The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2019 issue.
Irene’s teeth were brittle from the lemons she sucked. Ever since she was a small child, she’d take the curious yellow orbs, delicately place one atop her tongue, and bleed it dry. Sometimes, as a little girl, she’d beg her mother to slice them after eating fish sticks and watching TV. The citrus would sting the inside of her nostrils, just like the man’s cologne—clean and crisp, like his white oxford shirts her mother ironed for hours as he sat smoking a cigar. Citrus and smoke clung to the furniture, even hours after he left in the morning. Sometimes, as a small child, when Irene was very displeased with him, she’d cut them herself, and piece by piece she’d suck every last drop of the entire fruit down. Her teeth felt strange and static, but the tartness was alarming, and that was nice. She could never think over the acidity.
Forty lemons for the forty years perched sweetly across her kitchen counter. Pink and rose tiles covered the kitchen, accented by the lace curtains that were oh-so-divine. Black-Eyed Susans stood in a vase on the corner table, overlooking her neighbor’s front yard. Near the flowers was a lounge chair where, in the morning, she would sip her chamomile tea and read last month’s Life magazine. Always tea, never coffee: it stained the teeth. She liked to look at the celebrities and think about their lives. Where did they play when they grew up? Why did they all wear the pink, not red lipstick? What were their fathers like? Had they been good fathers? Irene liked to imagine getting tea with them. Patrick Swayze would compliment the yellow drapes in the dining hall. Molly Ringwald would ask for some lemonade. And Irene would just giggle like a schoolgirl. Not a hair out of place, not a stain on their teeth.
Sometimes as she drank her tea, she’d see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ children playing ball. How dirty their clothes got in the springtime. Irene took quiet solace in knowing that if they were her children, they’d always be very clean. They’d run in after their play, wipe their shoes at the door, and she’d offer them some meringue pie. They’d eat at her little table with the marigolds, always asking for more. How funny children are. Their stomachs are never quite full. Thomas is outgrowing his clothes already, the brute. Jane has dimples just like her father. But somehow, the dirt always seems to seep into the saffron tablecloth. They know she bought it last week. Why put their grubby hands on the table, their muddy legs kicking against the stools? How ungrateful. Their piggy smiles mock her, their laughter echoes in the house. Sometimes children have to have the dirt beat out of them, just like her Persian rugs. Sometimes there are white crisp collars and large hands, and sometimes there are grains of dirt everywhere, embedded in her skin like a code. He leans down, the sharp acidic scent splits the nerves in her body, he says if you have dirt on your soul, you won’t go to heaven. But it’s a good house for children. A good house indeed.
After her morning tea, she would get into a gray muted dress suit, pick up her briefcase, and drive her yellow vintage Cadillac. She was a makeup saleswoman. Enchanted Cosmetics was the nice company that had given her a job when she was seventeen after her miscarriage, and they’d treated her oh-so-fine. She was one of their most esteemed employees—she even got a card at Christmas. Thanks for the years – X, red-nosed Rudolph exclaimed. She kept every single card above the electric fireplace. It was nice to be appreciated. Irene loved her job—she’d knock on a door, and some nice woman in her thirties would answer, maybe with a daughter or son clinging to her dress, they’d chat, Irene would introduce herself, and after a couple minutes, the nice woman would invite Irene inside. Indiana had such nice neighborhoods.
While the mothers apologized for the mess, offered her a seat, or scolded their children, Irene would survey the domain. Sometimes the houses had couches she had seen in Pottery Barn catalogues, sometimes the wood was varnished and shined, sometimes the women wore pearl earrings. But sometimes the houses were cramped, the dishes dirty, the floor chewed and clawed. Irene liked these homes the best. She would raise an eyebrow, purse her lips. My, what lovely curtains you have.
Either way the suitcase was opened, and out came lipsticks and mascaras, eye shadow and eye primer, and her favorite—a yellow eye shadow called Bumble Bee Bliss. Irene was a professional. No matter what their homes looked like, she’d smile and treat them all the same. And the mother with the curly mop of hair and the mother with the tooth gap would ooo and aaa at the beautiful display. Yes, it is quite beautiful, Irene thought.
