How I found out that I was adopted was both odd and dramatic. Odd because I found out in a hotel room while the plumbing at home was being fixed. Dramatic because… well… finding out the parents you’ve known for 14 years weren’t really your parents, tears were bound to ensue.
There were clues signs when I was a kid that I wasn’t related to anyone I grew up with. First of all, although people told me I looked like my parents, I never saw the resemblance. Second, prior to my first birthday, I didn’t really have any pictures of myself as a toddler. And third of all, though you might think this is irrelevant I think it plays a part, I’m an only child. Either I was just oblivious, or I was already so part of the family that it didn’t really matter.
When I was in 2nd grade, we learned about baptism in religion class. I went to a Catholic school and religion was part of the curriculum. Our teacher began that lesson by giving us this assignment: bring your baptismal certificate and a baptismal photo to class. The next day, I was the only kid in class who didn’t bring either one.
It wasn’t like I didn’t try. I asked my grandmother where they were because I needed them for class. I remember a brief look of panic flashing on her face before it disappeared, so I shrugged it off.
“I don’t know where they are,” she said. “I’ll call your mom and ask her.”
My parents were working abroad in America at the time. I grew up with my grandparents on a tiny provincial island in the Philippines. My grandfather passed away when I was four, and ever since, it was my strict but caring grandmother and a string of maids raising me.
Summers were the months I looked forward to the most because they meant two things: my birthday and my parents visiting. I was your typical Filipino child with overseas parents.
So when my grandmother got off from a long-distance call with my mother and told me that they had my baptismal certificate and photos with them in New York, I wasn’t suspicious. I simply re-stated what she told me to my teacher, who had me look over a classmate’s baptismal certificate and photos.
When I was a little bit older, I had a dream. I’m the type of person who remembers her dreams. So this particular dream has stayed with me for many years. Even now, I still remember it. I was at home, in the living room, playing with my favorite dollhouse and Rapunzel Barbie.
A woman entered the picture. I remember a mass of dark curly hair and a blue dress. I didn’t know her, but at the same time, she was familiar. She plopped down on the floor next to me and began to play with me. And then, she told me she was going to take me away.
Why? Because she was my mother. I woke up then, was confused for a few minutes, but then shrugged it off. I must have been watching too much of my grandmother’s dramatic soap operas.
My father returned to the Philippines to help raise me when I turned 10. I was never particularly close to him. I didn’t talk to him much and I avoided spending time with him. Looking back now, I realize that I gave him such a hard time when he was only trying to be a good dad. I have to admire him for never giving up.
In those years, I slowly became a daddy’s girl and I still am. He’s serious and strict but has funny moments. My mother remained in New York but now tried her very best to visit twice a year rather than once.
In 6th grade, again in religion class, we were taught that names were important. They gave us our identities. What did our names mean? How did our parents come to name us?
We looked up our names in a dictionary. Mine meant “woman of purity.” Another definition said “simple.” That night, I asked my grandmother to call my mother long-distance so I could ask her why she gave me my name.
“Why did you choose my name?” I asked her, pencil poised on the page of my religion notebook, ready to take notes.
“Why did I choose your name?” she repeated.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I looked up my name and it said the woman of purity and simplicity. So why did you choose my name?”
She was silent for a moment before saying, “I don’t know. Let me call you back, okay?”
We said goodbyes and hung up. I thought that was odd but shrugged it off. It was no big deal.
An hour later, she calls back. I once again readied my pencil.
“Write this down,” she said to me. “For a very long time, my mom could not get pregnant and have a baby. So, she prayed to Mary to be given a baby girl and that she would give her a name that meant ‘purity and simplicity,’ because Mary is a woman of purity and simplicity. And then, I was born.'”
At 12, I knew that she made that up. How would she have known what my name meant when she didn’t even know until I told her? Nonetheless, I wrote it down and read it out loud in class the next day. It sounded like a lie. Everyone else had cool stories, like my friend Mark, who was named after his mom’s favorite singer, or my friend Marianne, who was named after her grandmothers, Mary and Anne.
In the summer of 2006, the plumbing at home went haywire, flooding part of the house. My mother was visiting at the time. It was weeks after my 14th birthday. I had an interview at the U.S. Embassy in a few weeks about my visa and joining my parents in New York. This was our third petition. The first time was when I was 8 and then when I was 10. The third time’s the charm, right?
Anyway, my mother decided that we should stay overnight at a hotel while the plumbing was being fixed. To my confusion, my grandmother and our maid were left at home. My grandmother hugged me an extra few minutes before we left as if I wasn’t coming back the next day. Again, odd, since I also knew my grandmother is not really the affectionate type. Nonetheless, a night at a fancy hotel is exciting.
