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Voices

Memories of Penang

by Adrienne Rozells | Voices | Fall 2017

Photograph by Jeannine M. Owens

I remember saying it over and over again: Three-quarters German and a quarter Malaysian. It was easily said, and always with pride. Now I use those words and feel a bit strange. As an adult, it’s hard to lay claim to a piece of heritage that my family doesn’t often look back on. I’ve always felt culturally both German and Malaysian, but identified as white. No one would look at me and see anything other than that. In trying to further my understanding of my heritage and deepen my connection to Malaysia, I don’t want to claim to be anything other than who I am. As I write about my family’s history I am also attempting to grasp onto it. There is still so much I’ve yet to discover, but I’ve found one concrete path into the past through my grandfather’s life experiences. Like any family’s past, that which can be told comes from many different lenses, including lived experience, family narratives, and research.

My grandfather was born in Malaysia on November 3, 1935. His name is Noel Adrian Rozells. He marks the first generation of Rozells who immigrated to the United States. He grew up in a musical home on the island of Penang, where his parents threw parties that revolved around their piano, and often invited friends and extended family to stay over. He skipped school to go to the beach or fly kites with his friends. His family attended The Church of the Assumption regularly, and always spent the day at the beach after Sunday service. Church records trace my family back to Eurasian roots, starting with a woman named Martina Rozells in the eighteenth century. When I was little, my grandparents traveled to Malaysia. They came back talking about a statue depicting a Malaysian princess who we were related to. I spent years pulling that story out for Two Truths and a Lie. It wasn’t until middle school that I did my own research and realized Martina wasn’t actually a princess. Some people on the internet called her a concubine. Most said she was the First Lady of Penang and the common-law wife of British colonizer Francis Light.

Captain Francis Light established the island of Penang as a colony for the East India Company in 1786, which led to the British occupation of most of Malaysia. Malaysia’s capital, Georgetown, is still the site of a statue of Light, along with a small dedication to Martina. Martina and Light never married. Marriage between the two was forbidden, as Martina was not only Roman Catholic, but also Eurasian. From what I understand, the term ‘Eurasian’ is used in Malaysia to refer to an ethnic community of mixed Asian and European ancestry. Martina was definitely of Portuguese descent. There is speculation about whether she was also Thai. Either way, Light’s English associates swindled Martina out of the inheritance Light left behind. Her children lived to see all of her inheritance taken by the British and her story smothered until only islanders seemed to know it. There are plenty of sources that talk about Francis Light, but few on Martina Rozells—she most often appears in a sentence attached to description of Light. Despite that, the Rozells line persisted and still lives on in Penang today.

By the time my grandfather was born, the Eurasian community had become influential in Penang as civil servants and educators. These administrative roles were comfortable positions on the island; in order to be hired for such jobs, one had to speak English well. In the thirties my grandfather grew up speaking English at home as well as learning it in school. He also picked up Chinese, Hindi, and Malay. Being multilingual was necessary to live in Penang and still is. Eurasians were influential but a tiny community in comparison to the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities on the island. Among the thirty million citizens living in Malaysia today, only 30,000 of those citizens are Eurasian, making the group a minority on the island. Even within this small group there are differentiations: A majority are of Portuguese descent, some were known as Dutch Burghers, and others as Anglo-Indians. Under British colonial rule being Eurasian did offer some advantages, because Eurasian folks shared the English language and were given British passports, which allowed for travel in a time period when Britain controlled much of the surrounding world. Aside from that, the Eurasian community was not treated as separate from others on the island and didn’t see themselves as such either. People of all different ethnicities lived on my grandpa’s street and shared the languages that existed on the island, but most families sent their children to the English-speaking school. It seems worth noting that since gaining independence in 1957, Malaysia has been examining race differences more in a push to define its own identity. In fact, the name ‘Malaysia’ has only existed since 1963. The country used to be known as ‘Malaya.’ My grandpa says that the change in name reflects an attempt by citizens to reclaim their Southeast Asian identity. I feel almost parallel to the country as I attempt to reclaim my own Southeast Asian history.

The British occupation of Malaysia was interrupted when my grandpa was seven years old: World War II broke out and the Japanese took Malaysia, hoping to harness the land’s production of rubber and tin for their war effort. My grandpa often tells me stories about growing up under Japanese military occupation. I recall sitting next to him on the couch as he chuckled about being excited when school let out early, which I later learned happened during air raids. Only once I was old enough to ask did he describe shortages of food, electricity, clothing, medicine, and jobs. His face became solemn, smoothing out the laugh lines that usually appear during his stories. He spoke about his family growing their own vegetable garden, because they saw almost no meat for four years. Sometimes soldiers raided their homes. He mentioned a fear of being sent to internment camps if accused of being rebellious, hummed, and said, “I guess those would be considered hard times.”

One of my grandfather’s stories in particular has always stuck with me. It occured during a raid. It was nighttime and soldiers were searching the neighborhood, so my great- grandparents sent my grandfather and his two older sisters to hide in the attic. They were meant to be sleeping, but instead stayed awake praying to the Virgin Mary. In the middle of their prayers, a soldier came stomping up the stairs, carrying a flashlight. The children stopped praying and huddled together, staring at him. The soldier saw them, took a step forward, and then paused. He took a biscuit out of his pack and gave it to my grandfather. Without a word, he left. Grandpa thinks the soldier must have been Catholic.

My grandpa continues to pray in the evenings at 5:00 pm services every Saturday. He took me a few times when I was little. He even let me bring my favorite stuffed animals along as I considered the faith that has played such a huge role in his life. Mostly I looked forward to holy water being flicked into the crowd. I thought it was funny when the drops landed on my grandpa’s glasses—he had to stifle his laughter so it wouldn’t echo through the big church. Grandma was always bribing me with candy to stay home with her instead of going to church with Gramps.

