When my birth mother found me

I was adopted from China at 4. I had no interest in tracking down my past -- but my past tracked me down anyway

Published September 16, 2013 11:30PM (EDT)

A photo of the author as a baby
A photo of the author as a baby

The letter from my birth mother arrived six days before my 22nd birthday. A month earlier, I had packed all my worldly possessions into a sun-blistered Mazda and moved to Sydney to live with my boyfriend of four years. But we’d broken up three weeks later, and I found myself alone, hating the corporate law firm where I temped as a paralegal, but dreading even more the return to the filthy eight-bedroom frat house I'd wound up in after the split. One of my revolving cast of roommates casually tossed it to me: a giant white envelope postmarked from Beijing.

"What is it?" he asked, clicking on the TV before I responded.

I had no idea. As I ripped open the envelope, my mind was elsewhere -- on the new beagle I'd bought from a classified ad, on the news my ex had already met someone else, and how I was possibly going to eat this Indian takeaway without any clean cutlery.

"Birth mother in China has been looking for you," announced an ominously bolded subject line. The rest of the letter read like one of those scammy, overemotional emails that show up in my junk folder. And I might have thrown that letter away if it hadn't also been accompanied by adoption certificates, IDs and a couple of baby pictures. I'd never seen photographic evidence of my infant self, and was convinced I'd sprung from the womb 3 feet tall and able to enumerate the many virtues of Chairman Mao – a mantra obviously drummed into me at Chinese kindergarten. But the baby pictures made it all real.

Suddenly I had a past, and I had to face up to it.

The thing was, I didn't feel like facing anything. It seemed to me then that life wasn't simply handing me lemons, but a lemon tree was hanging over me and a whole branch had crashed on my head. “Fucking damn it” were the first words out of my mouth. Not the response you'd expect from someone whose birth family just found her. But truth be told, I had never really wanted to be found.

I’d always known I was adopted at 4 by a noisy but loving Anglo-Australian family. I knew that my birth parents had given me up after a violent and messy divorce. Other than that, I never dwelled much on my origins. My limited adolescent enthusiasm was taken up by piano lessons, detention and the weedy next-door neighbor I was in love with.

"Oh come on," people often prod, unconvinced by my nonchalance. "You never wanted to find your real parents?"

I cringe when I hear "real parents." To me, my adoptive parents are my real parents – the ones who pinned my awful poetry to the fridge, taught me to drive and yelled and then laughed at me for getting my first wonky-looking tattoo at 15.

The only thing I had been curious about was genetics. Did I have my mother's eyes? Will I inherit my father's receding hairline? Did I look like someone out there? My older, natural-born sister looks alarmingly like both our parents, and I felt a pang of envy whenever someone mentioned it. But the rest of the time, I was incurious. I already had one family who loved me and drove me completely mad. Why would I want another?

As fate would have it, I was one of the rare Chinese adoptees sought and found by their birth family. Not that it would have been so hard — they could have just Googled me. Instead, my birth mother paid an illegal people search company $2,000 to track down my address and the comprehensive life history of my entire adoptive family, including every city we'd ever lived in the last 20 years. But perhaps I should start from the beginning.

* * *

I was adopted from Chang Chun (a relatively small town of 8 million people) in the far northeastern edge of China in 1990. I was 4 and fearless. When my birth father signed my adoption papers and handed me over to my new ghostly white parents, I told them straight up they had bí zi (big noses). But I never cried, nor complained. Not once.

In my first memory, my parents and I arrived in Beijing after a six-hour train ride from my hometown. It was winter — minus 22 degrees — and I was wrapped from head to toe, with only my eyes visible through a small rectangle of prickly scarf. This was less than a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and I could see what I later learned were bullet holes in the concrete monuments as we strode around the square, gloved hand-in-hand, for the first time as a family. No one knew that inside the bundle of clothing there was a Chinese kid.

That was the last time for many years I was afforded such anonymity. For the rest of my childhood, I would constantly be asked why I was "different" from all the kids in my neighborhood, and forced to grin and bear years of good-natured name-calling from friends. The playground intelligentsia was particularly fond of "banana" — a moniker reflecting the fact that I appeared "yellow on the outside, white on the inside."

I might have overcompensated to fit in. In all my high-school photos I appear amid a gaggle of white girls. I’ve never had an Asian boyfriend. I took up French rather than Mandarin classes, despite everyone's insistence about my natural proficiency, or perhaps because of it.

Far sadder than the rejection of my cultural heritage, though, was a sudden distancing from my adoptive father in public. In my self-conscious teens, I stopped linking arms with him and loudly inserted "Dad" into the conversation whenever we dined alone at restaurants, tortured by strangers' dirty glances, expecting that they'd assume we were a couple. The older Western guy with younger Asian girlfriend was an all too familiar sight in parts of South East Asia where we lived for many years.

But in the grand scheme of things, I knew I was lucky, considering the many desperate or disturbing stories of children around the world. I talked to girls who grew up as prostitutes in Cambodian slums or a teen who was born addicted to heroin and I thought of my own upbringing, filled with the usual sibling squabbles over Lego men and door-slamming fights with parents over the length of my skirt.

So I never resented my birth parents for giving me up. I came to embrace my differences as a topic of interest at dinner parties and around water coolers, and not as a source of shame or something to hide. Besides, Aussie mores dictate that one should refrain from grizzling (complaining) where possible, lest the whinger (complainer) be called a sook (someone who complains a lot). The variety of slang indicates just how discouraged such behavior is.