Sometimes a waiffy, confused mother asked her to leave. Irene puckered her lips. It displeased her so. She rose slowly to give her a second chance. Don’t you want to look pretty for your husband? With things so crazy, she said, with the Soviet Union about to nuke the world to bits, isn’t it nice to just enjoy the little things in life? And the mother did stare at her so queerly. Irene wasn’t queer. Sometimes the mother said, no, no, her husband would be coming home soon and it was really time to go. It displeased her so. How she would like to tell that dumpy mother her home is ugly. Her children are brats, her floors are dirty, and she mustn’t be so so so very selfish because he won’t like that one bit, not one bit, not a bit of dirt not a bit of dust don’t track in the mud Irene your shoes are filthy, you are filthy. He puffs his cigar and says that we won’t be accepted to the Kingdom of Heaven if we aren’t clean in and out. Straight from the gospel itself. Take a sponge and wipe the dirt away, confess and God will wash away the sin and grime. His teeth are like razors that cut his fresh linen, and she does shiver as he takes her hand, like raw lemons being squeezed on a fresh cut, but it’s ok, Mother says it’s ok. Maybe it isn’t so strange to suck lemons, maybe she likes her saffron curtains and marigolds.
No one ever bought Bumble Bee Bliss.
It was days like these when she’d pack up her baggies of cosmetics, throw them in the trunk, slam the trunk of her yellow Cadillac, get in the door of her yellow Cadillac, turn the key in the ignition of the yellow Cadillac, and by God she would drive that yellow Cadillac all the way down the South End. Past all the cornfields and stop signs, as a tempered sun glared in her rearview mirror. Past the peeling playgrounds, and the water treatment center, past the cornhusks, there she’d find the trailer. Its silver reflection wavered under the sun. A dulled jockey statue with a broken eye guarded the front door, its plastic frame decorated by weathered Christmas lights. A faded sign that read Madame Mystic’s Palm Reading hung aslant on the window’s screen. The trailer was next to the county graveyard, small tombstones christened the earth in rows, tall monuments proudly towering behind.
Irene ignored the various broken beer bottles, and opened the trailer door. The stink was undeniable. Irene was greeted by a squirrel and a crow, new additions to the taxidermy collection which sprawled throughout the trailer. Irene raised an eyebrow. Across the trailer, an old crone in a Christmas sweater sat by the TV. Next to her was a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and a small tin of chewing tobacco. She crooned from her corner. Knock, why don’t you?
Ma’am, I don’t mean to disturb you ma’am, but I gotta see him, ma’am. Irene quivered with excitement. She was practically levitating. Ma’am, please.
The old woman coughed, and waved her over. Irene took a seat on the TV. Her own home was far nicer. The woman settled into her faded arm chair and spat a thick black liquid into a can on the floor. Her face looked like a prune, her teeth yellow from years of black coffee and chain smoking. Irene took out three twenties, her hands shaking, and let them fall into the woman’s palm, careful not to touch her paper skin. The woman’s face twisted into a grimace, she took Irene’s hand, and squeezed it so tight, so tight she thought it might break. Calm yourself, Irene. Lemme see what your father has to say. The old crone closed her eyes, and rocked back and forth like a small child. Her lips rippled with inaudible words. Irene wished the psychic had drapes. Some yellow drapes would really help lighten up the place.
After seventeen and a half minutes, the crone opened her eyes. Her lips parted as if to speak. Irene eagerly leaned in. The old woman’s eyes widened, and she erupted into a fit of coughs. Irene winced. He says, the old crone spat, he likes what you’ve done with the house. He says, he likes the couch you bought from Sears. He’s sorry for what he’s done. You know that, Irene.
Can you ask him to leave me alone?
Lord, I sure will.
Does he really like the paisley?
He says it matches the rug from Bed ’n Bath.
I thought of him when I got it.
I know you did, Irene.
Irene would arrive home around 6:30 PM. Tulips and roses encircled her house. She’d enter and admire the spotless baseboards. She’d make herself some chicken and peas, and eat it on the circular table with the Black-Eyed Susans. They’d smile at her as she ate in silence. It was too dark to see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ yard or children. Overall, it would be a good day. She’d turn on her cassette player, and Billie Holiday’s clear voice would fill the room.
I’ll be seeing you
in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces
all day through
As she delicately dabbed the corners of her mouth, she felt his presence. He sat across from her, just as he did when she was a child, and it is oh so nice for him to be home. And she forgives him for all the terrible things the man does, as men do. She offers him some chamomile tea, he compliments the new china. This is how it was always meant to be. His citrus cologne enwraps her, and she knows she is home.
