Lucky Girl


By Mei-Ling Hopgood

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In a true story of family ties, journalist Mei-Ling Hopgood, one of the first wave of Asian adoptees to arrive in America, comes face to face with her past when her Chinese birth family suddenly requests a reunion after more than two decades.

In 1974, a baby girl from Taiwan arrived in America, the newly adopted child of a loving couple in Michigan. Mei-Ling Hopgood had an all-American upbringing, never really identifying with her Asian roots or harboring a desire to uncover her ancestry. She believed that she was lucky to have escaped a life that was surely one of poverty and misery, to grow up comfortable with her doting parents and brothers.

Then, when she’s in her twenties, her birth family comes calling. Not the rural peasants she expected, they are a boisterous, loving, bossy, complicated middle-class family who hound her daily—by phone, fax, and letter, in a language she doesn’t understand—until she returns to Taiwan to meet them. As her sisters and parents pull her into their lives, claiming her as one of their own, the devastating secrets that still haunt this family begin to emerge. Spanning cultures and continents, Lucky Girl brings home a tale of joy and regret, hilarity, deep sadness, and great discovery as the author untangles the unlikely strands that formed her destiny.


Lucky Girl

Published by

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Post Office Box 2225

Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of

Workman Publishing

225 Varick Street

New York, New York 10014

© 2009 by Mei-Ling Hopgood. All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.

Design by Anne Winslow.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hopgood, Mei-Ling.

    Lucky girl / Mei-Ling Hopgood.—1st ed.

    p. cm.

    ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-600-8

    1. Hopgood, Mei-Ling. 2. Hopgood, Mei-Ling—Family. 3. Taiwanese Americans—Biography. 4. Adopted children—United States—Biography. 5. Intercountry adoption—United States—Case studies. 6. Family—United States. 7. Birthparents—Taiwan. 8. Family—Taiwan. 9. Taiwan—Biography. 10. Taylor (Mich.)—Biography. I. Title.

E184.T35H67 2009                            2008052220


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

First Edition

For Rollie and Chris

You find yourself in the world at all, only through
an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage,
or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you
descend. But upon what do these marriages depend?
A visit made by chance, an idle word,
a thousand unforeseen occasions

—Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

Author’s Note

I have tried to reproduce events and conversations as accurately as possible, drawing from my own memories and journals and countless conversations, letters, e-mail, and interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances. Some letters and journal entries have been edited for repetition, grammar, and punctuation.

For my biological family’s history, I depended mostly on the interpretation and translation of my sisters and brother-in-law and tried to verify the facts as I understood them. For scenes and circumstances that lacked concrete or clear testimony, I re-created from imagination, and those instances are noted in the text. I have changed my birth family’s Chinese surname, as well as the names of a few family members, in the interest of protecting their privacy.

bleary eyes, smelling of airplane funk and the smokers who puffed away during the Japan-Taiwan leg of the eighteen-hour journey. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my throat.

A perky airline employee directed me through customs and to exit 4. The doors slid open to reveal a room filled with people. They were pushing, hanging, and standing on a wood rail, waving signs in Chinese characters. They jumped up and down, wailed and shouted. I had seen my relatives in pictures, but as I scanned the Chinese faces, all of them seemed to look alike, with eyes as dark as mine.

My God. How will I know them?

Then I saw the sign, handwritten in thick, black, slanted letters: MEI-LING. A crowd of strangers rushed toward me.


Royal Oak, Michigan, May 1995

I had recently moved back to metro Detroit after graduating from college, and was working as a rookie reporter for the Detroit Free Press, writing about such cheery topics as violent teens who stalk police officers and mothers who go mad and stab their children. I rented a place on the second floor of a rickety old house smeared with a thin coat of mustard yellow paint on South Washington Avenue in the suburb of Royal Oak. I was twenty-one years old and single, so a trendy neighborhood and the abundance of nearby bars always made up for a crappy apartment. I loved my starter life, and for the first time I was feeling confident in my own skin. I believed I had conquered the insecurities over being Asian that had vexed me for so long. I thought I finally was getting a grip on who I wanted to be.

