Adopted Why I Stopped Celebrating My “Birthday”
I don’t know when I was born. I’ve stopped pretending that I do.
A young woman taps a pencil against her cheek, considering a child. Maybe the child, who is me, sits across from her. Or maybe her only point of reference is the black-and-white photograph clipped to the file folder. A name, Oh Yong Chan, is pinned to his shirt. A number is written on the white border of the photograph. His hair is buzzed short. He is two, maybe less than that. Small enough that any guess at his age will be close.
In this moment, she is a writer of fiction. On what day was this child born? If he were smaller, she could imagine him at his 백일, his hundred-day celebration. Count backward from one hundred until you reach that day. There are numbers called imaginary, but not this kind.
This work of fiction already has a title. The birthdate is a formality that will allow for other formalities. The people who eventually adopt this child will copy the date into the documents that will dissolve this child’s citizenship and make him an American, or a Swede, or a Canadian, or whatever it is he will be.
This work of fiction is written in the passive voice. The child was born. From whom? His mother, and the labor of her body, are both known—there is no birth without them—and unknowable. His father, and the labor of his body, is implied, foregone—just like the child’s given name, his family name, the family registry to which he was not added. A Korean person who is not registered to a family is, in a manner of speaking, not a person. A page cannot be ripped from a book it was never printed in.
She rolls the form into the typewriter, the paper curving back over itself.
For the purposes of this form, the child is born retroactively—in Seoul, because the woman is sitting in an office in Seoul. The form for a relinquished child certifies that he belongs to no one. He was born, he was given up, he was found. But even a relinquished child, a child with no name, must have a name, and must be born in a place and on a day.
The young woman is efficient, but not ruthless. She might even pray, briefly, over each child, for who they were and who they once belonged to. She moves as quickly as she can—fast enough to move them toward their futures. They have no future here.
She presses down the space bar on the typewriter, and the carriage clatters forward to the space marked birthdate . She decides: July 20, 1974.
There is a stack of files waiting, each one with a small black and white photograph. Each child is a story that needs a beginning.
“Every year without knowing it I have passed the day,” W. S. Merwin writes in his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death.”
For me, the day of my birth is another day I’ve passed, over and over, without knowing. Like many adoptees, the date I’ve referred to as my birthday for most of my life was assigned by a stranger—some social worker, some nurse, some clerk. If the agencies are to find you a family to grow up in, your date of birth cannot be left unanswered. Bureaucracy abhors a blank space.
Like many adoptees, the date I’ve referred to as my birthday for most of my life was assigned by a stranger.
Eventually, Merwin would learn the date that had eluded him: March 15, 2019. It does not diminish the power of his poem in any way. Sometimes it is the mystery that keeps us moving. There is nothing in the mind with quite the power of a fact that must exist, but cannot be learned.
I will probably never know the day I was born.
Growing up, my birthday party, held at the height of the Illinois summer, served as a de facto family reunion. My dad is one of eight, my mom one of four. Our side yard was the width of a full lot, big enough to build a house on, which my parents would eventually do. In the summers of my childhood, the yard served as a football field, baseball diamond, battlefield on which I died hundreds of imagined heroic deaths.
I was one of the few summer birthdays in my family, so everyone planned on coming long before their formal invitation, written in my mother’s left-slanting cursive, arrived with its urging to RSVP. (When I learned this was an abbreviation for the French “respondez s’il vous plait,” it made me think my mother was incredibly cosmopolitan.) They would start arriving in the early afternoon, aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends piling out of cars and ambling up the hot concrete driveway, loaded down with presents, salads, and casseroles.
All of us kids would spend the day zig-zagging between adults, plunging our hands into the metal-sided cooler to grab soda after soda, reveling in the lawlessness and abandon of summer at its giddy peak, the sticky air thick with mosquitos. Sometimes an uncle would fire up a fogger—a contraption like a flamethrower but with a plastic tank of insecticide—and drag the gurgling white smoke through the yard, all of us kids trailing behind, twisting through the poison clouds like delirious aircraft.
Photograph courtesy of the author
The party would go on and on, though to us it always seemed to end too quickly. When you are young and wild with delight, you hardly notice the sky darkening above you. After the presents and the cake and the giant watermelon hacked open, you look up and see the enormity of the night, the black sky littered with stars, something you can reach toward but not into.
Years ago, before we were married, my wife and I camped on an island in Eastern Washington that was only reachable by boat. The island, and those around it, only appear in the summer, after the surrounding waters have receded. Even an island is a condition—not just a thing, but a state.
J. brought her dog, Ruby, a dog from a previous marriage. A better swimmer than me, steady in the canoe, then wild with joy once we hit land—trouncing the sand, chasing and chasing around the island until she collapsed, panting so hard it seemed her tongue would tear itself loose.
I know a little about loving something that was never meant to be yours.
I think of rejecting my July 20th “birthday” as a way of reclaiming uncertainty.
The night of July fourth—the sky so black and vast it felt like you could fall upward into it—we could see the fireworks displays of far-off towns, tiny eruptions on the horizon. I’d never seen fireworks from so far away before. Each cluster of explosions was pure light, the sound never reaching us, each town a little galaxy full of stars going supernova. The silence of it was eerie and beautiful, like we were seated on a dark tilting wheel of the universe.
You can order a print of what the sky looked like the night you were born, if you know the date.
On July 20, 1969, a human walked on the moon for the first time. As a child who dreamed of flying through space one day, this was a thrilling anniversary to share with my fictional birthday. As a child who was occasionally called an “alien,” the idea of being from somewhere even farther than that place called Korea was both an affront and an almost irresistible premise.
The moon revolves around the earth, and the earth revolves around the sun, which is a kind of star: a yellow dwarf. But a kind of star is really a star in a particular stage of life. A yellow dwarf is a so-called main sequence star—no longer a protostar, and not yet a red giant. Not only a thing, but a state. “To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing,” Ocean Vuong writes in the essay “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.”
What if I had been born on a different day? I sometimes wonder. Would someone who made me have made a different decision on a different day? Would I still have been adopted?
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. For years, I just tried to let the day pass quietly, in part to keep others from going out of their way for a falsified birthday. My birthday had once been the high point of summer—it’d had a good run.
But when I finally got the rest of my adoption papers from my parents’ house, and found that in fact there were no clues beyond the standard fabrications, something in me broke. How many times can you return to a wall, hoping a door will be there?
And so I think of rejecting my July 20th “birthday” as a way of reclaiming uncertainty: Let it be known and named.
Merwin described the day of his death as the day “the silence will set out / Tireless traveler / Like the beam of a lightless star.” He died on the Ides of March.
Mark Twain predicted his death—not to the day, but to the year. Like Merwin, he was tracking that anniversary, although unlike Merwin, he believed he knew the answer. Halley’s Comet was in the sky on the night he was born and on the night he died. Two passes of a comet: the measure of a life, for a man who took his pen name from a measurement. (Twain: an archaic word for two . By the mark, twain : judging by the mark on the rope, the depth of the water is two fathoms—enough for a riverboat to safely pass.)
Count backwards from who you are until you don’t exist yet. That is the day. I try to imagine it, but it’s no use.
Friends still text every July 20th. I still call my family. But I no longer think of it as my birthday. Maybe it’s one way of trying to make peace with not knowing: by not pretending that I can. By erasing this made-up date from a place of prominence, maybe I am also attempting in some small way to restore the importance of the real, if unknown, day when someone I will probably never meet brought me into the world. Still, I don’t define my life in terms of when or how it began. We take what joy we can in the broken light for however long it lasts.