Hello. My name is Thomas Fernandes but everybody calls me TJ. I was born in Nanjing, China in August 1998 as Yu Ming Yang. I was found with baby formula at only 4 months old which makes me honestly feel that my Chinese family cared about me.
I was adopted by awesome family at the age of 6. I have three siblings and my older brother was also adopted from China. My parent also adopted my sister from India. I was also born deaf with microtia which is an ear deformity. My sister from India is also deaf like me. This mean that when I was adopted into the family, the communicate was not that hard because they were already familiar with creating an environment supportive of deaf kids. We would communicate by pointing to things and using actions. My parents were a doctor and nurse so they knew medically what was best for me. I am truly grateful for what they have provided to me and my sibling.
I was 7 years old when I started to learn my first language which was American Sign Language. I used sign language until I got my hearing aid at around 8 years old and from then, I was able to learn how to speak English. I went to the South Carolina School for the Deaf until 8th grade. Then I went to MSSD (Model Secondary School for the Deaf) which is on Gallaudet University (a well known university for deaf and hard of hearing students). After graduating from MSSD, I am currently at RIT (Rochester Institute of a Technology) for my IT Technician major (3rd year). I am also currently studying Korean and Chinese at the same time.
In thinking about my past, I learned that my orphanage, known as Changshu Children’s Welfare Institute (in Nanjing, China) is a place for children who have a disability and with special needs such as down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness and heart disease. The nurse put me in a room where it has many beds and I remember that my bed was near the wall. I did try to make a friend but I noticed their mouths moved a lot and I knew that they were hearing. I tried to talk with them but I didn’t know how to speak Chinese.
Lucky for me, I did make one friend and she didn’t talk. She was very hyper so I decided to hang out with her. Surprisingly her bed was right next to me. We always communicated a lot about what we saw in the books and on the television. Her and I would always watch Teletubbies shows and my favourite character was the red one. I think she might have been deaf too because she seemed normal to me.
One day I saw her with a group of people. That was when I knew she was going to be adopted. I was deaf at that time and didn’t have a hearing aid. I tried to get her name so I ran to school (in the orphanage) to get a note so that she could write her name and I could find her when I got older. But since she was deaf, she didn’t know her name either. I also didn’t know my name at that time. We only knew our character name but didn’t understand how to write it. So I went to nurse and pointed to her, then at the paper, trying to communicate – could she put my friend’s name on the paper – but they didn’t understand me. I was left crying and bawling hard because I wanted her to be my best friend for rest of my life.
I still think about her and wonder how she is doing. I hope I see her again one day. That was the most heartbreaking experience for me. I do think of her and hope she’s doing great. I hope she was adopted by an amazing family just like I have because she deserves it. Maybe I might find her someday, maybe in one of the groups for asian adoptees?
I wish I knew her name! Hopefully she’ll recognise my orphanage photo and remember me. If she does, she can contact me here.
Guest post by Mike, adopted from Hong Kong to New Zealand.
I remember growing up in an orphanage until the age of 6. Some of my memories include playing in the little park which had a pond and loving nature, the little frogs and birds. When we were naughty, the older kids would hide rubber spiders in our beds saying they only came ’cause we naughty, till one night I got angry, sad at it and cut it in half – laughing and crying at same time, chucking it at other kids. I was always being the big brother figure.
I remember getting pushed off a stage and hurting my head. That’s where my fear of falling and being scared of heights comes from. It was heaps of fun growing up in orphanage. There I learnt what family was, my culture, my heritage, my language, I had a sense of belonging and identity. I was the smart but naughty kid!
I remember the last day before getting taken to New Zealand for adoption. My birth mother came to see me to say goodbye but I didn’t recognise her. She could only spend a couple of minutes with me because she didn’t do the paperwork. So for a while, that was always on my mind about so many “what ifs” and if it was my fault that I got taken away because I didn’t recognise her.
When I got adopted at age 6 and taken away to New Zealand by a white European couple, I had to re-learn and adapt so fast. It was all about fitting in and surviving!
My adoptive parents were not ready for the challenges that came with an older adoptee with a sense of identity. There was a lot of physical and emotional abusive. It was a crap family environment where they were abusive to each other, physically as well. They also had 2 foster kids who were spoilt! I was the black sheep of the family. I got bullied at school then would come home to be abused and beaten up there too. It made me grow up real fast and made me tougher.
