stories tall and overlooked the neighboring rice patties.
While it had an unfinished quality and chickens walked through the dining room, it was a huge step up from the small log cabin they had been living in back when the journalist first met them in 2009. The twins’ father, Zeng Youdong, came out to greet Demick and began speaking about when the girls were born.
Zeng said that his father had been pressuring him and his wife to have a boy. After all, the family line couldn’t be continued if they had only girls. But when the twins were born, he was happy to defy his family’s expectations. “I was so happy when they were born,” Zeng told Demick.
“I couldn’t stop laughing.” When the journalist pulled up pictures of Esther on the laptop, Zeng couldn’t peel his eyes away from the screen. “You should tell her not to be afraid,” he said gently. “I understand she is not coming back to live in China. Just to see her makes me happy.”
A few months later, Demick flew to Texas to meet with Esther and her family. While their house was only a fraction of the size of her biological family’s home, it was cozy and comfortable. There was wall to wall carpeting, numerous shelves filled with books, and a cat sprawled on the floor next to the couch.
Demick says that Esther’s long hair and personal style is very different than Shuangjie’s. However, “the way she walked, the shape of her lips when she smiled and spoke, was the same as her sister, even though a different language emerged,” the journalist wrote in the L.A. Times.
Marsha, Esther’s adopted mother, went on to explain that she always had an interest in other cultures. As a young girl, she had always dreamed of working as a missionary abroad. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Marsha married, had a son, and then divorced when she was barely out of high school.
She remained a single mother well into her 40s, which is when she met her second husband, Al. The two both worked at the Lockheed aerospace facility in Fort Worth. Like Marsha, Al was divorced and had kids from his previous marriage.
The Fredricks never intended on having any other children. But after Marsha heard about the horrendous conditions in Romanian orphanages after listening to the radio one day, she felt compelled to do something. “Why don’t you adopt one?” Al joked.
“I think I will,” she replied. Marsha began to focus on babies from China after hearing about girls who were abandoned by parents who wanted sons. The Fredricks took out a loan and flew to China in 1999 to adopt their first daughter, Victoria. Three years later, the couple returned for a girl they named Esther Elizabeth.
Marsha says that she was happy that the agency paired her with a toddler since she herself was getting older. Still, she was quite surprised to be greeted by a fully formed human who was already walking and talking. Marsha also says that Esther took longer to bond and shook her head “no.”
when told that Marsha was now her mother. “It almost seems like she was raised by a family,” Marsha recalls her husband saying. But once Esther arrived in Texas, she adjusted rather quickly. The little girl picked up English “within days” and got along great with her new older sister.
“It was a fairy-tale childhood,” Victoria later said. Sadly, disaster struck in 2007 with Al’s lymphoma diagnosis. Medical bills began to pile up, and the Fredricks were forced to move into a manufactured home. Less than a year after his death, Marsha received an email.
It was from the Yahoo chat room moderator with a link to Demick’s 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times. From the moment Marsha clicked on the article and saw Shuangjie’s picture, she knew. “I didn’t need a DNA test,” Marsha later told the reporter. “I was sure.”
Marsha was horrified that the little orphan she thought she rescued was, in fact, stolen. She was also worried about how her two daughters, who were still grieving their father’s death, would react to the news, so she kept it a secret.
Then, one day, while she was sleeping, 9-year-old Esther discovered the email. “Mom, I’m the twin, aren’t I?” she asked. “Does this mean I have to go back to China?” This discovery sent a wave of fear and anxiety through the family. Although Marsha knew that Esther couldn’t be taken away, she was still scared.
Marsha built a tall privacy fence around the property, and Victoria avoided saying Esther’s name in public (she still calls her “E”). As time went on, the family’s fear turned into curiosity. Then, when Esther was around 12 years old, she began to notice that no one in town looked like her.
“I started following Asian fashion bloggers, looking at Asian models and celebrities who were more my size and body type,” she told Demick. Esther also developed a love for Chinese food, and since there weren’t any Chinese restaurants in town, she learned to make it herself.
Esther doesn’t remember anything about the two and a half years she spent in China. She doesn’t remember her parents’ faces or a word of the language that she once spoke fluently. Like many kids who have been adopted, Esther says that she often wonders about what her life would have been like.
But unlike other adoptees, Esther has an identical twin living the life that could have been hers. In her free time, Demick says that she began helping Esther at her own expense, “perhaps to make amends for the pain my reporting had caused the family.”
Although the sisters reconnected, Demick was certain that she’d never be able to write their story, given the Fredricks’ need for privacy. But then, one day, much to Demick’s surprise, Marsha and Esther agreed to let the reporter tell their story. The two, along with Victoria, accompanied Demick on a trip to China.
The trip was in February 2019, right around the Chinese New Year. It was the only time of year that Shuangjie could take time off from work. After reaching Changsha, they traveled south on a six-lane highway until, eventually, the roads became narrower as they climbed into the mountains cloaked with rain clouds.