“We have something to tell you,” mom said to me that night. I looked up from the TV. I was lying down on the bed and she snuggled up next to me. My dad took my other side.
This is weird, I thought to myself, my eyes flashing to my cellphone on the side drawer. I had received a text message and I wanted to know who it was from.
Mom continued to talk. “I just want you to know that whatever you hear from us right now, it doesn’t change the fact that we love you very, very much.”
Is someone dying? was my first thought. I remained calm on the outside, though I could feel the panic rising in the fast-paced beating of my heart against my chest.
“You see, your dad and I tried to have a baby for so long,” she said. “But we couldn’t because there is something wrong with me. I can’t have a baby. But, we wanted one for so long.”
And for the first time in my entire life up to that point, I heard the story of how I was born.
A couple lived in a small town in a Philippine province. They were poor but made enough to feed their five grown children. When their youngest was 14, they found out the woman was pregnant. Two of their children were in college and the rest were in high school. They couldn’t afford to raise another child.
They thought of various ways they could keep the child but realized that the best way to give it a good future was to give it to people who could give it what they could not. So, the man called up his younger brother, who lived in New York. His brother and his wife had been married for several years, but could not bear children.
They were delighted and the matter was arranged. They would make sure the first couple had everything they needed for the birth of the child until they could make arrangements to come home.
I was born in that town and lived with my birth family for several months. When my new parents finally arrived to claim me, I was in the hospital for an asthma attack. I was almost a year old.
“From the moment we first saw you,” my mother said. “Sitting in that old hospital bed in nothing but your underwear and eating rice, we knew you were ours.”
I didn’t have a baptismal certificate or pictures because my parents weren’t there for my baptism, my birth parents were. My older siblings, as I found years later after getting in contact with them, adored me and almost didn’t want to give me away. One of my sisters, who was 14 and the closest to me before I was given away, told me how they resented our birth parents for years, before finally realizing that giving me away meant giving me my best chance.
I had my first birthday party in that town, surrounded by neighbors I would never know and family I would never meet. I was taken to another provincial town that I came to know as “home” for the next 14 years. My new grandparents doted on me, their first official grandchild.
“I don’t want to hear the word ‘adopted’ in this house,” my new had grandfather said to everyone.
And for many years, I didn’t feel like the odd one out. I grew up alongside cousins, whom I come to know like brothers. I used to tell people that I looked like mommy but had daddy’s nose. I proudly told them that mommy was a nurse at a hospital and daddy was a manager at a big company. And that one day, I’m going to join them.
When we returned home to fix plumbing the next day, I observed my grandmother. Now, I knew why she acted out of character the day before. She thought finding out the truth meant things would change. But, honestly, nothing changed.
She still scolded me for not finishing my vegetables. She still killed the spiders I would find in the bathroom while brushing my teeth. And she still told me to always be good. Nothing changed except maybe this new appreciation for my family.
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I’d be lying if I said that I was completely unaffected by the revelation that I’m adopted. I had my moments when I questioned who I really was, and wished that I never found out the truth.
There was a time in my life when I ignored attempts by my birth siblings to contact me, wanting to feel completely normal and just like everyone, for once.
I finally spoke to my birth parents for the first time in my sophomore year of college. My birth mother’s health was failing and she was afraid that she would die before she spoke to me. We talked by phone since I was now living in New York and they were still back in the Philippines.
“Don’t ever think that I didn’t want you,” she said to me. “But you have to understand, we wanted what was best for you.”
“I know,” I replied, trying not to cry. “I understand.”
“Your mom and dad love you,” she continued. “And that is all I ever hoped for.”
It was a bittersweet goodbye. I haven’t spoken to her ever since, but that whole conversation was the moment in which I let go of the grudge and accepted who I am. I’m adopted. I have two sets of family.
I never did find out who really named me and why they gave me that name. In a way, it no longer matters. Nothing’s changed. Not once did my adopted family make me feel like I didn’t belong like I was an outsider looking on the inside. Not once did I feel that something was missing because everything I needed in a family was already there. Support. Togetherness. Love. And now, I had a new source of support, togetherness, and love.
I once heard a girl in college criticizing Brad and Angelina’s habit of adopting children. She said that she would never adopt children because she doesn’t know where they came from and how they would act. What if their parents were drug addicts and they would be too? She couldn’t handle that.
As I grew older, I realized that being adopted doesn’t define me, where I come from doesn’t define me. They’re a part of who I am, but they don’t decide what kind of person I will be.
I choose who I want to be. And I have two sets of families that I know will be with me until the very end.
Alex Alexander is a contributor to YourTango.