They often used their abusive ways to try and mend me into the child they wanted. This of course, pushed me further and further to the point of running away at an early age, depression, attempted suicide, self harm, etc. At age 10, I ran away from home and ended up with a bunch of street kids for a week until they turned on me and beat me up, leaving me bloodied for the police to come pick me up and take me back to my adoptive parents. They tried so hard to mend and fix me with various psychologists, counsellors, etc., but to no avail.
My adoptive parents eventually got divorced when I was aged 15 and I ended up with my adoptive mother. Things went more downhill after that, which eventually lead me to a life of crime. I loved life as a youth criminal, the excitement of shoplifting, stealing, breaking into cars, etc., being part of a youth street gang. But this eventually led me to prison at age 19. I put 2 white boys in hospital from a group fight. The reason for the fight was because of my own racist views against the white people because at that time, I didn’t know all the issues and the mental state of mind I was in.
I got out of prison at age 21 and went back to my adoptive dad. It didn’t last very long because he was still stuck in that mentality that he could bully me and mould me into that model citizen that every dad can dream of. Much to his disappointment, I was in a deep state of depression, denial and hatred because I was so institutionalised – prison was kinda like the orphanage. I ended up joining the Triads and becoming a leader.
I have no regrets with the adoption, my past and everything that has happened as I have achieved so much through sport. I represented my country/homeland in sports, travelled the world, married the girl of my dreams, etc., but as I get older (37 in July), I am afraid of what future I have. My wife wants kids but I don’t have a job or stable income. I don’t want my kid(s) to go through what I did. In a gang, the lifestyle that I live, it’s hard when you have a criminal history, PTSD and a sense of fear of rejection.
A few years ago, my birth mother found me on Facebook. I went to Hong Kong to meet up with her a couple of times. It was disappointing. Maybe I expected the movie dramatic emotional meet up – but it was nothing like that! I was just like, “Oh yep! You’re my mum”. But we couldn’t communicate much due to the language barrier, so it was a bit disappointing. I have half sister who speaks English who lives with my mum. I found out my mother was only 18 years old when she had me and at the time. She was living in a women’s home. Her mother (my grandmother) was divorced at age 15 and had no ability to give her 2 girls stability – so she sent them to a girls home to survive.
Despite all I’ve lived, I guess what I want to say to adoptive parents is, you have a responsibility to the child you adopt – be a positive mother/father figure to the child that you’re bringing into your world. Try to have a better understanding of the challenges that your inter-racial child may have.
Mike welcomes your messages in response to his story.
As a child, I remember playing near the burn pits that laid by the small village of unpainted traditional Korean style homes (Hanoks). They nestled below a small outcrop of mountains, located in central Korea. My brother grabbed my hand to take me to see the prize he had found lying in the small garbage heap near our modest home. Among the charred remains of the trash there laid a couple of discarded light bulbs glistening in the harsh summer sun. We laughed as we smashed the bulbs into small shards of glass.
The small journey to the garbage pile and playing had worked up an appetite and I told my brother I was hungry. “Come follow me!” he called. I ran behind him as we raced down the trail towards the community garden. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and we scanned the garden to find something to eat. There amongst the tall weeds, we found the brightly yellow-colored melons called chamoe. It begged us to bite into its juicy flesh. I grabbed one of the fruits hungrily and sunk my teeth into the hard flesh. The fruit wasn’t ripe and it had a bitter taste. I threw the fruit on the ground in disgust and we ran home to see if grandma could make us something delicious to eat.
By the time we arrived home, it was nearing dusk and my stomach hurt with the pains of hunger. My brother ratted me out, telling my grandfather I had tried to eat the unripened fruit. My grandfather gingerly placed me on his lap and started patting my stomach in a circular motion to reduce the pain. I immediately fell asleep and was woken up by the sounds of feet pitter-patting around the rice mat floors. It was the sound of my brothers and sisters getting ready for school. I too got up, to walk my siblings down the country dirt road to school. As we walked, I was chastised by my siblings and told to go back home. I stood at the end of the dirt road waving goodbye as I watched my family vanish down the road that wound amongst rice paddies and train tracks, covered by the cool mist of the morning fog.
When I was married and in my mid-thirties, I asked my aunt to give me the contact information to meet up with my half siblings who I remembered from my youth. We made a phone call and I waited anxiously to see if we could connect. The person on the other end of the line was the wife of one of my older brothers and she was scathing mad that I was trying to connect with my siblings. She told me, “This is in the past and that is where it needs to stay!”
Several months later, I called the family again hoping to get my brother on the phone. I was chastised again for calling and disrupting the family. I was rejected, never to be allowed to reunite with the family from my childhood memories.
