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A Unique Chronology
I can’t stand thinking about it. Not knowing isn’t necessarily what bothers me but rather the harsh reality that I can’t ever know. It plagues me day in and day out, keeps me up long after the sun sets, and after it rises again. I can’t even read a novel or lose myself in a different reality just for a while without it popping back into my head again. I’m a caged animal, starved, with a steak right outside the bars, and I’m no vegetarian.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and you don’t have any context for my ramblings. See, I’ve reached a point of maturation in my life (my college education) and I’m forced to confront the overwhelming obstacle that is my future. I resolve issues best by a coupling of research and analysis and I’ve come across an interesting thought.
As Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck has written, “One faces the future with one's past.”
This is a perfectly valid thought that I feel is the most pragmatic way in confronting my monstrous future. And this thought would be my first choice in confronting the monster, yet I take issue with its implicit premise; that I in fact, have a past to which I can fall back upon when I “face my future”. If I should ever have the opportunity to speak to Mr. Buck, I would have several questions to follow up on his idea: What if one has no past? Can one face the future, or am I simply ill-equipped if I don’t?
I’m at it again, providing no context. If you haven’t noticed, I get ahead of myself (which could possibly be compensation for a lack of anything behind). Now what is it that one could possibly mean by not having a past?
I should let you know that I am adopted and that this one fact is the only thing my adoptive family and I know for sure, except that all other information is unknowable and mere speculation. I was born in Vietnam in 1993 in a small, beaten down hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. The identities of my birthparents will forever remain a mystery to me as there is no paper trail of evidence of my existence prior to my hospitalization. I was very sick as a baby of only two or three months old. I didn’t stay in the country long and my journey then brought me to the adoptive family that I’m a member of now. They’re not a very exciting bunch, and I don’t feel they’re worth mentioning. Well, I take that back. There is one member that is worth mentioning.
This person I am referring to is the same person to whom I go to allay my myriad of issues: my grandmother. She’s always been there for me and goes about our home doing her part in our chore list. You’d find her on a Friday night, after a week working full time teaching the next generation, at our home cleaning dishes, doing laundry, taking care of our dog, etc. Alas, she works very hard and I find her very admirable for it. It is part of the reason I turn to her over others with my personal issues.
So I brought an issue to her attention one evening over coffee.
“Grandma, why is it that I can’t ever know who my birth parents are?”
She looked at me, and was startled by the bluntness of my question, but notes the sincerity in my face.
“Well Robert” she paused to choose her words carefully, a habit of hers (she is a very articulate woman) “Well I’m not entirely sure. Adoption is complex and I wasn’t ever directly involved with your parents while they went through the actual process of adopting you. I’m not sure.” I remember her concluding, unsatisfactorily.
I looked down, disappointed; she was supposed to present a wealth of answers which would help explain why I couldn’t ever learn the identities of my birth parents. She seemed to know what I was thinking (she always did) because what she said next was present a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. She said “I know you. You’re going to over-analyze my, well, lack of response. It’s not your fault it’s just who you are. And it’s not a bad thing either. Robert act on that obsession of yours, garner as many answers as you can to the questions you have, and during your research let your mind sift the findings, keep what is worth keeping. Afterwards blow the rest away with a sigh of satisfaction.”
That’s better- what I have come to expect of her: articulate, profound, and most importantly, satisfactory. Then she didn’t say any more. She didn’t need to. We’ve always been communicative and the unspoken conversation that followed her last words actually elucidated much more for me than anything she could possibly say aloud. When the obsessive mind begins to obsess, solitude is satisfaction. I find that time alone is the most conducive in reaching what needs to be reached. Consequently, I’ve taken up the habit of not speaking much and keeping my thoughts to myself. Other people simply prove to be distractions, even the woman who gave me what I needed to initially reach this truth. I needed time to think, accrue data, and analyze that data.
When I contemplate my past, I contemplate nothing, so I hope I can make something of that nothing. This is one story, one elusive past, and one attempt at finding something from nothing.