Would you like a lemon?
Yes, I think I would.
From A FarTheresa Hak Kyung Cha, from Dictee
Or what kindred and relation
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination cause
what stray ejection misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe de nues de naturalized
What transplant to dispel upon
There have been 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
One of those was you, my mom, shot across the ocean (in a plane?) accompanied by some random woman, headed into the arms of an equally unfamiliar woman. Did she hold you on the flight, were you afraid, were you lonely? Did you cry?
To think of this is too strange. I imagine instead that you came in a small dinghy or floating basket covered with blankets, like Moses in my Bible coloring book. Maybe you walked here across the ocean, fully grown and fully clothed, emerged onto the shore of this country, your hair tangled with seaweed and robes dripping with salt water.
The Korean War marked the beginning of Korean adoption in the U.S. as 1,000 “mixed blood orphans” that had been fathered by American army men and Korean women faced racial stigmatization and isolation from Koreans that valued racial homogeneity. It seems important to mention here the undeniable connection between war, specifically violent U.S. interventions abroad, and increased foreign adoptions between the two countries. There are hidden yet undeniable histories of violence behind adoptions; not only war, but histories of children being forcibly, coercively removed from mothers, histories of cultural death, of racial isolation.
The tidal oscillation of your Korean left us swimming in the aftermath of your push and pull. One morning we would wake to the smell of japchae and find pieces of paper scribbled with tiny Korean characters tucked into our notebooks. The whole family would parade dressed in traditional silken Hanboks, still stiff and creased from boxes. During one of these cultural outbursts you sent me to Korean Immersion camp in Minnesota. During another you went to Korea for nine months, leaving me and my brother Owen to subsist on microwaved Indian food that dad made. Our house still holds artifacts of these inundations: a box of Hanboks, folded and packed away, bowls of stale sweet potato noodles, Korean picture books tucked among English ones.
Sometimes when I come home from school break and we are the only two in the house, I will curl in bed next to you and cry and cry as you tell me these stories. This is me trying to catch and hold this strange family history; the story of how we came to be.
Post-WWII, thousands of children were sent from Japan to the U.S. Post-Vietnam war, many refugee children were sent to white American homes. As U.S.-sanctioned state violence rose in the Central American countries of Guatemala and El Salvador, orphaned children, usually from indigenous families, were brought to the U.S. Not to mention histories of violence and coercion within the United States with the infamous efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the fifties to put displaced Native American children in homes of white families as a mode of cultural destruction.
In high school my orchestra-stand partner was a fierce, trenchcoat-wearing lesbian adopted from China. We lost all our music and never practiced, so we fake-played from the back of the second violins. I think we considered ourselves fraudulent Asians. There was a certain shame disguised in our humor as we doodled boobs on our music instead of listening. From her, I learned the words Twinkie and whitewashed, I used them to explain myself. The Twinkie™ and all its creamy, cakey, golden goodness needs no introduction. Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside, an Asian person that acts so white it warrants an explanation.
Long after the war had ended, Korean adoption continued. The infrastructure put in place to expand post-war democratic relations between South Korea and receiving countries is called by some an economic market specializing in the “export of babies.”
This seems strange, feels strange to write. Adoption is political, it is economic. It is also extremely personal. Let’s not forget these are people we are talking about—they are too easily abstracted into figures, abstracted into historical moments. This is me, lying next to you in your bed, wiping my snot on the pillow, trying to make sense of these incongruous histories.
There have been more than 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
You left for nine months, and came back with a suitcase full of stone bowls,
You told me later about how you did strange things while you were there,
You rode the subways for hours, talking to no one.
You said that they looked at you funny, how funny to see someone that looked like them,
But when you spoke it was all wrong, they asked what was wrong with you
You said you were adopted.
In her paper “The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy,” Elena Kim marks the travel through space of an adoptee’s return to their country of birth as a “journey back through time, a temporalization of space,” postulating that “Traveling such a temporal path entails multi-directional movements, not simply from present to past or future, but sometimes from one present to another.” You—a multidimensional time traveler—I imagine you swinging somewhere between here and there, caught in the space-time continuum, between the past that was and that present that could have been. The plane that you came here on suspended somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. In one possible future, I was never born. We talk over Skype in our living room across the many hour time difference an ocean away. You are blurry, your movements lag.
