One Saturday when I was 8, my mom brought me to a Vietnamese language school on Canal Street in New York City. As I walked into the classroom, I smiled and said, “Xin chào tôi tên là Isabella.”
A boy shouted, “She can’t pronounce ‘hello.’” The class erupted into laughter, and I felt my face flush as I walked slowly to my chair.
A girl sitting next to me asked, “You don’t look Vietnamese, and you don’t speak Vietnamese. Are you really Vietnamese?”
Born in Hanoi, I looked more Chinese than these kids, whose parents were from the south, near Saigon. There were other differences: I had never met my biological parents and had been adopted by a single Italian-American mother.
After class, children pointed at me as they greeted their parents. I heard one ask, “Why did she come here? Her mother isn’t Vietnamese.” I hid my face in my mom’s shirt and asked to go home. I never returned.
By adolescence, I was in a school with many Asians, but no Vietnamese. There, Korean girls taunted me for not understanding their language. I felt my heart drop. Although I was Asian, I still wasn’t the right kind of Asian.
When I was 16, my mother proposed a trip to Vietnam, as part of a program for adopted kids who wanted to learn more about where they came from. I reluctantly agreed.
In Hanoi, we visited the retired director of the orphanage where I had been placed. Dr. Quy welcomed us to her home with tea and fruit, and pulled out notebooks that held information about every baby brought to her care. She turned to my page. Gazing at the wallet-sized photo of my infant self under Dr. Quy’s warm smile, I felt at ease. But I had questions I knew couldn’t be answered by her alone.
The next day, our guide parked in front of a small concrete building. “We’re now at the clinic where you were born,” he told me. A woman greeted us with disbelief and delight. She was the midwife who delivered me. How did she remember me? I asked. It was the only time, she explained through our translator, that a mother had given birth at the clinic, only to disappear, leaving her baby behind.
“Does she know I’m here?” I asked. My birth mother had been found, she said gently, but refused to meet me. I struggled to hold back tears. The night before, I had started writing a letter to my birth mother, in which I summarized my life and forgave her for relinquishing me. But I hadn’t been able to write more than a paragraph, and I had left the letter in our hotel room.
The midwife led us to a tiled room with a single bed. “You were born in this room,” she said. No medical equipment, no air conditioning in the sweltering heat. I could hardly imagine women delivering their babies here.
That night, my mom and I walked through the narrow Hanoi streets packed with motorcycles and neon lights, headed for a place I had visited before but couldn’t remember: The tiny Claudia Hotel, where we had stayed during my adoption. I stepped inside, and an effervescent woman, Mrs. Thuy, recognized us immediately. She wrapped her arms around me in an embrace with the warmth of a thousand bowls of pho on a cold night. Her eyes lit up as she described me as a baby. I was shocked that she not only remembered me, but had followed me growing up on my mom’s Facebook page.
I returned to our hotel room that night feeling complete. My encounter with these three women, who ushered me on my journey from bleak maternity room to my life in America, had finally replaced my “otherness” with oneness. At some point, each of these women had been my mother. Their caring in the early months of my life was the bridge to the life I know now. We are not related, but we have a bond that can only be shared by family.
Isabella Bonapace is a college freshman in Cortland, New York. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. To submit your story for consideration for Connections, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.