Category Archives: Memoir

a mystery letter

Bits of styrofoam clung to my hands and arms as I dug down to the bottom of the box. What did my sister send? I lifted out a manilla folder which had settled among dozens of scattered pictures and styrofoam peanuts. In the folder lay a letter yellowed from age. I recognized the embellished handwriting immediately as that of my mom’s. Curiosity set in as I wondered who Dr. Woo was, the obvious recipient.

The letter was left undated and appeared to be a draft from all of the crossed out words. Apparently, Mom had written the letter as a followup to a conversation she’d previously had with Dr. Woo. After reading through the first paragraph, I soon realized that this letter described my parents’ initial visit to the Family Planning Association of China, the orphanage where I was adopted. I could not read the rest of the letter fast enough. This is what it said:

Dr. Woo –

Following our conversation adopted Chinese daughter’s visa physical, and our conversation as to what was where we obtained her, and the cash price we paid, I will attempt to explain the procedure and all the obstacles that confront an American who adopts a child from the Family Planning Association of China.

We arrived in Taipei at 10 AM – went directly to Family Planning. We were allowed to go immediately to the 4th floor to a huge room with open windows and no heat where we walked from crate to crate and from basket to basket looking at tiny babies. I chose two from the 26 that were adoptable that day.

At 4 o’ clock that evening we were ushered into a large office and were introduced to Mrs. Tze-Kuan Shee Kan. She stated she had just returned from a fundraising drive in the United States, and had acquired $30,000 to start building a new orphanage for her children. She stated that $250 was the minimum fee, which was $150 for prior care of the child (medical, food and lodging) and $100 was for the cost of all the paper work required to bring the po baby to Okinawa. This was to be pd. in American cash.

By 6 o’ clock – the necessary papers were signed and she asked if I had picked out a baby. I told her about the 2 I had chosen and which one they brought down was all right with us. In a few moments they brought our baby to us, a beautiful three month old, 7 lbs., 7 oz., and very listless baby girl. I could not stand to think she would stay another moment under their roof. I asked permission…

I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more to the letter! I went back to the box and rummaged around trying to find a second page but found nothing. Where was the rest of the letter? I was so intrigued and disappointed that there wasn’t more. I telephoned my sister back in Louisiana to ask if she knew about the letter and had any idea where the missing part might be. She knew nothing. I had to just accept the fact that the other half was gone.

I had so many questions. Did I go home with my parents that afternoon? What did Mom ask permission for? What were some of the “obstacles” mom mentioned in adopting from the Family Planning Association? Was Mom petitioning for Dr. Woo’s assistance and did he help in any way? From the description Mom gave in the letter, I envisioned the orphanage to be in poor condition with barely enough for all of the babies and children there due to little funding. That I was only 7 lbs and 7 oz. at the age of 3 months was proof enough. I went back to read one of mom’s diaries dated the same year I was born. There was nothing said about Dr. Woo, only how they brought me home to Okinawa.

I went back to the folder and found another clue about my adoption: a medical examination form signed by Dr. Woo. I pieced together that my parents needed to get a visa for me, and he must have given the exam required. The form is dated January, 31, 1968 and was officially stamped in San Francisco on June 28, 1968, six months later. I found some other information showing that one year previous, my parents had filed for a petition for visa in Okinawa, which was officially approved on July 7, 1967. The entire process to get an actual visa took over a year from start to finish. Eventually we moved to the states around 1968 or 1969. I’m pretty sure that my parents were in a hurry to get out of Okinawa in case my birthfamily changed their mind about the adoption. My dad was transferred from Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

The letter will probably always be a mystery, but it did give me some insight into the orphanage where I was adopted. Just yesterday, as I was out sweeping the driveway, our neighbor and his son, Alex, came outside. Alex and his sister-in-law had come over to help interpret my adoption contract just a week ago. We exchanged hellos and Alex’s father proceeded to ask me if I was Chinese. Three months ago, my response would have been no, but then I’ve learned so much since then. I launched into a brief explanation of my adoption and my current attempt to find my birthfamily in China. He told me that he’d be traveling to China soon and that his brother currently works for the government there. He offered to help do whatever he could in China to find out about my birthfamily with the help of his brother. Alex suggested that I give his father the address of my birthparents listed on the adoption contract. His father will be staying in Ghuangzhou which is very close to the province where my birthparents lived at the time of my adoption. I was touched that he wanted to help.