I sat uncomfortably on the hard lino covered floor of a traditional Korean Restaurant. The smells, sights and sounds so foreign to me. Just moments earlier, I had felt like I was on an epic journey “around the world in 80 days” with my aunt. That same morning my aunt was waiting for me at the entrance of the military camp where I was stationed. We rode the 5-hour long journey using a variety of transport: the jerky movements and clackity sounds of a train, the bumpy, vinyl covered back seat on a community bus that bellowed black smoke, and then a short ride on the Hyundai cab to the restaurant. None of the transport had air-conditioning and the hot sun beat down on my black hair. My brain felt as though it was boiling from the inside out. Large beads of sweat flowed from my brow when I arrived to meet my biological family.
When I entered the small restaurant, I scanned my eyes around to look for my new family. I caught a glimpse of my beautiful sister and then my father. It was odd for me to see someone who looked like me but a much older age. I felt as though I were in a time machine to meet a much older version of myself. My father’s head was covered with thinning grey hair and a receding hairline. The sunken cheeks and the deep wrinkles above the brow were telltale signs of a defeated person. My father was looked down at the table in shame.
I was asked questions about my life in America and how I liked Korea. Once all the niceties were exchanged my father asked, “Why did you look for me?” I was dumbfounded by the question and as I was about to answer, a blur entered through the front entrance and walked up to our table. A short stout young man entered the room with a wide grin on his face. His light brown eyes scanned the room looking at his dad and then at me … his face was distorted with confusion and then he rushed up to me and gave me a bear hug and began sobbing in my arms. I look like a younger replica of my father and my brother recognized that I was his brother immediately.
As a child, I remembered the siblings I had grown up with. I never assumed my father would marry again but via his third marriage, he brought two more siblings into this world for me to unite with.
The pecking order went like this: the four half brothers and sisters I grew up with in Chong-Ju, my sister and I who were sent to America, and the two half-siblings from my father’s third marriage. My father was a success in being a prolific procreator. My father’s personal decisions led to his first two separations and sadly his third wife succumbed to illness when her children were beginning elementary school. I think I bonded with my half siblings because they knew how it felt to grow up without a mother.
Within a year of uniting with my sibling, my father had a stroke that made him fully dependent for care. My younger sister Mi-san faithfully went to my father’s home each day to feed and bathe him. I wanted to be part of my siblings’ lives but the language barrier prevented me from picking up the phone or arriving at their doorstep to visit.
A year after I kindled the beginnings of a new relationship with my new family, I received orders from the military to move back to the United States. There was a five-year separation where life was a blur and my day to day actives was filled with school and work. In 1998, I received another chance to reunite with my family in 2001 when I was given assignment orders to South Korea as a second lieutenant. I was so happy to again partake in their lives. I attended my sister’s wedding, the birth of her daughter and visited their small home that was established near the place of my birth.
Life happens in a blur and six years later, I was once again moved away in 2007 due to my reassignment by the Army. As I left Sth Korea, I assumed I would get the chance to hang out with my new found brother and sister when I retired from military service. I hoped I would again have a chance to play with their kids, go on trips and share in the bounties of life.
In 2011 when I was serving in Afghanistan, I received an email from my aunt stating my brother had died unexpectantly in his sleep. My heart was crushed and I immediately flew back to Korea to bury my younger brother. I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that we cannot always look to the future to share and bond with those most important to us.
Taken for Granted
I was one of the lucky few adoptees to be adopted with a biological sibling. Initially, my sister was the annoying younger sibling that followed me everywhere. She was 2½ and I was 4 ½ years old when we were sent to the United States. I began kindergarten the same year that I arrived and learnt about American culture the hard way.
I was in trouble for going with the girls to the girl’s bathroom. I was chastised for not returning the books to the school library. I received detention for copying graffiti that was already written on the gym wall. I had no idea that the words, “the principal is a fucking retard” was derogatory! Life was a learning experience and nobody understood me at all.
My sister, on the other hand, was gifted. Life was unfair and it gave all the talent to one sibling but it was not me! She was a straight-A student. She made it to the State Finals as a gifted athlete. Even though I was 2 years older, she beat me when we raced towards the school bus. I later realised I was a pretty fast runner but my sister had that rare gift as an athlete. Lastly, my sister was way better looking. She won the local beauty pageant and after I joined the Army at 17 years old, I quit showing pictures of my little sister to my Army buddies because they would always ask me to set them up on dates with her. My sister had it all: she was stunningly beautiful, extremely smart and a gifted athlete who had the potential to compete at College or even at Olympic level.