Then one afternoon, my mom called. She and Dad still lived in my hometown of Taylor, a forty-minute drive south, and now that I was back in the area we were able to chat and visit much more often. Usually we just traded mother-daughter banter on the temperamental Michigan weather, work, my brothers, my current boyfriend, and so forth, but on this day, Mom had some more interesting news to share.

“Sister Maureen called us today,” she said. “She’s in town and she wants to see you.”

Sister Maureen Sinnott had been a distant, almost mythical figure that my parents talked about with reverence. Shortly after they married, my parents had contacted Maureen, hoping she could help them adopt a child. The nun gladly acted as the link between my birth family and my adoptive parents, maneuvering me through the maddening Taiwan and U.S. bureaucracies and caring for me for the almost eight months it took to get me out of the country. Maureen and I had exchanged letters occasionally when I was a girl, but I couldn’t remember much about her.

Mom said that after many years living in other states and abroad, Maureen had returned to her native Allen Park, a Detroit suburb that borders Taylor’s northeast side.

“You should call her,” Mom said.

The seven or so months I had spent in Taiwan as a baby never interested me much. My birth parents were shadows, known to me only in the folds of my eyelids, the curve of my chin, or the shiny dark of my hair. They were merely characters in some childhood fairy tale, ghosts of a former lifetime, memories that only existed because I was told they existed. The details had little to do with my happy life as an American girl who grew up with blue-eyed parents and two Korean brothers, who were also adopted. I was just another one of the endless unwanted baby girls born to and discarded by poor Chinese families. The past was the past.

Still, I was intrigued with the idea that I might meet the woman who made it possible for me to have a different life. I asked my mom for her phone number.

Maureen was bubbly, thrilled to hear that my life had turned out wonderfully.

“Oh, Mei-Ling,” she said. “I’m so glad to know I made the right decision to arrange your adoption. I took care of you and I felt like a mother to you, too.”

She invited me to dinner at her home.

“I have pictures,” Maureen said. “Of you . . . and your mother and your father.”

“You have pictures of my mother?” I asked. I had wondered, on and off, throughout my adolescence about what my mother looked like, if I had inherited my body from her, for example. For some reason, my curiosity was always focused on my birth mother, rather than my father. I never knew any photos of either existed.

“Your mother loved you, Mei-Ling. She didn’t want to give you up.”

Tears sprang to my eyes, catching me off guard. A surprising wave of sadness and relief washed over me. Maureen had just offered an answer to a question I never had dared to ask. She didn’t want to. I paused before accepting the invitation for dinner. I did not want Maureen to hear my voice cracking.

MAUREEN’S ONE-BEDROOM APARTMENT in Allen Park was small, but cozy, decorated with mementos of the many years she spent globetrotting. A hand-painted scroll, a farewell gift given to her when she left Taiwan after eight years, hung on her living-room wall. She had watched a friend paint the snowy mountain scene and write in Chinese characters, “You may be leaving us, but you are leaving your footsteps behind.” Maureen used an African kitenge as a tablecloth and displayed a hand-carved ebony African head purchased from an artist in Tanzania. On another wall she kept a large framed profile of an African woman with a tear running down her cheek. Maureen said she bought the picture at an ethnic festival in Detroit about twenty years ago and took it wherever she went because, to her, it symbolized all who are oppressed.

I recognized Maureen only a little from old black-and-white pictures my parents had shown me. She had been thirty-one years old when she cared for me. Back then, she was quite thin and kept her hair tucked under her veil. The modern, in-living-color Maureen was age fifty-four, short and robust. Her dark, wavy hair was uncovered and she wore pants and a purple sweater over a blue and white shirt. She had sharp blue eyes that welled up with tears when she saw me. We hugged like old friends.

“It is so good to see you,” Maureen said. “You turned out so well.”

