Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
Lucky Girl is Mei-Ling Hopgood’s memoir about traveling to Taiwan to meet the birth family she’d never known. Hopgood grew up thinking she had escaped a life of poverty when she was adopted by Americans, but in Taiwan, she learned that her birth family defied all of her assumptions. This week, she spoke with Andrea Kahn in a g-chat interview about Lucky Girl, and the first chapter of the book is excerpted below.
Royal Oak, Michigan, May 1995
I had recently moved back to metro Detroit after graduating from college, and was working as a rookie reporter for the Detroit Free Press, writing about such cheery topics as violent teens who stalk police officers and mothers who go mad and stab their children. I rented a place on the second-floor of a rickety old house smeared with a thin coat of mustard yellow paint on South Washington Avenue in the suburb of Royal Oak. I was twenty-one years old and single, so a trendy neighborhood and the abundance of nearby bars always made up for a crappy apartment. I loved my starter life, and for the first time I was feeling confident in my own skin. I believed I had conquered the insecurities over being Asian that had vexed me for so long. I thought I finally was getting a grip on who I wanted to be.
Then one afternoon, my mom called. She and Dad still lived in my hometown of Taylor, a forty-minute drive south, and now that I was back in the area we were able to chat and visit much more often. Usually we just traded mother-daughter banter on the temperamental Michigan weather, work, my brothers, my current boyfriend, and so forth, but on this day, Mom had some more interesting news to share.
“Sister Maureen called us today,” she said. “She’s in town and she wants to see you.”
Sister Maureen Sinnott had been a distant, almost mythical figure that my parents talked about with reverence. Shortly after they married, my parents had contacted Maureen, hoping she could help them adopt a child. The nun gladly acted as the link between my birth family and my adoptive parents, maneuvering me through the maddening Taiwan and U.S. bureaucracies and caring for me for the almost eight months it took to get me out of the country. Maureen and I had exchanged letters occasionally when I was a girl, but I couldn’t remember much about her.
Mom said that after many years living in other states and abroad, Maureen had returned to her native Allen Park, a Detroit suburb that borders Taylor’s northeast side.
“You should call her,” mom said.
The seven or so months I had spent in Taiwan as a baby never interested me much. My birth parents were shadows, known to me only in the folds of my eyelids, the curve of my chin or the shiny dark of my hair. They were merely characters in some childhood fairy tale, ghosts of a former lifetime, memories that only existed because I was told they existed. The details had little to do with my happy life as an American girl who grew up with blue-eyed parents and two Korean brothers, who were also adopted. I was just another one of the endless unwanted baby girls born to and discarded by poor Chinese families. The past was the past.
Still, I was intrigued with the idea that I might meet the woman who made it possible for me to have a different life. I asked my mom for her phone number.
Maureen was bubbly, thrilled to hear that my life had turned out wonderfully.
“Oh, Mei-Ling,” she said. “I’m so glad to know I made the right decision to arrange your adoption. I took care of you and I felt like a mother to you, too.”
She invited me to dinner at her home.
“I have pictures,” Maureen said. “Of you . . . and your mother and your father.”
“You have pictures of my mother?” I asked. I had wondered, on and off, throughout my adolescence about what my mother looked like, if I had inherited my body from her, for example. For some reason, my curiosity was always focused on my birth mother, rather than my father. I never knew any photos of either existed.
“Your mother loved you, Mei-Ling. She didn’t want to give you up.”
Tears sprung to my eyes, catching me off guard. A surprising wave of sadness and relief washed over me. Maureen had just offered an answer to a question I never had dared to ask. She didn’t want to. I paused before accepting the invitation for dinner. I did not want Maureen to hear my voice cracking.
