To call my childhood unhappy would be insulting to people whose lives actually were undertakings. No matter how angry I look in that photo, it’s just a moment. My mother says I still look like that sour little baby whenever I get mad. I don’t know how old I was in the photograph. I don’t know a lot of things.
China’s one-child policy, like so many things, is simple in theory. the Chinese economy boomed under a new political system, the population grew past recommended capacity, the government decided to revert to the most extreme form of family planning that the world has ever seen. This included practices that violated any sort of social and medical ethics and disproportionately affected poor communities. It’s also caused a minor population crisis with massive disparities in gender ratios and nosedives in fertility rates.
Families that violated the policy, for one reason or another, often abandoned those babies, leaving them to be taken into orphanages. I’m one of those missing girls, born after the domestic adoption loophole was closed, left under a bridge with my umbilical cord still attached, any hope for me thrown to the world.
That photo is a referral picture, the first glimpse my mother got of the child she was adopting. She says that it was tiny, the size of a postage stamp and that she went to CVS to get a larger copy. She always said that she wanted to be someone’s mother, a remnant no doubt of an older time. She had wanted to adopt from China specifically since watching a documentary detailing the country’s strict population planning, her marrying my father was largely influenced by his willingness to adopt as well. They could’ve had biological children. They just decided not to. I’m fortunate enough to never have the added trauma of being someone’s second choice.
It’s impossible to explain that photo itself. There’s a baby girl. Age unknown. Location unknown. Name unknown. I had no formal name with any meaning or cogency, just some identifying characters based largely on location found.
My mother says that I was a smart baby. Apparently I would cry at night to receive extra attention from the orphanage caregivers, I could walk early and chew solid foods. I don’t remember any of that, but she plays home movies of me on holidays. It strikes me how obedient and open I was, if she told me to walk off a bridge, I probably would’ve done it.
I’m not very old. I don’t have much to say about the trajectory of my life, it’s barely begun. By all accounts I’m on a track to relative stability thanks to the work of my mother, my therapy and some extraordinary luck. It’s not perfect but I recognize that I’ve had it much better than many others.
There are worse things that could have happened to an adopted Asian American woman than growing up in a diverse, urban environment where my physical identity was normalized and accepted as opposed to ugly and vile. We should never treat identity based trauma as a set of universal experiences, but I know first hand that many other people like me have frequently been called racial slurs, been rejected by their extended families, been culturally marooned. I wish those feelings of rolenessnes and placelessness on no one, though those experiences seem to be far too common.
Babies don’t know very much. The smart ones know their own names, the rest know faces and tastes and sensations. I knew what amounted to nothing. I still don’t know much more. The child in that photo is a stranger. She doesn’t realize how her life is gonna become better for her, or even that her life in that present ever was bad. She doesn’t know that she’s gonna grow up with strange friends who leave and a little sister who’s more stubborn than anyone else. Oh but that’s alright. I’ve got love to spare.