She introduced me to Sister Shirley Smith, who also had helped care for me at St. Mary’s Hospital. The three of us sat on Maureen’s couch, drank tea, and chatted about my blossoming career as a journalist and Maureen’s world adventures and new psychology practice. Maureen cooked a chicken and veggie stir-fry dinner, which we ate with chopsticks. After our meal, Maureen took out an envelope filled with dozens of photos she had taken in Taiwan, of St. Mary’s hospital, of the nurses, of my birth family. We examined each while Maureen and Shirley reminisced, laughing at how young and skinny they were back then.

In one picture, Maureen holds me as I reach down to pull the hair of one of my sisters. My grandmother, an auntie, and Shirley stand nearby. In another, also taken the day I left Taitung, Maureen and I pose with several nurses and my birth parents, who had come to say good-bye. I am in Maureen’s arms, but my biological mother stands nearby, resting her hand on my arm. Her hair is pulled back and she is wearing a striped sweater over a yellow button-down shirt and red shoes. My birth father stands to Maureen’s right, partially cut out of the frame. He is wearing a brown jacket. I didn’t see myself in either of them. I examined the way my mother touched me—her face seemed almost expressionless—and wondered what she must have felt.

At the end of the evening, Maureen said, “You know, Mei-Ling, if you ever want to contact your birth family, I am sure they would be exactly in the same place you left them.”

I stared at her. It was the first time that the possibility of searching for my biological family—and the prospect that I might actually find them—had crossed my mind seriously. While I was growing up, when anyone would ask me if I wondered what became of them, I’d answer no. No, I did not know how many siblings I had. No, I did not know much about Taiwan. No, I did not care to meet them. As a teenager, I practically took pride in my ignorance.

I mean, why dwell on the past? A choice was made for my good or theirs, or for both, and ultimately, as soon as I was poured into the arms of Rollie and Chris Hopgood one April afternoon in 1974, these two midwestern teachers became my real family. They read me bedtime stories, attended my recitals, helped me build homecoming floats, and took me on vacations to Florida. My mom dressed me in pretty clothes and drove me to dance class; I admired her pale, slender beauty and her measured patience, even when our opposite personalities clashed. My dad took me grocery shopping, to the dances he chaperoned, and on the picket lines when he led strikes. I was just like him, strong-willed, independent, and passionate; our battles shook the windows, but we were fiercely devoted to each other. Hoon-Yung and Jung-Hoe, who were both adopted from South Korea, were my real brothers, my playtime companions. I taught Hoon-Yung to play house and camp out and helped Jung-Hoe speak English and sleep on a bed. Instead of enduring poverty and prejudice against girls and women, I had been raised to believe I could do anything that I wanted. I had a close family, a rich life, and the endless opportunities of the great United States of America.

I’m lucky, I’ve always told myself.

Perhaps one day I might like to know more about these figures from my past and the reasons they made the decisions that they did. One day. But not today.

I thanked Maureen for the suggestion but told her I’d have to think about it.

“Maybe if you want to write to the hospital in Taitung,” I suggested, “just to see if the nurses know where my family is? But not to contact them . . . Just to see . . .” I said.

Because my response was less than enthusiastic, Maureen decided to wait. Not long afterward, I left Detroit, chased away by a labor strike at my newspaper. I moved to St. Louis and started another reporting job. I had a great group of fun friends. We were young and ambitious, spending our days dissecting other people’s stories, but I still had little interest in digging into my own.

In late 1996 I was jotting down a holiday note to Maureen when I remembered our conversation from the year before. I wondered if she had ever written to St. Mary’s to confirm the whereabouts of my family. I casually asked, “Did you ever write to the hospital?”

Maureen interpreted my question as a request: Write to the hospital. And she did.