There were no street signs or numbers in the mountains, and Demick wasn’t sure if she would recognize the Zeng family home. Just as they began to worry about getting lost, they saw Shuangjie. She stood by herself in the middle of the road, guiding her guests up the road to her family’s home.
Esther climbed out of the car, and Shuangjie lightly touched her arm, trying to help. “Esta,” she said, unable to fully pronounce her sister’s name. Even though it was their first meeting, the twins didn’t look at each other. Instead, they stood side by side as a photographer took their picture.
It was an uncomfortable meeting, to say the least. “Nobody spoke. Nobody moved,” Demick later wrote of the twins’ first interaction. “I imagined the twins as a bride and groom in an arranged marriage meeting for the first time.” After a few minutes, everyone entered the Zeng family house.
There was no heat, and everyone could see their breath. Esther’s birth parents hung back, letting their children mingle. In fact, Zanhua, Esther’s birth mother, stayed in the kitchen the entire meal. She only emerged to bring out food, saying, “Eat, eat before it gets cold.”
Throughout the meal, Esther and Shuangjie kept stealing glances at one another but never make eye contact. They returned to the village every day for a week, giving everyone a chance to become more comfortable with one another. As time went on, the Fredricks became more accustomed to using chopsticks.
And the Zeng family learned to accept how Marsha prayed before every meal. While Esther was happy to meet her birth parents, she was frustrated that she couldn’t remember anything and was bursting with questions about the dramatic events from the first two years of her life.
To answer some of Esther’s questions, Zanhua decided to take everyone to the bamboo grove where she gave birth. The labor had been easy, and Esther came out rather quickly. However, Shuangjie was breeched and came out weaker and smaller than her sister.
Zanhua and Zeng planned to leave their four daughters with relatives so they could work in the city, but Shuangjie was still weak. So, they decided to take her with them, leaving their other three girls behind with an aunt and uncle. “It’s been 16 years since we’ve seen you,” the uncle, Yuan Guoxiong, said.
The couple reminisced about the girl they called Fangfang. She was a plump and bright toddler who could walk and talk when she was just a year old. “She was really clever. Everybody knew that” the aunt, Zhou Xiuhua, said. “We think that’s why family planning was after her.”
The one-child law had made family planning as powerful as the police. They would destroy houses and throw people who couldn’t pay the fine in jail. Family planning wasn’t allowed to take away “excess babies,” but many times, they did. Adoption had become a lucrative business.
Foreign families looking to adopt had to donate $3,000 cash to orphanages around China. The money was used to fund social services, but many times it went straight into officials’ pockets. The girls’ family believes that the family planning officials were tipped off.
It was most likely the midwife who delivered the twins in the bamboo grove. Officials frequently visited the aunt and uncle’s home, but the family usually saw them in time and escaped into the forest through the back window. But one day in 2002, officials caught the family by surprise.
Esther’s birth aunt said that five men came barging into the house and grabbed Fangfang, who was hiding behind her legs, screaming. “One held my arms behind my back. One held my legs,” Xiuhua recalled as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I couldn’t do anything.”
“They took Fangfang and threw her into a car. I tried to run after them, but I was barefoot.” The family planning officials demanded $1,000 for the return of Fangfang. So, they borrowed money from their neighbors, but then the officials asked for even more money, which they didn’t have.
Phones were, and still are, very rare among migrant workers, and the couple couldn’t reach Fangfang’s parents, who were working 450 miles away. It wasn’t until Esther’s birth parents returned to the village for a funeral that they learned of her abduction. But it was too late.
Their daughter had already been taken to the orphanage. “We always wanted to find you,” Esther’s birth father said. “But it seemed impossible.” A few years later, the family saw a glimmer of hope. A fortuneteller told them that they would see their missing daughter again.
After spending four days together, Esther’s birth and adoptive families felt as close as they could for people who don’t share a culture or language. Esther held her birth parents’ hands while Zanhua hugged Marsha—which was a stark contrast to the first day the two mothers met.
Esther’s birth mother pulled away from Marsha when she tried to embrace her. Marsha then gave a speech that she had practiced ever since she found out that her daughter had been stolen from her birth family. “Esther’s name means star. She has been a bright star in my life,” Marsha began.
“But I would never have adopted her if I knew she was stolen from you,” she continued. “It gives me pain, knowing that my gain was your loss.” When she finished, Esther’s birth father began to thank Marsha. “I am grateful to you,” he said. “I can see that you raised her very well.”
Esther promised her birth parents and Shuangjie that she would come to visit again, and if she ever got married, she would bring her children and husband to meet everyone. Her birth family beamed. When it was time for Esther to go, both she and Shuangjie cried.
Since 1992, nearly 150,000 children have been adopted from China—96,000 of those went to American homes. Several thousands of these children, mostly girls, have returned to China to learn about their roots and search for their birth families.
But, according to Demick, only a few dozen have succeeded. The reporter visited Esther a few months after their trip to China and discovered that she was not only teaching herself Chinese but also planning for her next reunion with her sister. “Shuangjie doesn’t like burgers,” Esther said. “I’m thinking about what I should cook for her.”