For the next several days, I thought much about what my grandmother had said. Our conversation at the café crept into my mind as frequently as the questions themselves, but while the frequency of the questions popping into my head was still the same, I was no longer frustrated. I was enthralled. It was because I realized something; that what my grandmother had given me was not answers to my questions but the way of finding the answers. Through my own intuition and a little digging into my past, fate might yield the answers I so desperately wanted.
I indulged this realization for days without luck, failing to arrive at clear answers through intuitive research. I even walked back to the café, sat in the exact same spot, for just the shadow of an idea. It was all in vain at first and no ideas came to mind until one day while I was walking back from the café I took a wrong turn onto an unfamiliar street. I had turned into an old road on which the only thing was an old store with a sign that was its name: “Out of The Past”.
I remember this old store in the forefront of grey skies and rain and I remember it didn’t even look like a store initially but more like an old abandoned two-story house and it had a faded coat of maroon and yellow paint. The yellow was the color of the frames of the windows while maroon paint covered the roof and body except for the patches of brown where the paint had faded. It had a neglected look and it appeared as if the only life on the property was the weeds growing out from cracks in the worn blocks of concrete which one would need to cross in order to actually enter the store.
Yet the entire scene is oddly familiar in a nostalgic sort of way; an unfamiliar familiarity if you will. So I decided to enter the store, with no particular goal in mind, interested to see what was so attractive about it.
When I opened the doors I entered a sea of white with little flecks of gold here and there. There were white chairs and white table cloths on white tables and little items of gold evenly distributed on the table. The room was very neat and clean, and this image contrasted with the outside of the store which was neither neat nor clean.
But this was a mere snapshot image because soon after I entered the store I was set upon by a little man who was old and energetic and also dressed in white.
“Welcome traveler!” he starts enthusiastically looking me up and down “We need to begin straight away.”
“Excuse me?” I asked
“Yes, yes straight away.”
“Well you’re going to need to elaborate.”
“Come here.” He says motioning to one of the golden objects.
I comply and walk over to where he is pointing. It was a small golden coin embroidered with a foreign language and in the middle of the coin there was a palm tree and under the tree there was a number, 1-9-9-4.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Take it traveler with an open mind and be ready.”
I looked down at the coin and it got brighter. Not seemingly, but literally. Then all went white.
When I awoke my body was very warm. I can recall opening my eyes I and quickly shutting them again because of a bright sun glaring down upon me. There were gargantuan palm trees which enclosed a small flat circle of grass where I was lying and I could hear sounds of hundreds of insects in the surrounding forest. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a young boy peeking out at me from behind one of the trees. We stared at each other for a moment until he suddenly turned around and ran away.
“Wait!” I called after him. I got up and sprinted in the direction from where he had just disappeared. Pushing aside plant after plant, I looked around for the boy but to no avail.
“Where could he have gone?” I thought to myself turning on the spot. “He couldn’t have gone too far.”
Suddenly I heard a thump as the boy dropped down from a tree not three feet from where I was standing, out of breath. He couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen years old and wore an old grey shirt with holes here and there and grey shorts. He was dirty. There was dirt on his face and arms, but he had straight white teeth.
He smiled at me.
“Hello” I said uncertainly “Do you speak English?”
“Yes.” replied the boy. “Who are you?”
“My name is Robert.”
“Mine is Tai Nguyen.”
I was still trying to take in the boy when he turned and said “I bet you’re wondering where we are.”
“Well you’ve been here before.” said the boy.
“What?” I asked
“Yea this is your second time here. Anyway, it’s time to go home. You coming?”
“Home? What? Wait, what do you know? How did I get here?”
“Come on!” and the boy sprinted off again.
Before I could follow him, a warm sensation rippled all throughout my body starting at my head and ending at my toes. Then, all of a sudden, the same white light appeared again, just like before and I felt and thought no more.
When I next awoke I found myself lying on a bed of straw. Rustling some of it out of my hair, I sat up and looked around. I was in a room that was made primarily of bamboo. The walls and ceiling were structured in a way so that the room itself was almost a perfect square and there was a rug of a skinned animal in the middle. I got up and walked toward the front door and opened it to find the boy sitting, cross-legged near a small fire. Over the fire was a small pot and the boy was stirring it with a wooden spoon. I walked over to him and sat down.