BARELY A MONTH LATER, on January 26, 1997, I was folding phyllo dough into triangles, getting ready for a cocktail party at my apartment in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis. I had fussed over a simple menu: bagel chips with hummus, veggies, spanikopita, quiches, dips and chips, the usual party fare. The house reeked of slightly burnt cooking oil, and my kitchen was a mess. Pans, knives, opened packages, strips of phyllo dough, and cut vegetables were piled on my counter. My dog waited expectantly at my feet, hoping to profit from the disorder and my general sympathy for her forlorn face. I planned to play jazzy tunes, serve martinis, and wear a short purple velvet dress bought at a secondhand store. We would talk some shop—lamenting missed deadlines and dreadful assignments—but mostly we would laugh and tell stories about crazy politicians, bad dates, about our families and our quirky midwestern hometowns.

I was far behind schedule, frantic, and covered in flour, when the phone rang. I wiped my sticky fingers on a towel and grabbed the receiver.


It was Maureen.

“Mei-Ling,” she said, her voice bubbling with excitement. “I have a letter from the hospital.”

A nun at St. Mary’s had sent her information about my birth family.

“Both mother and father are from Kinmen. The father is fifty-nine years old, while the mother is fifty-four,” Maureen read. “The occupation of the father is a farmer. Mother, a housewife.”

The letter recited a laundry list of dry statistics with no names from a family on the other side of the world: “First female, married, a government-employed researcher . . .” In all, there were seven siblings in Taiwan, six sisters and one brother whom they had adopted. One more daughter, the youngest, had been given up for adoption to a couple in Switzerland.

I froze, leaning hard on my kitchen counter.

My mother and father? My sisters and brother?

Maureen read on: “The father is excited to see Mei-Ling. He is inviting her if she could come on Chinese New Year, which will be on February 7, 1997. He said the children do come at this time.” He had included a business card and a self-addressed envelope.

“Can you believe it?” she asked.

I couldn’t—I was shocked. I think I said something like “Wow! That’s amazing.”

Still, I didn’t want this strange news to crowd my busy life. There were too many unknowns, and deep down I was a little afraid of being too curious. I preferred not caring about my biological past. What if I was disappointed or hurt by what I discovered? Maureen told me she’d forward me the letter, and we could decide what to do next.

Dazed and unbelieving, I called my parents. They were excited and eager to know more. I recounted the story again to friends who came over that night. We oohed and ahhed, and speculated about what it all might mean. An Asian American colleague pointed out that my family had appeared at the turn of the Chinese Year of the Ox, in which we both were born.

“They waited until our year to find you,” she marveled. We raised our glasses and toasted this revelation. I felt elated and strange, with only a vague sense that much of what I knew about who I was and what I believed about my past and future was about to change.

I ARRIVED HOME FROM a business trip in Kansas City a few days later. My Chinese Shar-Pei, Delilah, greeted me with her customary dance of twists and turns and tail wags. I stretched one hand down to pat her wrinkles, still wearing my coat. I shuffled absent-mindedly through the mail and then reached over and pushed the button on the answering machine sitting on the edge of the kitchen counter.


It was Maureen, breathless with news again. She had another letter, this time from one of my sisters. She read it to my machine:

Dear Mei-Ling,

How are you for these years? We are missing you. When we know your news we are very glad. And especially Father and Mother. I’m your elder sister. Father and Mother want to see you in a hurry. They hope you can come back Taiwan in New Year ’97. Father say he want to buy the ticket for you if you want to come Taiwan so if you receive my letter please reply as soon as to me. We expect your good news.

Your elder sister, Joanna

This was all happening so fast. These people were threatening to jump off of the page and into my life.

Maureen sent me the original letter from Joanna, my second-oldest sister, whose actual name is Jin-Qiong. My sister had written on rice paper that crinkled to touch, delicate and exotic. The envelope was written in Chinese, except for the words Taitung, Taiwan.

About a week later, I received another letter from another sister. In that envelope were tucked a few photographs. I pulled them out and examined them closely, holding the photos not far from my nose to get a good look at each person. I scrutinized eyes, faces, lips, and bodies. Who was taller? Who was prettier? Who looked the most like me, my mother or father? Which sister? Some of the pictures were old, dating back to my last days in Taiwan, variations of those I had seen at the home of Sister Maureen almost two years earlier. Those baby photos did not surprise or move me this time, but the more recent photos did—especially a family portrait taken at the wedding of one my sisters.

