Tuesday, May 08, 2012

an autobiography. notes for a novel-in-progress.

This is a true story.

Facts and fictions are different truths.*

I was born in China in the summer of 1980 and adopted shortly thereafter by a young Taiwanese couple. They were living in St. Louis at this time, newly American citizens, and it took a few years for all the red tape to be sorted out so I could join them. It is entirely possible that I was the first international adoption in the state of Missouri. Meanwhile I lived in Shanghai with my maternal great-grandmother and various aunts and cousins. I learned to speak Shanghainese, my first language, which I quickly forgot in exchange for Mandarin Chinese and then English.

I have no memories of the time before I came to St. Louis at the age of two. No memories before the American government placed a stamp on a piece of paper that erased the name given to me at birth. No memories before the night I found myself sitting on a blanket on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching fireworks explode over the St. Louis Arch as I held my mother’s hand. I wore glow-in-the-dark necklaces bought from a park vendor and stuffed earplugs like soft marshmallows into my ears against the booming fireworks.

The passport and birth certificate issued by the state of Missouri with my new name and my new parents gives my place of birth as China, but the country where I was born will not claim me. Nor will Taiwan, where my parents were born and raised and where they returned after three decades in America. A birth certificate recently reissued came back from Jefferson City stating my place of birth as “REST OF WORLD.” I am American by citizenship and education but the rest is and always will be a bit of a muddle. I remember my mother telling me, years ago, “You were born without a country.” Later I realized: I would have to be my own country.

Sometimes I see middle-aged Caucasian couples with young Asian daughters and I feel my heart crack a little along fault lines I didn’t realize existed. I turn and look at families with children that are miniature replicas, or distinct combinations, of their parents, and feel that same sharp crack going in a different direction. And yet my parents and our family is all I can remember, all I have ever known. Any other thoughts and questions and doubts lay tucked away somewhere and forgotten, like the monsters in the closet you hid from as a child.

What they don’t tell you is that all of us are thrown into our families like castaways on a foreign shore, by birth or by chance. You have to learn this on your own. We are all the same. The first journey we take is finding the way to our place in our family, and then onwards into the outside world. This longing, this search, it stays with us all our lives. This is the beauty and the pain of our existence.

*This line comes from The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, by Patricia MacLachlan. I read this when I was about 10 years old, and it is one of my favorite books of all time. I know it by heart. Everyone should read it.

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