Once my sister reached adulthood she chartered a different course and over time the energetic, bright young woman who I was familiar with, morphed into someone I could not recognise. The resilient person I knew became a shell of her former self. She sought out love and married at a young age. The love she was seeking was fleeting. At the end of 3 divorces, she lost everything that mattered to her, including her own children. She squandered her opportunities. She received the GI bill to pay for College but she never enrolled.
Time took its toll, her beauty faded and the life of constant defeat opened up a crevasse that allowed her to be defeated in everything she did. The desire to be successful was now a distant memory and today she stares in the mirror wondering who the defeated person is on the other side: the older woman with a scalp of thinning grey hair, wrinkled face from living a tough life, thin frail yellow nicotine-stained fingers that work minimum wage jobs to barely make ends meet. Every time I reach out she tells me everything is fine. Yet I hear from her children about the suffering she endures. Being evicted from her home, having to sell her car way below market price to make ends meet. I can read between the lines when she speaks to me. I no longer understand her and my privileged life cannot understand the difficulties that she faces.
My family search was bifurcated. On one side, the door was slammed shut and I was met with rejection. On the other, across the hall, the door was opened for me to meet my half-siblings. The hallway that leads to my sister has been eroded by the termites of life, treading down a once familiar path now filled with navigating around an unstable sister who has squandered her life away.
This is what life has taught me:
Don’t have unrealistic expectations when it comes to searching for family.
The range of emotions and outcomes will vary with each person’s journey.
If you are searching, be prepared you may be greeted with open arms to meet a family who may not want anything to do with you. What you think will happen may be something completely different. Treasure the journey.
I’m grateful for all the people who helped me along the way to find my family. Many people went out of their way to help and guide me through the process. Sometimes it takes patience and time for relationships to blossom. Of course, the opposite can also occur. Like in the case of my biological sister, our relationship has deteriorated over time and I can no longer recognize the person she has become.
A few days ago, I was invited to attend the filming of Sarah Henke to cook with a famous TV Chef from Korea 전현숙. He came to Germany to interview Sarah, a KAD chef who works at a restaurant and recently earned the coveted Michelin Star. During the filming of the program all guests were interviewed and asked a panel of questions. One of the questions was, “When was the first time you ate Korean food and do you remember eating Korean food as a child?”
Remembering distinct tastes: In 1990, I was mistakenly sent to the wrong training program by the US Army. Months before my training took place, I had signed up to be an engineer but cooking became my new profession. I was surprised to learn I was attending the Army’s culinary school at Fort Lee, VA. One of my instructors was from Korea and his name was SFC Park. He immigrated to the US in his teens and had a thick Korea accent. My friends and I would laugh every time he would tell us to place food on the cookie “shit” (sheet). A few weeks into the culinary program I became one of the top students and was recommended by SFC Park to be one of the students allowed to take an advance cooking course and train under a Master Chef in the evenings.
Several weeks into my training, SFC Park pulled me aside and asked me if I liked Korean food. I answered truthfully and stated I never grew up eating Korean food and did not remember ever eating it. That weekend I crawled into SFC Park’s car and we headed to Richmond for the area’s annual Korean festival and I feasted on numerous Korean dishes. All the flavors were new but wonderful! I gorged myself with Bulgogi (BBQ meat), Kimchee (fermented cabbage) and Japchae (sweet potato noodle dish). One dish caught my eye as I passed dozens of dishes and it contained a tupperware of what looked like tree leaves. I was informed they were not tree leaves and were “delicious” sesame leaves called Kkaennip. I grabbed a leaf and popped it into my mouth and began to chew. As soon as I tasted the distinct flavored leaves, I knew instantly that I had eaten this before. My face was filled with excitement and I rushed to my cooking mentor and told him that I remembered eating the dish when I was young.
Remembering clothing: When I was 5 years old I visited my grandmother’s farm. It was a last minute decision and my grandmother had to rummage through the closet to look for clothing I could wear outside whilst following her doing her chores. I remember seeing her toss out oversized scarves, gloves and hats as they were pulled out of the closet and compared to my small frame. A cap immediately caught my attention as she pulled it out of the closet. It was an olive drab green army cap with ear flaps. I became really excited and I told my grandmother that I remembered seeing a picture of my father wearing a similar cap when I lived in Korea. My grandmother looked at me and smiled. She said matter of factly, “I think you have a great memory or a great imagination”.