The picture was a few years old. In it, the bride wears a red and gold dress, a jade pendant, and sparkly, dangling earrings. Her hair is pinned up, and a few tight spirals frame her face. She is pale, heavily made up, and her lips are parted in a demure smile. Almost twenty relatives, sisters in dresses, brothers-in-law in suits, aunts, uncles, and cousins, press in close, standing on tiptoes, contorting their necks and backs, trying to fit in the frame. I noted that many of the women, presumably my sisters, wore the same bright red shade of lipstick. My tiny grandmother, my father’s mother, sits serenely front and center wearing a shiny blue silk shirt. Her hands rest on her knees and a cane is propped beneath her right armpit. She has what looks like a receding white hairline and reminded me of some character out of an old Kung Fu movie, an old and wise prophet about to bestow a secret to a worthy disciple. My mother sits to her right, wearing a pink and white checkered suit, white hose, heels, and a corsage with a red ribbon pinned to her chest. Her hair is permed and bobbed, and her bangs are teased into a perfect curl on her forehead. Her mouth, too, is painted in the same bright red, and she is grinning, but she is caught with her eyes shut. To her right is my only slightly smiling father, stern and straight, handsomely dressed in a Western suit with a colorful tie held in place with a tie pin. He also wears a flower with a red ribbon imprinted with gold Chinese characters. On the back of the photo is written, “The grandma is dead (21 May 1996), 86 years old. The picture is taken in the occasion of the 4th daughter’s marriage.”

At the time, I didn’t know who was who in this family portrait, save the bride, my parents, and grandmother. The group seemed a joyful jumble of chaos. It was odd knowing that these strangers were directly related to me, but what struck me most was the realization that my siblings were not merely the children of a poor farming family, as I had believed. If I had an image of my birth family at all in my head, it had been in black and white and dismal. They would be gaunt, wearing ragged clothes and probably standing in some barren field with a shabby, straw-roofed hut at their backs, a stereotypical portrait of third-world poverty. I mean, that was why they had given me up for adoption, right?

Yet that was not who they were. Perhaps they were before, but not now. They were a middle-class family. My sisters were attractive, educated, and successful. What few assumptions I had were wrong.

“They all look like they love each other very much,” I wrote in my journal.

I had never cared about them before or even thought of them as real people. I never had—nor did I seek—enough information to feel a connection with my biological origins. My mom and dad told me what they knew, and I never sought to know more. This was probably both a conscious and unconscious decision. You are less likely to mourn those you do not realize you have lost—or those who have lost you. You do not yearn for a life that you don’t know exists. Now I not only knew what I had gained from being adopted, but I suddenly was beginning to see what I had missed, and I wanted to know more.

I hurriedly dug up a few pictures of my own. I sent one of my family, one of my dog and me, and another taken in Hawaii of me with some friends. In the latter, I’m tan, wearing a sarong and a red and white checkered shirt and sitting on a couch with my friend Monica and her pals the week before her wedding in Honolulu. I chose that picture because of my smile, which was wide, and my eyes—they didn’t look squinty or crooked as they occasionally did in pictures. These would be the first images of the modern-day me that they would see, and I wanted to look good. I sent the letters global priority mail to Taiwan, one to my sister and one to my parents.

“Dear Mother and Father,” I wrote. “I received your letter and I’m overjoyed to find you. I’m very sorry I cannot come to Taiwan for Chinese New Year, but I want to come soon. How have you been through these years?”

In a short and polite note, I went on to describe in brief my life as a young journalist. Nothing too revealing or complicated. Nothing they couldn’t understand. Then I signed off, “Love, your daughter, Mei-Ling.”

