My adoption experience first began with the mystery of my father’s adoption in China in the 1910s. In Kwangtung province, it was a fairly common practice for richer families without sons to adopt a boy-child from a poor family to continue patriarchal traditions. Thus, my father was adopted by a family in another village which brought him to San Francisco as a 5-year-old and then loved him all the years of his life. I know little about my father’s birth family except that the birth-father was an educated man, but unfortunately, smoked opium and was unable to financially support his five boys. My father, the middle child, was adopted at age three.
The fact of my father’s adoption was kept a family secret until shared with my sister and me after our graduation from college. I’ve always sensed that my father felt a great deal of shame in being adopted in China because it signified poverty and failure in a culture which emphasized family unity. However, my father was able to live a full life raising two children, being married for over 50 years, and working four decades for the National Dollar Stores.
My father’s life was profoundly affected by his adoption experience, and I now understand that some of his behaviors were related to attachment issues. In his later years, he suffered from a form of dementia, and though his short-term memory faded, he still recalled the pain of his early childhood.
The next phase of my adoption experience began with the decision by my wife and I ten years ago to start a family by adopting a baby girl in China. In 2003, we traveled to Nanjing, Jiangsu province, to receive our lovely daughter Mariya, 9 months old at the time, from the Taizhou Social Welfare Institute. In the course of the past eight years, I’ve learned much about the adoption experience in raising our beautiful girl. Aside from the regular experiences of first-time parenting, I’ve also learned how critical the first months of a baby’s life are and how adoption can have longer term effects on a child, though changeable, in the emotional and physical spheres.
It is ironic in some ways that my father was adopted into another Chinese family to further the patriarchal traditions of China, while my daughter was possibly given to adoption because of the One-Child Policy and the traditional preferences for boys. Both adoption experiences are now a part of my life, and part of a circle of attachment, re-attachment, and love.
I feel fortunate that my father was able to know my daughter for the first few baby/toddler years, and despite his diminished intellectual capacity, I felt he understood that this baby girl was too adopted from China, and perhaps this knowledge was helpful to him.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
My poetry is deeply affected by both my father’s and my daughter’s adoption experiences, as I’ve written about different aspects of my life in order to fully understand what it means to be human. My poetry often surprises me with insight I feel difficult to obtain elsewhere. It is a part of my spiritual practice, but also an aesthetic practice where life can be re-examined and purified through the prism of language.
In recent years, I’ve written many poems about being a first-time father and about my daughter’s adoption experience. I may never know her true feelings as an adoptee, her fears, anxieties and joys, except to the extent that any parent can know one’s own child. My daughter is growing up in a multi-racial family living in 21st century California, totally different fom her grandparents’ or her father’s experience, yet in other ways similar. She will still have to define herself as a Chinese-American female in an as-yet-inequitable American society, then too need to explore her individual gifts, an artistic talent and wild sense of humor. Her family will be there for her, and so will my poems.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
To my 88-year old father,
“You were adopted, in China?” I asked,
a boldness made usual in its repeat,
unfilial, except that dementia had spilled his weekly sorrow,
his memory zapped of every happy filigree:
a sister’s name, the fading face of my mother.
On a Sunday at the Country Kitchen Café,
suddenly it’s 1916 again!
Adopted? I was sold! he relates, presses hard against Formica
as if to keep at bay the only story still without fade,
Six brothers (really five) and I was number three,
a fogged fix, once secreted from the children.
Every slip of a former life, figured
to this pain, freezes him mid-house salad,
dressed in tears, and forking lifts of empty air.
What can a son know of a father’s deep feelings,
his erased history of consequence,
transacted to the Lee’s and spirited to Gold Mountain?
Of that residual, only fractions remain.
His method: Tough Guy. WW II Air Force gunner-mechanic hides all.
And yet, every visit his weak-trickle
of toddler fail, an ache I sense as shadow,
and wishing to know that hulk, its dark cluster,
a step-mother, whose slap so real, her handprint forever planted.
But everything slipped in the memory disease,
sloughed and forever sliding.
I’ve been told in old Guangdong,
the hungry poor sold sons to richer families needing boys.
