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Lawrence Twins Tell ‘Explorer’ Their Story

Local students featured in National Geographic documentary on China’s ‘one-child policy.'

At 9 years of age, Mimi and Haley Lawrence know about how they were born in China and adopted as infants by Betsy Lawrence. Last Saturday, more than 50 of their friends and neighbors joined Haley and Mimi at the Clara Barton Community Center to watch their national television debut on “China’s Lost Girls,” an episode of “National Geographic Ultimate Explorer” aired on MSNBC.

When Haley and Mimi appeared on the TV screen, interviewed by National Geographic’s Lisa Ling, everybody in the room fell quiet.

“ULTIMATE EXPLORER” REPORTED on the long-term effects of China’s national policy of restricting families to a single child, or occasionally permitting two. Ling reported that families prefer having boys, and girls “are often hidden, aborted or abandoned.” In China, the policy has led to an imbalance in its population — young males outnumber young females, and “Explorer” cited expert opinions that up to 40 million Chinese men will have no woman to marry by 2020.

In the past 10 years, China’s policy has been felt in the United States. More than 25 percent of all foreign adoptions by U.S. parents are from China, and nearly all adopted Chinese babies are girls, according to National Geographic’s Web site.

In the nine years since Betsy Lawrence adopted Mimi and Haley, thousands of younger Chinese-born girls have found adoptive homes in the United States. The Lawrences belong to the DC Metro China Play Group, an informal association of 125 area families with adopted Chinese children. Many of the play group families attended Saturday’s gathering at the Clara Barton Community Center, including Eva Stolwein and her daughter Sarah, 4, of Cabin John; and Ellen Liberman with daughter Molly Mei-Li, 4, of Bethesda. Both Sarah and Molly were also adopted from China.

“HALEY AND MIMI KNOW MORE details of their adoption than most kids do,” said Betsy Lawrence. As her daughters have grown, Betsy Lawrence decided to tell them more and more about their origins and how she came to adopt them. “A little all along [but] they’ve known since Day One that they were adopted,” she said.

Betsy Lawrence went to China to adopt in 1995; in the previous year, 787 Chinese children were adopted by American citizens, according the Families with Chinese Children, an organization of support groups with several chapters in the D.C. area. By 2003, 6,859 Chinese babies were adopted by Americans. Haley and Mimi are thus older than most Chinese-born children adopted by Americans, and they are better acquainted with their roots.

“Lost Girls” aired footage of Haley and Mimi talking about how they were adopted, and how they feel about the lives they live in America. “We were abandoned in a basket by a school. … Two ladies were taking off a shift at work found us,” Mimi said. The women tried to locate the twins’ biological mother, then took them to the hospital.

“After the hospital, I went to my foster parents,” Mimi continued. “They took care of me for a couple of months.”

AS HALEY AND MIMI went into foster care, Betsy Lawrence was ready to fly to China. Betsy Lawrence, now 57, was divorced and in her forties when she decided to go to China to adopt a child. “I’d tried having kids for a long time. … I was a singled parent; I’d tried to adopt [and was] turned down because I was told I was too old,” she said. “China was one place in the world where I could go and adopt a healthy child as a single parent.”

The thought of adopting twins didn’t cross Lawrence’s mind at first. When she went to the agency, though, Lawrence was told she could apply for two visas. “I figured if I was going to do it, I would do the paperwork for two kids,” Lawrence said.

Four months before Lawrence went to China, the Chinese government began to allow twins to stay together in adoption. In May 1995, Lawrence flew to China.

“They took me to the place where the girls were abandoned. … Most people don’t have the opportunity,” Betsy Lawrence said. “People who were gathering there were amazed that people were going to take the children to America.”

Just more that six months old, Mimi and Haley came to America with Betsy Lawrence.

HALEY AND MIMI TOLD their National Geographic interviewers that they felt lucky for everything they have in America.