But when I told people I was adopted, I learned to wait for "the look." That embarrassed, pitying stare that I've spent a lifetime trying to avoid. Some offer an "Oh, I'm sorry …"

"It's OK,” I say, "I hear there's a good chance of survival."

As an adult, I steer clear of adoption meet-ups and support groups, troubled by their perpetuation of all adoptees as people who need fixing and are desperate to find their birth parents and have rejection issues. I know this is not actually the case, but I grew tired of hearing so many well-meaning friends and lovers over the years tell me that my fear of rejection was the real reason I've never wanted to find my birth parents. My gruff response to that is, "If I were worried about rejection, I wouldn't have become a bloody reporter." Oddly enough, my journalistic curiosity never spilled over into my personal life — I merely ended up professionally burying my nose in everyone else's past.

By my 20s, I had resigned myself to the idea there would always be a part of my background left undiscovered. I kind of liked it that way. Mystery and intrigue filled the gaping black hole in my history, which in reality was much less romantic than my childhood fantasies, where I secretly fancied myself as a princess or the daughter of famous actors or acrobats or spies.

And then the letter arrived.

The envelope was branded with neat rows of Chinese characters and was covered with a light salt crust after being exposed to wafts of sea spray on the front porch all afternoon where it had been left by the delivery guy. I opened it while finishing Indian takeaway with the head of a broken plastic spoon. There was a telephone number at the bottom of a slightly soggy second page, and my fingers were sticky as I punched the buttons on my phone, smearing it with fish curry. To this day, I still associate the smell of turmeric with my first call to my birth mother.

As I waited for the dial tone, all the questions I'd never asked growing up suddenly clamored in my consciousness like a dozen people talking at the same time. Where were you the last 18 years? Why now? What do you want from me? Do I have siblings?

The woman who picked up was Rose, the translator friend who had helped "find" me, or at least pay some very shady people to find me. She was there, ready to answer any question I had, but my mind had gone blank. Plowing through the awkward silence, Rose informed me that since both my birth parents had split up and remarried, I now had three younger half-sisters and a half-brother I never knew existed. So much for China's one child policy, I thought. There was a blur of other information, but I don't recall much, except that I did scan the room a few times for hidden cameras, just in case my roommates were playing a practical joke. They weren't.

The conversation only lasted 10 or 15 minutes, and afterward, I called my adoptive parents who were watching a football game in the grandstands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

"Dad, did you know?"

"Know what?"

Just as I said, "My birth mother found me," a hundred thousand people screamed in the background.

* * *

It took me a year after the phone call to work up enough courage to visit my birth mother in Beijing. I spent most of the week nodding and pointing and getting to know my siblings who spoke some English. It was all a bit dizzying, and I was embraced into the greater family bosom with a kind of huggy eagerness that made me feel very uncomfortable at first. The oddest part was being around strangers who looked like me. Not only do I have my mother's eyes, but we're the same height, weight and shoe size. She even has the same laugh. It was like staring at a futuristic version of myself in the mirror, except my reflection spoke back in Chinese.

The sliding doors moment became very real when I took the train back to my hometown to meet the rest of my family. The city was an industrial grid of endless concrete blocks, with bleak soviet monuments and starless skies. As I gazed around the home I'd lived in until I was adopted — a squalid one-room apartment that had housed four people — my heart pounded. In another life, I could have ended up here, I thought, working in one of the city's many car factories, pollution mask strapped to both ears. For many years, my adoptive parents had struggled to support our family on a single teacher's wage, while one or the other finished their doctorates. We were never wealthy, but at least I'd had the chance to gain a decent education.

While I was in Beijing, most people reacted kindly to my terrible Mandarin. I was told it would come back. "Once Chinese, always Chinese," they said. But I didn't feel particularly Chinese or Australian at that point. I felt more like I had my shirt hooked on a door frame between two worlds.

Perhaps that's why I fell in love so quickly with New York when I finally moved to the city last summer – the city where everyone is from somewhere else. Here, I’m just another anonymous immigrant with an interesting "origin story."

Since the Beijing trip, I've maintained a close relationship with my birth mother and an amicable one with my birth father. Navigating language and cultural differences has been a struggle, as has been allaying the concerns of my adoptive parents, who in the beginning were uncertain of my birth family's intentions. They feel jealous at times, which is completely understandable — it’s probably the biggest challenge to overcome for any adoptive parent going through the reconnecting process. I can only remind them that nothing will change the fact they'll always be my real parents.

Sometimes I look at little Chinese babies with button noses on the subway or in elevators and wonder how their mothers could possibly give them up. It's a quandary I can only attempt to understand, never having been a parent myself, but it nags me every now and then when I entertain thoughts of entering motherhood at some far-off point in the future. For now, I'm simply relishing sisterhood. In a perfect world, I would have grown up with my siblings, teaching them long division and how to apply makeup and attending their dance recitals. But I've realized just having the opportunity to be with them now is pretty spectacular. I may not have been ready to receive the letter from China five years ago (is anyone ever really ready for that sort of thing?). But sometimes it’s good to be found, even when you wanted to stay hidden.

By Liz Fields

Liz Fields is an Australian freelance journalist based in New York who has previously scribbled for Slate, ABC News, Sydney Morning Herald and more. Follow her on Twitter @lianzifields

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