Until recently, I told everyone I was born in Chicago. Every school form, all of my college and job applications, and even my medical records listed my birthplace as Illinois. That was a lie. I was actually born in Hong Kong to a woman I’ve never met. And until last year, more than 60 years after my birth, I kept my adoption a secret.
Through the decades, I lived a nice suburban life with a husband and three children, while continuing to let people believe I was born to the attractive, accomplished couple whose 1943 wedding photo sat on my mantel.
I was ashamed I was adopted, just as my parents were ashamed they adopted me.
Bound by traditional Chinese cultural beliefs, my parents were compelled to swear my brother and me to secrecy about our adoptions. The shame and stigma surrounding infertility and adoption were more than they could bear.
Confucius and his followers believed a woman’s greatest duty was to bring a son into the world. My mother couldn’t produce a son, much less a daughter.
Mom convinced me to keep her secret by telling me that everyone would think my birth mother was “a prostitute” ― that I was conceived in shame. The truth was she didn’t know my birth mother. She only knew her own fears of being seen as an inadequate woman.
In 1959, the woman who brought me into this world bundled me in a basket and placed me in a Hong Kong stairwell near Sai Yeung Choi Street, a bustling region of the British colony. I was 4 days old. A passerby called the police, who transported me to St. Christopher’s Home, the largest non-government-run orphanage on the island. Officials at the orphanage named me Yeung Choi Sze, after the street where I was found.
Three black-and-white photos sent from an adoption agency were enough to convince a Midwestern couple of Chinese origin to bring me into their family. Mom recounted the day I landed in America. In June 1960, she and Dad waited alongside six other couples at O’Hare International Airport for the child they had chosen. I was the last child to emerge from the plane, a sick and scrawny baby, clearly malnourished. No one took a photo of me that day. Mom later told me her first reaction upon seeing me was, “Why couldn’t I have a healthy baby like everyone else?”
My mom and dad provided food and shelter but left me hungry for the nurturing, love, and attention a child needs from a parent. PTSD from international and civil wars in China, life as one of the few Chinese families in a Rust Belt suburb during the Cold War, and unmet career dreams for my well-educated father left my parents scarred and unable — or unwilling — to emotionally support me.
I knew the truth from an early age. One day, as my mother took one of her regular leisurely baths, I mustered the courage to inquire about the long, jagged red line etched across her stomach. Mom said, “I could not have children. They took out parts of my body; that’s why we adopted you and your brother.” I sensed from the look on Mom’s face that day that I should not ask any more questions.
From a young age, I was afraid to upset my mother. She was often emotionally volatile. Mom showed me attention when she needed me. If I dared push back on her relentless demands to refill her teapot, type her Chinese cookbook or vacuum the house, she would retreat to her bed, sob, and say, “You don’t love me because I’m not your real mother.” Hugging her, I would desperately proclaim my love for her, telling her, “You’re my only mother.” Then I would quickly and quietly fulfill her commands.
In 1969, my parents took their first trip back to Taiwan since they immigrated to America in the 1950s. They were part of the 2 million who fled China to the island in 1949. When we arrived at the airport in Taipei, two dozen relatives and friends greeted us at the airport. Amid the excited Mandarin chatter, fragrant floral bouquets, and long, strong hugs, one woman bent down and said to me, “You look like your mother.”
I smiled and nodded. Who was I to burst my parents’ carefully crafted story?
One Saturday afternoon when I was in high school, I played tennis with a boy. We were both on the school newspaper staff. He was a tall, confident senior. I was a nerdy sophomore with thick glasses and a beauty-school bowl haircut. After the match, we went to his home where we chatted and watched TV. For the next few days, my mother grilled me and screamed that I was going to become a prostitute like my birth mother. I felt such shame ― that I was flawed and dirty because of a past I didn’t choose.
Since third grade, I threw myself into becoming a star student in hopes of earning my parents’ — and especially my father’s — love and attention. After immigrating to America with $50 in his pocket, Dad earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry while working as a dishwasher on the weekends. He withheld his affection from me. I wanted it so desperately.
“Education is the one thing they can’t take away from you,” Dad would say many evenings as he drank whiskey to unwind from his job as a research scientist.
In 1977, I became valedictorian of my high school class. My parents threw a graduation party for their friends, Dad’s work colleagues and his boss. My friends weren’t invited. After a week, Dad’s attention drifted back to my brother — and his own despair at never achieving more in his career.
I never stopped working hard to achieve in every way I could, both academically and professionally. I won a full scholarship to attend a top MBA program and enjoyed a solid business career. I even married the nice Chinese man my mother chose for me. But for as long as my parents were alive and even after they died, I continued to keep the family secret.