“I told [National Geographic] the best part was that I have a loving family, and I have lots of friends, and I’m able to be fed,” Haley said. “I have a lot of fun and I had a great education.”

The Lawrence twins will begin fifth grade at Bannockburn Elementary next fall, and will celebrate their tenth birthdays in September. They were born in 1994, the Year of the Dog — “I have to marry a Sheep or a Tiger,” Mimi said.

Along with road trips to visit grandparents in Texas, their shared birthday is another annual event Haley and Mimi look forward to.

“The only thing I can definitely remember is we’ve always had a pony [at the birthday parties],” said Haley. “And a candy hunt, and we’ve had 100 people.”

The Lawrences are fraternal twins. Betsy Lawrence described Haley, the taller of the two, as a “class president” type. Mimi is “everybody’s best friend,” her mother said. Both twins agree with the characterizations.

Haley said that knowing about her adoption made her want to learn more about China. She and Mimi attended a Chinese culture camp where they learned calligraphy, history and took Chinese language lessons.

Mimi and Haley have some friends who were adopted, but both said they said it’s not something they normally talk about with their friends.

OTHER YOUNGER children at the community center Saturday have also been adopted from China, most part of the DC Metro China Play Group. “All we wanted to do was get together and play, and give the girls a chance to grow up together,” said Betsy Lawrence.

Ellen Liberman of Bethesda watched “Lost Girls” while Molly Mei-Li, scurried around the room with a lamb doll lent to her by Sarah Alper, also 4.

“I play, and I do show-and-tell,” said Sarah, who brought a purple and blue pony to show the class one time. “I sing, and I get a job.” (Students have to help with the cleanup.)

Molly was 21 months old — unusually old for an adoptee — but was also small for her age. “She was more like a 12-month-old,” said Liberman, who found the clothes she brought were too large on Sarah.

Molly had grown very attached to her foster family, and was screaming when Liberman first saw her. But after two days, Molly would meet other people in China, and didn’t want to leave Liberman’s side. “That was our first impression — she’s a very passionate child,” Liberman said.

Eva Stolwein lives in Cabin John, and knew Betsy Lawrence when Stolwein and her husband Dan Alper began considering adoption. “We wanted to love and raise a child,” Stolwein said. “Betsy was a big influence on me.”

Stolwein and Alper went to China to adopt Sarah, a baby from Hubei Province. Like Lawrence and Liberman, Stolwein said that first meeting her child was an almost indescribably powerful experience. “It was amazing and joyous,” she said.

Sarah has provided joy for Stolwein since her husband died last year. “He was a caring and loving father,” Stolwein said. Before his death, Stolwein and her husband had plans to adopt another child from China. “[Sarah] is still a joy in my life. She’s fun, creative, imaginative,” Stolwein said. “And she’s strong-willed.”

Many play group families have grown involved with the Half the Sky Foundation, a nonprofit benefiting Chinese babies and children in orphanages who have not been adopted. Families can sponsor the education fees of children in the Chinese orphanage, and there is a Little Sister-Big Sister correspondence program.

“We can’t adopt every kid, and can’t help every kid that was left in China… but at least we can help,” Betsy Lawrence said.

BETSY, MIMI AND HALEY Lawrence attended a production crew party for those interviewed in “China’s Lost Girls” at Bar Noir in Washington, D.C. on June 16.

“We weren’t really the stars of the show,” said Haley, on their two interview clips that aired in the show. That was enough to warrant star treatment — one adult attending the party asked Haley and Mimi for their autographs.

“Even if I have a small part, I still feel like a star,” said Mimi. “People are looking at me like I’m adorable.”

Producers and viewers listened to the Lawrence twins also. After seeing the “China’s Lost Girls,” Haley and Mimi had more questions about their background than ever before, Betsy Lawrence said.

“They were [among] the first kids who could tell their adoption story,” Betsy Lawrence said. “Can you imagine what it’s going to be like when thousands of these girls can speak out?”