Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Identity and the "Origin Story"

I met this adoptee for the first time when she was about four years old, at an orphanage reunion in Missouri. She and her family attended the next two reunions, and then she vanished from my radar until a year or so ago, when she contacted me for help in putting together a search project in her orphanage area. Her intelligence and self-awareness were impressive. A few months ago she recounted for me in a phone call her search journey, and I was stunned by what she told me. As she recounted what writings of mine she had read through the years, and how my words had hurt her, I could hardly breath. I thought sharing the truth would be helpful, not hurtful to adoptees. I begged her to compose an essay to other adoptees, sharing her experience. She emphasizes that "the following is from my own personal experience. Everyone will have their own." 


When I was younger, I was one of many Asian Americans, and one of a number of Chinese adoptees, in my community. I had a quintessential adoptee childhood: Went to FCC get-togethers, learned Mandarin with other adoptees, even attended Chinese school with other adoptees! I went to adoptee camp in the summers and spent vacations with my adoption group. I was bathed in a sense of belongingness and togetherness, that being adopted was simply natural and that sometimes Asian kids had white parents and sometimes they did not.

I could probably wax poetic for many more paragraphs about my wonderful parents and how they raised me with great pride in my heritage and honor for my birth mother. I could probably say much more, but I am crying and I will simply need to get to my point before I lose all train of thought.

When I was a little girl, I missed my birth mother very much. I missed her more than the entire world. I felt absolutely worthless, wretched, and completely unworthy of being loved. I had night terrors and frequent nightmares of being kidnapped and taken out of the house. And yet, I had decided before the age of preschool that searching for my birth mother and by extension, birth family, was simply impossible and a waste of this proverbial “second chance of life.” In my child brain, I calculated that because China was the most populous country in the world, that I could spend my entire life searching and come up empty -- devastatingly, gut-wrenchingly empty. So I put the prospect of searching out of my mind and shut the lid.

I met other adoptees and we greeted each other in customary adoptee fashion. You began with the year of birth and of adoption, then the orphanage, then the Chinese name, and then the finding spot. The holy finding spot. The finding spot was the mythical place where your birth mom last saw you, last kissed you good-bye and held you close. The magical finding spot was, for better or worse, the most important piece of knowledge you could have because maybe one day, you could go back to China and your birth mother would be there, waiting for you. I remember telling so many kids at daycare so proudly that I was adopted from the orphanage and that I was left at a food market. It did not mark me as pitiable, but rather unique and special. It was often celebrated when two adoptees had the same finding spot because it just had to mean something.

The entire origin story read like a fairy-tale out of Grimm or the Bible. Many people don’t even realize how many orphan heroes there are in fiction, people touched by fate from birth, who somehow rise from their lowly orphan origins to great things. There is such a strong narrative around the orphan -- that we are special, chosen, saved, marked by destiny, and loved above all others. Some of it is related to strong religious narratives like Moses floating down the river, and some of it leans more sappy like a Hallmark movie. In any case, I was surrounded in this cultural stew, and I pictured vividly those last moments of separation, cried over it, mourned it, but never, ever questioned it. I know adoptees who have the GPS coordinates of their finding spots tattooed on their skin. It is so integral to our identities, the way a pearl forms around a piece of sand. Everything, everything, everything revolves around the origin story.

China valued boys.

They didn’t want a girl.

There was a One Child Policy.

My birth mother abandoned me at the finding spot.

They kept another child.

It is so difficult to feel like you are allowed to mourn for the loss of your birth family because of the pressure by society to not appear, look, or even think ungrateful.” An ungrateful adoptee gets abandoned again. An ungrateful adoptee gets attacked online. An ungrateful adoptee is unloved. And so it is very difficult for many adoptees to mourn what they think they know about their origins, let alone mourn the rest.

The first year of undergraduate college was when I came out of the fog. Coming out of the fog sounds peaceful, like one second you are in a trance and the next, you are not. It is anything but. Imagine your skin being peeled from your body and your insides being flipped inside out, then someone puts everything back together again who never saw a human being. I mourned my birth mother like never before. I felt deeply how unfair it was for both of us, because I finally could see her as a woman and not just a myth. She became real to me as a human who was probably terrified that she was pregnant. It occurred to me that I had siblings who may have known I existed and it occurred to me that my birth mom probably remembered me too. It was and still is unbearable to live knowing that she is out there somewhere and cannot know me. I filled journals and wrote poetry about those final moments we had together. I gave her a name I picked out from some Mandarin I was learning. I had always pictured her as Chang’E, the Chinese moon goddess, from a book my parents had read to me as a child, and so I printed out a poster of her and put her in my room. It struck me that she was real, too real, and it made every nerve light on fire.

In 2020, the pandemic hit. I did not get to attend my college graduation and I spent the rest of the spring semester with my parents, attending Zoom classes from my bedroom. My chances of visiting China after graduation, finally, were dashed completely. It was with the vibrating restlessness of being in quarantine that I finally decided to watch One Child Nation. About a year earlier, I learned that my orphanage was connected to human trafficking in China, but it was not until watching the documentary, many times in fact, that it began to sink in. The Hunan Scandal wasn’t special and it wasn’t just a couple of bad orphanages. The stench of baby buying was everywhere. I was suddenly bombarded online with news articles and interviews about the documentary, all about this sudden “truth” of Chinese adoption. I also read the report, Open Secret: Cash and Coercion in China's International Adoption Program,” published years earlier.

