I have never seen my birth parents’ faces.
For a long time, this didn’t bother me. Then one day it struck me that they were featureless and nameless people. I couldn’t imagine them. I couldn’t dream them in my sleep, not even as strangers.
Now I often wonder: who do I resemble the most? My birth mother or my biological father? There is an intense, unexpected mourning that came with the realisation that I may never know – that this question may stay unanswered. I expect it is the same for many others in my position.
I was adopted in 1997, after being abandoned at nine months old outside an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. My first name was Theary, which means ‘helper or aide’ in Khmer. Then when in the care of the orphanage, I was Viyoletta Rath, ‘Rath’ meaning ‘child of the state.’
I used to take pride in the fact that I only spoke the English language, because it proved that I belonged here. Slang wasn’t well received as a teenager: it was television, not telly. It was yes, not yeah. It was pardon, not what.
Later, I was afraid that being interested in Cambodia and searching for my birth family would be mistaken by the British government as a desire to leave this country. The Windrush Scandal only strengthened my anxieties. When the news broke, I frantically texted my mum to see if she still had a copy of my naturalisation certificate.
“I was glad I didn’t know anything about my cultural heritage. It would signify ‘otherness’. That meant being part of the undesirable. It meant belonging to a culture that was exotic and coveted from afar, yet unwelcome when it arrived at British shores.”
“Don’t worry”, my family reassured me. “They can’t deport you. You’re British.” But the Windrush generation were British too, weren’t they? They had lived, loved and worked here. I wanted to crouch low, to be invisible, to be good. I was glad I didn’t know anything about my cultural heritage. It would signify ‘otherness’. That meant being part of the undesirable. It meant belonging to a culture that was exotic and coveted from afar, yet unwelcome when it arrived at British shores. It meant foreign food and a language tainted by difference. ‘Otherness’ signified a threat. I just wanted to belong.
I grew up in Devon, on the south-west coast in England. We lived on outskirts of Totnes, a town filled with hippies, health food shops and stylish boutiques for holidaying Londoners. It was a safe place to be. I could walk home at night for miles and not meet anyone. It was an accepting community and I don’t remember any racism.
Yet despite my crisply enunciated, RP English, bath with an R, a lazy drawl when I was trying too hard, it wasn’t enough. At Freshers Week, “your English is so good”‘; at the flower shop buying a bouquet, “are those for your exchange hosts? “Even though my identity was rooted in Britain, I could never be white like my parents. I was brown, Asian, ethnic, the other. Nothing could change that, no matter how hard I tried.
“Adoption is one of the most selfless acts a human can do. But it comes with risks for everyone involved – trauma, unresolved grief, anger.”
As an adult, I’ve had time to and articulate my thoughts more clearly. A sense of clarity has finally arrived with maturity. Adoption is one of the most selfless acts a human can do. But it comes with risks for everyone involved – trauma, unresolved grief, anger. I think in a way, I have been grieving. Nobody is to blame for this. It’s just one of those things.
I’ve only visited Cambodia once since my adoption. We went there on holiday in 2013. When the plane touched down, I thought I would have an epiphany, like the ones that happen in the movies. It wasn’t like that. There was nothing for me there. There was no home in the faces that mirrored mine. I couldn’t speak the language. I knew nothing about Cambodian culture or traditions.
“I lack the anchor of my cultural heritage. I have no words or songs, no recipes, no stories. I secretly envy those who have been brought up in two cultures, the ease at which they can melt between two worlds.”
I recognise that a large part of my identity is missing. I lack the anchor of my cultural heritage. I have no words or songs, no recipes, no stories. I secretly envy those who have been brought up in two cultures, the ease at which they can melt between two worlds. I love the richness of ‘in my culture, there is a saying…’, the interweaving of family histories with the present.
As children, we have no control over our circumstances. As adoptees, this is especially true: we have moved across continents and countries to be with new families. We are offered new lives and given new names. But sometimes pieces of ourselves are left behind.
I’ve entered a new chapter in my life, one where I can work towards reconciliation and making peace with myself. The search for my birth family will be long and there is no guarantee of closure. Despite this, the urge to find the answer to the fundamental question of ‘who am I?’ has started to weigh on me. Time is passing us by.
Perhaps one day I can dream about the faces that first saw mine.