In Malaysia, my grandpa attended St. Xavier’s Institution, a Catholic school that was established by Francis Light and Martina Rozells. During wartime, the Japanese took over St. Xavier’s. Every day at 8:00 Am, children—including my grandpa—arrived on the school grounds to sing and bow to the Japanese flag. My grandfather’s early “schooling” consisted of learning to speak and write Japanese. The teachers were locals brought in by the Japanese military. They often decided to go against the lesson plans they’d been given, and instead of Japanese lessons, the kids received unstructured storytelling. Some teachers only instructed in Japanese if a soldier was near the room. From time to time, the U.S. and Britain bombed the island. My grandfather says that when bombings occurred, they either hid under the stairs or in the muddy trench in the backyard as a family. After he told me this, I didn’t know what to say. We were speaking on the phone. I let the line stay quiet for a while, then settled for, “Gramps, you’ve led an interesting life.”

“Oh yeah, it’s been long enough to include a few crazy things,” he responded.

At some point, St. Xavier’s was bombed and destroyed. When the war came to an end, Jesuit brothers set up a new school in the school’s bombed-out remains, a series of patios covered by palm leaves. Meanwhile, reparations and rebuilding processes began throughout huge swaths of Europe and Asia. As the Cold War began, the U.S. began offering scholarships to bring foreign students affected by the fighting to be educated in the U.S. In 1953, my grandfather was awarded one of four scholarships offered in Southeast Asia by U.S. International Aid.

Church members came together to send him off with money, a turtleneck, and two sets of long pants. He set off from Singapore to Long Beach, CA, working on a barge. The trip took 36 days. His ideas of what to expect from the U.S. were based entirely on what he’d seen in movies; besides reading, his favorite pastime in Malaysia was going to the movie theater, where he’d sit in the cheapest seats, right up close to the screen. Film continued to be a theme in his life, from his years spent putting himself through college by cleaning a theater in San Diego to the love of film he still has today. His favorite films are Westerns.

In another life, maybe my grandfather would’ve studied film. In this one, he decided to get his Bachelor’s in Economics, then pay for his Master’s and become a citizen at the same time by joining the military. After growing up during World War II, he joined the Cold War as a soldier of a country that had dropped bombs on his childhood home. He was trained in Texas and stationed in Germany, in a unit that consisted of one other immigrant and white Americans, including Elvis Presley. As all his friends wrote letters back to family in the States, my grandpa didn’t have any idea what he would be heading back to. He met my grandmother in the army base library. My mom was born on the base in 1960. Grandpa was discharged from the army in New Jersey the following year. The family came back to the U.S., bought a car for 250 dollars, and drove cross-country to San Diego for a job in the army sector. Maybe I should find his time in the military strange. I can’t imagine what war meant to him after growing up in the midst of World War II. But the way my grandpa talks about his army days is bright and hilarious, filled with friends that became family and chance meetings that led to the creation of our family.

Grandpa was the only person who could get me to sleep as a baby. I slept over at his house and began to hear stories of Malaysia. He’s continued to share them with me, in more and more detail, as I’ve learned to ask questions. As I wrote this article, I spent hours on the phone with Gramps. Sometimes I held back my questions, only to call back a few days later, apologizing for bringing up potentially painful memories. He said the war was much easier on him as a five-year-old than it had been on his older sisters and his parents. He said, “memories are distant, and fade with time.” Some of the stories he’s given me have been buried under 80 years’ worth of important moments. He hasn’t been hiding the stories and he doesn’t seem to mind sharing them. He says it’s just that no one ever asked.

My mom never considered asking when she was growing up. According to her, grandpa was not the open “teddy bear that he is today.” Whenever I relay Grandpa’s stories my mom exclaims, “He never told me about that!” Unlike my mom, I grew up with a Malaysian influence alongside the German. By the time I was born, Grandpa had reconnected with cousins in Penang. He talked about them when he drove me home from school and taught me to speak Malay: Ada baik? Baik! (Are you well? I’m well!) His days in Penang are far-removed from our drives through suburban San Diego, but are also some of the most vibrant stories he tells. My grandpa tells me that when he was raising his kids, he never thought to talk about Malaysia. I think it was something of a survival tactic, a way to keep moving forward without missing the place he’d left behind.

Since I’ve known him, my grandfather has grown increasingly interested in our family’s past. I like to think that the burgeoning curiosity my grandpa has shown in Malaysia is a product of my own. Some of the most warm and calm moments of my life have been spent curled up next to my grandfather, listening to his quiet voice roll out a childhood in Penang. By now he has spent hours on Google and Facebook searching out distant cousins, some still on the island and others scattered around the world. My uncle tells me that he tried to get Grandpa to go back to Malaysia multiple times over the years but, he wouldn’t hear it. He said Malaysia was in the past and that he had no intention of going back. Maybe he didn’t think there was anything to go back to. It wasn’t until he was in his sixties and had reconnected with people who knew him when he lived in Penang that he agreed to visit. It was the first time he’d seen the island since he left at sixteen. Now he’s been back twice, and our Malaysian relatives come to visit San Diego as well, livening up family barbecues with music and dancing.

Despite having lifelong knowledge that I am partially Malaysian, and meeting that side of the family multiple times, it was not until last year that I realized I am not entirely white. The question has floated around the back of my mind since I was young, and even now I’m not quite sure what it means to be just a quarter of an ethnicity. As I write this article, I grapple with the idea, hoping to find concrete history to hold onto. I think I’ve found it in my grandpa’s story. My grandfather recently hunted down a Malaysian family tree to guide me through our past; alongside what he had given me, I have done my own research, and learned how our history intertwines with that of Malaysia.