Maureen’s one-bedroom apartment in Allen Park was small, but cozy, decorated with mementos of the many years she spent globetrotting. A hand-painted scroll, a farewell gift given to her when she left Taiwan after eight years, hung on her living-room wall. She had watched a friend paint the snowy mountain scene and write in Chinese characters, “You may be leaving us, but you are leaving your footsteps behind.” Maureen used an African kitenge as a tablecloth and displayed a hand-carved ebony African head purchased from an artist in Tanzania. On another wall she kept a large framed profile of an African woman with a tear running down her cheek. Maureen said she bought the picture at an ethnic festival in Detroit about twenty years ago and took it wherever she went because, to her, it symbolized all who are oppressed.
I recognized Maureen only a little from old black-and-white pictures my parents had shown me. She had been thirty-one years old when she cared for me. Back then, she was quite thin and kept her hair tucked under her veil. The modern, in-living-color Maureen was age fifty-four, short and robust. Her dark, wavy hair was uncovered and she wore pants and a purple sweater over a blue and white shirt. She had sharp blue eyes that welled up with tears when she saw me. We hugged like old friends.
“It is so good to see you,” Maureen said. “You turned out so well.”
She introduced me to Sister Shirley Smith, who also had helped care for me at St. Mary’s Hospital. The three of us sat on Maureen’s couch, drank tea, and chatted about my blossoming career as a journalist and Maureen’s world adventures and new psychology practice. Maureen cooked a chicken and veggie stir-fry dinner, which we ate with chopsticks. After our meal, Maureen took out an envelope filled with dozens of photos she had taken in Taiwan, of St. Mary’s hospital, of the nurses, of my birth family. We examined each while Maureen and Shirley reminisced, laughing at how young and skinny they were back then.
In one picture, Maureen holds me as I reach down to pull the hair of one of my sisters. My grandmother, an auntie, and Shirley stand nearby. In another, also taken the day I left Taitung, Maureen and I pose with several nurses and my birth parents, who had come to say good-bye. I am in Maureen’s arms, but my biological mother stands nearby, resting her hand on my arm. Her hair is pulled back and she is wearing a striped sweater over a yellow button-down shirt and red shoes. My birth father stands to Maureen’s right, partially cut out of the frame. He is wearing a brown jacket. I didn’t see myself in either of them. I examined the way my mother touched me—her face seemed almost expressionless—and wondered what she must have felt.
At the end of the evening, Maureen said, “You know, Mei-Ling, if you ever want to contact your birth family, I am sure they would be exactly in the same place you left them.”
I stared at her. It was the first time that the possibility of searching for my biological family—and the prospect that I might actually find them—had crossed my mind seriously. While I was growing up, when anyone would ask me if I wondered what became of them, I’d answer no. No, I did not know how many siblings I had. No, I did not know much about Taiwan. No, I did not care to meet them. As a teenager, I practically took pride in my ignorance.
I mean, why dwell on the past? A choice was made for my good or theirs, or for both, and ultimately, as soon as I was poured in the arms of Rollie and Chris Hopgood one April afternoon in 1974, these two midwestern teachers became my real family. They read me bedtime stories, attended my recitals, helped me build homecoming floats, and took me on vacations to Florida. My mom dressed me in pretty clothes and drove me to dance class; I admired her pale, slender beauty and her measured patience, even when our opposite personalities clashed. My dad took me grocery shopping, to the dances he chaperoned, and on the picket lines when he led strikes. I was just like him, strong-willed, independent, and passionate; our battles shook the windows, but we were fiercely devoted to each other. Hoon-Yung and Jung-Hoe, who were both adopted from South Korea, were my real brothers, my playtime companions. I taught Hoon-Yung to play house and camp out and helped Jung-Hoe speak English and sleep on a bed. Instead of enduring poverty and prejudice against girls and women, I had been raised to believe I could do anything that I wanted. I had a close family, a rich life, and the endless opportunities of the great United States of America.
I’m lucky, I’ve always told myself.
Perhaps one day I might like to know more about these figures from my past and the reasons they made the decisions that they did. One day. But not today.
I thanked Maureen for the suggestion but told her I’d have to think about it.
