Tuesday, April 28th, 2009
Taiwanese-born Mei-Ling Hopgood was adopted by an American couple when she was just a baby. She never had any real desire—or made any attempt—to contact her birth family, but 20 years later, they contacted her. Her memoir, Lucky Girl, chronicles her journey to Taiwan, where she finds that the life she escaped was nothing like what she expected. Hopgood, a reporter living in Argentina, recently sat down for a g-chat with Andrea Kahn. You can read their conversation, about adoption, writing, and dealing with cultural assumptions, below. And for a sneak peek of Lucky Girl, be sure to check out the first chapter, “Come Back Taiwan.” -Elizabeth Minkel
Andrea: So it’s been several years now since you first got back in touch with your birth family. What was it that inspired you to start working on Lucky Girl?
Mei-Ling: It might sound cheesy, but I knew from when I first made contact with my family in 1997 that I wanted to write about it. It was probably the journalism instincts, but also I’ve always written to record, express, clear my thoughts. and this was certainly an event that i knew I’d need to do all those things. The idea that it would be a book was always kind of a joke at first—everyone said it when I told my stories, and I thought it…But I didn’t seriously start thinking of writing a book until several years later. I needed time to get to know my family and what was happening to me, to process it all…I can’t be exact, but probably a few years ago, I thought it was time to think, seriously, about a book…
Andrea: So were there certain aspects of the experience that you were able to see in a different light after writing a book about them?
Mei-Ling: Absolutely. You know when you live things, you often don’t take the time to step back and put things into perspective. I didn’t really think about “what it all meant” until I sat down to write my story. I didn’t deeply explore my feelings for my birth father or mother and all the things they did or did not do, for example. I obviously FELT something and had opinions, but I never really questioned myself. If that makes any sense. writing—and researching—for the book also forced me to answer and question the people in my lives, in ways I don’t know that I would have (at least at this point)…Confront some things, because well, I needed to know for my book. (Not just because of the book, of course, but it kinda forced me to go ahead and ask questions that I might not have asked…)
Andrea: Were you at any point hesitant to publish a book about such a personal experience? As a journalist, I imagine you’re more accustomed to writing about people and events a bit more disconnected from you…
Mei-Ling: Yes. Of course. I had moments when I wondered if I should…More for the sake of the privacy of the people involved, though. I’ve been a journalist for awhile, a columnist, and written about myself, so I wasn’t bothered by it.
Andrea: What does your birth family think about the memoir?
Mei-Ling: Well, Ma and Ba know I wrote it. They vaguely know what it says. They have copies but can’t read it, and my sisters aren’t going to take the time to read it to them. A few of my sisters read it, as best they can. Find it interesting. My brother-in-law, an Australian, is the only one who really really read it. And he thinks I went light on some of the people in the family. I did everything I possibly could to get them to read early versions, correct mistakes, know what I was writing, short of having it translated in Chinese. I ended up having to do a whole list of True or False questions that my brother-in-law read to my sister who read them to my mom. That’s the kind of language barrier problems I had.
Andrea: Oh, wow. That must have been a real test of patience…
Mei-Ling: You said it! Plus Ma doesn’t read even in Chinese. And they speak Taiwanese, not Chinese first. So it was tough. But I worked really hard to get things as close to correct as I could. That was important to me.
Andrea: You mentioned speaking on panels about adoption, and that a lot of adoptees who had tried to get back in touch with their families later in life had had negative experiences or barely any experiences at all. Did hearing these stories influenced your decision to write a book?
Mei-Ling: It didn’t really influence my decision to write a book…but it did always strike me the variety and range of perspectives and opinions that I heard. They often seemed really different from mine.
Andrea: Do you think it’s generally a good idea to try to get back in touch?
Mei-Ling: Hmm, I think that is something that goes on a case by case basis. I really didn’t try to make any big pronouncements about adoption or reunions in the book, even though my book revolves around those two huge events. I think readers can judge—in my case—whether it was good or bad. It’s just want happened to me. We have the spectrum in my own family even: me waaaaay in touch with her birth family, my brothers none…and we’re all okay.
Andrea: I also wanted to ask you how you felt about your Chinese roots these days, since you mentioned in the book being completely disconnected for the first twenty-some years of your life, and then initially upon getting in touch with your family making efforts to “be more Chinese.” How connected to this culture do you feel these days—especially now that you’re living in yet another country?
Mei-Ling: That’s a really good question. I just wrote an essay about that. I’m drifting a bit. I am much more tuned into Spanish and culture here [in Argentina]. When I see Chinese peeps here they give me crap about it and tell me I need to teach my child Mandarin. But I think I came to a certain peace with my Chinese culture. I rediscovered it and embraced it and my family. It is part of me and always will be. But I believe culture is a fluid thing, made up of not only your origins, or where you were born, or where you grew up, or what your parents taught you. It changes with every move you make, every person and experience that influences your life. Culture is a changeable thing that will grow and mature over time. So the short answers is yes, I am not being real Chinese these days. But it is part of me.
Andrea: Did you always know you would pursue writing as a career? You refer many times to “journalistic curiosity”—how has this affected your life, and have there been times when it’s gotten you into trouble?
Mei-Ling: Ha! I was a writing nerd since I was in 9th grade, and decided I wanted to be a journalist. Possibly began earlier. I always loved to write. I ask a lot of (invasive at times) questions. I think that’s why I’ve always liked to live on the move, experience different things, new places. Some awkward situations probably, but the biggest “trouble” is getting myself involved with my birth family because I had to find out more.
Andrea: Do you have any advice in particular for writers who are just getting started?
Mei-Ling: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Look for places to intern/get published. It’s a tough time right now—especially in journalism, but also in publishing. But I think things will calm down and we’ll be surprised at the media that will emerge for writers. Hopefully!
Andrea: I hope so, too! One last “big” question, and that is: What is it that you hope readers will take away from Lucky Girl? An overall message, sentiment, etc.?
Mei-Ling: I hope people see that Lucky Girl is not just about adoption. It’s about coming to terms with the family and the fate that we are given, and doing the best we can with it. We all have complicated pasts and colorful characters in our families, and we all have to come to terms with them. The question is where we take it from there.
Andrea: And one last “small” question—we always ask people: What’s your six-word memoir?
Mei-Ling: One plane ride can change everything.
READ the first chapter of Lucky Girl
BUY a copy of the book
WATCH the Lucky Girl trailer