The scrap of paper in David Lai’s hands is not just a list; it’s also a love letter of sorts.
The 24-year-old has never been able to read the Chinese characters neatly written next to the numerals that run from 1 to 14. This August the words were finally translated for him. They revealed simple instructions for his care from his birth mother who gave him up for adoption when he was six weeks old.
“Hand wash baby’s clothes” and “keep baby off his tummy while he’s sleeping” are on the list – they’re desperate directives filled with intimate knowledge and gentle wishes for the best care for an infant she knew she’d never see grow.
Unto us a baby is born
David looks over the letter on the dining room table in the home he shares with his adoptive parents Gail and Douglas Lai in Kensington, Johannesburg. He doesn’t know the author, yet increasingly he says he feels her presence. He now wants to understand her words written in Chinese and he wants to find her.
“I think I have her jawline,” he says, scanning one of only two photos that he has of her. The story of his birth mom, as he’s heard it, is that she went by the name Jia Keng and arrived in South Africa in the early 1990s. It was the time when a so-called third wave of Chinese migrants was arriving in South Africa. As the end of apartheid was imminent, the country’s borders were being wedged apart a little more.
The 27-year old Jia fell pregnant and her boyfriend (said to be a Taiwanese man) disappeared from the scene. Left on her own and with her visa about to expire, she was too afraid to arrive back in China as an unwed pregnant woman. She decided to give her child up for adoption in South Africa.
Gail and Doug’s Chinese miracle
The Chinese South African community had always been tiny and it was unheard of for Chinese babies to be given up for adoption. Those who did want to adopt Chinese babies often had to travel to Hong Kong to deal with private agencies there at considerable expense.
Johannesburg couple Gail and Douglas Lai had, meanwhile, after 11 years of trying to fall pregnant, decided to put their names on Johannesburg Child Welfare’s adoption register. They expected that their adopted child would be a different race to them and they expected to be on the waiting list for years.
“Within a month we got a phone call and they said they had a Chinese baby boy up for adoption – we were so surprised, he really was the miracle we’d been praying for,” says Gail of the child born in the same year South Africa became a democracy.
The open adoption meant they got to meet Jia once. It was a meeting with many tears, Gail remembers. It was also the first time she and Douglas met the baby that Jia had named Byron and who would become their child when Jia left for Shanghai.
‘David’ is born
The Lais christened the baby David Shaun. They would receive one final letter from Jia through Child Welfare, but then the ties became untangled and are now frustratingly for David, just loose ends.
“I really want to find her. It’s strange because I’ve never known her but I miss her. I think she was strong to have given me up for a better life.
“I think I’m quite a soft and sensitive person and I’m trusting, maybe to a fault. I wonder if she’s like that,” David says.
David says he’s insecure about many things, but embracing his vulnerability may be a strength he’s discovering – maybe the unlikely lesson he’s learnt from opening up to look for Jia. Likewise there’s a lesson that even when he disagrees with his adoptive parents, it’s not a sign of distance but rather that engagement and even raging can lead to understanding and acceptance.
David is growing into his story as he grows as an adult. Recently he started wearing the two pieces of gold jewellery Jia left for him. They were included along with the note and a big brown teddy bear.
Gail and Douglas told him from the beginning that he was adopted and they accept that David is now on a quest.
“I wish it for him, I hope he finds her because it will be good for David to have answers and some closure. I will always be his mommy, I know that, I’m secure in that,” she says, drawing her son into her gaze from across the table.
David fiddles with the small charm pendant from his birth mom that he is trying out as an earring. It has a dog on the one side, representing the Chinese horoscope year in which he was born, and on the flipside the Chinese character for good fortune. He decides to take a selfie, showing off the earring.
“I want to post this because who knows, maybe she recognises the jewellery, or recognises me and we can find each other,” he says.
By Ufrieda Ho
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