Twins Molly Renfrow and Jesse Newman didn’t know they had an older sister, or other family in China, until they were 7 years old.
Sixteen years later, their older sister QianQian Huang traveled to Gig Harbor for Newman’s wedding Sunday.
Huang, 24, was in the front row at the ceremony. She sat with her 23-year-old sisters at the reception, and helped the bride with her dress and hair throughout the day.
A couple of days before the wedding the family spoke with The News Tribune.
After traveling 36 hours from their home at the time in Portland, Maine, the MacKinnons were told to shower and get ready to meet their twin girls.
According to the Pew Research Center, China accounted for 78,257 of 267,098 international adoptions from 1999 to 2016 in the United States. There were about 460,000 orphans in 2016 in China, according to the Borgen Project — a nonprofit that tries to reduce global poverty.
When they made it to the foster home and met the girls, they were told there was a letter with the twins when they were dropped off.
“That was startling. It was like: ‘Oh my goodness, what do we do with this?’” Melodee MacKinnon said. “This was totally unexpected. But we trusted that God’s hand was in this. … We took the letter and we knew we had to do something with this — we were not given this for no reason.”
The letter said the parents gave birth to triplets in November and all of them were girls. They kept the eldest, but didn’t have enough money to support the other two and were in debt from their hospital bills. Their only hope was that adoptive parents would take the girls in and give them a good life. The letter also detailed the immunization status of each child and their appetites.
Huang is not a triplet. She is 14 months older than the twins. The MacKinnons later learned that the birth parents wrote that the girls were triplets and used aliases in their letter to protect themselves from repercussions under Chinese law — which made it illegal to have more than one child or to abandon a child.
The MacKinnons were told that a letter from the birth parents is pretty rare unless it’s in regards to a child’s health or medical condition.
“It struck a note of fear in me a bit, however, I trusted that God’s hand was on it — I knew it,” Melodee MacKinnon said. “At that point we knew and made the decision that we were going to follow up on this, and we had to wait to see what the right timing was, and what the right method was to see if a door would open and it definitely did.”
In the late ‘90s, Brad worked in the biotech business and traveled to Taiwan for work somewhat frequently. In 1998 on one of his trips, he decided to look for the third sister.
With the help of some of his coworkers, Brad went to nine birthing hospitals in Nanning searching through public birth records. Each hospital director, though, said the letter was fake and that triplets are almost unheard of.
Unwilling to give up and with time running out, Brad placed an ad in the local paper in search of Renfrow’s and Newman’s birth parents instructing them to contact his coworkers.
Before he knew it, Brad received a message from a coworker with a lead and contact information for someone who was most likely the twins’ birth father.
The families corresponded and sent updates on the kids over time. In 2003 the MacKinnons took the twins — who were 7 at the time — to China to meet their birth family.
“We felt like they were old enough that they could understand,” Melodee MacKinnon said. “There was a sort of peace about it.”
China was in the midst of a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak — the World Health Organization declared it a “worldwide threat” in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than 5,300 people in China were infected, and 349 died in 2003, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States.
However, the outbreak wasn’t going to deter the MacKinnons.
“We were advised not to go, obviously,” Melodee MacKinnon said. “The United States said ‘don’t travel,’ but we had made the commitment before the SARS outbreak, and this was it. We felt, once again, that this had all been put together, so we said ‘we’re going anyway.’”
During the month-long vacation that started in Beijing, the MacKinnons traveled to Nanning and set up a time and place to meet the twins’ birth family — but they didn’t tell the girls. Huang’s family didn’t tell her until right before the meeting either.
“The first time I met them I knew I had to dress up a little bit,” Huang told The News Tribune in Chinese. The twins’ high school Chinese teacher translated.
“The adults were to the side talking about how they looked for each other, for family, and then us kids were playing for a while. Then we started to look at some photographs. We didn’t share a language but we were still able to play together.”
The twins also met their little brother, who was born in 1997.
“I hadn’t thought too much about the possibility of having another family because my family in America was what I knew,” Renfrow said. “I was kind of blown away that I had more people in China that I was family with.”
Melodee MacKinnon said when they all finally met, she could see the amount of guilt the birth parents had — the mother wouldn’t make eye contact with her. However, when they started looking through a photo album of Renfrow and Newman’s childhood, they could see the weight lift off their shoulders.
“Then there was a great level of peace,” Melodee MacKinnon said.
The MacKinnons returned to China during a vacation to Japan in 2010 and met again with the birth family. This time, though, it was a much larger crowd.
Brad said there were about 60 people stuffed into a restaurant for a party for the twins. Family from both the birth mother’s and the birth father’s sides were there. Brad said the family took the MacKinnons to their apartments and through the town.
“It was extremely humbling, just seeing how excited everyone was to meet us,” Renfrow said. “What lengths they went to to invite all of our extended family.”
Renfrow was the first to be engaged and invited her birth family at the suggestion of her now-husband Isaac. One or two weeks later, Newman got engaged to her now-husband Garrett and invited the family as well.
However, Huang was the only one whose visa was approved by the U.S. government.
“Since I knew of them, I’ve always hoped for them that they were leading good lives and hoped they were happy,” Huang said. “To be here in my person makes me really happy. My mom really wanted to be here, and I actually get to be here in person, it’s a great feeling.”
Renfrow and Newman, along with the MacKinnons, said they feel so grateful and lucky to have Huang with them and to be able to share this milestone with her.
The twins said they also feel lucky to have family in both the U.S. and China.
“I think we just grew up with so much love and we knew that we were loved by our adopted family, we knew that we were loved by our birth family,” Newman said. “We never had reason to question either.”
“Our birth parents went through so much to keep us safe and they really wanted us to be happy,” Renfrow said. “How much my parents went through ... to track them down for us, that’s not typical either. You just feel so much love and support with both sets of parents.”