“Tai-”I said dazedly “What happened? Where am I?
“Can’t answer the first question. But we’re home!”
“And where is home exactly?”
“At my house, silly.”
At this point I was getting a bit frustrated. I got up and paced around the fire.
“Tai, why is it you can’t tell me what’s been happening? Do you even know? Do you see the white light too?”
“You ask lots of questions” he replied, taking a sip of the stew.
Wouldn’t you? I thought to myself.
“Yes I would, actually. But I wouldn’t be so rude about it!”
“What? Did you just...”
Yup! I just read your mind. And you can read mine too so it’s fair.
I was absolutely dumbfounded. It had to be a dream: the white light, the boy, the trees, the stew, the fire, and, especially, the mindreading.
This can’t be real. This has to be in my head, I thought
Just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real! thought Tai. “Plus the stew’s done so let’s eat!”
So, in a state of disbelief, I sat down and accepted a wooden bowl from Tai. I looked down at the stew, it was grey and there were chunks of meat in it.
“It’s rabbit stew.” Said Tai. “It should be pretty good because I just caught the rabbit today. It’s why I was in the forest when I saw you come.”
“When you saw me come?”
“What did you see exactly?”
“Can’t tell you!”
“It’s against the rules. You’re here until you find your answers. You were wondering about your past, right? Well, here is the answer!”
And he was moving his arm around as if he were presenting something to a large crowd. I looked up and saw that he was motioning at the surrounding landscape. There were the gargantuan trees and the sounds of the insects but I saw, in the distance, a large river with the bluest water I’d ever seen. There were tropical birds flying above in the forefront of just as blue skies. There was a pleasant breeze blowing through my hair, wafting the smell of the stew off into the air.
It can’t be- I thought. It can’t be. Is this…
It was the same picture that, I now realized, I had seen only in my dreams. It was the same the same picture that I must’ve seen before but a very, very long time ago.
Yup! Thought Tai Welcome home!
The next day Tai showed me around the forest -- or rather his favorite spots in the forest -- and he reset his traps for rabbits. After he finished showing me the forest we went into the city which was unlike the forest in every way. It was very grey, like Tai’s clothes, and I got the impression of fear. There were many people and many shops but they all looked hurried, like they were late for a curfew. Women held their children’s hands as if the children would run away if they didn’t.
Tai didn’t have any money so we couldn’t buy anything but he would leave at times, tell me to stay where I was, and he would return with various treats and foods. He then proceeded to tell me about how harshly the government there punished interlopers and thieves.
The government controls much here, thought Tai. There are many who fear the government but do not have enough courage to do anything about it so people just live in fear.
Disconcerted, we continued our tour. We walked for a short while until we reached a massive structure constructed from steel rather than bamboo and sticks. I asked Tai what it was, he shuddered.
It’s a very, very bad place. It’s called the Orphanage. They take kids there and sell them to rich people who ‘adopt’ them. I just escaped and it’s miserable there. There are guards and it’s made entirely of concrete and there is a horrible woman who runs the place, the head mistress.
Tai stopped walking at that point and stared at the ground.
I had many friends there and I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t help them…
I didn’t know what to do to commiserate with him so I just thought,
Hey let’s talk about something else. Let’s head home. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.
Tai agreed and, before we left, he went to steal some more sweets from the bamboo shops which lightened his spirits immensely. Then the strangest thing happened while we were leaving. I was talking to Tai and we were walking back to his hut when a woman was hurrying in a different direction. I wasn’t paying attention and the woman and I should’ve collided but instead she went right through me. I was so surprised that I fell onto the road anyway. Tai giggled.
You don’t really exist in my world Robert. I’m the only one who can talk to you and I’m also the only one to whom you can talk. Cool, right?
