Ricki Mudd is a young girl sitting on the back of a bicycle–in front of her, an unidentified man pedals; above her, an umbrella shields them from the rain. The stranger, she later learns, is her father.
Cut to: an orphanage. Ricki’s stomach is empty; the hunger drives her to steal baby milk powder. Whack! She’s caught–a flurry of brooms and pain follow.
These are the sole memories of China that Mudd carried with her to the United States after a White American couple adopted her when she was nearly five. For the rest of her childhood, Ricki would be raised in SeaTac, Washington, the daughter of Bill and Wendy Mudd and the sister of eight siblings.
Mudd struggled to adapt to life in the US. Though the conditions of her previous environment were unknown, it was clear that she had physical and psychological issues from her past. Rotten teeth and an eye disorder were quickly fixed, but healing her mental health would prove to be a longer journey.
“I was diagnosed with ADHD and on antidepressants in my single digits” says Mudd, who saw a psychiatrist, therapist and the school counselor to work through these issues. “I think all of that support collectively helped me regain my footing,” she says. “My parents here have done so much for me, and I just have so much love for them.”
Mudd’s family stayed involved with the Chinese adoptee community through the organization Families with Children in China (FCC). They attended New Year’s celebrations in Seattle’s Chinatown, and Mudd’s early childhood hobbies included Chinese school and dance. Growing up in a diverse neighborhood in SeaTac with four sisters adopted from China and Vietnam, Mudd was never racially isolated as some international adoptees are. Her parents were always open about her adoption as well.
“My dad filmed all these videos of us when we were adopted, and they would play them for me. So, I knew that I was adopted from the beginning because it was never something to hide,” she says.
Though Mudd was content with her life in the US, her adoptive parents were always interested in finding her birth parents.
“For them it’s not a threat,” she explains. “In all honesty, I was quite happy with my family here. I don’t think I would have minded not finding them.”
When Mudd was seven, she and her family returned to China to adopt her younger sister. On the way, they stopped by Mudd’s orphanage to donate gifts from FCC and seek out information about her family history. While the officials couldn’t identify her birth parents, they did know the woman who brought her to the orphanage–Madame Fan.
They drove for an hour and a half to a village deep in the mountains. With the government officials there, Madame Fan was friendly but distant as she recounted the story of discovering Mudd at a train station. Then she added a conflicting report about a family that had asked her to care for Mudd. It was only after returning to the United States that Mudd’s family received a letter in the mail from Madame Fan, claiming that Mudd was her grandchild. She also included a request: $10,000. Though Mudd’s American family continued to correspond with Madame Fan for a couple years, and even contributed some financial support, they were skeptical of her claims.
Then, when Mudd was nine, a letter from a different family in China arrived to her house, a miracle considering that the address on the envelope read “Seame” instead of “SeaTac.” The message was also written entirely in Chinese. By good luck, a Chinese friend who was living with them at the time was able to translate.
“Dear Little Mengting,” it began.
“I remember they called me by a name I didn’t recognize, because I was told my name was Jianan [from the orphanage]. And so that made me wonder, like, Oh, is that my name?” recalls Mudd.
The authors of the letter explained that they were Mudd’s true birth parents. Its sincerity and the enclosed baby photos of Mudd were enough to convince her American parents, who didn’t feel the need to do a DNA test. The two families corresponded for a couple years, putting together the missing pieces of Mudd’s life.
One of the most revelatory discoveries was also a heartbreaking one: Mudd’s birth parents never wanted to abandon her.
She was born out of wedlock to a rural family in Quzhou, China, in 1993 when enforcement of the One Child Policy was strict. Although her birth parents wished to keep Mudd, her paternal grandmother insisted that a son was necessary to carry on the family name. In order to have a second child, Mudd’s parents would have to pay a hefty fine, which they could not afford. They waited to marry until their son Chao was born, then registered him as their one official child, leaving Mudd illegal.
Unable to allow Mudd to be seen in daylight, let alone register her for school, Mudd’s parents concealed her in the house and in a grocery bag when traveling outdoors. If they were caught, they risked losing her to the state.
Then they met Madame Fan, and a plan was devised to allow Mudd to live a more normal childhood. Madame Fan’s childless son would adopt Mudd, granting her legal Chinese citizenship. In return, Mudd’s birth family would pay Madame Fan financial support every month.
