Featured Image: Aliko Sunawang
In my little sister’s middle school bedroom, a list was taped on one of the pale walls between art projects and photographs of herself and her other middle school friends. She, like any other young, ambitious student, had goals. Once, I had asked her about my least favorite of her goals on this list. “Why would you want to find your parents?” Unfazed, she asked, “Don’t you want to know?”
Growing up as one of three unrelated Chinese girls adopted into a white family usually meant that a specific question from friends, teachers, and even strangers would inevitably be presented to me. They would look at me with sympathy in their eyes and inquire, “Don’t you want to know who your real parents are?” At twelve, I was pulled out of class during an exam to talk to the guidance counselor about my biological parents. Needless to say, I was pissed.
Because in those moments, I thought my answer was obvious. Why would I want to meet the people who didn’t want me? People who literally gave me away? I resented these two strangers who have been entirely absent my whole life, yet who are impossible for me to separate myself from. They follow me everywhere in my life. When people look at me, they see my birth parents. And yet, because of them, the genesis of my being remains a mystery. Because of them, there are things about myself that I’ll never know. With my dark hair and almond eyes, I’m tied to a country that is completely foreign to me.
I have the most generous and loving adoptive parents. In fact, they’ve never been adoptive parents to me; they’ve always been Mom and Dad. They’ve given me everything I have in life today, but we never talked about my biological parents. I think it’s easier for us all to pretend they didn’t exist. But the crazy thing is that they do. They hang over me at times, haunting me. I wear their existence like a heavy coat; they are always there, almost suffocating at times.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize how adoption, especially in foreign countries, can be complex. “It’s not always so black and white,” people would tell me as I voiced my disenchantment. Now, I recognize that, although my adoptive parents gave me so much, it wouldn’t have been possible without my birth parents. By giving me up, they’ve given me the best life I could’ve imagined. Maybe they knew I couldn’t have that kind of life with them. Maybe there were a million reasons why they couldn’t keep me. Maybe it killed them to give me up in ways I’ll never know.
In high school, I used to spin flags and dance and throw pieces of wood up into the air. A few falls ago, I was waiting for the bus at school after practice. Two girls, who also spun flags and danced and threw pieces of wood up into the air, were also waiting. Small talk eventually led to Shania telling us that her foster parents were adopting her. “That’s amazing,” Bella had said as we stood there looking out into the empty parking lot, waiting for our respective rides. However, Shania did not think so and told us as such. “I don’t fucking want that,” she had spat. Bella and I exchanged looks, unsure of what to say. At the time, Bella herself was trying to get adopted by her own foster parents. She was facing many legal issues and roadblocks which not only complicated but also elongated the process. I could see in her eyes that she wanted nothing more than people to call family. As the school buses came to a stop at the curb where we stood, Bella turned and over the noise of crunching leaves and laughing kids said to me, “you’re so lucky” before disappearing into her bus.
I’ve always felt incredibly lucky, and at that moment, I didn’t want to be like Shania. The anger and hurt and emptiness she wore was heartbreaking.
Today, when strangers ask me “Don’t you want to know,” I think of Shania. I don’t feel blind hatred or resentment anymore. Instead, I think of who my biological parents were in those final moments of our time together and I feel like I do know them.