At nine months old, I was brought from Taiwan to my adoptive parents in Los Angeles. In the photos of us meeting under the glaring LAX terminal lights, it’s hard to see what had already been lost. My mom was thirty-five and my dad forty-two. Their still faces look young, but I’d later learn they felt old to be new parents. Infertility had shadowed their first thirteen years of marriage, their pain sharpened by stigma, their siblings’ growing families, and an old Chinese fear of invasive Western fertility treatments.
After my adoption and naturalization were finalized, I was issued an American birth certificate that listed my adoptive parents’ names for mother and father. The palimpsest of my Taiwanese birth certificate holds the name I was given by my birth mother, who kept me for a day, along with her name, my weight in kilograms, and a time sixteen hours ahead of Los Angeles. My parents gave me both birth certificates, plus my passport and immunization records, the day I moved out of state for graduate school. Holding them together, I remembered the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I watched on repeat throughout middle school. A time warp causes the Enterprise to meet versions of itself from other possible realities: destroyed Enterprises, ones with crews near death, ones whose government has dissolved. I instinctively understood the sci-fi grammar of the show. Every possibility must stay contained in its own universe; seeing them all at once is a critical rupture. My second birth certificate starts the story I know as mine. The first one starts a shadow life that runs alongside me, a life my birth mother and I did not get to live. It feels as real as the one I’m living now.
My mom once told me she and my dad were matched with another infant girl before me. She didn’t tell me why that adoption fell through, but she takes it as evidence that I was meant to be her daughter. I didn’t share my mom’s sureness in how things had worked out. I didn’t want to feel destined to be separated from my birth mother. Perhaps we all arrive at every moment of our lives by a series of near misses, but the knowledge of this other girl haunted me. I could feel her living a version of my life, which has always felt like a version of infinite other lives, each hinging on the smallest of shifts.
But we never talked about this in our home. My adoption filled a years-long hole in my parents’ marriage and the space I came to occupy was fragile. Their protracted grief, never entirely processed or healed, was easily triggered. My sadness or frustration, adoption-related or not, made them retreat as if freshly wounded, guarding their broken hearts even from the person who was supposed to repair them. The psychologist Pauline Boss writes that adoption is one kind of ambiguous loss “that defies closure, in which the status of a loved one as ‘there’ or ‘not there’ remains indefinitely unclear.” But to feel a sense of loss for my birth mother would be a betrayal of my parents and the acceptable adoption narrative of gratitude, good fortune, being chosen, and receiving a better life. Sometimes a birth mother’s sacrifice is mentioned, but mostly there is no room for loss. Not for the illegitimate child of an unmarried teenager who escapes poverty and ostracization with two parents in America. Adoption is all resurrection and no cross.