After World War II, Malaysia returned to British occupation until 1957. Since then, Malaysia has changed its name and established its own Parliament. Martina Rozells was officially honored as the First Lady of Penang for the first time in 2013. She passed on that title to Joanna Rozells, who also appears on my family tree and was also involved with an Englishman. Joanna was legally allowed to marry Francis Light’s successor, becoming the second First Lady of Penang. From there, the family tree branches out across the island and across the ocean. From Portugal to Malaysia to the United States, my name has migrated and been passed down. From Rosales, to Rozels, to the Rozells we are today.

Over the years, Grandpa has given me a lot of advice. Ask any of his grandkids and we can tell you his most common catchphrase: Don’t sweat the small stuff. He once elaborated, Live in the present. If you live in the past, you either think of the bad times and want to change them, or think of good times and want to go back to them. You can’t do either. Grandpa worked hard to bring our family to the place we are today, and part of that work involved a gaze held steady on the present. It may have meant that not much attention was paid to where we came from, but I carry that history with me, in all my own memories as well as those he has shared. He’s right when he says not to live in the past. But as I am moving forward, I must be able to look back at the roots that haven given me life.

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Voices

Donor 336

by Kira Findling | Voices | Fall 2017

Image by Patrice DiChristina

On a summer day in 1992, my moms, Heidi and Rhonda, went on their first date. That afternoon of canoeing—encouraged by mutual friends—led to many more adventures. They soon moved in together and met each other’s families. After a few years and many discussions, they decided to have kids. There were two options open to them: adoption or donor insemination. Heidi had always known that she wanted to be pregnant, so they chose donor insemination. That decision led to the growth of our family in a way my moms never could have predicted.

***

Donor insemination—also known as artificial insemination—refers to the insertion of a sperm sample into the uterus by methods other than sexual intercourse. The process is used by couples and individuals of all sexual orientations and backgrounds in situations in which viable sperm isn’t present or available. A sperm donor can be a parent’s friend or sibling, or can be an anonymous individual from a sperm bank. Insemination often takes place in a doctor’s office, though it can also be done at home. Many families get their sperm from the same donor, producing biological half-siblings.

***

When my mothers decided to have a child over twenty years ago, donor insemination was just starting to be normalized in the medical field. In his book Radical Relations, Daniel Winuwe Rivers writes that some lesbian couples, as members of grassroots networks of support, began having children through donors in the mid-seventies. Many used friends who were willing to have relationships with the children, but some found men who preferred to donate anonymously.

The eighties saw the beginning of the LGBTQ baby boom, which led to my birth in 1997. Though more lesbians were getting pregnant through insemination, they faced constant discrimination. Rivers writes that sperm banks and doctors often refused to help single women or lesbians, leaving women with few options but to inseminate independently at home using friends’ sperm. By the nineties, lesbians were meeting with less resistance from medical professionals, yet continued to lack full institutional support. The process was expensive, making donor insemination (like adoption) accessible only to those with financial privilege. My parents believe that using donor insemination to conceive me—including sperm, medical appointments, storage, and intake fees—cost them about $2,500. But they believed that the financial strain was worth it in order to have a baby together.

My parents knew a few people who had used donor insemination, including Rhonda’s sister, but it was far from common. They had to navigate the process without much outside help or advice. For example, Heidi needed to track her ovulation to ensure that the insemination was effective, and was largely uninformed about how to do so. Though my moms inseminated both at the sperm bank and at home while trying to conceive me, they went to a local hospital to conceive my sister, Sonia, a few years later. There, they could tell that the technicians hadn’t done inseminations too many times before. Heidi told me, “The fertility thing— gay, straight, whatever—has taken off since then.” My parents were part of a new frontier in assisted reproduction.

Finding a donor from a sperm bank wasn’t their first choice. The initial plan was to have a child that biologically represented both my mothers. Rhonda has two brothers, both of whom donated sperm to my moms at different times. I often wonder who I would be and how our extended family dynamics would change if one of my uncles was also my biological father. But that didn’t happen: Heidi didn’t get pregnant from either of my uncles’ sperm, so she and Rhonda turned to Pacific Reproductive Services, a lesbian-founded sperm bank in San Francisco about an hour south of our home in Sebastopol, California.

Picking a donor is kind of like online dating. In 1996, potential customers could send away for packets of information about various donors across the country. These days, a quick search on Pacific Reproductive Services’ website shows you quite a bit more: For a few bucks, you can be seeing a baby photo or video interview of the donor in a couple of days. But back then, all my moms could go on was a few handwritten sheets of paper.

The pages of my donor’s profile are thin and worn after two decades, but I have all the information memorized. Like me, Donor 336 has brown hair and brown eyes. One of his goals in life is to fall in love. Until I was eighteen, I knew his favorite foods, his medical history, and his hobbies, but I couldn’t picture his face. My sister and I used to wonder if he was famous, and would find ourselves in the faces of male celebrities on magazine covers, wondering if any were Donor 336.

Some people try to pick a donor that shares physical characteristics with the non-biological mother, but my parents didn’t focus on that. They liked lots of things about Donor 336: he played violin and was very musical, he liked to write, and he was half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazi (two different Jewish ethnic groups). The most important factor for them was that he was Jewish, not necessarily in terms of his religion, but rather his ancestral background, because being culturally and ethnically Jewish is an essential part of Rhonda’s identity. His one downfall was his athletic ability, which he called “negligible.” Rhonda is an avid athlete, so that was unfortunate. But what could they do? Heidi remembered, laughing, “He seemed like a good guy… and he was Jewish! So I was like, ‘Sure, what the hell? Okay!’”

