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Modern Love Podcast: Left to Be Found


[theme music]
anna martin

From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love.

On today’s show, we’ve got two stories about adoption — one from the perspective of a mother and the other from the perspective of a daughter. The first story starts over 60 years ago with a baby and a note. It’s called “Left to Be Found.”

yvonne liu

I’m Yvonne Liu, and this is my Tiny Love Story:

“She left me on a busy Hong Kong stairwell, not to die but to be found. It would take decades for me to receive her only message. Until then, I knew her as ‘a prostitute, uneducated, uncaring.’

At least, that’s what my adoptive American mother said, ashamed and angry about her infertility. To learn the truth, it seemed, I’d have to be dying. The night before my breast cancer surgery at age 30, my adoptive mother finally showed me my biological mother’s words, notable for their elegant, intelligent Chinese script:

‘Never forget me. I will never forget you.’”

anna martin

Yvonne, thank you so much for sharing that.

yvonne liu

Thank you so much for having me today, Anna.

anna martin

When you were growing up, what was the story that you were told about your adoption?

yvonne liu

I knew from a young age that I was adopted, but I never knew any details, any back story. All I knew was that I was born in Hong Kong. In my photo album, on the first page are three black and white photos. And my mom said, see, because of these photos, I picked you.

anna martin

What did your adoptive mother say drew her to those photos of you?

yvonne liu

She never explained exactly what in those photos made her choose me. There was a lot of traditional cultural shame that she and my father believed in, and that is adoption is something that should be kept secret. It’s shameful. And it’s because Confucius and his followers said a woman’s role in life is to bear sons, to bear children. And the fact that she could not, she felt humiliation and shame.

anna martin

So your adoptive parents were Chinese as well?

yvonne liu

Yes, they’re Chinese American.

anna martin

Tell me a little bit more about what you knew about the reason they chose to adopt.

yvonne liu

Well, I think they believed that the American dream was to have a nice family life, to have two children — hopefully a boy and a girl — and to appear to the outside that you were a normal, happy family. Also, you have to kind of remember culturally — and also, there are very few male children of Chinese descent who are available for adoption, because in China it’s not unheard of that if there was a boy out of wedlock, someone else in the family would claim it as their own.

anna martin

And what year were you adopted, Yvonne?

yvonne liu

I arrived on June 16, 1961.

anna martin

Did you ask many questions about your birth mother to your adoptive parents?

yvonne liu

My mother unfortunately, she was diagnosed as a paranoid borderline narcissist. For that type of person, your loyalty has to be 100 percent to her. Everyone, every other woman, becomes a rival. I had to only love her. It was very clear.

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And then when she was mad, she would say, oh, I guess you’ll be a prostitute like your mother. And when my parents argued, my father would call her a prostitute, so apparently that was the worst thing you could be in the world. And I just felt such inner shame and rejection.

anna martin

How did this narrative of your adoption and of your birth mother shape your understanding of yourself?

yvonne liu

Well, because one’s identity is so much related — when you’re growing up, you look into a mother’s face, and you want to see someone who loves you. Since I lost that first person who I believe loved me — and then unfortunately because of my mother, her mental illness, number 1. And then 2, this very traditional Chinese, sort of Asian-American thinking, I think, prevented her or she could not be a good mother.

So I would have to soothe and comfort her, and tell her things like, oh, mom, you are a good writer, you’ll be successful, don’t give up, things like that. She was very much a narcissist. I mean, my whole MO is essentially I will do the best I can to get the heck out of this home, because it was dysfunctional. There was fighting. There was a domestic violence.

And during the pandemic, my brother was doing a deep cleaning. And he found a file that was labeled Yvonne’s adoption. And so then he gave it to me. And I just paused before I could even open it, not knowing what would I find, what would I read, what would I finally know about the truth of my beginning.

anna martin

So your parents had kept this file from you for your whole life up to that point?

yvonne liu

They kept it from me, just as they kept many, many things. And it was so interesting to read the documents. One said that she is a pretty girl, very delicate. She is in need of a good home. It’s questionable whether that was a good home, but I am very thankful that I was adopted by them, because otherwise, my life would have been much different.

anna martin

When you saw that note that your birth mother had written, what was that like for you?

yvonne liu

It was like, oh, my gosh, she did love me. She did love me. And she gave me up in love. And I also think, she said she will never forget me, so maybe she might listen to this and know that I’m out here. I’ve never forgotten her.

anna martin

Have you tried to look for your birth mom?

yvonne liu

At this point, because it’s been such a journey of uncovering, finding this file, talking to other adoptees, which I never did before — I started researching my own — one part of me, of course, would love to see her face, to hug her. The other part of me thinks that do I have the right to interfere in her current life?

