As much as I love my older sister, I am jealous of her. Not because she’s almost four inches taller than I am, or that she has a great sense of humor. I’m jealous because my parents raised her and they didn’t raise me. I was their second daughter and so they hid me to try again to have a son. They succeeded.
I became my family’s “hidden daughter,” known in China as being a “black child.” For a long time, I didn’t know this happened to millions of other girls. When I was young, all I knew was that I felt very much alone.
My mother was not my mom
I remember little from my childhood. Later on, I was told about how I was transported at night on a motorcycle by my aunts to a family in a nearby village. I was 28 days old when they left me there. I stayed with that family until I was five.
All of this happened to me because I am a girl.
My aunt, who is my mom’s youngest sister, visited me from time to time and bought me clothes. But my parents never visited me. Back in my hometown, a small village in Wenzhou in southeast China, couples prefer to raise a son. This feeling is especially strong among my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. It was my grandma who insisted that my parents have a son to carry along the family lineage and earn “face” for our family. The one-child policy regulations in Wenzhou gave my parents only one more chance to give birth to a son after my sister was born.
The family that raised me took me to the church where my mom’s relatives went. Everyone except me knew I was not the birth daughter of this family. One day, someone told me this; she said that the person I was calling “mom” was not the woman who’d given birth to me. Starting that night, after we got home from church, I started to call her “aunt.”
I had many families
When I was five, I was brought to Changshu, Jiangsu, a small city near Shanghai, where my birth parents were running their furniture business. It was there that they gave birth to my brother since it was safer for them to have him in a place where nobody knew them. Soon after he was born, my grandmother who only spoke the Wenzhou dialect (totally different from Mandarin) came to the city to be with my parents and their new baby. A few months later, she took my baby brother back to Wenzhou to care for him until he was old enough to attend elementary school.
Even when my birth parents moved me to the same city where they were living, they paid a family to take care of me. Since I was older then, I have distinct memories of being left at home during thunderstorms and crying alone in my room. When I was six years old, my parents went back to Wenzhou. They had me decide if I wanted to go back, too. But I had the bizarre idea that the schools in my hometown were prisons and the kids in them were treated like prisoners. Even if I could be with my parents, I didn’t want to do: actually I was afraid to stay with them. When I finally did move in with them years later, I asked my sister and brother to tell my parents what I wanted, even if it was just a beverage. I did that for several years.
I entered elementary school in Changshu. Since my sister had been at this school for two years, she stayed behind, too, and both us remained in Changshu until we finished at this school. In the six years I was in Changshu, I lived with two families. The first one treated me well, but as they started their own business they had less time to take care of me. One night, we had a big fight. I was cranky and bad-tempered, so they packed my things and dropped me with the family where my sister was staying. I never saw them again.
A retired elementary teacher and her husband, who had taught high school, became my second family in Changshu. During most of the day, they cared for their grandchildren, and I came to love both of them. They taught me lessons that I value most in my life — to be polite, to work hard, and to be humble. When people would ask them who I was, they’d laugh and say that I was their outside granddaughter. In this part of China, maternal grandparents are referred to as the “outside grandparents,” whereas the character for “grandparents” is used for the son’s parents. So I called her “good grandma,” which is the name that granddaughters call their maternal grandmothers.
I was told I was different
Still, I was a “hidden child.” As such, I had no hukou, which is the official registration a child needs to become a permanent resident in China. Every legitimate Chinese citizen has a hukou that instantly identifies the place where her family lives. While a rural hukou would restrict many things in my life if I wanted to live in a city, it was still vital for me to have one. But I didn’t, and so my existence remained a violation of China’s law.
“You are different. You have no hukou. You should work harder than all your peers,”
my good grandma would repeat to me, encouraging (or maybe warning) me to study harder.
Repeatedly, she would tell me, or one of the relatives would, that I was a “black child.” Because this is considered shameful, I never told my friends. But I did tell a very few of my friends that I have two siblings and I am the middle girl. I did not want them to look down on me.
I worked hard in elementary school. So, in 2004, I was recommended to attend the top public school in Changshu. But because in China’s system I didn’t exist, I could not register for that school. My birth family had me return to Wenzhou, where they enrolled me in a private middle school. It was a boarding school, so again I didn’t live with them. But I am grateful that this school let me in based on the paperwork my family gave them.
The paperwork was fake.
My birth family kept two different sets of household registration at home. Mine was the one that wasn’t real. I didn’t have a photo ID, for example. When I was not in school, I’d take buses or my father drove me places. I never took a train or a flight before I got a valid ID. The only way that happened is that my parents paid the fine of a few thousand Chinese yuan for having me, which was a common practice in my hometown.
People are willing to pay a lot to have a son.