We were not abandoned lovingly (and without choice) by our birth mothers, but were simply pawns in a complicated black market fueled by greed. We weren’t the main characters in our own narrative but just merchandise being stolen and bought and sold and moved orphanage to orphanage. There was an unstoppable avalanche of testimony from birth families searching for their children and in reunion: everything from babies/kids being kidnapped by local authorities, to midwives tricking birth moms into giving up their babies to a nice local family (that never existed) to sell them to the orphanage, to hospitals selling babies in batches to orphanages after telling the birth parents the baby was a stillborn.

And if you thought I was finally happy to be told, You were not truly abandoned! You were more than likely kidnapped, trafficked, and sold!”, you would be grossly oversimplifying things. I felt everything at once, but my most immediate feeling was pure anger. Anger over what? you may ask. Anger that I was merchandise in a black market? Anger that my birth mom might be mourning over my empty grave? Anger that I had been lied to and that my parents had been lied to and that the world had been lied to my entire life, about my very life?


I was angry because the world had absolutely no right at all to take away my origin story! I was so incredibly angry that this origin story that I had worshiped and dreamed of, and loved as the very last relic of my birth mom could be thrown out so easily and so swiftly by the world. I was angry that my finding spot, which I had fantasized about, which I shared with all my adopted China Cousins, was meaningless! I was angry that I was expected to simply take in this new, updated, shiny truth and swallow it down before I could even fully wrap my heart around the first story. How DARE the world do this to me? How dare the world think it can make me jump and run and change at a moment’s notice? It was as if my entire identity, which I had held so close to my heart - the orphan abandoned by the fruit stand - was blown over by nothing more than the gentlest of breezes. My friends, with their shiny personal statements of being abandoned by their birth moms, and their artists’ statements of why they painted their finding spot, and me with my piles of poetry — all turned to dust and shit.

There never was a finding spot. They forged these abandonment documents in batches. People had them pre-approved and stamped, all ready to be filled out. Police got paid, orphanages employees got paid, orphanage directors got paid, heritage tour leaders got paid, everyone got a pay day at my expense. My entire heart, laid open and stomped on, because the finding spot was a lie and it never existed in the first place and everyone on that heritage tour was told to stand at the place where it supposedly was and take a photo in front of nothing but dirt and delusion. How dare this be allowed to happen?

But at the very same time, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. My birth mom had not simply abandoned me. A million things could have happened, but whatever the orphanage told me was probably not one of them. I was angry that the origin story was not only a lie, but the very worst lie you could ever tell an adoptee: That their birth mother placed them in a finding spot, and walked away, and never came back.

I struggled with these two competing truths. Despite everything I had learned about baby buying and finding fees and human trafficking in China, I still yearned for those moments of pure movie magic, where I could return to my finding spot and find my birth mother. It was familiar and safe to live in the little world I had built, and that the world had let me build. How could I accept that my most treasured clue to find my birth mother wasn’t even real? That even the town I was supposedly found in probably wasn’t even accurate? I had long ago accepted that my birth date was an estimate at best, that I would never even know my own name. How could the world take this away from me too?

I had clung to this holy origin story the way someone lost at sea might cling to a log. It had helped me survive this far, providing something to hold onto when all I had was a giant blank space of my past. The origin story, no matter how cruel, was thought of and loved, turned over and over in my mind like a polished stone, as if I had actually lived it in a memory. So even when I could finally swim to land, to something true, how could I possibly think of simply letting go of my log?

What story we choose to believe about ourselves in some ways feels like it should belong to us adoptees. It feels like we are owed it to own our own narratives. The weight of all the hurt and pain should be paid in letting us paint whatever story we want to cover up the gaping black void we have in our personal histories. And that’s fair. But every time I want to just fall back asleep and snuggle back into my fairy-tale, every time I want to feel like my feet are on the ground and the sky is the right way up again, I think of the birth parents who are searching for their children.

I think of the stories I’ve heard and the pain that never subsides for them. I think how unfair it is that I can simply sink into delusion while they remember the details of the truth that so few people know. It feels like I am erasing their pain to ease my own, as if I need to deny their existence and experience to bring myself comfort.

And so little by little, I let go. The more I listened and learned about what our birth parents had to go through and the lies that they themselves were told, the more enraged I became that I had ever found comfort in a lie. It was a betrayal of astronomical proportions, and the composite truth of what happened to us all became sharper and more solid. There was simply no going back.

Searching for birth parents brings with it all of these emotions and more. It is the ultimate slap of reality because no matter what we were told or choose to believe, the truth is the Truth. I want to find my birth family more than ever, but that comes with it an understanding that my truth will change again. How can that not be scary? I have a future to live, a career to plan, friends to visit…searching for and possibly succeeding in finding my birth family threatens to derail my life now. Why can’t I just live my life like all the other non-adopted children without having to consider: If I don’t search now, they could die before I find them. If I don’t search now, I might miss some golden point in space and time and miss them forever…

So in writing this, I just wanted people to know that things are very complicated. Learning the truth is a Pandora’s box that threatens to once again make the world invert itself until the earth’s molten core is under our bare feet. How can I lead my life without making some peace with who I am? And how can I be comfortable in who I am if I’m having to change fundamental truths of who I thought I was every decade? When will this roller-coaster end?

And that is just a very, very small snippet of what some adoptees might feel.

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