Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim’s moving project documents young Chinese women adopted into British families

The recent LCF grad has produced an incredible body of work interviewing and documenting adoptees who, like her, came to the UK from China. Crucially, though, the project interrogates the reasons why adoption occurs, particularly when it comes to baby girls in China.


Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim had never really been interested in exploring her adoption until the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Born in Hefei, in the province of Anhui, China, Zoe was adopted one year later by a British, Jewish and American family that moved to London in time to celebrate her first birthday (according to a birth date the Chinese orphanage she was living in gave her). “Allegedly, I was found on the steps of a university by some college students and handed over to the orphanage,” Zoe writes in her project Coming Out of The Fog, a collection of stories, interviews and portraits of other young Chinese women adopted into British families.

That was about as far as Zoe’s knowledge of her adoption story went, until the increase in racial attacks on the Asian community during Covid left her feeling “strangely and sadly connected to my Chinese community”. This feeling set her on a path to create an incredible, moving and beautiful body of work during her final year at London College of Fashion, from which she graduated this year. She began reading books about the Chinese adoption system and was struck by the fact that most of the available material out there was told from the perspective of the adoptive parents. “I wanted to create a platform for Chinese/British adoptees to have their voices heard,” she recalls.

GalleryZoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim: Coming Out of The Fog (Copyright © Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim, 2021)

The project takes its name from a theory; that “the adoptive experience is a journey and has different stages. You can move along these stages until you feel that you’ve ‘come out’ of the fog,” Zoe explains. “To progress through the stages, one must connect to the past, present and future, reach out to the adoptive community, have an open dialogue and challenge adoptive narratives.” Through interviewing several adoptees, however, Zoe discovered that this representation of the adoptive experience is somewhat simplistic. It’s an experience that affects a person for the rest of their life and one that can not be defined universally. Coming Out of The Fog, in turn, “looks at individuals and understands that every adoption is different and cannot be generalised. Adoption is a continuous journey, and you are always ‘coming out of the fog’.”

Zoe began the project by joining several adoptee groups on Facebook and Instagram and soon had “loads of volunteers wanting to have their voice heard”. She then spent two weeks interviewing her newfound community over FaceTime before meeting a select few in person. “It was so important to ensure each adoptee felt comfortable and that there was full transparency. Everyone handles their adoption differently, so I needed to be sensitive to each adoptee,” she adds. These interviews are included in the publication alongside Zoe’s portraits because “each young woman had such different and important stories to tell”.


Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim: Coming Out of The Fog (Copyright © Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim, 2021)


Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim: Coming Out of The Fog (Copyright © Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim, 2021)

Although an incredibly personal project, Coming Out of The Fog also weighs in on wider issues related to the adoptive system, particularly in China, as that’s the country Zoe and her subjects originate from. It’s assumed that Zoe was given up for adoption due to the One-Child Policy (part of a broad programme designed to control the size of the rapidly growing population of China from 1980 to 2015) coupled with societal pressure for families to favour sons over daughters. It’s for this reason that Zoe chose to tell the stories of exclusively young women as the One-Child Policy and “outdated customs in China” lead to a much higher volume of baby girls being abandoned while the policy was in place. That said, “even before the One-Child Policy, baby girl abandonment was a large issue as it was much more favourable to have a son. A lot of women had to give up their daughters in secret or face terrible consequences. Because of this, many adopted girls – like myself – have no information about their birth parents.”

GalleryZoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim: Coming Out of The Fog (Copyright © Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim, 2021)

Like many other transracial Chinese adoptees, Zoe tells us she grew up in an environment where she was the minority meaning “identity is something that I have always had to think twice as hard about.” When she would talk about her adoption, people would always enquire about her birth parents as the narrative around adoption presented in the media focuses so heavily on this connection. “It paints a picture that every adoptee wants to find their birth parents, when that is not necessarily the case,” she continues. “A more pressing topic around my adoption has always been my identity. Growing up I sometimes felt that my identity had already been chosen for me just because I was Asian. I had to fight to dispel stereotypes projected onto me.”

A huge misconception that Coming Out of The Fog deals with is the idea that “bringing a child into the Western world is saving them from what their life would have been like if they stayed in China. This is a very harmful way of thinking and just amplifies the idea that the West is best,” Zoe outlines. What she attempts to put forward instead is a breakdown of the reasons why adoption is necessary in the first place, and this is often because of “ political unrest, government instability, lack of social welfare and conflict, not because the parents can’t raise their own children.” Especially in the case of the One-Child Policy, giving up a child for adoption was mostly to do with everything but not being able to look after a child. What’s more, Zoe points to the fact that “adoption does not solve the underlying problems that bring about orphans, it merely treats the symptoms.” While it’s great to remove a child from an orphanage, “by adopting we are not fully addressing the underlying problems and questioning why it’s happening in the first place.” The cost of adoption from China ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 per child, meaning adoption has become a business, bringing with it a whole host of issues. “Child trafficking cases grew as orphanages had a larger demand for babies to give to the West. Adoption isn’t as simple as providing a child with a home, we must understand the root of the story,” Zoe remarks.

What’s clear is that Coming Out of The Fog is a project as complex as the issue it deals with. On the surface, it’s a zine replete with beautiful portraiture and compelling interviews, but there is so much more to be learned than what you initially expect. Zoe asks us to truly scrutinise a world where adoption is necessary; where more money is given to orphanages than to solving the root of the issues. This is particularly impressive when you consider Zoe completed the project while still a student, a fact that fills us with excitement for what the young creative will go on to do next. On that note, she adds that continuing this project in some way is hopefully on the cards, especially as many of the adoptees she connected with have creative talents that could serve to bolster the project. More broadly, she tells us: “I am excited by how I can use aspects of design and photography to create meaningful work. I want to continue creating work that covers themes of identity and social issues.”

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Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim: Coming Out of The Fog (Copyright © Zoe Lowdermilk-Oppenheim, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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