Art by Rachel Weinstein

My moms didn’t hesitate in their decision to use a known donor, meaning a donor that agrees to have contact with offspring once they become adults. Pacific Reproductive Services makes its commitment to known donors a cornerstone of its mission, but can’t legally require our donor to meet us. They do, however, promise to release identifying information about the donor to offspring once they reach legal adulthood. Since turning eighteen, I have learned my donor’s name and seen photographs of him. His face is familiar, sharing characteristics with mine. It feels right to be able to picture him, to have a better sense of the way he moves through the world. I learned that he won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, which was a striking discovery, considering that I want to be a journalist. After a quick search online, I was happy about how much he fit my imagined version of him, though it remains to be seen what he’s like in person.

***

A lot of people think of donor insemination as the Wild West of genetics, with a single donor having hundreds of children, all of whom want something from him as soon as they turn eighteen. Hollywood contributes to this myth. Delivery Man (2013) centers around a clueless donor with over 500 needy offspring, and completely ignores the people who raised them. The Kids Are All Right (2010) features a donor who has an affair with a woman who conceived using his sperm, wreaking havoc on her family in the process. My experience doesn’t mirror any of these media representations—being a donor kid has been much more joyful and normal than those movies make it out to be.

There are few common conventions about the language of donor insemination, but as a donor-conceived person, the words I use are incredibly personal and carefully chosen. For example, rather than using the word “offspring” to describe myself, I prefer “donor-conceived person” or, like my sister says, “donor kid.” Additionally, while some people refer to their sperm donors as their “fathers,” not all donors are cisgender men. Anyone who produces sperm can donate it. I feel uncomfortable calling Donor 336 my father, since I have little connection to him beyond genetics and don’t consider him one of my parents. Whenever possible, I call him “the donor,” only using “biological father” when people don’t understand the situation.

My sister and I always knew that we had a donor; my parents never hid our history. Sometimes as a little kid, frustrated at my parents for making me go to bed or refusing my request for a new toy, I’d grumble, “I’m going to live with the donor!” My parents would chuckle as I’d stomp my feet, whining, “He wouldn’t make me go to bed so early!” 

That being said, I have two loving and attentive parents. Though I have a strong desire to meet the donor, I never felt that there was anything missing in my life. As important as the donor has been in creating us, he isn’t a daily concern for the donor siblings. Sonia summed it up well when she said, “It’s just part of my life.”

Each of the donor’s offspring gets one chance to contact him; I haven’t used mine yet, having heard from others that he isn’t interested in a relationship with us right now. Rhonda feels deeply disappointed by this news, and emphasizes how important it is to her that we get a chance to meet him. But right now, for me, it’s enough to see photographs and recognize my face in his. Sonia told me, “I definitely would like to meet him at some point, but I only want to if he wants to too. I don’t want it to be forced.” I agree. I feel lucky to have found a family in my donor siblings, who fill my desire to connect with the donor side of my history.

***

No laws or rules exist that restrict contact between donor siblings, but until recently, there were few ways to find each other. My donor sibling story begins with a stroke of luck.

The Bay Area lesbian community is tight-knit. Everyone’s an ex or a friend of a friend. When I was six months old, my parents’ friends ran into a couple at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco who had used a donor to conceive their son. After a discussion about their sperm bank and the donor’s characteristics, my parents’ friends were certain that the couple—two Jewish lawyers from Berkeley—had used the same donor as my moms.

Two weeks later, my moms went to visit my grandparents. They showed me off to a fawning neighbor, an older woman they had known for years. The conversation turned to adoption, a lengthy and stressful process for lesbian parents like Rhonda, who had to adopt me in order to become my legal guardian.

When I was born, Heidi was my sole legal parent. Rhonda applied for an independent adoption in order to become my other guardian. Since my parents couldn’t marry, Rhonda had to undergo the adoption process as if she were adopting as a stranger to Heidi and me. It was crucial to get it done quickly after my birth. Heidi knew that until I was adopted by Rhonda, her parents would get custody of me if something happened to her. “In the eyes of the law, [Rhonda] was not in this picture,” she said. “It felt like us against the world. We needed to get this together and make sure this all worked. You had to be very careful.” Because I had no legal father, Rhonda could become my second parent if she was approved for adoption. A few weeks after my birth, a social worker came to our house to observe Rhonda, who also had to submit four letters of recommendation and significant personal information. She said that the process felt like an expensive “rip-off” with very high stakes, and an invasion into her personal life. Her lesbian friends who were already parents—a chosen family of sorts—were instrumental in helping her through the process and giving her hope that it would work out.

After the entire process, the social worker recommended against the adoption because my parents weren’t a married heterosexual couple. My parents still have a copy of her letter, which states that though Rhonda appeared to be a suitable parent, “the California Department of Social Services does not believe that this adoption is in the best interest of the child and recommends denial of the petition because the prospective adoptive parent and birth mother are not married to each other.” My mothers went to court, where a judge overturned the social worker’s ruling, allowing Rhonda to adopt me. In our liberal pocket of California, this was a common occurrence, but in other parts of the country, judges often held up the denial of parental rights. In my baby book, there’s a picture of us with the judge. My parents, nervous but relieved, clutch me tightly. I’m oblivious, never doubting for a second that these are my moms.