“Maybe if you want to write to the hospital in Taitung,” I suggested, “just to see if the nurses know where my family is? But not to contact them . . . Just to see . . .” I said.
Because my response was less than enthusiastic, Maureen decided to wait. Not long afterward, I left Detroit, chased away by a labor strike at my newspaper. I moved to St. Louis and started another reporting job. I had a great group of fun friends. We were young and ambitious, spending our days dissecting other people’s stories, but I still had little interest in digging into my own.
In late 1996 I was jotting down a holiday note to Maureen when I remembered our conversation from the year before. I wondered if she had ever written to St. Mary’s to confirm the whereabouts of my family. I casually asked, “Did you ever write to the hospital?”
Maureen interpreted my question as a request: Write to the hospital. And she did.
Barely a month later, on January 26, 1997, I was folding phyllo dough into triangles, getting ready for a cocktail party at my apartment in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis. I had fussed over a simple menu: bagel chips with hummus, veggies, spanikopita, quiches, dips and chips, the usual party fare. The house reeked of slightly burnt cooking oil, and my kitchen was in chaos: pans, knives, opened packages, strips of phyllo dough and cut vegetables piled on my counter. My dog waited expectantly at my feet, hoping to profit from the disorder and my general sympathy for her forlorn face. I planned to play jazzy tunes, serve martinis, and wear a short purple velvet dress bought at a secondhand store. We would talk some shop—lamenting missed deadlines, crappy assignments—but mostly we would laugh and tell marvelous stories about crazy politicians, bad dates, about our families and our quirky midwestern hometowns.
I was far behind schedule, frantic, and covered in flour, when the phone rang. I wiped my sticky fingers on a towel and grabbed the receiver.
It was Maureen.
“Mei-Ling,” she said, her voice bubbling with excitement. “I have a letter from the hospital.”
A nun at St. Mary’s had sent her information about my birth family.
“Both mother and father are from Kinmen. The father is fifty-nine years old, while the mother is fifty-four,” Maureen read. “The occupation of the father is a farmer. Mother, a housewife.”
The letter recited a laundry list of dry statistics with no names from a family on the other side of the world: “First female, married, a government-employed researcher . . .” In all, there were seven siblings in Taiwan, six sisters and one brother whom they had adopted. One more daughter, the youngest, had been given up for adoption to a couple in Switzerland.
I froze, leaning hard on my kitchen counter.
My mother and father? My sisters and brother?
Maureen read on: “The father is excited to see Mei-Ling. He is inviting her if she could come on Chinese New Year, which will be on Febuary 7, 1997. He said the children do come at this time.” He had included a business card and a self-addressed envelope.
“Can you believe it?” She asked.
I couldn’t—I was shocked. I think I said something like “Wow! That’s amazing.”
Still, I didn’t want this strange news to crowd my busy life. There were too many unknowns, and deep down I was a little afraid of being too curious. I preferred not caring about my biological past. What if I was disappointed or hurt by what I discovered? Maureen told me she’d forward me the letter, and we could decide what to do next.
Dazed and unbelieving, I called my parents. They were excited and eager to know more. I recounted the story again to friends who came over that night. We oohed and ahhed, and speculated about what it all might mean. An Asian American colleague pointed out that my family had appeared at the turn of the Chinese Year of the Ox, in which we both were born.
“They waited until our year to find you,” she marveled. We raised our glasses and toasted this revelation. I felt elated and strange, with only a vague sense that much of what I knew about who I was and what I believed about my past and future was about to change.
I arrived home from a business trip in Kansas City a few days later. My Chinese Shar-pei, Delilah, greeted me with her customary dance of twists and turns and tail wags. I stretched one hand down to pat her wrinkles, still wearing my coat. I shuffled absent-mindedly through the mail and then reached over and pushed the button on the answering machine sitting on the edge of the kitchen counter.
It was Maureen, breathless with news again. She had another letter, this time from one of my sisters.