Instead of asking him why this was, I just decided to accept it. This experience was already odd and I though it just more practical to accept the oddities as they came. When we returned home we were both tired. We ate the stew in silence after Tai had gone into the forest to retrieve the rabbits he had managed to catch. I listened to the sounds of the forest and of the river and this made me sleepy so I decided to turn in early. I entered the tent and fell asleep for what seemed like seconds when suddenly a thunderous crash sounded from what was presumably the front door. Through the wreckage appeared a large burly man with a saber in his hand.
“Ah-ha finally. Think you could hide forever you little brat?” growled a low, beast-like voice
Tai quickly reached for a sharpened stick at the end of his bed but the big man moved quickly and grabbed it and broke it in half.
Before Tai could even get out of bed the big burly man had moved across the room and snatched him, slinging Tai over his shoulder. Tai punched and kicked to no avail and the large man simply laughed.
“You’re going to have to do better than you runt.”
But before I myself could get up the large man had turned and ran out of the entrance, Tai screaming over his shoulder.
No! I thought
As I reached the entrance the big man and Tai were nowhere to be seen. Before I could even begin to run after them, the white light once again appeared and with it a warming sensation which permeated my body and I felt and saw no more.
I awoke because the back of my head was bouncing off of a hard surface over and over again. I sat up and found myself in the back of a car. I looked around to find Tai sitting and looking at me; his arms and legs were tied.
You ok? I asked him
Yes, but he was very rough with me.
The car rumbled on. Tai didn’t talk much while I tried to comfort him. We passed building after building -- all made of bamboo -- until we reached a building made of steel, just like the orphanage but smaller. The car stopped. The man got out and I noticed he had a badge that said “Official Intermediary: Bastia”. He opened the back door, looked in at Tai and grinned.
“Now you little brat, don’t go running off!” said the man in his low grumble of a voice.
He shut the door again and started off toward the building.
Follow him. Thought Tai.
Are you crazy? I’m not leaving you here, I’m staying right here. I thought.
Follow him! It’s part of your journey here! Follow him!
So I exited the car, slipping right through the door like it was made of mist. Bastia was only several feet ahead of me so I caught up to him quickly. He had a slight limp, and he was dirty. A retched smell wafted from his body as he lifted up his arm to open the metal door. The room he entered was small and had only two chairs and one table in the middle. Behind them was desk with a small, skinny man sitting behind it. He looked up.
“Ah, Bassstia.” he hissed.
“Rắn.” replied Bastia
“You found the boy I asssume?”
“Ha-ha I did. He was hiding in the forest.”
“Yeah now give me the forms.”
Bastia received two pages of forms from Rắn. On the top of one of the forms were the words “Official Child- Search Completion Form” and I looked over Bastia’s shoulder as he wrote
“I _____ have attempted to look for the birth parents of ¬¬¬¬_____.” And Bastia jotted down his own and Tai’s name. As he worked, I walked over to Rắn. I saw an official looking badge him too “Vietnamese Child Location Officer”.
He must work for the Vietnamese government I thought to myself.
“Done.” said the low growl
Bastia got up and walked back over to Rắn, walking through me in the process. He handed Rắn the forms.
“Ssso how much do you think you will get for the child?” asked Rắn.
“Dunno. Hopefully a lot. He caused me a lot of trouble this one.”
“Well alwaysss a pleasssure Bassstia.”
And so Bastia turned to leave and I followed right behind. After he returned to the car I slipped through Bastia and into the back seat next to Tai. Bastia opened the back door of the vehicle and looked at Tai,
“Good of you to wait for me.” he jeered
Tai didn’t say anything to Bastia but gave him a look of pure hatred. Bastia grinned again and shut the door. Tai turned to look at me.
Did you see anything interesting?
You were right, the government is very corrupt.
Tai nodded and then closed his eyes.
I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.
And I looked at the small boy sitting next to me. I felt so helpless, so impotent. But what could I do but watch? I couldn’t physically touch anything unless I was in a certain proximity to Tai I noticed. And, even if I did, what was I to do? How could I possible help him? And so I sat, depressed, wondering to where this car was taking us next, and looked down at the young boy sitting next to me.