Though Mudd does not remember Madame Fan from this time, as a young girl she would recount one bleak memory from these days to her American siblings: she was confined to a dark basement, hungry and eating chicken bones off the floor.
For better or for worse, Mudd was discovered by the birth control officials after only 100 days. While Madame Fan would later claim that someone in the village tipped them off, Mudd’s parents believe it was Madame Fan herself who informed them in return for financial compensation.
Through a connection in the orphanage, Mudd’s birth parents became aware of her placement there, and her birth father attempted to sneak her out a few times without success. Then one day, Mudd disappeared. The information her birth parents gleaned was that their daughter was most likely adopted into a family in the United States–they would never see her again.
In a small town like Quzhou, word spreads like wildfire, and that’s exactly what happened when Madame Fan began receiving mail from an American family. Mudd’s birth parents reached out to her, asking for their child’s location in the United States, but Madame Fan refused. Her parents’ pleas touched Madame Fan’s son though, who slipped them an envelope with Mudd’s address.
Back in SeaTac, Washington Mudd recalls receiving news from her birth parents with a mixture of interest and indifference.
“I had a new sister adopted every two to three years in my life for like seven years of my life, and my parents are the type of people where, when they get close to somebody, they’re introduced to me as aunt or uncle. So when I was told that I had birth parents, I was like, Oh, cool. More family. But it wasn’t more than that.”
Life carried on as normal, and Mudd’s two families continued writing letters to each other. Then when she was twelve, Mudd’s American family decided to take a trip to Vietnam and China, where she’d be able to reconnect with her birth family for the first time since her adoption.
After the flight and a long train ride in China, Mudd felt lost and anxious, not knowing what her birth family looked like or if they would recognize her. Then she spotted a couple with a young boy.
“They look at me and start running toward me, and in that moment I just knew. I was like, ‘Oh, this is my family,’” recalls Mudd. “I didn’t know what they were saying because I had barely any Chinese at the time, but I just remember knowing. After all of that uncertainty.”
Although Mudd loves her birth family now, those feelings developed over time. “I wouldn’t say I loved my birth parents in that moment because I didn’t really know them,” she says. “But the way they looked at me, the way they talked to me–even if I couldn’t understand–the way they touched me, everything was like, ‘I love you, you’re my daughter.’”
Over the course of a week, Mudd learned to live without the comforts of Western toilets, air conditioning, and a common language. Although a translator along with Mudd’s American family were sometimes present, she also spent time alone with her birth family. They didn’t speak English, however, and her Chinese consisted solely of phrases such as “Hello” and “I love you.”
Without conversing, Mudd found a way to connect with her Chinese family through one of her longtime passions: music. She and her family were singing karaoke to VCDs when the song “Mouse Loves Rice” began to play. Everyone–her birth mother, father, Chao, and the translator–all started singing together. Determined to join, Mudd asked the translator to write the lyrics for her.
“It’s kind of our first family moment where I felt very connected to them, even though I didn’t know what I was singing,” says Mudd. “But I did recognize ‘wo ai ni,’ which is in the chorus, and it means ‘I love you.’ And then ‘wo xiang ni’ means ‘I miss you.’” Over the years, it would become a family theme song.
One of Mudd’s most vivid memories is when her birth mother bathed her with nothing but a washcloth, soap, and a bucket of water. Her mother spoke to her sentimentally in Chinese, miming an airplane. Though Mudd couldn’t understand at the time, she later learned that her mother was expressing how much Mudd had grown since the last time she saw her. “I think the summary of that week was, lots of emotions, not a lot of understanding,” says Mudd.
At the airport, Mudd’s birth mother held onto the plane, crying. Her father stayed at home, unable to face a second separation. Mudd’s American father promised that she would return to China when she was eighteen, and Mudd promised that at that point her Chinese would be good enough to no longer need a translator. These two promises would become the title of a documentary about Mudd’s reconnection with her birth family called Ricki’s Promise.
After arriving back home in the United States, Mudd didn’t feel as overwhelmed as one might expect. “It was more like, ‘Okay I met them. They’re real, and I will see them again when I’m eighteen.’”
Mudd resumed her normal activities, speaking to her birth mother once or twice a year over the phone.
“Mengting,” her mother would say.
“Mom,” Mudd would reply.
Mudd would sing the chorus of “Mouse Loves Rice.”
“I love you.”
“I miss you.”
“And then silence. That’s always how the calls went,” says Mudd.