She read it to my machine:
How are you for these years? We are missing you. When we know your news we are very glad. And especially Father and Mother. I’m your elder sister. Father and Mother want to see you in a hurry. They hope you can come back Taiwan in New Year ‘97. Father say he want to buy the ticket for you if you want to come Taiwan so if you receive my letter please reply as soon as to me. We expect your good news.
Your elder sister, Joanna.
This was all happening so fast. These people were threatening to jump off of the page and into my life.
Maureen sent me the original letter from Joanna, my second-oldest sister, whose actual name is Jin-Qiong. My sister had written on rice paper that crinkled to touch, delicate and exotic. The envelope was written in Chinese, except for the words Taitung, Taiwan.
About a week later, I received another letter from another sister. In that envelope were tucked a few photographs. I pulled them out and examined them closely, holding the photos not far from my nose to get a good look at each person. I scrutinized eyes, faces, lips, and bodies. Who was taller? Who was prettier? Who looked the most like me, my mother or father? Which sister? Some of the pictures were old, dating back to my last days in Taiwan, variations of those I had seen at the home of Sister Maureen almost two years earlier. Those baby photos did not surprise or move me this time, but the more recent photos did—especially a family portrait taken at the wedding of one my sisters.
The picture was a few years old. In it, the bride wears a red and gold dress, a jade pendant, and sparkly, dangling earrings. Her hair is pinned up, and a few tight spirals frame her face. She is pale, heavily made up, and her lips are parted in a demure smile. Almost twenty relatives, sisters in dresses, brothers-in-law in suits, aunts, uncles, and cousins, press in close, standing on tiptoes, contorting their necks and backs, trying to fit in the frame. I noted that many of the women, presumably my sisters, wore the same bright red shade of lipstick. My tiny grandmother, my father’s mother, sits serenely front and center wearing a shiny blue silk shirt. Her hands rest on her knees and a cane is propped beneath her right armpit. She has what looks like a receding white hairline and reminded me of some character out of an old Kung Fu movie, an old and wise prophet about to bestow a secret to a worthy disciple. My mother sits to her right, wearing a pink and white checkered suit, white hose, heels, and a corsage with a red ribbon pinned to her chest. Her hair is permed and bobbed, and her bangs are teased into a perfect curl on her forehead. Her mouth, too, is painted in the same bright red, and she is grinning, but she is caught with her eyes shut. To her right is my only slightly smiling father, stern and straight, handsomely dressed in a Western suit with a colorful tie held in place with a tie pin. He also wears a flower with a red ribbon imprinted with gold Chinese characters. On the back of the photo is written, “The grandma is dead (21 May 1996), 86 years old. The picture is taken in the occasion of the fourth daughter’s marriage.”
At the time, I didn’t know who was who in this family portrait, save the bride, my parents, and grandmother. The group seemed a joyful jumble of chaos. It was odd knowing that these strangers were directly related to me, but what struck me most was the realization that my siblings were not merely the children of a poor farming family, as I had believed. If I had an image of my birth family at all in my head, it had been in black and white and dismal. They would be gaunt, wearing ragged clothes and probably standing in some barren field with a shabby, straw-roofed hut at their backs, a stereotypical portrait of third-world poverty. I mean, that was why they had given me up for adoption, right?
Yet that was not who they were. Perhaps they were before, but not now. They were a middle-class family. My sisters were attractive, educated, and successful. What few assumptions I had were wrong.
“They all look like they love each other very much,” I wrote in my journal.
I had never cared about them before or even thought of them as real people. I never had—nor did I seek—enough information to feel a connection with my biological origins. My mom and dad told me what they knew, and I never sought to know more. This was probably both a conscious and unconscious decision. You are less likely to mourn those you do not realize you have lost—or those who have lost you. You do not yearn for a life that you don’t know exists. Now I not only knew what I had gained from being adopted, but I suddenly was beginning to see what I had missed, and I wanted to know more.