When the car stopped next we were at the place that made Tai shudder by the mere mention of it: The Orphanage. Bastia got out of the car and opened the back seat which woke Tai up. He grabbed Tai and put him over his shoulder and walked off while I followed.
It’s going to be all right. I thought.
Robert, I’m scared.
You’re going to escape, I promise.
Bastia walked up to two huge iron gates. There was a guard sitting in a booth.
“I’m here to return some property.” growled Bastia
“Go ahead.” said the stern-looking guard.
He opened the gates and Bastia walked through with a defeated Tai over his shoulder. He walked along a long, winding stone path. There were only weeds growing from the dirt which surrounded the path. As he walked, faces of children appeared from the tens of windows which looked down at the courtyard. They all looked defeated and scared and some of them were crying.
Bastia reached the front doors of The Orphanage and opened them. Upon entering, I got the impression of a jail, not an orphanage. There were concrete walls and floors and everything was the same color- gray. Bastia waited as a line of children, led by two guards -- one in front one behind -- passed. Then he walked over to a room that said “Lost Children” on a plaque on the door itself. After he entered, he walked over to a desk with a woman behind it. She looked up and smiled.
“Ah Mr. Nguyen! You’ve come back to us.” said the woman.
“He took me two years to find.” said Bastia. “I want quite a pretty penny for the boy.”
“Mr. Bastia you know how we value your efforts.”
“Then you also know how well we reward our aids.”
“Last time it was a little light.”
“We’ll discuss it in a moment Mr. Bastia.” replied the woman. “First, however, please escort Mr. Nguyen to room A-4-II.”
“Yes Ma’am.” replied the guard standing near the door behind them.
Stay with Bastia and the woman. You can come to find me later.
Ok. I replied.
And so the guard untied Tai and they left.
“I want 4.5 thousands dongs.” said Bastia
“Last time we gave you 35.” replied the woman “I can do 37.”
“I can do 38.” said Bastia smiling.
“Very well. Here is a receipt. Now I’m quite busy so I’m going to ask you to leave. You remember where to go?”
“Very well. Thank you for you services, Bastia.”
And after Bastia shut the door behind him, the white light appeared again; I closed my eyes and gave in to the warm sensation.
Robert. Wake up. Robert and I woke up. Tai was looking at me.
Where are we?
We’re in our room.
I sat up and looked around. It was a gloomy room with one window, one bed, and one toilet and there were bars instead of doors.
It’s not a room, it’s a prison cell. I thought to Tai.
I know. It’s a lot worse than last time. My last room didn’t have bars.
How big is this place exactly?
I dunno. It’s pretty big though. It’s divided by height, gender, and race. It’s so that we’re easy to find when we’re adopted.
Tai looked pale and uncomfortable. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I kept quiet. Then there were footsteps from outside the bars.
“Exercise time” said a guard walking up from some unknown location outside.
She opened the doors and took Tai by the arm and escorted him down a flight of stairs. The stairs ended up being a winding staircase which led to a room labeled “Play Time”. The room itself was small and concrete and there were other kids there, all the same height, ethnicity, and all were boys. There were about half as many guards as there were boys and they were dispersed along the sides of the room. One of the boys looked up and saw Tai.
“Tai!” he said coming over to him
“Hien!” replied Tai
“I haven’t seen you in forever!”
“I got caught”
“Man!” he said, frustrated “If you can’t escape no one can”
After that I noticed one of the guards look down at Tai and Hien and they started to whisper instead.
“So what’s the plan this time?” whispered Hien
“Hien, I don’t think I can do it again. They’re watching me extra close.”
Hien looked disappointed and Tai didn’t look any better. The guard came over and, surprisingly, only gently hit Hien on the head.
“Come with me” said the guard, taking Hien by the arm,
“But I didn’t do anything!” cried Hien, suddenly scared
“Come with me” repeated the guard pulling Hien toward the door.
Two of the guards at the door moved aside to allow the now crying Hien to pass.
What’s going to happen to him? I asked
He’s going to the Punishment Room. They heard him talking about bad stuff.
