When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, so who are your “real” parents? It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. Nevertheless, I was always incredulous at such a question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” Like, duh…My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that many adoptees have encountered such a scenario and perhaps felt the same sentiments. What strikes me now as most peculiar, 47 years after my adoption, is the lack of curiosity I had about my birthparents. It was an apathy I think perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage, including the family whence I came. When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of my connection to my birth country and to the family I was born into, and after my adoption, all cultural ties were ultimately severed. I would never know that my birth parents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older sisters and an older brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a journey of discovery. I have never turned back since.
This afternoon, I went with some friends visiting from California to see a movie, ‘Philomena,’ starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. In a word, it was extraordinary. What does a movie have to do with my previous ramblings? Mainly, adoption. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to her son, Anthony, and is forced to work in the laundry room with other young girls to work off the penance of their sins. The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. Here is the gut-wrencher – Philomena, one day, watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never find out the whereabouts of their children. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with a dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who agrees to help her find her son primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness and ultimately acceptance.
Judi Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee is heartwarming and simply outstanding, as is Steve Coogan’s. I do hope she wins the Golden Globe for Best Actress and Coogan for Best Picture and Screenplay. I loved the film. It’s depiction of the tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real, I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, but one of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.” Since learning about my birth parents in Taiwan, I’ve wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished is a wound that, like all wounds, heals with time, yet leaves a tender spot. I will never know my birth mother – she and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her, her husband, my biological father, placed me for adoption without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if my biological father felt anything at all when he placed me for adoption. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her. One woman’s sorrow became another one’s joy.
Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere inside of you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day, and it’s Ok. I’ve learned to accept it. There are many other things that make my life fulfilling.
I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation (as in the case of abandonment). Finding my birth family brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions.
In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey of discovery at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. This resonated deeply with me. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my biological family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.
If you’re looking for an exemplary holiday film, go see ‘Philomena.’
‘Philomena’ Movie Trailer: