Or: Lost and found
I didn’t go searching for the past. I was dreaming of future things: of our new house and the child that might one day play in it – when I found my birth certificate. Or to be more precise: an ancient, fragile document comprised of thin pages covered in writing that I can’t understand. Plus an English translation of certified provenance. Certificates of adoption into my now native country. Official looking seals. Records of identity, and photos of a baby that looks a bit like me.
It’s never been hidden from me that I was adopted as a baby, from a country far away from the one I now live in. This document is the link to who I was back then, before I became British (“more British than the British”) – before my parents became my parents and long before I ever came to live in England and become fully assimilated into the middle classes and later, the hustle and bustle of London life.
It seemed somehow serendipitous that I should come across them that day, as for some reason (infertility, a new IVF cycle, the moon?) I’ve been thinking a lot about adoption and the fact of having been adopted. It seemed like a sign from the universe, if I believed in such things. (I don’t.)
The only reason I was going through boxes is that we’re in the process of buying a house. The London housing market is such that anything we can afford to buy is approximately half the size of the place we now rent, which means some downsizing and rationalising of the immense amount of clutter we’ve managed to accumulate. T has been strict about me doing a bit of sorting every night, and I’ve been roused from my customary placement on the sofa to dig through piles of old stuff that we never unpacked from the old house.
And there it was: an old folder bursting with documents of Me. All that information laid out there, so tantalisingly close and yet so far from my comprehension – characters on a page in a language I can’t understand.
And yet… I could pick some words out. I could match it up from the translation of my name, because I know what my name is in my birth language. (My parents gave me the fusion name: a name in my birth language and in English, a name I now realise my first mother must have known when she signed away her rights.)
I can see her name. I’ve never looked for it before. I don’t know why. I look at the dates of birth and I realise she was 20 when she had me. A baby herself. I look at her birthdate and wonder why I never thought what it was before. I work out how old she would be now. Not much older than my ex; quite a lot younger than my parents. I calculate that she’s exactly the same amount younger than my dad as I was from my ex. A strange thought.
Little things. I see this on the translation next to her name and somehow it seems poignant.
I misunderstand it at first, thinking that she just appeared to give consent, suggesting that maybe she was ambivalent. Then I read it again, and I think that I have the emphasis wrong, that it is merely a statement of fact that she turned up and I wasn’t signed away in absentia. I look at it again and I’m not sure. Somewhere, back in the mists of time, my first mother held the certificate that this translates. Maybe for longer than she held me. I don’t know; she had me for a few days after my birth and I don’t know how much of that time I was with her.
I snap a picture on my phone and I look up the English translation on the translated document. Later, at work, I contact the first person I can think of who speaks my birth language and I ask her if she’d be willing to look at something written down and tell me what it means, and type it for me. My untrained eye can’t translate it into type for future internet searches, but she can. She tells me to send the picture and instantly she’s able to tell me my mother’s name. It’s similar but not quite the same as the translation says – she has a name that I can type now and I google it idly for the rest of the afternoon, but nothing comes up.
I thank my coworker and tell her it’s my birth mother’s name. She sends me a smiley emoji.
You can’t move forwards without looking back.
I’ve never tried to look at these documents before, which seems ludicrous at the age of 30-something (late thirties!) – I always knew I wouldn’t be able to understand them because I don’t speak that language. It wouldn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know: that I was born, and I had at least one parent, and then I had two more and I lost the first. Maybe I was in denial, or I didn’t want to look, or it just didn’t seem relevant. In recentish history I’ve had the chance to look at these things and the chance to visit my birth country, but I never took it and I don’t know why.
So much of my adoptee narrative was given to me and I never questioned it. I’ve questioned everything else in life – religion being a big one (I told my religious mother that I was an atheist at a very young age, and I’ve tried every branch of Christianity just to see if I could possibly start believing – I really like it, but I just can’t believe it). I’ve questioned my superiors. I’m totally one of those annoying people who always wants to know Why?
Why did I never question my story? Why have I never tried to find out more than that? I think I just so internalised the narrative… that I was transplanted from poverty, that my first mother wanted to give me up, that she had a very common name, that she was young and marginalised and it would be really difficult to find her. My parents always said they would help if I wanted to. I never wanted to. I’m not the type who ever wants to set myself up for a fall.
My birth country is pretty advanced in terms of adoptee rights. It’s the language barrier which gets massively in the way. I can’t even search for my first mother’s name because I couldn’t read what the results showed. Even if I could find something online, I’m unversed in the language of the country of my birth. Without language, I’m mute. I’m a foreigner here, sitting on a computer which in my imagination is a giant tin can with string that stretches all the way around the world and there, somewhere on the other side is my birth family. Are they huddling around the other tin can? Are they off living their lives, playing out in the distance?
They even have a standardised adoption search form. I’ve looked at it. I could kick off the search right now, with what I have – all they need is a birth certificate, proof of my identity and a signed consent form. Those old certificates are sitting there in their folder, and all it would take would be for me to scan them in, send them through cyberspace and whoosh, the people at the other end (the nice officials with their much more advanced attitude towards opening up closed adoptions) would do their stuff. I don’t even have to pay anything. My birth country sees it as a service they should provide to grown up adoptees. It catches me a little bit, in my heart, that they have a whole website devoted to reaching the people like me who are foreigners in their birth country. They want to welcome us back. They want to help me search.
Why have I never done it? I’ve never really looked back.
