I was thirteen when I discovered that my maternal grandparents were actually my adoptive grandparents. We were at a wet market when my mother dropped that unexpected detail about her life – that she was adopted as a baby.
A few years after my grandparents adopted my mother, they adopted other children from other families. These children became my mother’s younger siblings. So my uncles and aunt were adopted too. Out of six children in the family, four were adopted.
If those weren’t enough surprises, my mother also revealed that she was born Chinese, Teochew, to be exact. She was given away as a baby because her family was poor and she was a girl. In the 1950s and 60s, it was quite common to hear of baby girls being given away, as boys were preferred in the Chinese household.
So there was adoption, and add on to that, inter-racial adoption.
The conventional family I thought I had wasn’t conventional at all. I grew up thinking that it was normal for family members to look vastly different from one another. I thought all families looked Malay, Chinese and Indian at the same time.
Despite our different appearances, my grandparents treated all their children the same. Each was clothed, fed and educated the same way. And me, they spoilt rotten.
What was in my grandparents’ hearts that they could open their homes to other children given up by their biological parents? It was on that day that I started to question my identity and what “family” meant.
My mother’s revelation explained a lot about my childhood; how strangers always asked if my mother is Chinese because she looked Chinese, why I sometimes think in Chinese, how my mother instinctively knew how to make fu chok (a beancurd skin dessert) and orh nee (a yam paste dessert) without learning. She would make them but she wouldn’t eat Chinese cuisine. It was strange.
It was through this new lens that I understood what my grandparents were about too – they believed in equality, no matter what background we came from. Children were loved, whether biological or adopted, girls were given the same education as boys, and rezeki (blessings usually in the form of food) were shared equally among all.
That’s why I wrote my first children’s book, What Sallamah Didn’t Know, about my mother’s childhood. My next book, The Ghost with Dirty Feet, is about my youngest uncle Ali, also adopted, and his adventures in the kampung we grew up in.
I wanted to write about the ordinary folk we encounter every day in our lives, who bring out the best in us.
And yet, our children don’t know enough of such stories because we haven’t documented them enough. Our heritage stories. Stories that belong to our families and to Singapore. My daughters are intrigued by who Nenek (Grandma) was as a little girl and how her family was made, not born.
For me, I get to pay tribute to the two people whose decision to adopt a Teochew baby girl in 1951, changed the course of my mother’s life, and in turn, mine.