Being born and raised a Norwegian, besides remembering being thrilled whenever we celebrated my birthday as a child, I rarely give my date of birth much thought, other than — aside from the memories of childhood festivities — as a means of identification, a method to relatively easily tell me apart from anyone else who happens to share my name. This, in fact, is one of the purposes of social security numbers, in the rare event that two people should share both name and birthdate. Other than that, I don’t really care much. It’s well documented, and it’s part of me as much as is my belly button, which is demonstrably there but I don’t think of it very often, but whenever I do, I know exactly where to find it.
If on the other hand you’ve been adopted from, say, South Korea, such information may not be readily available.
So what if you don’t know your birthday? Will it matter?
I’ll say you’d never know what you’d miss unless you don’t have it.
In the second week of January of 1970, a little girl, whom we shall call Khara, was internationally adopted to Norway from South Korea. The birth date in her passport, and on most other papers that accompanied her, or at least ones not written in what for all practical purposes was unreadable Korean, was March 27th, 1968. That would make her just under a year and ten months old. But she was tiny for a nearly two year old child, something that was blamed on malnutrition and sickness. She did however eat well and put on weight, as a healthy, growing child should. Language came late, as did many things in her childhood development, again blamed on malnutrition and sickness during her first years. When she lost her baby teeth, she did so at exactly the same time as her best friend, who was a whole year younger.
She started school at seven, as was the norm in Norway in the Seventies, but struggled, learning slower and always falling behind the others in her class, a disadvantage that increased as the school years went on. It would be kind to say that she just barely managed.
Her adoptive parents considered her “retarded” (or “developmentally challenged” as might be a more acceptable term today), and still blamed the alleged malnutrition and infant sickness for what they called her “defects” and “shortcomings”.
I know this, because her adoptive mother told me so herself, and that they were “disappointed”, and “resentful” of the fact that they, as adoptive parents of good standing, had not received a fully functional child. Khara had, after all, cost them a great deal of money. And they did not hesitate to show her the colour of their disappointment, and communicate the burden of their failed investment.
Her adoptive parents’ attitude, and her struggles in school, left permanent marks on Khara’s soul. She grew up being the only foreign looking face in her environment. There were no other international adoptees, Korean or otherwise, with whom she could share her uniqueness, experiences or troubles, which were becoming more and more of a burden as the years went. Moreover, at home she was forbidden, or at least strongly dissuaded, from discussing or even mentioning her origins, her lost natural parents, or anything to do with the life she had been taken away from in Korea, or express any kind of grief over her losses.
Fast forward, after years and years of carrying on and making do as best as she could (which mostly involved locking most of her troubles up inside her), with the help of the Internet she finally got in touch with other international adoptees, both in Norway and abroad. She was shocked to find that she was not alone. Her experiences, or ones unlike yet similar to hers, or entirely different but equally painful and damaging, or even worse, were commonplace. Learning problems, emotional struggles, broken self images, anger issues, social anxiety, depression, grief, abuse both mental and physical, some or all of those things more often than not coupled with the apparently universal lack of understanding by their adoptive parents for what they’d let themselves in on by adopting in the first place.
That, and the enthusiastic barrage of worn out clichés from non-adoptees, telling them how lucky they were to be adopted, how they must feel special and chosen for the opportunity to grow up in the civilized West rather than the foul slum from whence they came, with parents who actually cared for them, instead of the awful ones who gave them up and sent them away. How grateful they must feel.
Or how ungrateful they were, if they failed to see their luck for what it was, failed to appreciate the blessings that had been bestowed upon them by their good adoptive parents. Ungrateful, whining freeloaders in the modern Western society that had done and sacrificed so much for them. Adoptees need only open their mouth once to speak of their true feelings in the matter of being adopted, to be branded a troublemaker, an ingrate, and a parasite.
But I digress.
One key ingredient we gathered from the exchanges with other adoptees is that you can’t trust the information that came with you. Documentation from the adoption agencies is often tailored to make the children more “adoptable”, sometimes outright fabricated with little or no basis in reality, or occasionally they will send one child’s information along with another child — though they tend to at least get the gender right. Your birth date? Just another tidbit of information that may or may not be correct, and whether the former or the latter is more likely is anyone’s guess. The adoption agencies can write anything they want, at the toss of a coin, or the roll of a dice. I mean, who’s gonna know, right?
One attempt at contacting the adoption agency for confirmation of existing information and filling in of blank spots went along the lines of “We’re sorry, but we cannot disclose this information about you without written consent from your biological father.” But he is dead! “We know.” How the hell am I going to get written consent from my dead biological father who I don’t even know who is because you won’t tell me? “That is not our problem.”