During her last years of high school, Mudd studied Chinese at community college, graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.
After school ended, Mudd boarded her first solo flight to spend the summer with her birth family in China. She had two goals: understanding her past and forming a deeper connection with her relatives. “This time I was thinking, I want to get to know this family better because I hardly know them, and it’s very obvious to me that I’m important to them,” says Mudd.
After fifteen hours of flying, Mudd arrived in China. From the airport, she and her birth family drove five hours back to Quzhou, where she was welcomed by her mother’s family. Between the travel and the socializing, Mudd was overwhelmed. She was especially concerned about remembering the correct terms for each of her extended family members, a more complex system than in the United States.
“I don’t wanna mess this up,” she remembers thinking. “I want to be part of this Chinese family.”
Mudd was seeking belonging in a family and culture still unfamiliar to her. “I know that I fit in American society,” says Mudd. “Now this is my Chinese family–this is in my blood. This is a part of who I am. I want to be Chinese. I want to fit in as much as I can.”
One day at her maternal grandparents’ house, Mudd realized that no one would sit next to her, despite her normal popularity with her relatives. Then, she spotted her grandfather sitting on a tiny stool away from the table. She later learned that she was sitting in her grandfather’s seat at the head of the table.
“Everybody was like, ‘Oh that’s cute. She’s American.’ So nobody was offended. Even Waigong [maternal grandfather] was totally chill about it, but I remember being so embarrassed,” Mudd recalls. “They give me grace for being American.”
Finally, Mudd mustered the courage to face her paternal grandmother, the authority figure that chose to forsake her as a young child. It was a precarious situation: on one hand, Mudd’s father wanted them to have a good relationship, and on the other, Mudd’s mother wanted her to have nothing to do with the woman responsible for the loss of her child. When Mudd told her father that she was nervous to meet her grandmother, he informed her that her grandmother was actually scared to meet Mudd. Surprised, Mudd could see that she was just another human, imperfect and worthy of forgiveness.
Mudd’s grandmother was hospitable, cooking a hearty meal for everyone. They couldn’t speak much, since Mudd doesn’t speak the local dialect and her grandmother doesn’t speak Mandarin, but on subsequent visits they have continued to smile at one another.
“It doesn’t need to be closer than that,” says Mudd. “We recognize that things happened, but here we both are getting along while she’s living, and I think that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
At the end of Mudd’s visit, her birth parents entered the room and sat down to speak with her, a rare event given their divorce. They apologized for their failure as parents to protect her as a child and reaffirmed that they have and will always love her. Mudd acknowledged that they did the best that they could and told them that she didn’t blame them. The important thing, she felt, was working with who they are now and building a future relationship.
Today, Mudd lives with her husband about five minutes away from her adoptive family. She holds a Master’s in Human Centered Design and Engineering from the University of Washington and currently works as a user experience researcher for Qualtrics.
With more educational and career opportunities, Mudd has, in many ways, led a more privileged life than Chao, though he was born the cherished male child. Additionally, both her adoptive and birth parents have given her their support and love, which Chao was not always so lucky to receive. He was often punished, and his mother would even tell him that she’d rather have Mudd instead of him.
Mudd regrets that she was unable to have a close sibling relationship with Chao, though she knows neither of them are at fault. Chao didn’t even know of Mudd’s existence until he was ten, and he never learned why she was adopted until Mudd told him as an adult. Their relationship has grown closer in recent years since Chao moved to the U.S. for his studies.
“I can be a big sister for Chao now and moving forward, and I have been in ways. I’ve stopped my mom from hitting him and helped him throughout college here,” she says.
These days, Mudd uses WeChat to message her father a few times a year and her mother about once a month. Since her visit as an 18-year-old, Mudd has visited China twice, once for her Chinese wedding and another time for a business trip. Each time, her relationship with her family has deepened.
As for who has influenced Mudd as a person, she sees a little bit of everyone in her. She attributes her integrity and big heart to her American family, her rationality to her birth father, and her fiery passion to her birth mother.
When she’s back in the U.S., Mudd’s birth family often asks her to return to China.
“I feel like more than ever, I’m a part of two cultures. I’m not fully Chinese, and I’m not fully American,” says Mudd. “But rather than letting that be an identity crisis, I’ve now had the mental and emotional stability to realize that I can have the best of both worlds, and so looking at it that way, I’m very happy with where I’ve ended up and how my story has gone.”