Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Heritage, future, love: reflections of an adoptee

It is not entirely unique that adoptees from developing countries are reunited with their biological family. In the mid-1970s, I was adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden, 18 months old. Nearly three decades later (2004) I was united with my mother's family and a decade later with my father’s.

What is unique about my case is that it was they who searched for and found me. Which they further did more or less independently of each other and via such wondrous routes and sequences that even I started to falter in my agnostic beliefs.

Until they found me, I had a very faint interest in my origin. There was, somewhere, a vague notion of a destitute peasant family or the like. Probably impossible to locate. Perhaps they had succumbed to all the misery that befell Ethiopia – poverty, war, famine.

Hope and consequent ambitions to one day meet them were nil, zero, zilch. From which followed that were we to unite, it would be up to them to find me  – an option so unfeasible I didn't contemplate it.

It was my sister who found me on my mother’s side, and my aunt on my father's side. They had heard that I existed. Biology tugged.

What triggered my aunt was the sudden death of her brother, my father, while my sister’s search was prompted by her and my mother fleeing to Europe.

In what follows, I reflect on the unifications in a context of biological heredity, social heredity and the future. But if you want to leaf through a detailed account of how they found me, see the following article: http://andreiliberec.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/a-quirk-of-fate-how-ethiopian-mum-was.html.

Man is shaped by genes and environment. While ties of blood interweave with social ones in biological families, the former ties conspicuous by their absence in adoptive families. It is hardly surprising that adoption studies form a central field in behavioural research as social heredity can here be set against biological heredity with particular sharpness. With regards to traditional adoptions from developing countries, the sharpness can be further honed by the ethnic difference between parents and child.

Adopted from Ethiopia, it was obvious that I didn't share genes with the parents I grew up with. Stuff differed, from facial features to ailments (hospitals, few institutions remind you as starkly of your adopted origin as hospitals - the section on “diseases in the family” always left blank). All of this while we were woven together socially, through experiences, memories, quarrels, love; a togetherness that was reflected –  and with age became increasingly apparent – in characteristics, manners, outlooks, values.

Love, yes. The Korean adoptee Astrid Trotzig wrote that “blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood." As much as I agree with the core sentiment, I think that in the connection between flesh and blood is a dimension impossible to reproduce in social form. A dimension that’s elementary, essentialist by nature, and perhaps most palpable between mother and child.

I was bereft of it when growing up. At friends, I marvelled at their having been carried by the woman who nurtured them. How does that feel, to have lain and been formed in the mother who reared you; to daily see the body from whence one came – a constant point of reference which must connect mother and child in a particular way?

But due to having neither ambition or hope to find my biological family, I reconciled myself to never experiencing such a connection.

Hence the reaction in 2004 when I met my Ethiopian mother. Initially, I saw nothing of myself in her. She was a stranger.

But during our second day it hit me as she stood at the kitchen counter and I saw her in profile. A fleeting moment forever frozen. A combination of punches that took my breath away. 

The left jab: I saw my own profile, for the first time my biological self in someone else. 

The right hook: my gaze moved to her belly and – bam! –  it sank in that from there, precisely from there, I had sprung.

But how far can such a biological connection reach? It may go deep emotionally, but is it sufficient for creating a future relationship?

The most obvious consequence of my coming together with my flesh and blood was that I became a Londoner. Four years after finding me, I moved to my Ethiopian sister in London to live with her. However, this was ultimately not a consequence of the biological connection but rather that that connection was complemented by a social one. We simply clicked, in the quotidian, the main, the fundamentals – in discussions, values, pursuits, attitudes.

Without a deeply felt social bond it is hard to have a lasting, warm relationship. That is my conclusion: for a profound future relationship, blood in itself goes but skin-deep. It attracts, invites, but doesn’t reach beyond the cloakroom on its own. To get further in – and (be allowed) to stay – you have to click and bond socially. As the law for enduring romantic relationships dictates: the outside makes you stop, the inside makes you stay.

That I got along socially with my flesh and blood can partly be due to my Ethiopian mother’s and father’s families being well-off. In cases of adoption from developing countries, you usually find a form of double class difference where the adoptive parents tend to come from the rich world’s middle classes and the children from the poor world’s lower classes. But my flesh and blood were socio-economically affluent.

This may have facilitated our social bonding, offset tensions in our meetings. Several of the family members had lived in Europe and the US. My sister and aunt had received (costly) Western style education. They consequently spoke good English – so the fundamental social tool, language, did not constitute a barrier – and they had outlooks and values ​​that weren’t in substantial conflict with mine. They did not ask for monetary or other favours that could have put a strain on our relationships.

So blood did not ipso facto lead to the cordial relationship I now enjoy with my Ethiopian relatives. Socio-economy, frames of reference, language and ’cultural’ compatibility contributed. That my Swedish parents have established a good relationship with my Ethiopian family strengthens this thesis.

Love is the oxygen of lasting, heartfelt relations. My eyes moistened 2004 when I connected biologically with my mother. They have since welled up regularly as the realisation recurrently washes up on me of the immense love that I have been and am the subject of – Swedish, Ethiopian, social, biological 

Tis a privilege.

They are bound to moisten in the future, these eyes of mine. ■■