As promised, I will share what my children, now all grown, have taught me about this whole adoption thing. I have to back track a bit to share how we explained their arrival in our family. But first I have to share an old joke that I heard years ago, before I became a mom. It always sort of tickled me.
Kid: Mommy, where did I come from?
Mom: Well sweetie, (sweat begins to form on forehead, and heart begins to beat faster)…um…you see dear…when two people love each other… well they decide to have a baby…(pulse quickens and palms are sweaty)…and they…well they sort of…they each have to contribute something–the sperm from the daddy and the egg from the mommy…and when they get the sperm and the egg together….(puzzled look from the kid ensues and he interrupts)
Kid: Oh I know all about that! I meant what hospital?
Mom, blushing & relieved, quickly blurts out: Oh! St. Theresa’s!
I know in the old days, people did not talk as openly about adoption as they do now. And in some cultures, they still don’t. I recall what our housekeeper and close family friend, Liu Fang told me as she and I worked together in my tiny Chinese kitchen one grey Tianjin afternoon. Shortly after she came to work for us, in the course of our getting to know one another, I shared that our children were all adopted. I shall never forget the look on her face. Not only was she shocked to learn this bit of surprising information, especially since she noted that our children all seemed to resemble Joe & I, but she was shocked that I told her about it. She went on to explain that in China, being adopted is a deep, dark secret, and no one ever tells that openly to anyone. When she asked if our kids knew, and I responded, Why of course! the shock grew to a new level of incredulity. Not only does no one tell other people that their kids are adopted, but Chinese never tell their kids that they are adopted, or as she put it, not theirs.
A Chinese Culture Moment
I have to note here how ironic it is that the Chinese have very little political freedom, and certainly very limited freedom of speech yet they are often the most uncensored, and politically incorrect people you will meet when it comes to everyday conversation. Therefore the use of not theirs was a frank, honest description and did not necessarily include a negative connotation. An example of this plain-spokenness that all foreigners learn very quickly when living in China is the free use of the term fat. Your baby is very fat, they will tell you, with an approving smile, or You need an extra meter of fabric because you are fat, (no judgment, just stating a scientific fact), or, That one is the fat twin. (Believe it or not, you get used to this if you live there as long as we did, unless of course you happen to be the fat twin.)
We Americans on the other hand have total freedom to speak our minds, but often feel confined by political correctness. We think very carefully to choose the right non-offensive words, especially when discussing sensitive topics such as adoption. We would say instead, that Chinese parents never tell anyone or the child that they are not biologically related.
Back to Our Housekeeper’s Query
I went on to explain that our kids did indeed know that they were adopted and then our housekeeper wanted to know when we told them. I think she pictured us sitting them down to share some very serious matters, in hushed tones, with somber faces. I explained to her still incredulous look that we told them all of their lives, from their very first days home. We would tell more and more of their story (as much as we knew) as they got older and began to ask us questions. The point was that there never was a time in their life when they did not know, even if they didn’t completely understand all the complexities. I went on to explain (in my beginner Chinese) that Americans feel that it would be impossible to keep such a secret. Inevitably some cousin or neighbor child would feel compelled to share the secret knowledge of your child’s origin, which they overheard from hushed grown-up talk. Maybe Chinese are better secret keepers, which no doubt was a useful skill during the Cultural Revolution (and even today).
I explained what a terrible shock to one’s identity it would be to have been thinking of yourself as a biological son or daughter, only to find that actually you are actually not. She nodded slowly, with a look that communicated that our way was certainly reasonable, but one that Chinese people may not ever adopt, if you’ll pardon the pun. We would talk about this again, and she mentioned that she thought our way was actually pretty smart, and that she could see why we did it this way. She began to see that the cross-stitched poems framed and mounted on the nursery walls stating that you didn’t grow under my heart, but in it, and the story books such as Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born purchased by loving grandparents, were all part of the gentle, ongoing narrative of being adopted.
But of course knowing one was adopted from the beginning does not mean that there are not struggles, questions, or yearnings. It just means that no one has been hiding things from you (the Chinese would say lying) about your origins.