I’ll continue to try to piece together the mystery of my adoption from what I now have in my possession. I hope that my neighbor can bring back some kind of information about my birthfamily from China, but I’m not holding my breath. Only time will tell.

the translation

Last Thursday morning I found the nerve to knock on our neighbor’s door. I knew the family was from China and wanted to ask if someone could help me with the translation of my adoption contract, which had been buried in my parents’ attic for years. I wondered why I’d waited so long to have someone take a look at it. As I stood there waiting for someone to answer the door, I studied a small red vase with intricately etched dragons and yellow flowers hanging next to the door. I wondered what the characters on the vase said. After several minutes, my neighbor answered the door. He owns a Chinese food restaurant right down the street. I stumbled over my words as I tried to explain why I had stopped by. He told me in broken English to come back in half an hour when his daughter-in-law would be there. I busied myself around the house and lost track of time until the doorbell rang an hour or so later. Our neighbor’s youngest son, Alex, appeared in the doorway with his sister-in-law, Kelly. He introduced her to me and explained that she did not speak English but would be happy to interpret my papers. I gave him a copy of the adoption contract regretful that he had to hurry off to class. That meant I’d have to wait for the interpretation. I tried not to think about it too much throughout the day as I anticipated meeting them later.

The following night, our doorbell rang once again. It was our neighbors, Alex and Kelly. After showing them in, we gathered around the dinner table with the adoption contract, and the translation began. I sat on the edge of my chair wishing I could understand what Kelly was saying. I tried to determine the language she spoke. Was it Mandarin or Cantonese?  Every so often Alex would interject to ask a question. Finally, Alex turned to me. The first thing he told me was that one particular page of the contract was a history of why my birth parents placed me for adoption. According to this paper, my birth parents were very poor and “there was no money in the household.” I was the 4th daughter from a large family. It didn’t state how many other siblings there were, but Alex and Kelly seemed to believe that the family was very large. They had to give one girl up for adoption and it happened to be me, the youngest. I immediately wondered if had I been born a boy, would they have kept me? I wondered if they had been disappointed that another girl had been born into the family? Did they waiver over the decision to relinquish me? Was I placed in the orphanage right after my birth, or did I stay with my birth parents for a little while? In my mind, I was also trying to reconcile the differences in stories between my mom’s account and what was actually written on the contract. Mom had always told me that my birth parents had placed all the girls for adoption and that they had tried to find one of my sisters to adopt her too. So many missing pieces.

Alex then brought my attention to a specific area of the contract. It was the handwritten signatures of both my birth parents on the contract. I was amazed that their signatures were actually right there on the paper, and I’d never noticed it before. He circled their names, the Mandarin characters written one on top of the other in vertical fashion. In fact, the entire contract was written in traditional Chinese text forming vertical columns from top to bottom. I examined the faded handwriting of my birth parents more closely. Alex moved on and explained that my birth parents were from a province in China, not Taiwan, called Guangxi. Another surprise. “It’s in south China,” he explained, “like Hong Kong.” He wrote out the name phonetically, Gong-sai, so that I’d remember how to pronounce it. Cantonese is the prominent language in Guangxi and all of southern China. Later, I did some research on Guangxi learning that it has a population of 45 million people made up of several ethnic groups and borders the country of Vietnam. Hmm… So maybe that had something to do with my adoptive parents telling me that I was part Vietnamese. So, how did I end up in Taiwan? Did my birth parents travel, or actually move there? Alex suggested that perhaps the orphanages were better in Taiwan and my birth parents placed me there to increase any chances of being adopted.

As the evening came to a close, Alex and Kelly assured me that my adoption was legally agreed upon by both my adoptive and birth parents. Alex told me that traditional Chinese families typically remain living in one house their whole life, so chances are that the family still currently lives in Guangxi at the same address. He also told me that their address would be fairly easy to locate if we should travel to China one day. I thanked them both for taking the time to help me, and they wished me good luck in my search happy to have been of help.

After they left, I went over everything Alex and Kelly told me. It’s frustrating not having all of the pieces and I’m more intrigued than ever. I’ve enlisted the help of a social worker at an adoption agency specializing in adoptions from Taiwan. I hope that she can help me find my birthfamily, or at least connect me to the right people. It seems like a longshot, but I can always hope.