Sunday, August 26, 2012

the island of lost children.

In the photograph the three of them look slightly nervous. It is 1982, and the parents seem impossibly young. They are in summer clothes but the child, not quite two, is wearing a blue velveteen dress that must be far too hot. There are tear-stains on her face. They are still strangers. None of them know this yet, but the child has a tapeworm, which explains the skinny arms and legs. In another year the arms and legs will be chubbier, her hair longer and in pigtails; the three of them will be a family. A little while later, after the social worker visits and the untangling of more red tape, the state of Missouri will rewrite her past, erasing the name she was given at birth and changing the parents on her birth certificate. She will be among the first wave of Chinese adoptions, that first generation of lost children swept across the sea. She will not remember anything before the little red-brick house in Ladue, outside St. Louis. Not the first few months in Zhejiang, where she was born, or the year or more afterwards, in Shanghai.

I rarely talk about it but it is impossible to pretend I never think about being adopted. Having Taiwanese parents - we do not look alike, but we are the same race - has made it easier to assimilate, although assimilate isn't quite the right word. It will never be the first thing you assume about me when you see us together. I have been profoundly grateful all my life for being raised in a Chinese-speaking household, although I did not always understand this. But to ask me how I feel about being adopted is like asking me how I feel about having brown hair; it is a part of me that I can’t ever remember being any different, and it is not anything I would ever change. I do not need to see the place I was born to complete my sense of identity. I do not need to ask the woman who gave birth to me why she gave me up. I am complete. I am not wholly Chinese, Taiwanese, or American, but this cultural confusion is not confined to adopted children; it extends to all people raised by immigrants in a foreign land.

To ask someone about being adopted as if it were something strange or exotic is often well-meant but also, I don’t mean insulting, exactly. I remember, when I was quite young, reading a John Steinbeck story about a boy who didn’t understand he was poor and that he should somehow be ashamed of being poor until his teacher came to his home and pointed out to his father all the ways in which he had been failing his son. I don’t mean that there is anything ever to be ashamed of about being adopted or adopting a child, but when I was younger I felt that talking about it somehow gave it more weight, more importance, than it deserved. This was my family, all the family I would ever remember, all the family I had ever known. That is all I have ever had to say about being adopted.

As a child I would sometimes dream about an island of lost children. I had been told that I'd had another older sister, who was also given up for adoption. In my mind she would look like me, only taller and prettier and smarter. I thought I could find her on this strange island. It would be our country, created for those who were born without one of their own, for the other lost children who were like us. I think this idea came from a passage in Roald Dahl’s FLYING SOLO, when Dahl meets a strange bearded man on a strip of desert which would later become Israel. He turns out to be leading a group of Jewish refugees, who have been given permission to live there by a Palestinian farmer. “We need a homeland…we need a country of our own. Even the Zulus have Zululand,” says the man. Somehow these words have stayed with me all my life. I have never had a homeland of my own. During the Olympics I cheered for the athletes that were the cutest or had the prettiest costumes.

What nobody tells you is that biology is not a guarantee of love, of family, of identity, of a sense of belonging. You have to learn this on your own. The truth is, we are all the same. We are all cast upon a strange shore from the very beginning, by birth or by chance, and we must find our way from there. This is the first journey of our lives, searching for a place in our families. This longing, this search, it stays with us all our lives and follows us into the outside world.

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