The Search for Family Roots or Adoption: Taiwan Style

During the winter, a Tumblr friend and fellow Persephoneer, Ipomoea, posted about researching her family’s roots. Others responded with info about themselves, their genealogies, and family stories, and this led me to reflect on my own family’s history. I am interested in my biological relations. There are a couple of secrets I’d like to explore about both families, but I have very limited skills in Mandarin Chinese. I’ll speak of what I was able to glean from my parents and address certain customs that are foreign to Western genealogical research, specifically adoption. Here I will deal with my father’s family. I gave them American names for convenience’s sake. In 1966, only 16 months old, I left Taiwan with my mother to join my father in Pennsylvania, part of the wave of highly skilled and educated immigrants who took advantage of the Immigration and Nationality Reform Act of 1965. As the eldest granddaughter for both families, I want to pass on a legacy to my children, niece, and nephews.

On my father’s side is the Hung family. Grandma Hung birthed six sons and four girls. They were very poor. One daughter died as a toddler. The second son, “Phillip,” and second daughter, “Ruth,” were adopted out of the family. The traditional custom of adoption is very different from the U.S. First, blood lines are of prime importance. Second, it is the family unit that is significant, one’s place within the collective unit, not the individual her/himself. Third, boys are favored over girls because it’s about preserving the family name. Names must be carried on through sons, preferably biological. Males need to be in households to establish a name and figurative guardian. Inheritance is supposed to be evenly meted out among legally recognized heirs, but it falls to families to interpret (squabble about) that. There is favoritism on the oldest son as the heir apparent. If children are adopted out, it’s often to a relative who is childless or is willing to help the family or close family friends.  It isn’t the “stranger to stranger” relationship that we know today.

Let’s start with my Uncle Phillip. He was adopted out to the Huang family as a baby. Going back a through the family archive is a Chinese puzzle box of a story. Somewhere a few generations before me, arrangements were made between the Hung and Huang families. I believe the Huangs might be cousins. There were situations involving lack of male heirs, widowed spouses, poverty, and children being adopted into the Hung household who were actually of Huang stock.  One Huang/Hung boy was my grandfather. From what I gathered, he was born into the Hung family but was really of Huang lineage. These odd bits and pieces were passed on to me by my father before he died. No one is around in the U.S. to give me the accurate details. In order to get the straight story, I’d have to travel to Taiwan and interview living relatives, record and analyze their individual stories. It would be a case for Charlie Chan.

The second daughter, Aunt Ruth, was what was known as a “difficult baby.” Already plagued by poverty, my grandmother gave away this second girl to a close family friend. Daughters were not highly valued, especially if they were colicky and uncooperative. My oldest aunt’s formal education did not go beyond middle school, par for the course of poor Taiwanese girls in the 1940s. Aunt Ruth’s foster grandmother was very kind and wanted a little girl. The foster-mother had a son already, and the adoption of my aunt was done so for having the two children marry when they became adults. This practice of acquiring a young girl as a future bride is still done today, but it is kept on the down low.

Uncle Phillip and Aunt Ruth were both raised knowing who their biological families were. This was common. What is unusual is that both have remained close to their biological siblings. Perhaps it’s because my father’s family was respected for the many academic achievements among the other siblings, so there was secondary prestige. At some point, my impetuous aunt declared that she was unhappy being with her foster family. Grandpa Hung was sympathetic and “canceled” the adoption, and Ruth adopted our family name. Note that there weren’t legal procedures with these open adoptions. Arrangements were made and children’s names were entered into family registries. (Hopefully the process is more formalized now. There are adoptions of orphaned and abandoned children now, too.). Aunt Ruth continued to live with the foster family but still stayed close to her biological siblings, always reminding them of the grave injustice of being the “unwanted girl who was easily given away.”

Grandma Hung had openly expressed remorse and great reluctance about the surrendering of her second son – to repay the family debt – and aiding in the matter of heirs for the Huang household. But her remorse did not extend to her second daughter, or my aunt didn’t (couldn’t) hear her biological mother’s laments. Aunt Ruth actually had a more comfortable material life and more educational advantages living with her foster family. She was able to attend a very prestigious university and later traveled to the U.S. for graduate studies. It was a better material fate than her older sisters, who had to serve all her brothers (five left in the house), parents, and younger sister. (Incidentally, when they reached adulthood, part of the two remaining daughters’ wages were “donated” to the family till, but not the sons’.)

In the end, I still don’t know if my family name should truly be Hung or Huang. There are only eight, not nine, recognized children of my father’s generation. Uncle Phillip’s children are my biological cousins, but they are not part of our official cousin count. Aunt Ruth was childless, so that is an easier matter. Ruth, though, is the one aunt with whom I had a good and ongoing relationship because she grew up here in the U.S. with me and resided in the same state. As a child, I did not understand my father’s annoyance with her, but my mother was always kind and open and encouraged me and my brother to be good to her. She was one of only three relatives who immigrated with us. It was after her death two years ago that ugly stories about her manipulations – mostly resulting from unrequited bitterness and chronic depression – have come to light. I listen, but do not take the information as gospel. It may have been her truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Our stories are already tinged with sexism and misogyny, brought on by patriarchal customs of Taiwanese and Chinese culture. Uncle Phillip has lived a far happier life and has inherited the Huang property. He’s sole heir and the namesake. The two fates are drastic contrasts, displaying how cultural customs and family secrets twist branches of my family tree.

7 replies on “The Search for Family Roots or Adoption: Taiwan Style”

Thanks so much for sharing. I’m an adopted person who finds stories of adoption throughout the world fascinating.

It’s weird but your family experience is similar to a friend of mine who is from a Pacific Island near New Zealand. When she was born she was given to a family friend who was childless and raised by them. I don’t think it was formally acknowledged or approved by any sort of authority. Of course this island is tiny (I think there’s only maybe 2 or 3 thousand people there) so of course everyone else knew and would tell her as she was growing up. When her adoptive parents died she ended up having a relationship with her birth parents as well as her brothers and sisters.

On the other hand, LTR, adopted children on the whole face less stigma in the U.S. because of the importance placed on bloodlines for Chinese/Taiwanese.

We’re more open and accepting with notions of adoption in the U.S. There are trade offs for both systems. My aunt and uncle’s situation is a variation of the typical set up.

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