GAOPING, China: In a village tucked deep in a lush valley of Hunan province, nine-year-old Zeng Shangjie dutifully practices writing the English alphabet. When she learns enough to find the words to express herself, she wants to write a letter to the twin she believes has become an American.

The twins were separated before their first birthday, when their mother, Yuan Qianhua, a migrant worker, went off to another province. Afraid she would not be able to handle two babies in addition to an older daughter, Ms Yuan took Shangjie, strapping her to her back, and left the other twin, Xiuhua, with her brother and sister-in-law in the countryside.

Then on May 30, 2002, a dozen officials from the local family-planning office stormed Ms Yuan's brother's house. They grabbed 20-month-old Xiuhua, put her into a car and drove off.

Although couples are not supposed to be penalised for having twins, and this rural family was entitled to a second child under Chinese law because their first was a girl, the family-planning officials demanded 6000 yuan, then about $US750. The brother had the money, but when he went to get the girl back, they demanded 2000 yuan more.

''My brother borrowed money from all the families in the village, a little here and a little there. If people could only give 10 yuan, they did,'' Ms Yuan said.

But when her brother handed over the money, the family-planning officials again raised their demands.

''He'd already borrowed money from hundreds of people,'' she says. ''There was just no way he could get any more.''

By the time Ms Yuan got home, Xiuhua had been sent to the orphanage in nearby Shaoyang, where the family guesses she was sent to the US. The two girls were almost indistinguishable. They had the same heart-shaped face, bow lips and a distinctive bump on the left earlobe. Xiuhua was the more docile of the two, which was why she was chosen to stay behind with the brother.

''What is she like today?'' her mother wonders. ''I don't know. I don't even know whether she's still alive.''

Los Angeles Times