I hurriedly dug up a few pictures of my own. I sent one of my family, one of my dog and me, and another taken in Hawaii of me with some friends. In the latter, I’m tan, wearing a sarong and a red and white checkered shirt and sitting on a couch with my friend Monica and her pals the week before her wedding in Honolulu. I chose that picture because of my smile, which was wide, and my eyes—they didn’t look squinty or crooked as they occasionally did in pictures. These would be the first images of the modern-day me that they would see, and I wanted to look good. I sent the letters global priority mail to Taiwan, one to my sister and one to my parents.
“Dear Mother and Father,” I wrote. “I received your letter and I’m overjoyed to find you. I’m very sorry I cannot come to Taiwan for Chinese New Year, but I want to come soon. How have you been through these years?”
In a short and polite note, I went on to describe in brief my life as a young journalist. Nothing too revealing or complicated. Nothing they couldn’t understand. Then I signed off, “Love, your daughter, Mei-Ling.”
The next Friday I left for Mardi Gras in New Orleans in a rented van with friends from the newspaper. We marauded all weekend in the French Quarter before driving back to St. Louis on Monday, exhausted. After dropping off the rental, I drove my Saturn home. My ugly little apartment complex, a nondescript blob of brick buildings that had managed to skirt the neighborhood’s zoning laws, was surrounded by magnificent early twentieth-century stone homes and Victorian mansions. I lugged my bags upstairs, ready to collapse in bed. The door opened to the living room, which still had that mismatched college look—a white couch, a green futon, and an on-again, off-again peace lily wilting by the window.
This time, I found several messages on my answering machine. At first I thought they were pranks because the callers did not say anything, although there were loud, unintelligible voices in the background.
Then in a later message, a timid, rather high voice said, “I’m your younger sister Taiwan.” Click.
In another, a woman’s voice in English, presumably a nun from St. Mary’s hospital, said “Mei-Ling. Your mother and father want to talk to you. They tried to call you several times.”
They tried to call me.
I couldn’t think about it. I was too tired to process what was happening. It seemed like some bizarre dream. Try to relax, I thought. I had to try to go on with my normal life, which meant work early the next day. I went to bed.
In the morning, two faxes in perfect English that had arrived over the weekend were delivered to my desk at work. They were letters from my “mother” and “father,” though obviously someone else had written on their behalf.
“We all miss you very much,” they said. “We hope we can hear you as soon as possible.”
Even a nun from an order in St. Louis left a message on my work voice mail. This woman I did not know told me my family was trying to get a hold of me and that I should try to call them. I shook my head in amazement.
Jeez. The whole world is trying to find me.
They reached me at about eleven thirty that night.
“Wang Mei-Ling?” A woman asked.
Um. No one had ever called me that, but obviously they were referring to me.
“Um,” I said.
“Wang Mei-Ling?” Hollering in the background.
“Yes?” I said.
“yes?” I repeated loudly, for they seemed neither to hear nor understand me for all the background noise.
“This is your family Taiwan. I am Joanna Wang, your elder sister.”
“How are you?” I asked, not sure what else to say.
“You speak Chinese?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
The conversation was chaotic. I tried to extract as much information as I could even though we could barely understand each other. Sisters and brothers-in-law passed the phone to each other, one after another. I could not keep track of whom I was talking to, even though I tried to take notes. In the end, the conversation went something like this:
“So many your sisters want talk to you,” a man said. “We got your pictures. They are very pretty. You are beautiful.”
“You all are, too!”
Change of callers. “I am your sister.”
“Hello,” I said, laughing nervously.
“You look like me,” she said. “Do you receive our fax?”
“Yes,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Taitung. All of us sister go home to visit Chinese New Year. Tomorrow we must go to work. Do you work today?”
“Yes, it’s not a holiday here,” I said.
“Do you want to hear Papa’s voice? He cannot speak English.”
“Okay . . .” I started to say, but the phone was already changing hands.
