Fifteen years is a long time to hate someone, especially when that person is your own mother. The thought of her would always upset me, so I never brought her up in conversation. I would feel uneasy when asked where I was born because the answer always reminded me of her – my biological mother who gave me up as a newborn. When asked, I’d answer “China” and quickly change the subject. It probably seemed like an unexpected answer coming out of my mouth in perfect English.
The innocent question “Where were you born?” would force me to reflect on a fact that was unpleasant and sad. Insecurities about my past would often roll in like a fog and shroud my life in gray. I was always trying to find my way out of that haze, but the murkiness of the past would pull me back in. So many people go through life never asking themselves how they came to be, but it was always on my mind. The questions that I wrestled with the most were “How could a mother give up her own daughter? What were the reasons that would cause her to make this unnatural decision?” The lack of answers left an unsettling void in my life.
I was born in Changzhou, China, in 2000 – the year of the dragon. Although the year is extremely fortuitous in Chinese culture, a girl born in that year was not considered lucky. If I had been a boy, it would have been a blessing worth celebrating a thousand times. But sadly, I was a girl born in a country where boys are prized and girls are a disappointment. From what I have learned, my birth mother left me at the gate of a police station wrapped in a blanket, with a small jade charm and a torn red note. A few sentences were scribbled on the note, including “wishing that a good family would adopt” me.
What would make a mother abandon her newborn? Under Chinese law then, couples were allowed just one child, and in 2000, girls were still being given up at an alarming rate. Although I knew this, I had a hard time accepting that a mother would give up her child because of her gender. I didn’t want to believe my birth mother was that kind of person. But she had done it, and that made me angry.
Anyone could see that the hatred I harbored for my birth mother was only a cover for the hurt buried deep inside. I blamed her for taking away a part of my childhood. Instead of wrapped in the love and care a mother would provide, I spent my first year in a crowded orphanage, sharing a crib with another baby. There was no one to console me when I cried, no one to read to me or show me the wonders of life. Growing up, I only had two small baby photos as proof of my existence. I felt like a part of my life had been erased without my consent.
My mother’s decision had much more of an impact on my life than I wanted. My shyness and uneasiness with emotions are a direct result of living in an orphanage. I wasn’t familiar with attention and affection. Expressing feelings to others was a foreign concept that I never learned. To this day, I shun attention and respond awkwardly to hugs. I also find it hard to get close to others for fear of being betrayed, forgotten, or left behind. These are embarrassments that I am still trying to deal with even after living a comfortable and nurturing life with my adoptive family. I can’t help but blame my birth mother, who not only took away my childhood but also my ability to adjust to a normal home.
It is difficult to reconcile my past when I have so many unresolved issues and unanswered questions. I know nothing about my biological parents and my family history. I keep wondering how much of my biological mother and father are in me. Do I like the same things they do? Are they outgoing or shy? These questions keep resurfacing. I have often tried to imagine what they look like. Are they tall like me? Are they athletic? As I peer into the bathroom mirror each morning, I wonder if I look like my birth mother. All I have is an abstract image of her.
The nondescript, blurry images from my past slowly began to sharpen when I traveled to China this summer to volunteer at orphanages. For two weeks, I stopped thinking about my missing past because I was greeted with curious new images. Under the gray haze of pollution, I saw small, plain homes lining the dirt roads. Scooters and bicycles sped down the streets instead of cars. Children with mismatched clothes and plastic shoes ran through the narrow alleys between squat buildings. It was not a typical scene out of a travel book nor was it an environment that I was used to.
As I walked around the bustling town center, I couldn’t help but think that my birth mother could pass me and we wouldn’t recognize each other. A sudden rush of emotions would overcome me as I thought about how she had probably forgotten about me. She had taken up so much space in my mind, but I imagined that I was the last thing on hers. Sadness would turn to anger as these thoughts entered my mind. My eyes would well up, but I didn’t want to shed a tear for my mother. She wasn’t worth it, and I didn’t want her to get to that vulnerable side of me. I would close my eyes and try to imagine what my mother’s everyday life might have been like when she conceived me so many years ago. My thoughts were usually interrupted by sounds of the radio blaring in Chinese and the shrill ring of the bell from a passing bike.
In the next few days, I visited dark homes with concrete floors and peeling walls. I realized that this could have been my life had I stayed with my birth parents. I was reminded that China had close to 100 million people living below the poverty line, with some families making just $362 per year. With the “one child per couple” policy and Chinese traditions, boys were seen as providers who would support the extended family. All this forced me to think deeply about my birth mother’s life and difficult choices. I came to realize that her decision to give me up wasn’t just about me. It was unfair to judge her based on my American standard of living and beliefs. Freedom of choice was compromised in China, and I could see how poverty and deep-rooted cultural traditions might sway a mother to do something she did not want to do. Most likely she had been forced to face the grim reality of her situation like so many mothers of her generation.
The following week, I spent hours with children living in orphanages. There were rooms of cribs in rows; attendants rushed in and out with supplies. It felt very clinical to me. It was, after all, an orphanage and not a real home. This institution was their home. In a way, their life was so simple. Everything was decided for them, and they had no control over what happened to them. I thought about how each child I saw could have been me – I could have been institutionalized my entire life with no opportunities and no one to call Mom and Dad.
The reality of my situation was starting to reveal itself without me having to search too hard. As I discovered how my culture linked back to my life in America, I slowly began to come to terms with my birth mother’s decision. What had bothered me before was my assumption that she hadn’t cared enough to keep me. Coming to China helped me realize that she had cared enough to give me the opportunity for a better life – one that she couldn’t give me herself. I was adopted by a loving family who was able to give me the life that my birth mother must have wanted for me.
It took 15 years and a trip to China to find answers to my questions. My past and present came full circle, and I was finally able to understand my mother’s actions. The hatred I felt toward her was unfair and ungrounded. Even though she took away part of my childhood, she gave me much more in the end – a life of greater opportunity. I was given choices and the option to have control over my future, unlike these children in the orphanages.
When my mother wrote on the little red slip of paper that she hoped I would find a good family, she really meant she wanted me to have a brighter future. For that, I thank my mother. Part of me will still wonder what she was like, but at least I have learned to understand her decision. It no longer matters that parts of my past are missing. I know now that I have to create my own past from what I know instead of what I want to know.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the May 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.