I wrote you to ask you about this; to ask you about many things that I have never fully known. You responded by Word document sent through email.
I had this feeling that if I could just become Korean enough to“pass” as a real Korean, I could go back, be accepted back, or at least feel that I was choosing to leave Korea on my own terms. It was not something I was even aware of, but deep down, I felt anger, deep shame and sadness, which made my relationship to the country and to my Korean friends very complicated. Studying the language was difficult, if not impossible. I could never get any traction. I would get very good at it, then stop for so long I would have to start up again as a beginner.
When I was in Korea, I felt like someone else. I was a nomad. I refused to have a cell phone. I took no pictures. I kept to myself. I would leave odd little care packages around, with clothing and other essential items wrapped in bags. On doorsteps. Near park benches. At bus stops. No idea why. I felt homeless. Or I was caring for the homeless. It felt like a communication to the entire country.
The area in Maine where you grew up was almost completely white, besides you and Mina, your adopted sister. This superimposed white identity has become part of our personal history. This whiteness created by an erasure created me, created a void every time I try and trace back the lines of my descent in my head and instead just hit the wall of my skull. Every time I am racialized.
Being adopted, I think I imprinted on my white family from birth. In elementary school, I could not honestly tell I was Asian when I looked in the mirror. In fourth grade, I remember riding home on the bus, looking at my school picture all the way home, wondering how people could tell I was Asian.
In “Adoptees as ‘White’ Koreans: Identity, Racial Visibility and the Politics of Passing Among Korean American Adoptees,” Kim Park Nelson traces location and dislocation of whiteness in Korean adoptees. Complex racializations of Asian Americans in the U.S. at that time meant that Korean adoptees were racialized as white by adoptive families. This familial unification over the claiming of white American culture as a “single culture and national identity” meant assimilation at the cost of erasure of ethnic difference.
I don’t know if they took away your names when they adopted you
Or if someone just forgot to tell them
You were called Jenny, your sister Sarah.
Bearing the names of the white folks in Maine as masks.
They made you search for those names
with them you found your lines of kinship, or lack of.
Now you Sun-mi, and she Mina
A reclamation? A return?
It is not until grad school, age thirty, when I first learned to write my name in Korean. A Korean friend’s mother taught me how to write “Sun-mi.” I was like a kindergartener, my letters all big and shaky.
One of Huffington Post’s explanations for why so many people are adopted from Korea is because of a jus sanguinis (“right of blood”) clause within laws of Korean citizenship, stating that automatic citizenship is obtained only if you are recognized as the child of a Korean national father. This clause was complicated by the fact that pre-1998, abandoned or stateless children found within the Korean territory were automatically naturalized, perhaps explaining why 80-90% of children born to single mothers in Korea were abandoned. Though this clause was dismembered in 1998, allowing for children born to Korean mothers to also become citizens, the shame and stigma of being a single parent remains. This shame tied to the blood laws and blood lines, a blood-oriented culture that I cannot fully understand, is countered by the shame of Korea as a developed country whose children are abandoned and that sends so many children to families overseas.
My brother and I are your only blood relatives, your only Korean relatives.
I don’t know your adopted parents’ names. Somehow it just never came up. All I know is that your mom was outrageous and loved animals. You told us once about the time she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bird. They rescued horses, nearly dead, skin and bone, patchy balding horses that they would haul in their VW bus with the seats put down: Floyd, Mustard, and Gentle Ben, Black Beauty, all ferocious and damaged. Sometimes I wonder what they were thinking, your parents, when they adopted a child from Korea and one from the Dakota Sioux Tribe, in addition to their two white white white biological sons. You said your mom adopted you because she wanted girls, girly girls, real girls. Instead they ended up with you, an unruly tomboy who refused to wear pantyhose.
Though your adopted parents died before I was born, the material goods that they passed on still reside in our house—an antique wooden table, a cast iron sewing machine, a technicolored orange afghan. But these remnant possessions are not sufficient to reconstitute an extended family. When I think of your side of the family, I think instead of the Korean families in Amherst that you befriended. We would visit their houses that smelled funny and felt warm. We ate japchae in the living room of their blue apartment building, we ate japchae in the basement of the Korean church; me and my brother holding the crinkly cellophane fish that we had made as a Sunday school activity in our sticky hands—japchae—I remember disliking the rubbery clear noodles. They were too false, too plastic.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the importance of food, of Korean food. The AsZian Fuzzzion food that you would make: lo mein noodles in hard taco shells, a side of Annie’s mac and cheese—white culture meets diasporic longing. I scoured the internet for food recipes that you refused to teach me, or didn’t know how:
Taste of home?