One birthfather Wong, married to opium, so smoked away his middle child.
But then, under adoptive father Joe Lee’s care,
that boy repapered to a “Leong,” and on to San Francisco,
a transit he accommodates each week as:
I’m lucky. I came to America.
What recompense for such a sale,
as if each sluice of abacus beads can sum a series to even?
Here, in the Shi Jing texts, boys inherit property,
fulfill familial deeds, as when my father carried the red funeral candles
for Eldest Sister to Colma, nearly stumbling
on a cemetery’s uneven weeds.
In those same tracts, girls written off as unlucky,
carry loom shuttles for toys, cradled on dirt,
where boys slept in beds, clasped new scepters.
Even now, girls drowned like kittens in wells,
never glimpsing light,
at least in 1913, he wasn’t born female.
Fingering ancient fumbles, I know not how to carry or solve.
In Chinatown, a boy slaps blackjack under boxwood,
steals gum, and is sent to Ming Kwong Home,
yet later, finds equilibrium selling dry goods to the poor.
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, he still chants,
his mantra of clean living.
Can what tips a man start
in the cold imbalance of his own adoption?
In six months, my wife and I fly to Guangzhou,
will bus to White Swan'S four-star elegance,
where in a matter of hours, we receive an infant girl,
configured to instant family.
Dissolves a childlessness when she comes to us,
absent of orphanages where dozens of unlucky ones
lay evidence to a continued bend towards boys,
the One Child Policy not hers.
When I think of her saucer smile, her gurgling, farting,
insouciance, I wonder, How did it feel?
abandoned at 1 month on a police station’s steps, Were you cold?
But new minds clicking, shifting speed, won’t recall,
though hard-wired to a neurological pain.
I ache to shelter her, but some unintendeds must be,
just as a woman pregnant with life,
pushes, birth tunnel stretched to full,
an answer head first to our grasp.
In truth, girls are not boys, daughters not fathers,
some differences plain, without ambiguity,
a Confucian exercise in order.
Perhaps, nothing more to be conveyed on a plane’s reroute,
new xiao xin sidled against my wife’s breasts,
except to fly on cirrus, coursing mid-Pacific faith and duty,
home to California where wired bars gather:
boy-child, girl-child, siblings and sire,
together snug, so that a son may adopt a father.
The Pure Products of Parenting
At Safeway, that little old lady inquires
of her provenance, this infant you’ve adopted from Taizhou,
who so resembles you, the father,
sprouted roots of sleek black, thickening,
nut brown skin, (though you felt, grayed and rougher).
“Who is her mother?” she poses. Your wife
standing by — olive-tones, sharp-ridged nose,
ash-blond betray her.
Her mother? What other? you consider,
embarrassed for your spouse, watch her shrink
into an awful elf, felt alien,
a ‘foreign ghost,’ and not belonging.
You’ve readied for this query, braced for it,
in the twenty-five lines, the I-600A of claim and proof,
a myriad of insinuations, boxes a social worker
ticks for Abandonment, Abuse, or Cruelty.
All those checks for children who refuse
a ripeness unto rot, a loss you want unmarked
from a girl’s past. What child, still raw,
could have originally sinned (no lustful reach,
windfallen)? You two didn’t exactly steal her away,
but in fact you did, plucked from vacant air.
Both of you, now, charged with fraud,
pressed for authenticity, brands like Chiquita bananas
and genuine Best Food’s mayo. What agency endorses
this? A babe laid down by a village gate,
her birth date unknown, or the bureaucrat who lists
her to the international scrum of parents?
What’s most pure in the DNA of giving and getting?
You two, twice divorced. No, not a 2 x 2,
but distinctly, then married Mendelian into a reverse
split, coiled into admirable bliss, with an
unexpected bless to add a third, a kind of mitosis,
a parsing which multiplies in layers: two, four,
then eight, to replicate a whole in
the form of a babe.
This braided ancestry, though unbiologic, produces
a new old form: family, familiar and famished.
Hunger steels in this gird of grocery cart,
must now speak: There is no other mother.