Obviously, in a way, she had to give me up for a reason. She was either just so, so poor, or the society was such that if she had a baby out of wedlock or if I was the second daughter, third daughter, she gave me up. But I’m comforted that she left me in a busy place. She didn’t put me out on a road. She didn’t put me in some garbage dump.

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But one thing is after this pandemic, I am going to go to that place in Hong Kong, to that street, because the orphanage named me after that street. So I think, how many children out there in the world were named after the place, the location, that they were abandoned? My first name is Yeung Choi Sai. It’s the name of a street.

anna martin

And that’s the street where your birth mom left you?

yvonne liu

Yes.

anna martin

Wow. How did the reveal of this note from your birth mom, how did it change your relationship with your adoptive parents?

yvonne liu

In terms of the relationship with my mother, my parents, it didn’t change, because we never spoke of it again. It was never spoken of again, never brought up ever.

anna martin

To this day, you still haven’t talked about it again?

yvonne liu

My adoptive mother died 10 years ago. And in fact, this April will be her 10th year anniversary of her death. In May, she would have been 100.

anna martin

Wow.

yvonne liu

I’m going to visit her grave, and I’m going to thank her. Thank you that you gave me this ray of hope of love for my birth mother, and thank you for choosing me. She wasn’t perfect. No mother is. But I’m still thankful and grateful.

[music]
anna martin

Yvonne, thank you so much for sharing your story with me today.

yvonne liu

You’re very welcome, Anna. It’s been a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

anna martin

After the break, another adoption story, this time told by a mother.

[music]
lynn domina

Hi. I’m Lynn Domina, and I’m coming to you from Marquette, Michigan. Here’s my Tiny Love Story:

“Amy was a spunky 8-year-old. She lived with our elderly friends but would soon move to another foster home because our friends were too old to care for her.

I was no one’s idea of maternal, and I had never thought of raising children, but Amy wanted a family.

I told my wife, ‘I want to adopt Amy.’ We filled out paperwork, readied a bedroom, and waited. After a judge’s OK, we loaded Amy’s clothes, crayons and copies of ‘Harry Potter’ into our SUV.

It’s been 17 years.

I’m still no one’s idea of maternal, but I’m lucky to be Amy’s mother.”

When I say I’m no one’s idea of maternal, what I mean is what really drives me, what has driven me for much of my life, is really my professional identity. I get a lot of gratification from being a writer, a professor, a teacher, and that had been sufficient. I have many friends whose lives would have really been diminished if they hadn’t been able to become parents, and I never felt that.

I had nieces and nephews. I was happy that I had children in my life, but I was also happy that I could travel whenever I wanted. I could have popcorn and brownies for supper if I wanted. I didn’t have to get up in the morning to ensure that an eight-year-old was brushing her teeth and getting on the school bus, you know?

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So I had a lot of freedom that I valued. And it really took meeting this specific child for me to be absolutely willing to surrender all of that freedom for the benefit of somebody else. She so wanted a family. She wanted a mother. And my heart just broke. I couldn’t bear the thought of her not having a family.

And so I said to my wife, I want to adopt Amy. And she was shocked. All my friends were shocked. But I knew I wanted to. It was one of those things. I just knew. It was like a calling. I knew that this was what I needed to do.

When I met her, Amy was energetic. She had lots of interests. She was obsessed with “Harry Potter.” And she was absolutely convinced that when she turned 11 years old, she was going to get that letter delivered by an owl. She would do things like crawl up the stairs and say, “I’m galumphing up the stairs.” And she was just a really interesting kid.

When I was in the process of adopting Amy, I would go to visit her frequently. And one day, when I was essentially babysitting her, she sat down on the couch next to me. And she said, I think you’d be a good mother. And I said, do you think I should have a baby? And she said, no, you know what I mean.

And so I couldn’t lie to her, but I wanted to be cautious. And I said, well, I’ll tell you what. I have asked to be able to adopt you, but I don’t know if the judge is going to say yes yet. And I think she at least felt more relaxed that there was a possibility that something good would happen to her.

It’s actually Amy’s birthday tomorrow, and she will turn 28. It’s amazing. I still think of her as eight. And when I think about it now, the process of adopting her seems still so immediate. And when I think it’s been 20 years, it’s astonishing.

Usually we have lunch together a couple times a month, so I still get to lay eyes on her. And my heart leaps to see her. And I expect I’ll always feel that way. I hope I’ll always feel that way.

anna martin

Amy just graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in anthropology. Lynn says she and her wife are incredibly proud of their daughter.

Next week on Modern Love, I introduce you to someone who just might be the very best babysitter in New York City.

Our show is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell. The Modern Love theme music and original music in this episode is also by Dan Powell.

Digital production by Mahima Chablani. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love Projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.



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