At the time, the Department of Social Services didn’t allow for second-parent adoption, a simpler administrative process in which Rhonda could pay a sum and become my legal guardian. That procedure was not affirmed by the California courts until 2003, long after my sister and I were born. Without their educational and financial privilege, my mothers may not have been able to complete the independent adoption in 1997, or even conceive me through donor insemination in the first place.

One of the most important effects of the legalization of gay marriage in the US has been on LGBTQ families who want to adopt children. Heidi sees marriage as having “legitimized our role as parents with kids,” because it has institutionalized and simplified second-parent adoption. While being married does not mean that someone automatically gets custody of their spouse’s kids, marriage makes it easier to adopt a kid through the second-parent adoption process.

At my grandparents’ house, my moms explained to the neighbor that they were going through the adoption process without legal help. The neighbor exclaimed that her niece and her partner were lawyers in Berkeley and could help with the process. Her curiosity piqued, Rhonda asked whether her nieces had used a sperm donor—they had. Within a few minutes, they were calling the woman’s nieces, almost certain that they were the women from Rainbow Grocery. When they picked up, Rhonda asked, “Does the number 336 mean anything to you?” We had found my first donor sibling, Kobi. After my moms had Sonia in 2000, they sold the extra frozen sperm for cheap to Kobi’s moms so that they could have his sibling, Tris.

***

But since these happy accidents don’t happen to everyone, an online community was created to facilitate relationships between donor siblings. Wendy Kramer and her son Ryan founded the Donor-Sibling Registry (DSR) in September 2000 in order to meet others who had been conceived using donor insemination. Starting as a small Yahoo! group, the DSR had its own website by 2003, and has grown to serve over 50,000 individuals today, from donors to parents to offspring. Individuals can post on a message board linked to their donor number, which can be found by other offspring and their families.

When someone told our family about the registry, we made an account right away. It was 2009: I was eleven years old and Sonia was nine. My family gathered around the computer, entered the donor number, and let out a collective shriek. In addition to Kobi and Tris, Sonia and I had a half-brother, Jakob, who lived in Germany. We then connected with Lou, who lived in Rhode Island and was just six months older than me.

Rhonda remembered, “I was at work when Gina [Lou’s mom] sent me a picture of Lou with a horse. And I fell out of my chair. I showed it to a co-worker and she was like, ‘Oh, that’s Kira,’ and I was like, ‘No, that’s her half-sibling!’” In the first email they sent me, Lou told me they loved acting and hated their middle school classmates’ obsession with popularity. I was a nerdy sixth-grader in love with Broadway, so I knew we would hit it off. Since Lou lived across the country, G-Chat became our primary mode of communication. We sent each other chain emails and gossip about our crushes, never going more than a few days without talking. Though we had met through our mothers, our friendship soon became ours alone. Finally there was someone my age I could trust with my full self. When I traveled to Rhode Island for their bat mitzvah in 2010, their classmates called us half-twins, since we looked so similar. It did feel a bit like finding a long-lost twin.

In the following years, we met Marc from New Hampshire and Sam from Marin County, California, bringing the total number of donor siblings to eight. At the time of my conception, Pacific Reproductive Services allowed each donor’s sperm to be used by ten families, each of which can have multiple children (it now allows for fifteen families). So far, we know of six families—including my own—that used Donor 336, leaving open the possibility that there are several more half-siblings to be found.

To describe this part of my family, I choose to use the terms half-siblings and donor siblings interchangeably. My donor siblings share half of my genetics, and though my relationship with them is very different than my relationship with the fully biological sister I grew up with, I like to use a word that represents our genetic connection. There’s a wide range of relationship dynamics between us—some of my donor siblings have never met each other, while others keep in touch regularly. But regardless of our individual relationships, there’s an understanding that we’re family, even if we don’t see each other very often.

Because some of my donor siblings’ families are Jewish, we get to see each other at bar and bat mitzvahs. At Sonia’s bat mitzvah in 2013, six of the eight donor siblings reunited and took a group photo, which has been examined time and time again for evidence of the visual similarities between us. Everyone has a different opinion on who looks alike. Rhonda always comments on our “infamous chins,” as Sonia likes to call them, and our dimples. Some of us look very similar, while others share just a little resemblance. Like Tris said, “It’s always cool and weird to see parts of your face on someone else.”

But we’re alike in more than just our looks. For example, none of us are very athletic except for Sam. Instead, we share a connection to the performing arts and a deep curiosity about the world. I’ve found my donor siblings to be intelligent, thoughtful, and inquisitive without exception.

***

My donor siblings were all raised by queer women and our relationships have been enriched by our similar upbringings. Though I was born at a time when more youth than ever had sperm donors and openly LGBTQ parents, I didn’t know many other kids with similar experiences when I was young. My moms read me Lesleá Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book about donor insemination, over and over, but it was the only one on that topic. I felt different from my peers at school, very few of whom had openly LGBTQ parents.

Though we live in a fairly progressive area of Northern California, my family faces discrimination for being different. Heidi is still in the closet at the elementary school where she works and has to choose her words carefully when talking about her family. She told me, “We walk around the world totally conscious of this all the time. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about it.” From their experiences with assisted reproduction to adoption to raising their children, LGBTQ parents are regulated in a way that heterosexual parents aren’t. Since my birth, the idea of homosexuality has become less foreign to people in the United States, but my moms’ lived experiences haven’t changed much. They rarely feel comfortable holding hands as they walk down the street. Many people are hesitant to engage with LGBTQ families and don’t understand how a two-mom family works. Even today, I rarely meet people who can relate to my experience as the child of lesbian parents.

