On Meeting My Birth Mother
By: Gabby Malpas
n 1966, I was born in Auckland, New Zealand (NZ). My mother had come to NZ to give birth and have the baby adopted before returning to her country of residence.
My parents who had already adopted a Chinese toddler from a HK orphanage sent to NZ in 1963, received a phone call from the Catholic Society: 'We've got another one here - will you take her?' And so it happened. I was 10 days old, with a 'head the size of an orange'. Mum and Dad were at an age when they really should have been taking it easy - yet here was child number 10.
I am now 48 years old. I am 100% ethnic Chinese. I had always assumed I was part something else, as my face does not look entirely 'Chinese'. I have been asked if I am a local in countries right through South East Asia, the subcontinent and even in Egypt.
First Communion 1973: My sister Lucy made my dress. It currently hangs in my bedroom on the wall
I came to Australia in 2003 after living in the UK. I had looked for my mother before leaving NZ in 1988 but I could not gain access to my records being under 21 and was discouraged from trying further.
My adoptive mother: Mum ('adoptive' is so negative) suggested I write to the woman who administered the adoption process many years later (while I was in the UK), so I did. The woman was elderly, very kind and sweet but utterly discouraging, unhelpful and just wrong about trying to trace my birth mother. Whether it was her own beliefs or those of the church I cannot say. I do believe she felt she was acting in the best interests of everyone at heart. But if I heeded those letters, I would not have found my mother.
She said that no good would come of me trying to trace my birth mother. For whatever reason my mother gave me up, those wounds should not be reopened and cause distress to both parties.
She had made assumptions that my mother had come from an impoverished background or may have been a sex worker who had little choice about her child. With that came the likelihood of illiteracy and also the difficulty of trying to trace someone possibly living in a country with poor records.
I understand the sentiment behind letting 'sleeping dogs lie'. However, I didn't want to leave it there - I was lucky enough to be born in a country where record keeping was accurate. The fact that my mother made a journey from another country all those years ago to give birth was also not lost on me. I just felt I had a decent chance of getting some sort of closure.
In 2004, I wrote again to the registry of births deaths and marriages in NZ. Within a week I had a name and a phone number of a relative. I called the number the same night I received the letter and was redirected to my birth mother's number by the elderly woman on the other end of the phone - who had no idea who I was!
By then, I had figured that no one in the family might have known about me - after all, my mother was sent away to hide the birth. I also realised that if she had a family (likely to be Chinese), then the last thing she would want is to have an adult daughter she gave up long ago, making her presence felt.
I called. A woman answered. I stammered. I asked for the name I was given in the letter, she replied that it was she. I stammered again. Suddenly I blurted out: "I think I am your daughter" (yeh, real smooth Gab). There was a long silence. A million thoughts raced through my head - but most of all: "Oh sh*t, now I've done it - she's going to hang up and I've ruined it all."
Finally she spoke: "What do you want?"
Dear readers, all I can say was that I got lucky. I could sense the fear on the other end of the phone: fear of discovery, but there was much emotion too. Who knows what had happened to her in 1965-6 to make a journey by herself to a faraway place in a time when she needed her own mother and family most?
I was quick to reassure her that I wanted nothing but to get to know her without upsetting her life. So, we started corresponding by letter and bit by bit over several weeks I pieced together our story. It was grim. Trying to square this away with my 'white and righteous' logic, I was outraged and angry but I know that the world is a different place to what it was in 1965.
One day, a few months later, I met her.
I don't think I am alone when I say that as a child I had an imaginary 'real' mother: she was beautiful, she had a name of my invention and she was the person I wanted to meet in the entire world. When I think back on it now, the name, the looks and features I had picked out for her - well, they were all English and white!
Thinking back, the mental image I'd built of my birth mother disintegrated as soon as we started communicating. We spoke a few times by telephone, shared some photographs and emails so I revised my impression of her very quickly - but to what I cannot say.
On the day I met her, I was so nervous. I was about to meet a complete stranger who had occupied my thoughts almost daily for as long as I could remember. Here was my dream: to meet my mother, to look at another face and see my own. I'd rehearsed how I was going to behave, how I would sound, and what I would say to her. I wanted to show her and tell her so much.
None of this actually happened!