I also carried a great deal of shame. The thought of my Chinese American community finding out I was adopted horrified me. I assumed many would buy into the ancient beliefs that I must have come from an immoral mother. If they thought my birth mother was immoral, it would mean they thought I was tainted.
If I’m being honest, there were also times when I enjoyed passing myself off as the daughter of a smart, witty and attractive couple. Dad ― who was 6 feet, 1 inch, which was highly unusual for Chinese men of his time ― had several patents to his name. Mom, who came from a respectable Chinese family, had large brown eyes, glossy permed curls and a highly desired ivory complexion. I nodded affirmatively when people said I resembled her.
To everyone else, we looked like the perfect family. No one outside our home knew what we knew. Later, I told my husband and children but asked them to continue the secret. That’s how deep and dark I considered my secret to be. I truly believed I would carry it with me until I died.
In 2020, I began to reflect on my secret past. Like so many others, I was locked away in my home during the pandemic, so I had a lot of time to consider my life from its beginnings until now. I had just turned 61 when I finally questioned why I had internalized my parents’ shame about infertility and adoption.
I wondered if other adoptees struggled with the same feelings that plagued me all my life: low self-esteem, insecurity and anxiety. I wondered if they, too, had lingering questions about identity, rejection, belonging.
I devoted months to learning more about adoption — and myself. I read books about adoption and joined Facebook groups for adoptees. I learned new terms like birth family, receiving family, placement, finalization and “gotcha” date. I had never knowingly talked to a fellow adoptee before, excluding my brother. Now, I was on phone calls and Zoom meetings with fellow adoptees. We shared our pain, longing and loss. Suddenly, I felt less alone.
There was no reason to hide my truth any longer. It was time. I wanted to live an authentic life with nothing to hide.
In June 2021, I told my truth publicly in The New York Times.
Decadeslong friends were shocked when I shared my 98-word Tiny Love Stories piece about my adoption. Many people — friends and strangers alike — wrote on social media that they cried as they read my story.
A month after the piece appeared, my brother gave me a dusty manila file he discovered during pandemic cleaning. It was labeled “Yvonne’s Adoption.” At 62, I finally read the documents my parents deliberately kept from me when they were alive. The yellowed tissue-thin papers held the truth of my beginnings. My heart ached for the baby who languished in that orphanage for 15 long months. Surely a caretaker would have picked up my malnourished and anemic body when I wailed. Surely someone helped me when I still couldn’t sit on my own at 9 months. Surely a hired helper gazed into my eyes as she fed me diluted Carnation formula, water and congee. I sobbed, imagining how that tiny baby must have experienced those first few months of a life that would turn out to be mine.
One doctor’s report in the file said I was of “average intelligence and developmentally slow.” Another report signed by a social worker ended with the words, “She is in need of a good home.”
Whether the home I was adopted into was “good” is debatable. My mother suffered from severe mental health issues that caused her to lash out at me, emotionally and physically. My father was depressed much of the time. They read, napped and watched TV — anything to avoid connecting with each other or with me.
Recently, I connected with my godsister after decades of estrangement caused by my mother. My godsister described me as a quiet child, one who always climbed onto her lap. I didn’t even make noise when I played, she said.
Yes, I was silent for much of my childhood. I was so afraid to be a burden. On the rare occasions when I complained or questioned my parents, they would retort, “Where would you be if we didn’t adopt you?” They never told my brother these words because he fulfilled their traditional Chinese filial duty to have a son to carry on the family name.
April 2022 marked the 10th anniversary of my adoptive mother’s death. My father died a few years earlier. My own past wasn’t all I wanted to uncover. I also wanted to understand my parents better. Why did they need to tell the lies they forced me and my brother to tell? I dove into Chinese history, cultural and sociology books, pored over Chinese memoirs and novels, interviewed Chinese cultural experts and people who lived in China when my parents did. I now recognize my parents were a product of tradition, circumstances and time.
All my life, I’ve been searching for a “good” mother. I desperately sought mother substitutes ― women to replace the mother I lost, and the one I had.
While on a walk, a time when I regularly talk to my birth mother in the clouds, I realized I’m thankful she abandoned me. I believe she loved me because she left me at a busy stairwell to be found. Because she made that choice, I have lived a full life.
And so, yes, I am grateful my parents chose me.
I am no longer ashamed to be an adoptee. I may never find my biological mother, but on this journey of life, I hope to find me.
Yvonne Liu is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Salon and NBC News. She is writing a memoir about adoption, childhood trauma and mental health. You can see more of her work at YvonneLiuWriter.com.