In 1996, I enlisted into the Active Component Army and signed up to go to the location of my choice. I turned down a chance of attending West Point and a full ride scholarship to St. John’s University for a chance to enlist in Korea and find my biological family. Newly assigned medics to Camp Casey, located in Dong-du-chon, were sent to the clinic to have their skills assessed and given on-the-job training for 30 days before being allowed to work in their assigned unit. During my training, I worked with the pharmacist Mrs. Kim. She took a look at me and asked if I was Korean. I explained to her that I was adopted from Korea. I also shared that I was looking for my biological family and she told me she would try to help.
Fate had it that Mrs. Kim so happened to attend College with the director of Eastern Social Welfare Society and she forwarded her friend a copy of my adoption papers. Within the first week, I was notified they were able to locate my aunt and she immediately traveled to see me at my base to introduce me to my father. During my initial meeting with my aunt, I inquired about a picture of my father that hung in the entrance of our home when I was a small boy. She immediately withdrew a black and white photo of my father wearing the hat from her purse and gave it to me to keep.
Remembering activities: I was overjoyed to learn that I would be heading to Korea at my first duty station as a newly minted second lieutenant. During my second tour to Korea I had my third physical trigger that reminded me of my childhood in Korea before moving to the United States. One weekend I was walking through the streets with my fellow lieutenant buddies from the s1/506th Infantry (Band of Brother’s Unit) near our base at Munsan to find a place to eat grilled meat. We walked several blocks looking for picture of cows or anything that gave an indication the restaurant served grilled meat. We found a sign with a picture of a cartoon pig and cow so we went inside to order food. George, the tall thin West Point graduate, made cow noises to indicate that he wanted to order bulgogi. I laughed at him and told him that Korean cows did not make the same sounds as American cows. We had a good laugh over his antics and I noticed the restaurant was using round cylinder-shaped charcoal to cook our meat. I pulled my buddies in and told themof how I remembered my grandmother cooking on these things when I was a boy in Korea.
That same year I met with my aunt again and asked her about my grandparent’s kitchen. I told her I remembered my grandmother cooking on top of the charcoal and she told me it was true. It wasn’t uncommon for country people to cook on charcoals that were used to warm the flooring of the houses. The charcoal cylinders served a dual purpose. She was surprised by the detail of things that I could remember from my childhood.
What the experts say: A week ago, on my drive to work I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. It is about how memory actually works and how understanding this relates to our relationship with the truth (podcast link is below). His multi-podcast lecture states that long term memories cannot be trusted. Individuals have a tendency to mask over memories with other stories that were told. The podcast indicates people are easily influenced by others and the environment around us and its not uncommon for our memories to change over time.
Jeffrey A. Vernon a physician summarized the podcast well by saying, “Literature shows our memories are more fluid and changeable with time than we’d like to believe; our memories are colored by our emotions both at the time of the event and the time of recall; and often contain details that never happened but, rather are “filled in” at a later point to “complete” the memory. The memory of our overworked brains often doesn’t have the attention span or processing power to constantly take in and record the entirety of life going on around.
I do agree with Mr. Gladwell and numerous studies that our memories become fragmented and do change over time. For instance, the fish I caught at the lake becomes bigger and the money I won at the poker game becomes greater. I do believe there are memories that we hold onto and can retain for the long term. Sure, some of the details can be fuzzy but the overall information is correct. We can often verify these important events with others that viewed the moment with us. I remember looking into my son’s big bright eyes when he was born. I remember being promoted to top position at the Korean Hospital in Afghanistan. I know these events to be real and validate them.
In Closing: I’ve spoken to several thousands of adoptees through face-to-face interactions and through social media. When I share my memories, many adoptees have expressed regret for not remembering their past. Many were several years older than I at adoption (I was 4.5 years when I was adopted to the United States). Some adoptees will question the authenticity when speaking about their adoption story because they have a hard time remembering details or events before a certain age. I don’t think individuals need to beat themselves up for not remembering anything. Sometimes the brain forgets in order to protect itself. I have witnessed this in the military. We often call the event battle fatigue, shell shock or combat stress reactions. It’s not uncommon for the brain to shutdown and forget things during stressful situations.
Lastly, children can age at different times. I’ve experienced this with my own children, where one child had high cognitive abilities at an earlier age than my other child. This could be another explanation about why people can’t remember – they simply were not at an age where their brain was developed enough to remember. I think it is good for individuals to dismiss their thoughts altogether because of this uncertainty. Memory dissipates and becomes foggy even for the smartest of individuals. If you feel that you recall something that nobody else does – keep it in the back of your mind and try to validate those thoughts as you learn more about the situation. I did and I was able to validate them to be true.