About two hours later, the guard returned but without Hien. He got up on a small podium in the middle of the room and blew a shallow, high pitched whistle made of steel. The children lined up against the wall, single file, and began to exit the room, with every second boy accompanied by guards. And so they walked, none talking, single file all the way to the cafeteria. Once there they each received a Styrofoam tray with no silverware. They waited in line and on by one received a mush as gray as the surrounding concrete. After Tai received his mush he sat down on a concrete bench. Each table had concrete benches but dividers between the benches as to discourage talking amongst the children. And Tai sat in silence until he slowly finished the meal, using only his hands.
After about an hour another guard blew a whistle which evidently signaled that it was time to go to wash. So, once again they all lined up single file and proceeded to the next designated area. The washing station was basically a gigantic fountain with water squirting out of hundreds of small holes in a circle which was, I guessed, about 10 yards in diameter. The twenty or so boys proceeded to take their spots along the fountain and bathed themselves. The boys also washed their clothes. Tai later told me that they did this because the only clothes they were allowed to have were the pair they already had on their backs so the boys were instructed to wash them as well. After about fifteen minutes another whistle blew and that signaled that the boys now return to their cells for the rest of the day. This time the boys each stood behind a different guard who led them each back to a different section of the Orphanage. Tai was one of two boys who followed one particularly nasty-looking guard back to their cells.
Once there, Tai sat down on the bed. He sat in silence for a while, looking up at the full moon now shining brightly down at them.
Tai, this place is so heavily guarded, how did you escape the first time?
Well the first time I managed to slip a paperclip from the Head Mistresses’ office and unlock the door to my room. After that I ran down the hall until I reached a cart which some janitor was using and I slipped under the sheets. I was lucky that she was cleaning their rooms that night. After that I went to the laundry room which was by a back exit so I ran away.
Incredible, I thought, and how old are you exactly?
I dunno actually. What they do is divide us up by height so when some rich Western family wants one of us they can make your birthday and stuff.
Terrible I thought, mainly to myself. After that he didn’t say anything more and was sound asleep only minutes after he closed his eyes.
The next few weeks were similar to the first day; the same routine, the same food, but different guards. But, while Tai and I were communicating with each other in the Play Room a guard came up to Tai and grabbed his arm and said “Come with me.” Neither of us knew what this could have been about; most of the time it appears as if Tai isn’t talking at all on account of being able to think with me as opposed to talk. But nonetheless we were both nervous as the sullen-faced guard led Tai out of the room and down the concrete hall. The guard led Tai past several cells with miserable looking children inside and down several flights of stairs. We eventually were led to a room which, on its door said “Adoption Inspection Room”. Inside there was a very short, fat, balding man who had glasses.
“Bring him here!” said the fat man impatiently
Tai was shoved into the hands of the fat man.
“Now let’s begin.”
The fat man worked with some speed as he measured Tai, checked him for any rashes or disfigurements, ailments, etc. All the while, after each part of his inspection, he wrote something down in a piece of paper. After about half of an hour the fat man seemed satisfied. After he finished, he told the guard to get the head mistress. They waited for quite some time until they heard the door open and the head mistress entered with an unnerving smile on her face.
“Is he ready?
“Yes Ma’am” and he handed the head mistress the piece of paper on which he was working.
“Excellent. You may leave.”
And the fat man hobbled out the door.
“Tai Nguyen. You are my prize young man.” said the head mistress.
Tai simply stared at her.
“Do you know how may dongs you’ve given me? More than I can count, my perfect little boy. It’s time for you to head off to the other facility to be paraded about and shown off to the new adoptive family who are paying for you! Guard, take this fine young man to the bus.”
The guard led Tai outside to an old bus and had Tai sit next to him all throughout the journey. Tai was ecstatic to see that the bus was leaving the Orphanage.
Where are they taking you?
I dunno. But anything’s better than that place.
The bus traveled for quite some distance before stopping again. As they departed, both Tai and I marveled at the new facility. It was painted red and gold and had pictures of various animals on the outside. It had the most verdant flora surrounding it as well as birds in fountains. There were no guards, no bars and there was no concrete -- a completely different atmosphere.