A man said, “Ni hao,” which means “hello.”
“Ni hao,” I said. At least I could say that much, because my parents had named my childhood cat Ni Hao (pronounced nee-how).
He said something else, but I did not understand. Shocked and dazed, I laughed again, not knowing what else to do. My father . . . another sister grabbed the phone.
“He want to see your visit,” she said.
“Do you heard of Taipei?”
“Yes,” I said.
“There is also Hsinchu, where I live. I live near airport in Taipei. I am elder sis-tah. I am thirty-five,” said Jin-Feng, my oldest sister.
“Mama want to hear your voice. You want to talk Mama?”
“Okay . . .”
Mumbling, rustling, laughing in the background.
“Mei-Ling-ah! Wo shi nida mama.”
“Ni hao!” I said, giggling again. I heard the frantic excitement in her voice and felt a catch, a longing in my chest. I wanted to savor the moment—one that I never expected to happen—but it was pushed aside by the next sister. “She say she is your mother. She is happy! Mama can’t speak English . . . Papa want to see a recent picture. That picture you send was two years ago. “
“Okay,” I said.
More shrieking laughter in the background.
“You want come Taiwan? We hope you can come Taiwan. You want come Taiwan? We want to see you now. We plan together in April . . . To memory our past grandmother . . . You do the best to come. We can all be together.”
“Sure,” I said, caught up in the moment.
“You fax a letter with your travel plans,” she said. “It’s very nice hearing our news and hear your voice. We see you soon. We are missing you. Bye!”
“Okay, bye.” Click.
I hung up and shook my head as if I had just been bonked with a big dodgeball. I just heard the voices of my birth parents, my sisters and who-knows-who-else for the first time. It had happened so quickly, in such a blur. I was breathless and giddy, unsure of what I was feeling. What an odd thing to be treated with such familiarity. We had giggled out of excitement, nervousness, and frustration over the language barrier.
Wild. They called me Wang Mei-Ling. I had just told them I would try to visit them in Taiwan, didn’t I?
What was I getting myself into?
The letters, e-mail, and faxes continued. I could tell the Wangs wanted desperately to meet me, to be reassured that they had done the right thing so long ago.
“I have to tell you that we all love you very much. Father send you to your adopted parents for some reasons. I think you do not blame him, do you?” wrote Jin-Zhi, another older sister, I didn’t, but I had hoped to take my time getting to know them, to advance slowly into these uncharted waters.
However, my Chinese family had only one speed: kuai. Fast.
“Come home,” they pleaded.
My American parents were nothing but supportive. In fact, they encouraged me to pursue the relationship. My dad later told me, “We knew this was not the end of our chapter in your life; it was just the beginning of a new one.”
Yet I had misgivings. Taiwan was not my home. My biological parents and I were joined by blood and I willingly called them Mother and Father, and myself their daughter, but we did not know each other. I did not speak Taiwanese or Mandarin, their native languages. We may share genes, but we came from different cultures, different worlds. Sure, a reunion might be joyous, therapeutic, and moving.
But there was always the chance that I would return to the place of my birth and see my face in their faces, but we would make no connection. Or even worse, the blissful slumber would have been broken, the Pandora’s box of the House of Wang would fly open and the ghosts of regret and sorrow would spew forth. As a reporter, I understood how tragic family secrets could be once unleashed. I knew that asking questions could open wounds and disrupt the course of once-peaceful lives. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Sometimes there are puzzles better left unsolved, so that life can be allowed to heal and move on. Yet my own mystery seemed to be unraveling at breakneck speed—no matter what I had to say about it.
Some people spend their whole lives trying to uncover, understand, or escape from their pasts. Mine rose up like a dragon, fast and furious. And I was blissfully ignorant, a sleeping ox about to be discovered—and devoured.
READ our interview with Mei-Ling Hopgood
BUY a copy of the book
WATCH the Lucky Girl trailer