Corrections appended.

“‘I would have kept you.’ ... My biological mother said many things which are not true, but anyhow I totally understand,’’ recalled Dr. Mei-Mei Akwai Ellerman in her speech “From Darkness to Light” on Tuesday afternoon.

Ellerman, a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, was adopted by a half-Chinese woman from New York City at 7-months-old. Since then, she lived with her ‘maman’ — adoptive mother — and her three adoptive siblings. Together they moved from country to country, from Denmark to Mexico, France and Italy. 

Though Ellerman has spent most of her family history efforts researching her adoptive mother’s family, this time, she decided to focus on her biological family, particularly her mother. Though she received “rock solid love from her maman” and learned that her biological mother died in childbirth, Ellerman still found it possible and necessary to find out about her own origin. “I was fated to discover [it],” she said.

Failing to get access to her birth certificate, which was under the protection of New York State law, she reached out to the adoption agency for any clues that might relay her to her biological mother or father. After years of effort, she came to know her mother’s maiden name and marriage record. 

With clues accumulating and with help from friends in high places, she finally managed to get the phone number of the woman she was told had died decades ago. Since her biological mother was guaranteed by the adoption agency that not a single document or clue could be accessible to Ellerman, it took Ellerman some time to convince the woman that she was her biological daughter. 

After hearing Ellerman’s condensed life story, the 84-year-old mother replied, “I think I have been waiting for this call most of my adult life. I prayed for you as I prayed for my children … And [hearing] that you have [had] a happy upbringing, I can now die in peace.” Three months after the first call, Ellerman visited her mother for the first time. It had been twenty-seven years since she started to look for her biological family. “I was fated to discover [my origin],” she said.

Ellerman further explained that her conception was premarital, which was strictly forbidden in traditional China, especially in as wealthy a family as the one her biological mother belonged to. Thus, the family sent her mother to New York City to give birth. Later on, Ellerman’s biological father became a highly-regarded diplomat. Meanwhile, her mother married a Belgian man three years later to get a fresh start. Both parents started a new life and still kept in contact by letter. According to Ellerman, neither parent kept any such correspondence with her, their daughter.

Contrary to the ups and downs of the story about her origin, the moving details of her adoptive family left a rather deep impression on Ellerman. Akwai Yang, Ellerman’s adoptive grandmother, raised seven adopted daughters along with her own five surviving biological kids, many of whom in turn adopted children of their own. As for Ellerman, the third generation of adoptive family, she reveled in speaking of her eight grandchildren, among whom only two are biological. “But to me, they are all the same,” Ellerman said, proudly stating that “adoption has run throughout all the generations.” 

A previous version of this article stated that Ellerman's biological father married several wives. It was actually her biological maternal grandfather who was married several times. The previous version also stated that Ellerman's mother had four adoptive British children in the U.S. during the war. She actually had three. This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Ellerman's life story.