I filled in the gaps of information that you can’t learn online; I asked my white friends who were “into fermenting” how to brine the kimchi. They taught me how to push the cabbage leaves under the salty water with a bowl, so they don’t get moldy. After weeks my kimchi tasted like the sour of defeat, and anger at the things you were never able to teach me. Do I succeed in fooling them? I wonder. ARE YOU FOOLED? The only mark of authenticity is my twinkie yellow outer shell that I hide behind. But I learned these recipes from the internet, I want to scream. No I do not know how they are supposed to taste, no they do not remind me of home.
Regardless, it feels vastly important that I create this food. All of my racialized insecurities, all of the ways that I perceive myself as false, or vastly not enough melt away as I stand in the co-op kitchen surrounded by all of the Koreans I have met here. I cannot express in words how deeply whole it feels to be sitting in the basement covered in bits of messy bibimbap, and too sour kimchi, and internet recipe amalgamated inventions, surrounded by all of you, quietly slurping tofu stew that tastes of home, real or imagined. We exhale collectively, out of our mouths come small soft clouds of fire.
At the end of your response to a list of questions I sent you about this piece, you wrote me this, titled Charlotte and Owen.
If I strip away all the “cultural markers” or checklists that I have created—fluent in the Korean language, able to make kimchi, and everything else that I once thought necessary to do in order to “be Korean”—I am left thinking about, well, you…
Perhaps there are many paths when it comes to identity. I am learning this from you. Recently, I learned that making kimchi by your side, with you leading the way, humming and so carefree about “everything kimchi,” made me feel so happy and whole.
be more fluid, more forgiving than I could have ever imagined. Did I need to live through all these stories to arrive at this place? Perhaps this interview is an unexpected gift, a roadmap for anyone on a quest, with a few lovely shortcuts along the way. May anyone following along feel invited simply to start where we left off, chopping cabbage, humming, and feeling free.
The first time I heard Apollinaire, my sister was reciting “Les Colchiques” from memory at the dinner table. When she finished I leaned forward and asked her, Who wrote that? Later that night, I found Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes, his war poetry, and his life story scattered throughout various websites. Born in 1880 in Rome, Apollinaire was raised trilingual, which later allowed him to gain popularity in the Parisian circle of artists forming at the time. He fought in World War I, and was severely injured. He died shortly thereafter in 1918. “Les Colchiques” was published in his 1913 book Alcools.
Most of Apollinaire’s poetry, infused with linguistic, formal, and visual distortions, does not lend itself generously to the process of translation. In fact, I was first drawn to the task of translating this poem after reading renditions from other artists. No one sought to preserve the poem’s beauty, but rather attempted literal translations of the French. The difficulties of translation are magnified within Apollinaire’s work because he uses language as a form. In “Les Colchiques,” for example, he inverts sentences to confuse the images of eyes with the images of flowers in a way that leaves the reader unsure whether the flowers are blooming in the subject’s eyes or in the meadow.
Apollinaire so masters his ambiguous language that by the end of the poem, the reader is not convinced they have read a love poem. Rather, they are left in Apollinaire’s poisonous meadow, grazing with the cows and unsure what the metaphor was to begin with. Where Apollinaire does allow for solid ground is in the sonic beauty of his poem, how the words compliment one another and create cyclical waves of tones and rhymes. It is precisely that aspect of his poetry that gave me the confidence to stray from a literal translation and try to find a similar, albeit inferior, language in English.
Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violâtres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne.
Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dement
Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne.
The meadow holds its poison in the autumn
The grazing cows there
The crocus shaded lilac color
flowers where your eyes are tired
Violet like their shadows and this autumn
And for your eyes I feed my life this poison.
Schoolchildren in the meadow making noise
dressed in uniforms and playing flutes
They gather crocuses—their mothers
daughters of their daughters and the color of your eyelids
shivering like flowers in the delirious wind
The cowherd sings gently
While the lowing cows slowly abandon
forever this meadow fed poisonously by autumn.
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!’”
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.