“Come with me” said the guard
And they followed him up a dirt path taking in the contrast of color and the beauty of the building. The guard left us at the entrance where a beautiful woman greeted and gave Tai a hug.
“Welcome. My name is Ms. Kim” She said in a sing-song voice.
“He-hello” replied Tai.
“This will be your home until you leave, Tai.” Tai looked dumfounded and the woman clearly noticed because she whispered in his ear, “Do not worry. This is a place of happiness and joy, not anything at all like the Orphanage. Let me show you to your room, you must be tired after such a long trip.”
She led us across a court yard filled with laughing children, all of different ages and genders and ethnicities. As they entered the building, they saw almost every color imaginable. The color was in the different stained windows, the carpets, but mainly there was color in the multitude of child-drawn pictures plastered over the walls. They walked along a wide hallway with green doors until they reached number 18.
“This will be your room.” She said, opening the door.
There were four beds, poufy beds, in a very spacious room. There was a door which led to the courtyard along with furniture and even a potted plant on the surface of one of the dressers.
“That bed will be yours” she said pointing to the nearest bed on the left. “You’re going to have roommates while you’re here so I hope you all will get along.”
And then she left Tai seemingly alone.
Quite a substantial improvement I thought
Yeah… so this is where all of the children who leave the Orphanage go.
Over the next few days Tai became acquainted, be it hesitantly, with several other children. He got used to the lack of routine, the freedom to do what he wanted when he wanted as long as it didn’t break property or hurt any of the other children, and the freedom to be who he wanted to be. After a week, Tai was called into the main office. Being conditioned to fear being called into any sort of office, Tai was afraid.
What do you think it’s about? He asked me.
I said I didn’t know but that I’d accompany him to the office and stay with him no matter what. Reassured, Tai walked to the office door and opened it. He was greeted by Ms. Kim.
“Tai, tomorrow you are going to meet your new family. But, before you do, you need to know this: your name is no longer Tai, it is Michael. You are nine years old. Your birthday is on March 13th. Understood?”
The next day at the same time Tai walked into the office. Upon opening it, Tai saw Ms. Kim and two other individuals sitting in the chairs- one male and one female, both smiling at him.
“Michael, these are the Whites. They’re the ones who want to take you into their family.”
said Ms. Kim.
Tai had an indiscernible expression on his face the entire time in the office. The family was nice enough, I felt, and they seemed eager to bring Tai home. The entire meeting was awkward but there was also an innocent enthusiasm in the young couple. They sincerely wanted to start a family with “Michael White” at its core.
Tai was dismissed and heft in a hurry.
Stay with them. Thought Tai as he left.
And so I stayed and listened to the conversation that followed between the Whites and Ms. Kim.
“Mr. and Mrs. White” she started in her sing-song voice “it’s time to go over finances”
“Of course.” Said Mr. White.
“Now we have another facility, known as The Orphanage, which is really struggling. We ask that all new-time adoptive parents give a donation in order to keep the other facility running.”
“Absolutely” said Mr. White. “How much do you need?”
“We ask for a donation of about 500 American dollars.”
“Alright, is a check ok?”
“Yes absolutely!” said Ms. Kim
“And then there are the fees for us maintaining the welfare of the child. Food is expensive at The Orphanage, and they attempt to provide only the finest meals. Also, there are hired assistants used to watch over the children so as to prevent any mishap so you’ll need to pay for that as well.”
“But Miss, we’ve already paid thousands of dollars under the category of Adoption Fees back at home, is that not enough? Our agency said we had finished paying.”
“I’m sorry Mr. White but it’s the law. I’m sorry to say that if you do not pay you will not be able to take darling little Michael home with you.” Said Mrs. Kim, her smile fading
“Honey just pay them.” Said Mrs. White.
“Alright, well as long as I know where the money is going.” Said Mr. White
“Yes absolutely. Mr. and Mrs. White I can personally assure you that this is one of the most transparent adoption systems in the world.”
The night before Tai was to leave, we had a most interesting discussion.
Robert, I feel I should tell you, Bastia kidnapped me from my birthparents. He broke into my house years ago and kidnapped me right from my bed. He was faster and stronger than my parents; he drove away before they could do anything about it.
