When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, “so who are your ‘real’ parents?” It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes, and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. I was usually annoyed by the question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that other adoptees encounter the same question and perhaps feel the same sense of annoyance.
What baffles me is that I was never curious about my birthparents or place of birth until about two years ago after finding my adoption papers, 40 years after my adoption. This ambivalence was perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage or birth family. Hell, I had never even heard the term, “birthfamily.” When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of any connection to my birth country, to my birthfamily, to my cultural roots. After my adoption, all cultural ties were severed. I would never know that my birthparents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older biological sisters and an older biological brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out, or at least part of it. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
This afternoon, I went with some friends who are visiting from California to see a movie, “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It was a heartbreaking movie, although there was some humor between the characters that lightened things up. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to a son, Anthony, and is forced to work with other young girls in order to work off the penance of their “sins.” The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. What is even more tragic is one day, Philomena watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never seek the whereabouts of their children. This abominable practice is historical, unfortunately. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, portrayed by Steve Coogan, who agrees to help her find her son, primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness, and ultimately acceptance.
I know some adoptees hated this film, but it really resonated with me, despite the creative license that was taken to make it more dramatic. The story of deep loss and grief was what hit me. The depiction of such a tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real. I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. One of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.”
Since learning about my birthparents in Taiwan, I’ve often wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished causes a wound that is easily re-opened again and again. I will never know my birth mother. She and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her, my birth father, took me to the orphanage and relinquished me without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if he felt anything at all when leaving me at the orphanage to languish. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her, emotionally and psychologically. When we met for the first time in Taipei, they gave me photos of our mother and father. I felt that there was such sadness behind my birth mother’s eyes.
Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere deep inside you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day. I’ve learned to accept it, or perhaps even ignore it so I can deal with life.
I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation, abandonment or falsification of records. Finding my birthfamily brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions. Yet, the whole truth is still so elusive. I will always have questions about my birthparents and my birthfamily. Answers are not so easy to come by.
In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey,
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my birth/first family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.