•  •  •

THE NEXT FRIDAY I left for Mardi Gras in New Orleans in a rented van with friends from the newspaper. We marauded all weekend in the French Quarter before driving back to St. Louis on Monday, exhausted. After dropping off the rental, I drove my Saturn home. My ugly little apartment complex, a nondescript blob of brick buildings that had managed to skirt the neighborhood’s zoning laws, was surrounded by magnificent early twentieth-century stone homes and Victorian mansions. I lugged my bags upstairs, ready to collapse in bed. The door opened to the living room, which still had that mismatched college look—a white couch, a green futon, and an on-again, off-again peace lily wilting by the window.

This time, I found several messages on my answering machine. At first I thought they were pranks because the callers did not say anything, although there were loud, unintelligible voices in the background.

Then in a later message, a timid, rather high voice said, “I’m your younger sister Taiwan.” Click.

In another, a woman’s voice in English, presumably a nun from St. Mary’s hospital, said, “Mei-Ling. Your mother and father want to talk to you. They tried to call you several times.”

They tried to call me.

I couldn’t think about it. I was too tired to process what was happening. It seemed like some bizarre dream. Try to relax, I thought. I had to try to go on with my normal life, which meant work early the next day. I went to bed.

In the morning, two faxes in perfect English that had arrived over the weekend were delivered to my desk at work. They were letters from my “mother” and “father,” though obviously someone else had written on their behalf.

“We all miss you very much,” they said. “We hope we can hear you as soon as possible.”

Even a nun from an order in St. Louis left a message on my work voice mail. This woman I did not know told me my family was trying to get ahold of me and that I should try to call them. I shook my head in amazement.

Jeez. The whole world is trying to find me.

THEY REACHED ME at about eleven thirty that night.

“Wang Mei-Ling?” a woman asked.

Um. No one had ever called me that, but obviously they were referring to me.

“Um,” I said.

“Wang Mei-Ling?” Hollering in the background.

“Yes?” I said.

YES?” I repeated loudly, for they seemed neither to hear nor understand me for all the background noise.


  • Mei-Ling Hopgood "writes with humor and grace about her efforts to understand how biology, chance, choice and love intersect to delineate a life. A wise, moving meditation on the meaning of family, identity and fate." –Kirkus

    Detroit Metro Times
  • ”A journalist by trade, Hopgood pushes herself to ask tough questions. As she does, shocking family secrets begin to spill forth. . . Brutally honest. . . Although Hopgood’s memoir is uniquely her own, multiple perspectives on adoption saturate the book.” –Bust magazine

    Good Housekeeping
  • “An award-winning writer recounts her experience as one of the first Chinese babies adopted in the West and her surprising trail back to the rural Taiwanese family who gave her away. . . A great book.”—Good Housekeeping

    Louisville Courier-Journal
  • “With concise, truth-seeking deftness of a seasoned journalist, Mei-Ling delves into the political, cultural and financial reasoning behind her Chinese birth parents' decision to put her up for adoption. . . Cut with historical detail and touching accounts of Mei-Ling's "real" family, the Hopgoods, Lucky Girl is a refreshingly upbeat take on dealing with the pressures and expectations of family, while remaining true to oneself. Simple, to the point and uncluttered of the everyday minutiae, Mei-Ling Hopgood nails the concept of becoming one's own.”—Detroit Metro Times

  • "An award-winning writer recounts her experience as one of the first Chinese babies adopted in the West and her surprising trail back to the rural Taiwanese family who gave her away . . . A great book." —Good Housekeeping
  • "Enchanting . . . Hopgood's story entices not because it's joyful but because she is honest, analytical and articulate concerning her ambivalence about and eventual acceptance of both her families and herself." —Louisville Courier-Journal

On Sale
Jun 15, 2010
Page Count
272 pages
Algonquin Books

Mei-Ling Hopgood

Mei-Ling Hopgood

About the Author

Mei-Ling Hopgood is an award-winning journalist and writer. She lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with her husband and two daughters. Find her online at

Learn more about this author