He did? I asked, astonished
Yes. And I think about them- my birth parents- almost every day. I think about what life would have been like if I could have lived with them.
But you’re going home to live in America! Surely nothing can beat that I said, cheerfully.
True. But I do miss them. And I’m sure that they would have cared for me just as much or more as the Whites will. But it’s not as bad as my friend Hiem though. Hiem and his family were very, very poor. One day, Bastia appeared before them and told his parents that he, Bastia, would take Hiem to a boarding school. He told them that he was working with a missionary group and that their poverty qualified them for the program, but that the program was not free. Think about how desperate they were, Robert, to provide a better life for Hiem than they themselves could provide. So they agreed to let Bastia take Hiem to the “boarding school” which was in reality The Orphanage. With Hiem, he took all of that family’s money too. And he continues to come back for monthly payment and Hiem’s parents don’t really know what is going on.
He was silent for a moment until he asked me a question,
What is a family, Robert? Must there be a link of blood? Or does it simply need to be a place where people care for you? What is the difference between family and friends? Does there need to be some law stating that you’re a family? But before I could answer, the white
light appeared for the last time, my body became warm and I closed my eyes and I gave into to the sensation of nothingness.
“Sir… sir?” I awoke with a start. I was lying down in a booth in the café and there was a very pretty waitress sitting next to me, shaking my shoulder gently.
“Sir you fell asleep and the café’s closing.”
“Oh I- I’m so sorry.” I stuttered.
“Oh it’s quite all right, it gave me an excuse to come over and talk to you.” She got up, winked and all I could manage to do is smile back. I left the café after paying for the coffee determined to find Out of The Past again.
I hurried out down the street looking for that old alleyway that led to the store.
Where is it, where is it?
Locating it, I hurried down the alley. After I reached the other side I expected to see the store of red and yellow but the only thing that was there was an old, colorless building. I ran up to it, hopping the fence as I did so. It appeared as if there hadn’t been anything there for years. I entered the old shack but I didn’t find anything; none of the white tables or the golden objects were anywhere to be seen. I decided it must’ve been a dream so I turned to leave when, out of the corner of my eye, something shimmered in the fading sunlight. I turned and bent down to grab it; it was the golden coin that I had seen earlier.
I don’t believe it I thought to myself.
It was, in fact, the very same coin. It had the palm tree and 1-9-9-4 and it was still in a tongue I couldn’t recognize, except now I think I could guess what the tongue was. When I got home I asked my grandmother, who was cleaning the dishes, how long I’d been out.
“A couple hours honey, why?”
“Oh, no reason.”
I spent the next several weeks working on a research paper titled: The Adoption System Scandal. In it, I basically recounted all of my experiences with Tai; living in poverty and with fear of the government, of the child laundering, of the harsh conditions of the Orphanage, but mainly I focused on the question Tai posed to me before I left.
What constitutes a family? It was a difficult one to answer but I think I know now. It can be genetics and it can be mandated by law. But in its essence, relationships between parents and their children, the essence of family, is defined by one thing: love.
Love leads parents to seek the possibility of starting a family- even if the family has roots from the other side of the world. Love pushes parents to research different adoption agencies ensuring that their future child is well taken care of before they can hold him or her in their own arms. Love eliminates myopic tendencies; eliminates any proclivity to see a child as Asian or Caucasian or whatever other aspect that hinders parents from seeing a child as just a child. Love is what defines a family. Tai, I’m sure, figured it out and now I have too.
A week or so later I was sitting with my grandmother again in the café.
“So how did your research go?” she asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“Oh it went fine.” I replied
“Well it must’ve gone well you got an A plus on your homework assignment!”
“Yeah, I guess it did, didn’t it?”
“By the way, I know how much research you’ve done in researching adoption and the process and the implications, but do you even know your own name? Before you were adopted I mean.”
“No I hadn’t really thought about it. What is it?”
She paused, finishing up her coffee while I took a sip of mine.
“Honey, your name was Tai Nguyen.”