Finally, when I was in eighth grade, I got my hukuo. I had to get it because it was time for me to register to take exams for high school. When my father went to register me into my family, he put the wrong date for my birth. He just didn’t remember. Still, I was legal, and I got my photo ID, and for the first time I took a flight that summer.
If I were a boy
Technically, I am not their “hidden daughter” anymore, but when I meet distant relatives or family friends, they remind me every time of my lesser status. They will look at me and ask out of curiosity, “Who is this girl?” Because I look a lot like my mother, they’ll guess that I belong in our family. Confirmation is met with a great “ah ha.” Sometimes, they’ll say to me, “Oh, I didn’t know your parents have another daughter.” Awkward moments like this happen all the time.
For a long time, I hated my parents. I felt resentful. I’d say to myself, “Whoever is up there watching the whole earth ‘Why did my parents gave birth to me even though they don’t want me? Couldn’t they just abort me so I don’t need to suffer?’” I wrote about my resentment in a composition exam in elementary school, which is precisely the place where a child should never express her true feelings.
When I was in high school, a friend told me that her father drove 15 hours every two weeks to be with her. He missed her and wanted to see her. I thought she was talking nonsense, and I told her, “Oh, that’s disgusting.” She was really upset at me for saying that, but the truth is that I did not understand that there is love between fathers and daughters, that such feelings don’t exist only on TV and in the movies.
My birth parents always talk about how other middle girls suffered in their families. They told me about one girl who was not allowed to eat with the family she was living with and her bowl grew moss in it. She slept in the attic, like Harry Porter. I don’t know if other girls’ stories are true, but I understood why my parents wanted me to believe they are. As a “hidden daughter,” I was lucky, they were telling me.
I didn’t feel lucky at all. I felt ashamed. I was trouble for my family, and I hated myself for being a girl. Thousands of times, I asked myself why I am not a boy.
But I am lucky I have my sister. We stayed in the same family in elementary school for about two years until she went back to hometown for middle school and she has always cared about me. We did homework together, read together, learned things together, and, of course, we fought with each other for nothing important, like sisters do.
In recent years, I’ve tended to keep my distance from my parents. For a while, after I’d moved back to Wenzhou, I’d be with for about three months a year. But since I’ve been in college, in China and then in the United States, I rarely see them, though we do stay in touch (occasionally).
I become a friend with myself
As I pulled away from my family, I tried making friends with myself. It wasn’t easy. I blocked memories from my past, but until this year I didn’t think I could be a very good friend to myself. Toward the end of last year, I attended a Christian conference in Baltimore. There, I met a counselor who is best known for her ability to learn things from your childhood. I talked with her for several hours; I did the most of the talking. Both of us were crying.
At the end of our conversation, she suggested that I write a letter to myself. That letter turned out to be the most difficult one I’d ever written. On paper, on my laptop, on my iPad, on my phone, I tried to write it countless times. Each time, I cried so much that I could not keep writing. I felt I’d failed. Then, during a long flight, when I had nothing else to do, I started writing. Of course, I cried, too. The man sitting next to me became a bit terrified, but I did it! I wrote more than half of my letter as I opened up and walked through my miserable memories. Finally, I finished my letter, and I discovered that the counselor was right; writing it helped me to heal some parts of my unhappiness. Not all, but some. There are still many times when I feel sensitive about these experiences and I lack confidence in myself all the time.
I love my friends, and I do everything I can to please them. I’m afraid that my friends would stop liking me, if I don’t. If a person shows me kindness, I easily like them. I still don’t like it when others physically touch me, especially my mom, though there’s some part of me that loves her now.
It was only when I came to study in the United State and began to see and learn about all of the Chinese girl adoptees that live here with their families that I finally felt that I am not all alone.
When I met and talked with some of these adopted girls, starting with three girls adopted by a single mom, I feel a strange kind of connection in our lives, though they don’t speak Chinese and they told me that they don’t like China. I sense in them a similar sensitivity and realize how their lives are shaped, too, by their abandonment by their birth family in China.
In a documentary film about adoption, one adoptee was asked how she felt about being abandoned in China. She paused for a long time, and then she couldn’t say anything. She was crying. Watching her, I couldn’t stop crying. The feeling of abandonment is the deepest and most painful feeling I have. It might be the source of the fears I have towards all forms of relationship. It is what caused the gulf between my parents and me, especially my father. It stole from me the natural security that I am still looking forward to having one day.
If I could travel back to any time of my life, when would that be? Who would I want to see?
I’ll do everything I can to go back to that little kid sitting on the bed alone, crying. And I’ll give the little me a huge hug and tell her I am loved.
Simeng Dai is a graduate student in journalism at Boston University, who has lived in six cities in two countries, China and the United States.