Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Father's Thoughts One Year After Adopting his Daughter

'The Island Pagoda'
from Foochow and the River Min by John Thomson

I knew of Fuzhou before our daughter was born there. The city’s name hung in the air of my father’s study when I was small, together with the smoke from his pipe that curled around other names I heard spoken there: Tientsin, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, Hankou, Nanjing. Interesting names, having something to do with his work, but also printed over the old postage stamps he collected in rows of black binders, names spelled in different European languages – Foochow, Futschau, Fou-Tchéou – and stamped over the images of European sovereigns who cleared the way before everything affixed to them.

One year after bringing Mei Mei home from the once treaty port and now affluent modern city of Fuzhou on China’s southern coast, memories like this take on new significance. They are a link to my daughter, a rationale for why it is I who am her father and not someone else, in the absence of any knowledge of who her biological parents were. After the first traumatic months – the gorging and recovery from undernourishment, the surgical removal of rotten teeth and the repair of a cleft palate, the fearful howling and tentative attachment, the rotation of various therapists through the house on a weekly basis – after all of this, something akin to normalcy has settled upon our household. It no longer feels like we have a boarder on the third floor, a small Queequeg coated in layers of dust whose pointed teeth were carved by cavities rather than a Maori chisel.

I begin to consider all the ways in which our daughter now fits ‘naturally’ into our family and its history. I return to my philatelic memory and wonder, was it pure coincidence, that I knew about Fuzhou and treaty ports long before I knew about other things? Or that we would one day travel there to adopt our daughter?  My first sense is that it is coincidental, without a doubt. Families are matched with children from across China; we could easily have been called to a place that had not been a treaty port and that I had not heard of when I was small.  My frail effort to establish some sense of ‘deep’ paternity with Mei Mei, something besides the legal kind that is embedded in all her documents, is no more than a mythopoetic effort to compose a few harmonies from a mass of moderately random experience.

Perhaps this is my attempt to create the kind of link, the sense of connection, that is unselfconsciously affirmed whenever a child is said to resemble a parent, or a grandparent, or to have a certain trait that is reminiscent of how so-and-so used to tilt her head, how she used to laugh, or how she used to notice this-but-not-that about the world. In all of these ways we claim direct physical embodiment of our ancestors. They are, in a sense, inside of us forever. A state of holy communion that has long been the objective of ritual: when we consume the divine, we are at one with it. We are not alone.

This sense of belonging probably won't be available to Mei Mei.

Then again, obviously we are surrounded by people most of the time. Why limit oneself to the ancestors and their embodiment in our DNA? As I have learned from my uncle, who has been slowly but steadily tracing out our ‘family tree’, it is tempting to be selective about who we identify with among our forebears. When for a brief moment it seems as though a great great grandfather was a learned rabbi, a man respected by his community, or that another was a dandy, a cosmopolite and worldly success in the constrained world of the Czars, I become excited. I become less so before the photographs – a majority – of less distinctive though no less closely related folk. 

Not only that, but the complexity of descent over more than a few generations quickly becomes boggling, and the notion of ‘family’ empties of meaning as the general promiscuity of the human race becomes evident in the ever-ramifying branches of each single ‘tree.’ I strongly suspect that few people care much about knowing their ancestry beyond their mother, father, and grandparents – the people they have personally known in their lives – because to go further back makes the arbitrariness of our kinship structures plain.  

So my philatelic connection with Fuzhou may not be so meaningless. Or, at least, no more meaningless than my (fictional) claim to be descended from a grand rabbi in one line, rather than a serial embezzler in another, or any number of similar choices of identification. Perhaps I carry something that was part of them; but I also choose among them like so many books, some of which I wish to read, and others, not. 

Mei Mei doesn’t have quite the same selection of books to choose from. A wing of her library was destroyed when she was orphaned. But multiple wings have been added since, with the prospect of still more to be built in the future. There are many volumes at her disposal. Whether she will grow to be more concerned with the ones she has lost, or with the ones she has gained, I can't predict.