It is said if there’s one thing that’s sure in life, it’s that you can’t move forward without acknowledging the past.
My past is locked up in an old wooden chest. My parents, my “real parents”, the only parents I’ve ever consciously known put this chest together for me. It’s old and the lock’s broken and some of the feet fell off. For my entire childhood that chest has been a part of my life. It used to sit at the end of my bed and my other adopted sibling had one too – it marked us as special, as the bio kids didn’t have one. All our old things were in there, and sometimes we’d hide toys in there, but really what it was meant to be was a place to store our past.
I’ve never really paid much attention to it. The chest, like my past, is just a part of me – a fact; an adjective. No big deal in my everyday life. But I finally got around to clearing out some stuff, because to move forward I have to do that. I have to touch the past. In collecting my stuff from storage and in sorting through that and trying to get a new mortgage and start my new life, I inadvertently stumble upon the past.
Without even opening it, I know that in the chest is a baby outfit. It’s not a western style outfit. It’s from my country of birth. There’s a blanket. Some booties. My first favourite book, and my second and third. (I’ve always been a voracious reader since the age of 2 when I apparently figured it out.) As a child I never really thought of the significance of these first things. My first photo album full of photos, my parents bedecked in 70s sepia with me, a little foreign baby. I look like a changeling. I always thought stories about changelings were about me. Those words again: The person involved personally appeared to performed the right of consent. Those words I can’t read: somewhere on that page of foreign writing is the writing of my first mother, signing away her motherhood of me.
As an adult, and as an adoptee, a label I’ve always been resistant to claim (not because I ever dispute the fact that I was adopted or am ashamed of it, but because it reminds me of amputee, and suggests I’m not whole, that I’m just an object, an -ee for someone else’s agency), I look at these things anew. I’m not so inured any more to the everyday-ness of the past, of my papers. I’m older now and I’m possibly the end of my line, so maybe I should look at it because there might not be any more. (On family trees: I’ve always thought of myself more of a spliced branch onto my parents’ family tree – I never quite got why adoptees would get so upset about “the family tree project” – I have a tree; it’s just that mine bears different fruit… Or possibly no fruit.)
Now things are new, and modern, and instant. In the age of social media and omniscience delivered via warp speed fibre networks, adoptees are rising up in their hundreds and demanding information. What was once “very difficult to find” is now instantly searchable, crowdsourced, blogged, viral. Some of their quest I can’t relate to; I can’t picture myself as one of those adoptees in a photo, holding up a sign asking strangers to tell them where their biological relatives are. Those people so earnest in their vulnerability. That isn’t me.
But… I can hold my birth certificate in my hands. The original documents, the ones that other adoptees fight to attain. (OBCs or Original Birth Certificates are sealed in many US states, and adoptees are banned from ever finding out the kind of information that sits innocuously in my wooden chest, that was a prop of my childhood games… Even worse, some adoptees in the USA don’t even have citizenship rights for the only home they’ve ever known, which is a travesty.) It strikes me that this information that I’ve casually had to hand for most of my life and has never been hard fought for is something I’ve never romanticised or idolised. It’s just there. And in being just there, I’ve almost ignored it.
And yet… It’s now here, in my immediate possession, not an abstract file somewhere that’s sealed by the state. I have the very papers that my first mother touched, that she put her signature to, on which her name and birthdate and other identifying details reside.
If I could read my birth language, I could look for her. I could look for my first father. In my head, I have at least one biological brother who’s impossibly cool and would teach me that men of my ethnicity can be cool, too, rather than exotic beings I’ve never known. In my head, at least my sibling is on Facebook and we could exchange stories and figure out where to go from here.
Many adoptees are now doing 23andme, and other DNA testing. I’ve even seen posts on adoption forums where people urge adoptive parents to get their children tested when they’re still young, so they can get “answers” and “identity”. I guess my take on it is that I’ve never felt that my identity was purely DNA or biological, and that whilst it’s incontrovertible fact that I don’t look like the majority of people in my country, and I have my own idiosyncrasies (a tendency to wear black, an evil stare… But also an enthusiasm for animal cartoons and kawaii cuteness that may bely my biology), the me-ness of me is more than genes.
I worry that it might open up more information than I need, more questions than can be answered. If I did it – if I swabbed my cheek and found a distant cousin – or even a sibling, or parent – what would that mean? What would it mean if I found nothing? If it just confirmed my status as a genetic island?
I think all of this, the idea that information is out there and maybe I could find it, is wrapped up in a fear of raising my expectations in a way that wouldn’t be positive. I remind myself that I’m happy. I question the idea that all adoptees need to search for self (the prevailing paradigm being that somehow self and identity is tied up in finding one’s genetic roots – something to wrap your head around when you were brought up as the last of the “colourblind, assimilated” cohort of adoptees, where success is predicated not on remaining in touch with one’s birth culture but in assimilating as far as possible into the adoptive one).
I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not knowing. I know many adoptees do, but so much of my story is of everything that happened since. It’s hard to miss what you never had, and it’s hard to yearn for another life when the life you have is good, and nice, and full. And if you always managed down your expectations, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t try and get their hopes up, and if you’re so used to being different that Other is a core part of your identity, then to search is to turn that paradigm on its head.
For me the only clear fact in all this is that I have this information… Information that I never lost, and information that I was never conscious of having. I didn’t have to dig for it, save for sorting through stuff to take to the new house, to the new life.
My birth certificate, my other-language identity, is in my hands.