Elegy for the Death of Sex at the Coming of
After the How-To-Books on shelves at Barnes & Noble,
those finer volumes, compendiums for child rearing,
with somber “bombs of warning,” or italics for questions,
grids which set to evolution answers you feared
were near, that after the coming of a baby,
there wouldn’t be any sex that you could remember,
no midnight passion, no spark of nubbed opportunity,
like after a snack of milk and cookies, or watching
the 11 o’clock news; on a Sunday when to wake for it,
was to lose that weekend manner of late sleep.
All of that can go, the pages stayed, though a manual
imagines not your own particulars, but a general alarm.
How wrong they were, you then had thought, remembering
that fiery eve, upon returning from first new week
in Nanjing, where you two, tired of being parents,
no, tired in being parents, the initiate of bottles,
finality of poops, a tepidness that’s bathwater, and
had begun to get lost in boot camp, the hustle to please,
to answer a voice never heard once before, but now,
cannot help but hear again, and yet again.
In Guangzhou, at the stork hotel of babies and baby farmers,
as the innocence of first caregiving was losing shine,
you lay her down early in rosewood crib, watched
in wonder at the split-tired breathing of her husky tones,
her howl of blanket, her suddenness,
in that wonder, two had become parents,
the dotted lines of waiting year finally reaching signature.
And after, both tired (already tired) of losing lips, crawled
together onto a single bed under a stopped air conditioner
to cool your bodies down to sleep.
But for some memory, some immediate recall, your male
began nibbling her upper lip, as if it were a small cookie, not candy,
a sustenance not sweet, but carbohydrate, steel,
yet water-like, an eel, something familiar but softer
than anything ever lipped before.
And so the kissing ran, along the length of your sweat-driven
ancient bodies, your beleaguered insane selves,
loving not as if to reclaim a notion of first dating,
but your own birthing begins, some water in a womb
to be discovered in, again and yet unknown.
And you wept, leapt into your passions
until the hard thumping propulsions climaxed,
killed you two into a sleep of one. But that seemed to be
a last, a final dip, the book’s prophecies kept.
Months later, two stand before white-panels of small
slumber, and this her, to whom both genuflect.
Every kiss passed now, dry and drier, ghosting as in
a mirror, impenetrable and harried smooth.
You’ve tried to recall some sex older than a couple
a year ago, older than they could ever be,
now seemingly past and lapsed into an irretrievable,
another near, feared gone.
Approaching Hong Wan Village Gate, Taizhou
What I most need to know about those last moments,
blood stroke of future years, is your
bend beside a gate, to place
down a cry as if offered at an open temple,
intersect of passageway and place
where things are left each day:
thoughts, hurry, pushing towards a home.
You (whom I will never know) drop all that
behind, not going anywhere you,
but perhaps, leaving a self behind, at a juncture
visited only sporadically, unlike the returnees
whose commute to factory or garden regular
mouths opened to an everyday rice,
yours was final, fixed.
Though, you will never pass it again without a shudder…
a small uttered "oh," pain of letting in
omission, the less of loss.
That voice (baby's cry) heard no more except in
your thoughts (always in thoughts, farther away than here).
You must carry what you’ve unburdened:
her, and too, these drippings of
why you went there,
a there that continues and will,
at least, in what you think each hour.
Not the idea of a 9-month old carried in foreign arms,
nor of a me you cannot begin to imagine,
no, dare not imagine for the opaqueness of eyes
shadows that me thinking, of transfer,
where at an opening still, if motioned through,
we inadvertently brush elbows,
stuck in a middle
beneath the weight of ancient columns.
(“Abacus,” was published in the anthology, Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting; “The Pure Products of Parenting” and “Approaching Hong Wan Village Gate, Taizhou” were published in Crab Orchard Review; and “Elegy for the Death of Sex at the Coming of,” was published in Cimarron Review. These poems are part of Jeff’s first manuscript.)
ABOUT THE POET:
Jeffrey Thomas Leong's poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, Asian Pacific American Journal, Bamboo Ridge, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, nycBigCityLit, and in anthologies such as Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, and Ohana: The Ohana Open Mic Anthology. In 2003, Jeffrey and his wife adopted a 9-month old baby girl from Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.