Thankfully, my mothers have found LGBTQ spaces and communities for our family. Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by incredible queer women who weren’t able to express themselves fully growing up, and therefore built a community as adults in which they felt free and understood. LGBTQ people often surround themselves with chosen families in this way. Sometimes in these situations, friends become family when a person is rejected by their relatives based on their gender identity or sexuality. But even when LGBTQ people are accepted by their families, chosen family can offer a community in which they don’t have to hide anything or be less vibrant versions of themselves. Personally, since coming to college, I have found a queer chosen family where I can express my identity fully and without fear.

But my donor siblings are perhaps the most important chosen family in my life. I spent years searching and hoping to find them. Like Lou said, “It felt like nobody understood how it felt to be me and be in my kind of family as completely and precisely as my donor siblings.” While our genetic relationships matter, what has been most poignant is having peers who understand what it’s like to inhabit the world through my identities as a donor kid and the child of lesbian parents. My donor siblings and I don’t have an obligation to each other, but I choose to prioritize them. We choose each other as family by continually making each other important in our lives.

My half-siblings connect me to the donor, making it less urgent for me to meet him. They give me more opportunities to see myself biologically in others, especially since I don’t have any genetic first cousins. As Heidi said, “It’s a way for you guys to make [something] physically real that’s inside of you, that you couldn’t otherwise see.” Knowing my donor siblings doesn’t take away from my connection with my non-biological mother and extended family; it simply gives me more of a community.

In a new young-adult novel about donor siblings, Natasha Friend’s The Other F-Word, the main character imagines her donor siblings beside her when she feels alone at school. They’re a group of people her age who love her and will look out for her. She imagines them “walking down the hall with her—all in a row […] taking up all the space in the world.” Thinking of my donor siblings by my side comforts me too. Knowing that they’re only a call or text away brings me peace.

In using donor insemination to conceive me, my mothers created a family that they never could have imagined. Kobi said that the experience has made him realize that “life isn’t always going to be exactly what you expect it to be. […] I could have a sibling I don’t know in Rhode Island and a brother I don’t know in Germany.” Finding new donor siblings doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once did, yet it will never stop surprising me. It will always feel magical, because these are relationships that, until recently, were impossible. Regardless of whether strangers and the law consider us legitimate, my donor siblings and I know that we are family. We are part of a new generation of people who understand family to be limitless and constantly evolving.

Categories
Voices

Besa

by Jona Beliu | Voices | Fall 2017

Image from the Fall 2017 issue

The stories in this piece come from a private realm of my family’s history. They show the difficulties we’ve faced as Albanian immigrants and highlight the faults within our own culture. History affects everyone, but immigrants especially must interact with both the history of our own country and our adopted one. In both instances, we experience loss: the loss of our homeland, and the feeling of being lost in integrating ourselves into our new country. Albania is on the Mediterranean Sea, north of Greece, and is one of the very few Muslim-majority nations in the European continent. My story centers around a recurring pattern I’ve seen in my own Albanian immigrant community—incredibly welcoming, warm, and generous, until American racism creeps in. We show our limited perspective through the phrases we sometimes say and how we view other marginalized groups in this country. The United States has equated ‘Muslim’ with ‘foreigner,’ with ‘immigrant,’ and, most importantly, with ‘person of color.’ This false assumption that all Muslims are people of color has permeated our worldview. It creates a monolith for what Muslims “should” look like and has aided in the persecution of both the religion and its people. This story isn’t as simple as the oppressed becoming the oppressor. This story is far more complicated. It’s a testament to how powerful whiteness is in America. How white assimilation—especially because Albanians are not considered “white” in Europe—can corrupt a person to the point where they love their own executioner because they refuse to see themselves as the target.

***

I am of the Albanian diaspora and have grown up simultaneously immersed in both my history and the culture of the United States. Albania is obscured by the giants that surround it—Greece, Italy, Bulgaria—and my people are relegated to brief mentions within European history. For many decades, my nation’s history and existence have been silenced, erased, and ignored by the rest of the continent. As more of us leave the country, we create a global diaspora. We begin to carve out our own livelihoods and share our experiences, and we garner an international political power that has been actively taken away from us. In many ways, this piece is political action against the continued erasure of my country within the modern-day discourse of the European continent. This is also an analysis of how our history of persecution in Europe has manifested in the United States and expresses itself in insidious and racial ways. Western culture has filtered into Albania; I can see the vast changes happening every year to Tirana, the capital, and to the rest of the nation. With an introduction to the Western lifestyle, we were offered access to an enticing linguistic platform. The English language has a power that creates a monumental opportunity, allowing English-speaking Albanians to begin to translate our own experiences for the global audience. By using English, Albanians can subvert Western dominance and make our stories heard.

***

I was born in Tirana, Albania to a Cham mother and a Tironce father. We are an ancient and isolated country—these cultural groups are long-established and create particular identities. To be clear, most of my immediate family, with a few exceptions, aren’t practicing Muslims. That was washed away by years of Ottoman rule and communism, but much of our culture, language, and ontological and theological understandings of the world come from Islam. One of the few practicing Muslims in my family is my uncle on my father’s side. He goes to mosque almost every day, observes Ramadan, and lives very much within the Muslim community. If you were to ask my extended family what religion they are, without fail they would say, “We are Muslim.”