I saw her from across the street. I ran over to her, we tentatively said 'hello' and I burst into an uncontrollable fit of tears (yup, real smooth episode #2), then in between gulps, apologised profusely for the scene. I don't know why I did that. I can only think that I had built this day up in my head for so long and I had been so certain about every little detail - yet nothing was how I imagined. I didn't know what to say or it all came out in a rush. I sat with my eyes glued to this person: "Who was she?" My mother looked like any other Chinese woman of a certain age I have ever brushed past in a grocery store or on the street. I had nothing in common with her yet in other ways - everything I had was hers. And yes, I am ashamed to confess that there was a moment of panic when it sunk in to my banana brain: "Oh. My. God. You are CHINESE!”
We ate some bad food at a bad Chinese cafe and talked, shared our stories, laughed - and found we laughed at the same things. And so our relationship began.
On a visit home from the UK in Mum's backyard. (the writer Gabby is in the middle)
What I learnt from this experience
1) I learnt empathy: My experience pales in comparison to hers and the resulting pain and sorrow she has carried in secret for all those years. My mother always thought I would hate her for giving me up. How could I do that after everything she went through? I know full well that if I had stayed with her, life would be very different for us both. She would never be able to marry and have the family she has. I would have very little or no education, few options and life would be grim
2) My mother is my mother, my family is my family: My mother gave me life but my family is my family as I believe they made me who I am. I learnt my artistic temperament and life view from my adoptive mother: my Mum. The way I cook, the way I make beds or don't clean the house was taught to me by my adoptive mother: Mum. Her approach to life is the one I followed. My bro who gifted me his bike when he outgrew it (I promptly crashed it into a parked car); the bro who helped me with my math’s homework (heck – being Chinese I was supposed to be GOOD at math’s), the sisters who hand-made so many of my clothes, the sister who instilled a love of reading and who influences my book lists to this day, my 23 nieces and nephews who I am nurturing relationships with as adults - they're my family, these are my values. This is my culture. I have stories of Great Uncle Albert at Gallipoli and I have stories of Dad handing out bananas to enthralled kids on a train while on shore leave in Britain during WWII. I remember playing ladies with Mum when she went to afternoon tea with her friends: crossed ankles, the smell of soap and perfume, good china and cake. These are the stories I have in my memory - not ones of water buffalo, rice fields or tropical market places.
It is 10 years since I first made contact. Things are progressing very slowly and close friends have expressed surprise at the way I have handled the situation, given my usual 'Sledgehammer between the eyes' approach to most things in life. 49 years of hurt cannot be undone quickly. There are other people in the mix to consider and at this moment in time we are working on our relationship long distance and enjoying the ride.
Carl Lucy Mum and Dad: On a visit home to say 'farewell' to Dad who passed shortly after this photo
How much of our adult persona is nurture vs. nature?
I believe some things are hereditary. For example, my parents sent me to art school because they heard my mother was artistic. My mother did paint in the traditional Chinese style I found out later, but did not have any formal training. I went to art school in NZ, in the 80s. The training was very much the 'European school' style, and my tutors were surprised to see me throwing classic Chinese pottery shapes on a wheel though I was not familiar with this at the time.
I also cook the best fried rice of anyone I know - I really am not sure where that came from as I swear to this day that the only rice we had at our table was rice pudding.
3) Let go of the anger: Sure, growing up in white NZ in the 60s, 70s and 80s was no picnic. I still feel a stab of absolute rage when I hear a: "F*** off back to your own country" or a racial slur which is depressingly common even today. But if I think back without the black-coloured spectacles: well, other ethnic kids, overweight kids, tall kids or disadvantaged kids - they got hell in other ways. And I got out of it pretty well - my life has definitely not been a sad one. I'm still learning to control the rage but once that process started, all this positive creativity started to flow
Flat in London Xmas with bro: This is my brother John who still lives in the UK.
4) Change my own thinking: I make a joke sometimes about meeting my mother for the first time and looking through pictures of her family and just thinking in my head: "Oh. My. Good. God... you are ASIAN!" I am working on reining in my own assumptions and prejudices to accept people as they are - though I find myself asking people: "Where are you from?" - the exact same question that drove me into a rage for years.
5) Appreciate the chance I was given at life: Today, I am working towards becoming a professional artist and the relationship I am building with my mother has been instrumental. My work is full of joy. It is my little way of contributing to the world as well as honouring my parents and the woman who gave me life. For someone who really shouldn't be here and was a product of horrible circumstance I did pretty well. If I can bring a little happiness through my art then I'm doing my job.
Oh yes, my birth mother and I both have the same whacky sense of humour and great legs, but we still argue over who is taller! BW
Thanks for reading!
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