More than anything, I want to be able to speak and understand and sing in my mother tongue. I want to be able to write poetry and love letters in Chinese. I asked my mom why I was never able to take lessons growing up and she said that it was because the Chinese classes that were offered were far away, maybe an hour’s drive, and it was inconvenient.
It hurts me that I wasn’t able to learn my birth language out of convenience.
I once read an article with research suggesting that there is something that activates in adoptee’s brain when they hear their native language that doesn’t activate for other people who didn’t grow up hearing that language as an infant. This means that my mother tongue lives not just in my bones, but also in my brain.
Yet, there has been so much holding me back. Fears like: What if I’m not able to learn Chinese? What if I sound like the white people who try to learn Chinese who don’t understand what tones are? Or what if it’s something that I can’t relearn? Maybe English has taken over so much of my brain I have no more space for that part of myself.
I stared at the form in front of me, tapping my pen. My legs shook. I cleared my throat and looked around the room. Swirly patterns of blues, greens, and browns surrounded me. Have you ever noticed how all hospitals and waiting rooms use the same neutral palette? As though, earth tones are going to help someone find their zen during a medical crisis. At that moment, the colors weren’t working.
The sterile scent of rubbing alcohol, the HGTV special on mute, the steady stream of indistinguishable chatter at the front desk…none of it helped my nerves. All 12 boxes on the form were still empty. I took a deep breath, and as always, marked every box N/A, then turned the page.
As someone who lives a busy life, I consider myself like many people. Sleep often evades me because I’m running through my list of tasks for the week. Either that or my brain has decided to replay that embarrassing memory from first grade—one or the other.
Sleep didn’t start evading me for darker reasons until I moved away from my family.
We’re on our way to see a Hindu priest who lives in Chatsworth, a township outside of Durban where Indians, many whose ancestors were brought to South Africa during the Dutch colonial era as slaves, were again forcibly relocated in the 1950s by the apartheid government. The South Africans I am with have been visiting this priest for years, so they have little trouble finding his house and the one-room temple he has constructed in a small courtyard behind it. We roll up onto the curb that lines the narrow street, and six of us pile out, seeking—I can only speak for myself—a bit of light on the journey.
There was a time when I could not speak the word “adoption” aloud. It was so charged with pain, the very thought of it overwhelmed me. Thorns of bitterness accompanied the word forming a thick barrier.
Adoption represented trauma and deep, unresolved grief.
As a young teen at the very end of the 1970’s, I became pregnant. My parents turned to their church for advice which led to me being sent to live in a foster home far from everyone I knew and loved.
I entered the world as a “matter” for the country of England to settle. In simpler terms, I was the product of an affair. A “predicament” as government records indicated:
“The birthfather has paid no maintenance for the child and has taken no interest whatever, either in the mother’s predicament, or the baby’s future.”
After my birth, arrangements were made to have me placed in a foster home. Several months later, my mother read these words printed on a brown piece of paper: In The Matter Of Julie. She signed the document, stating that she could not raise me. Some say it is impossible for a child to sense this moment. I disagree. My spirit felt each letter as my mother pressed down on the signature line, spelling out her name, and severing the cord between us.
I received a beautiful piece of scripture on Christmas Eve, 2017. The words were written on a white piece of paper that had been folded into a star. The star was hanging on one of several sparkling Christmas trees that dotted the space where my church was holding its last worship service for the evening.
My pastor for the past five years, Jon Ireland, spoke to those of us in attendance about how true peace is from God: a gift that the world cannot offer. Then, he invited each member of the congregation to go to a Christmas tree in the room and choose one paper ornament. We were to wait to open our chosen ornaments until everyone was back in their seats.
I am an explorer. As an adoptee, I have explored the depths of my soul to find a meaning to the earliest parts of my history. I have ventured out, and within, to seek unknown parts of myself. I have tracked many a mile to uncover my identity and to dismantle the titles given to me by others. Titles that did not serve me in a positive life outcome.
I believe that all adoptees are explorers. In some way, we are all searching, seeking, and looking for answers to who we are and why we’re here. We’re trackers of truth. At some moment in our lives, a severing took place that catapulted us into a situation we had no control over. Free falling — or so it seemed — we landed into lives that we were not born of, but were destined for.
There she stood about six steps off of the road at the end of a driveway. She was standing there waiting to meet me.
Is this really happening? Because if it is, it is more than wild.
All of my life I knew of this woman, Mary. Mary, my adoptive mother’s second cousin and my birth mother, only lived cities away—physically. In my mind, she may as well have lived across several oceans. If I had had my introverted way, I would’ve been invisible until the time I had taken in every detail about her into my memory. Before I could work it all out in my mind or hold onto one detail, I was in Mary’s embrace. Right there on the side of the street where the grass met the gravel was our meeting place. She had long hair rolled up in a bun but the rest of the details of those first few minutes are hard for me to recall.