For much of my life I have been taught fragments of my family’s history. Albanians are proud people; this pride has taught me the benefits of patriotism. In just the last 50 years, over half of my country has been taken by the Greek, Serbian, and Montenegrin governments. Without a strong sense of identity and pride, my land, language, and people would have dissolved long ago. This isn’t to say that Albania is devoid of internal tension. My mother is from Chameria and my father from Tirana, which are only 220 miles from each other and share the same language, yet each have distinctive communities. These divergent cultural groups, while still Albanian, created familial tension when my parents first started dating. My grandmother on my father’s side said her son shouldn’t date my mother because Cham people are “dirty and of a lower class than us.” Albania has a long history of ethnic tension, which has bred an “us versus them” mentality. In some ways this has been beneficial: Arguably it is what fueled Kosovo’s success in separating from Serbia in 2008 with hopes of achieving its own quasi-statehood and own separate identity as Albanian people. More than 80 percent of Kosovars are Albanian. However, that kind of mentality is also what creates blinders for most Albanian immigrants when they come to the United States.

We are a persecuted people. During the London Conference of 1912, a summit of six world powers held in the aftermath of the First Balkan War, the treaty signed took about half of Albanian land, giving Kosovo to Serbia and Chameria to Greece. We’ve had our land, our family, and our history stolen, and therefore (in the minds of some Albanians) our perpetuation of American racism and nationalism is justified. Racism allows us to enhance our own social standing as white Americans and feel more included in this country, perhaps more so than we’ve ever felt in Europe. We see this pattern continuously in the history of European immigration to United States: People migrate from States because of cultural, religious, or ethnic tension, and are eventually granted the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness. This assimilation creates a social comfort that leads us to believe that ethnic tension, racism, and classism are not prevalent in the United States because we do not experience it here.

Photographs by Anna Stearn

Albania is uniquely ositioned when it comes to our relationship with the United States. Unlike most other Eastern Europeans, most Albanians feel favorably toward the United States. We have statues of Woodrow Wilson scattered around our capital, and continue to revere the Clintons for assisting Albanian Kosovars during the Kosovo war in 1999. In that conflict, Serbian military action caused the displacement of 1,500,000 Albanian Kosovars and the murder of over 10,000. Our love for the United States began after the First World War, during the deliberations between the Allied powers at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The Allies wanted to divide control of Albania piecemeal among our neighbors—Greece, Italy, Serbia, and others—removing our country from the map and erasing our national identity. Wilson spoke out in our favor, stating that we were a true nation and deserved to be protected. The delegates found his arguments persuasive: Albania was not split among the countries of Eastern Europe. We were independent for twenty years, but by the start of World War Two, Italy had invaded. We went from Italian to German control in 1943, and from the Germans to our very own Communist Party, led by Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s reign was authoritarian. He followed in the footsteps of other communist leaders by eliminating all freedom, religion, and hope. Hoxha created prison camps, much like Stalin’s gulags. An estimated one in every fifteen people was sent to prison camp and that one in three was contacted or intimidated by the Sigurimi, state police who were sent to monitor the ideological correctness of the country. Enver Hoxha created and maintained a “state atheism” by shutting down and destroying mosques, and punishing those who partook in Ramadan and Lent. During Hoxha’s authoritarian rule between 1944 to 1992, people were confined within the Albanian borders. Immigration and travel were relegated to a small minority. Most of our exposure to other cultures has come from a limited amount of travel into and out of Albania, most significantly from Turkey, Italy, Western Europe, and northern Africa. With the death of Hoxha, the communist regime slowly started to fall, and in 1991 we transitioned into democracy.

***

During the presidential campaign, my mother and I were talking at home in Albanian. I said “inshallah”—a word meaning “god willing,” a word directly from the Quran, a word imbedded Albanian colloquialism, culture, and life. She paused the conversation and told me not to say that word and other “Muslim words” when we’re on the MTA or walking around the city because “we don’t need to bring that kind of attention to ourselves.” Very rarely during my life in the States has my mother been so direct in her erasure of our culture and country.

I wear the symbol of my country’s flag around my neck, and my parents have ensured that both my sister and I know our language, culture, and history. They refuse to let America erase our nationality. For my mother to distance herself from a core aspect of our identity is terrifying. It’s the compartmentalization of Albanian identity, the ability to cherry-pick and erase certain aspects in order to become palatable. My mother wanted to ensure we weren’t targeted on the streets, but that is already incredibly unlikely since we have few visible identifiers for which other Americans and immigrants are targeted. We do not wear the hijab and we are white-passing. The only thing that distinguishes us is my parents’ slight Eastern European accent—our language is the one thing that could give us away.

Albanians trace our ethnic history back thousands of years to the Illyrian tribe, one of the very first peoples to live on the European continent. My family can trace its history back 300 years through every name and town. We keep our ancient tradition and history alive. A significant part of my cultural identity is a strong belief in unity: We are a Muslim-majority nation, but we pride ourselves on living in peace with Christians, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox people. Our flag, a two-headed eagle, is indicative of this commitment. It was originally used as a symbol to unite the North and South of Albania against the Ottomans and is an intentional sign of our solidarity against the political forces that attempted to divide us.

Unity and respect have a legacy in Albania. One of the most notable aspects of Albanian culture is an ancient law we hold and abide by to this day: besa. This is a fifteenth-century law originally created to govern the northern tribes of Albania. The word can be used and translated in many ways. At its core, it means trust or a promise. Besa is a moral testimony, a law inherited from distant ancestors, a law that is brought up in our daily lives. There are many citations and sayings that express the meaning of besa. One of the most notable is “Shpija para se me qenë e Shqiptarit, eshte e Zotit dhe e mikut,” which translates to “a house, before it belongs to the Albanian, belongs to God and the guest.”

