In The Land of Promises, Lefèvre revisits her own history, and the histories of others whose lives were implicated by China’s one-child policy
In July 1994, six families boarded a flight from Brussels to Beijing. Embarking on a 14-day journey, the strangers were bound by a mutual intention: to adopt a baby girl. Landing in China, they were met by an interpreter and tour guide, to assist them throughout their stay. After a three-day tour around Beijing’s tourist sites, the families travelled by plane to Changsha – the capital of Hunan province – then by bus to Yueyang city. Arriving at the orphanage four hours later, the parents-to-be waited patiently in a secluded room. One by one, six girls aged between six months and three-years-old were carried out to meet their new families. Youqine Lefèvre was one of them.
“I always had a very difficult and conflicting relationship with China,” says Lefèvre, who was adopted at eight months old. “When I arrived in Belgium, I became a minority… I was surrounded by white people,” she says. “I wanted to be, and felt like I was, white and Belgian.” At school, Lefèvre experienced racial microaggressions, and often faced intrusive questions about her adoption. “Every reminder of my difference was hard for me,” she says. At the same time, being raised in Belgium meant she lacked the cultural references from China. “I dreamed of being white so that I would be left alone… To feel like I belonged to my family, relatives and friends, I denied my Asianness and internalised the racism.”
At 23 years old, something shifted. “I don’t know why, but my relationship with China began to evolve. I felt ready to go back,” she says, explaining how she came to accept her “double identity”. “I am Belgian, and I am also Chinese… Even though when I go to China, I’m not considered Chinese. I had to understand and accept all of these things.”
In October 2017, Lefèvre travelled to Yueyang city with her father. “I have no direct memories of what happened before I was adopted… For me, it was reassuring that my father remembered what the city was like,” she explains. Tracing the very journey that her father embarked on 23 years earlier, Lefèvre photographed the orphanage, the city in which she was born, and the police station in the neighbourhood of Wulipai, where she was found as a baby. Until then, these places only existed through archival images and documents: “[Photographing them] is a way for me to reclaim my past,” she says.
This personal story makes up the first half of Lefèvre’s book project, The Land of Promises, which was shortlisted for this year’s MACK First Book Award. Lefèvre’s story is just one of more than 100,000 parallel lives, of Chinese children who were adopted by Western families in the early 1990s. Many were girls: byproducts of China’s one-child policy.
On her second visit to China, Lefèvre wanted to understand how this policy has affected other people’s lives, as it has her own. Spending three months in rural areas, she sought out undocumented children, of which there were supposedly millions. “I thought it would be easy to meet them, but people considered me a stranger and didn’t trust me, so it was super difficult,” she says. Instead, Lefèvre decided to speak to only children. “I could try to understand how they experienced the one-child policy, what the consequences were for them, and whether they respected the policy or not,” she says.
Presented alongside testimonies from the people she met, the second part of the project speaks about the wider implications of this policy. “I needed to get an overview of my history and the Chinese birth control policy before having a more engaged approach on the issue of international and transracial adoption,” Lefèvre explains. “Today I no longer claim to be 100 per cent Belgian. I consider myself to be an Asian woman, perceived as Asian by others, adopted by Belgian parents and living in Belgium… [The project] is an attempt on my part to regain agency over my history, the agency that I was deprived of at the beginning… It is about a quest for meaning, something that is perpetual in my life.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.