There are many Albanians and Eastern Europeans alike who say that the law of besa is what sustained Albania through the ages, quelling disputes and providing safety for travellers through our country. Besa was the force that allowed my country to welcome the Jewish population during World War Two. Besa is an idealist law, and like all laws there is a circumstantial limit to our generosity. The limitations on our empathy are exposed in the U.S., where our history is unknown, our race is white, and our identity is European. Whiteness in America is founded upon the sanitization of internal difference in favor of a neutral white unit which can be separated from “others.” A caveat in American whiteness is that contemporary white foreignness is attractive and something to be proud of. That idea is enticing for Albanian immigrants. It allows for an assimilation unlike that which we face in Italy and Greece, where most Albanians refuse to acknowledge their nationality or speak a word of our language in fear of being found out.

Drawing by Bridget Conway

***

I immigrated to the United States in the winter of 2000. My parents and I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a predominately white area with practically no Muslim population. By definition I am an immigrant, by culture I am called “first-generation.” This duality is a foundational aspect of many child immigrant stories. We live in a time where immigrants (more specifically, non-white immigrants) are targeted. Now more than ever, immigrant narratives are flooding our Facebook newsfeeds. The United States is again at a point in time where it is publicly fighting against the very people that it prides itself on attracting. The demonization of Black Lives Matter and Trump’s Muslim bans are vain attempts to scapegoat this country’s economic and political failings: A dwindling blue collar working class, a populist president, rising distrust in the federal government. It was during the 2016 presidential elections that I felt closest to my Muslim identity, the most confused about my positionality, and the most frightened by what white American culture had done to most Albanians in the States and to my family.

My family came to this country just a few months before September 11, 2001. After the attacks, my grandparents called us right away and said, “Come back home, America isn’t safe.” My dad calmly replied, “We’re hundreds of miles away from New York City—we’ll be fine.” Aside from the distance separating my family from New York City, he was also implying that we are not seen as Muslims here. My mother’s retellings always point to the fact that we came from Albania, known to be predominantly Muslim. The United States is still seen as the best destination for emigrating Albanians: It is full of opportunity, it is wealthy, and there are plenty of other Albanians, but most importantly, we do not have to hide our culture or nationality. Washing away our Muslim heritage has been the norm for my family for three generations, and has only strengthened by my parents’ defensive reactions to the attacks on 9/11. This fact has dramatically shaped my parents’ immigration experience. Our history in the U.S. has been significantly shaped by our religion and culture, as well as by years of European ethnic tensions and our fighting to gain the right to exist as a people on our own continent. The privilege to immigrate to the United States and assimilate by virtue of our skin, while still retaining our national pride, has put blinders on many Albanian Americans. These privileges obscure our ability to understand how our actions are perpetuating a system we have been able to escape.

***

Since the World Trade Center attacks, my parents have been attempting to distance themselves from any aspect of our identity linked to Islam. This has become one of the largest contradictions within my household—fierce pride of our nationality combined with fear and aversion. What’s difficult to explain to my parents is that by distancing themselves from our Muslim heritage, they are aiding in the erasure and dilution of Albanian identity.

***

Dinners at my house means a table encircled by immigrants from around the world: India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Korea, Australia, Mexico, Greece, and Albania. At dinner, my parents rarely ever drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, but this time it’s different. My dad gets tipsy. The quiet, shy, paunchy, 40-year-old man opens up and begins talking about the election cycle: Hillary, Trump, Obama, nationalism, race. I’ve known about his right-leaning opinions for years now, but since Trump took the stage to announce his candidacy, my father has careened to the right. Until now, I haven’t been able to quite figure out his ideology. During dinner, he holds forth in front of immigrants who would be directly affected if his words became actions. In front of the very people he considers his closest friends, in front of people who have given him a community he so desperately needed since moving to the United States, he says that Trump is right, that we need to curb immigration from Mexico and from Muslim-majority countries. He goes on to state how our national economic problems are caused by the laziness of racial minorities, and how a degree of racial homogeneity is best for a country.

I sit there for an hour, two hours, chiming in when he steps out of line—which is often—in defense of the older adults around me who are obviously getting uncomfortable with him. Then my dad says, “Trump is the best thing to happen to this country. What he stands for is the only way.”

That’s where I lose it. The first thing that comes to my mouth is, “How dare you, after everything we have gone through.” I tell him the only thing that makes sense to me at that time: “Look at who is sitting around you, and think about your words. Our family would be embarrassed to hear you speak like this.”

I have three and a half years of Oberlin rhetoric and higher education under my belt, but I knew the only thing that would get through to him would be to see his friends around him as they are: all of different nationalities, just as proud of their identities as we are. He did not need any help to see their humanity—we’ve been close family friends for years—but he needed to see their race, their history, and how our society has discriminated against them. What my father wasn’t able to understand, and what many Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims refuse to accept, is that we have fallen into the racial hierarchy within the United States. Here we have been given a social power, an equality that was routinely taken away in Europe. We have forgotten what discrimination feels like and because of that, we have fallen into the trap of believing that, in America, everyone is free.

***

Since my father’s dinner speech, he has slowly unclenched his far-right ideology. This isn’t entirely thanks to the subsequent conversations I’ve had with him about his political logic. A good portion of the credit should go to Trump, whose actions and speech highlight his hypocrisy.

My mother, father, and I had the privilege of selecting our identities when we immigrated to the United States. We were shielded from much of the harm that is falling on the shoulders of other immigrants—especially Muslims and people of color—and yet my parents hide from this fact. This destroys their own narratives, and they see it as an undermining of their individual success in the United States. We, the Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims, cannot assist in the destruction of anti-Islamic sentiments if we do not admit our own. We cannot help Albanians and other persecuted people until we come to criticize our own racism and xenophobia. For a people who have experienced the pain of stolen land, destruction of family, communism, socialism, civil unrest, and persecution all within the last 50 years, we must do better. Our pain cannot resonate so far inward that we are unable to criticize our own actions.