In other words, “Your birth record is none of your damn business.”
I elaborate for dramatic effect, of course, but it’s pretty damn close. Adoption agencies are businesses, and no business likes the idea that their merchandise comes back after the sale to ask critical questions of any kind about the trade.
As it happens, Khara did manage to establish contact with her Korean family. She has three siblings, and she has learned that she was not — contrary to the official reason for her adoption — an orphan. Nor was she ever put up for adoption by her family, and her father spent the last years of his life trying to find her and get her back.
Her oldest sister looked at the birth date in her passport, next to the black and white photo of a far too tiny looking two year old girl, and said, “This is wrong. You weren’t born in March, you were born far later in the spring.”
Then we learned from her sister and other Koreans that many records, especially from that time, used dates from the Chinese lunar calendar, which is very different from ours, and their months can move back and forth quite a lot compared to our own. And usually, when dates must be converted to Western, it’s common practice to keep the month and day, and simply slap on the corresponding Western year. And I can totally understand that. After all, I’m fairly lazy myself. But this means that we’re not dealing with the 27th of March 1968, but rather the 27th day of the 3rd month of the Chinese calendar, in what happened to line up with 1968 of the Julian one. Unable to pull that one out of a hat, I resorted to online date converters to find out that this adds up to April 24th, 1968. Not a big change, less than a month, but closer to the “later in the spring” than what we had to begin with.
Next up, after having mulled this over for a while, Khara’s sister had another thought. “This still isn’t right. I clearly remember that I was twelve years old when you were born, and I was born in 1957. You simply can’t have been born in 1968.”
Apparently 1969 was the ball park we were aiming for. But how certain could we be that the numbers we were looking at carried even the faintest resemblance to the truth? At the face of it, we couldn’t. However, having browsed through the papers that arrived together with Khara in 1970, I had noticed that in Korean handwriting, the numbers 8 and 9 could often be scribbled close enough in shape to be difficult to tell apart at a glance, the lower loop of the eight slung so narrow that it resembled a single curved line, almost, if not entirely, identical to the lower appendage of the nine. Might at some point someone have written down her birth date hastily, so that the next person in the information chain got it wrong? It seemed possible, but how likely it was, I had no idea.
Anyway, I did the date conversion over again, starting with the 27th day of the 3rd month of 1969, and this time touched down at May 12th. This, we all agreed, was much closer to the “far later in the spring than either of our previous candidates and, lacking any accurate confirmation from anywhere, as close as we were likely to get, so we agreed to settle with this one for now. Unofficially, that is. Lacking any solid sources to back this up, it’s highly unlikely that any official registry would accept those numbers as kosher. Any new birth date we come up with, no matter how accurate, will be for personal, in house use only.
But there’s another thing, which has less to do with the creative information handling practices of adoption agencies, and more to do with Korean traditions.
When a childbirth is registered, it’s commonplace to write the date of not the birth itself, but the conception that got the pregnancy going. However, they don’t go with the usual nine months, but instead — either for simplicity or the aforementioned laziness — a full year. This is terribly confusing to someone of a Western disposition, to which I can personally attest, and indeed, I’ve been told, for many Koreans as well.
I shall skip lightly over the also fairly common practice of not necessarily registering a birth (or conception) based on the actual dates involved (or imagined), but instead wait for a while before registration, anywhere from days to months, sometimes even years, and then register the birth (or conception) according to the day it was reported. Accuracy, it seems, does not have a strong presence in Korean birth record keeping, which may relate to their tendency not to celebrate birthdays in the same way as we do.
This, after long last, and I can only apologise for the mileage, leads us to an interesting conclusion, or as close to one as we can manage.
In light of the customary addition of a year to a child’s birth date, if Khara’s recorded date is indeed the twenty-seventh day of the third month of the Chinese equivalent of 1968, as presented on her 1970 passport and almost all other accompanying paperwork, and recorded by the Norwegian people registry, then her actual birth date becomes the same only adjusted to 1969, which translates to, as previously calculated, May 12th.
We still can’t be entirely sure, but confidence is growing, and the result feels far more tangible.
Which brings us to an epilogue, of sorts.
Your birth date is just one of the many, many things about you that you may or may not know, and may or may not care about. It may seem like a very little thing, but as many of us know from experience, sometimes the smallest things can make the greatest difference. At forty-eight years of age, the one year difference between 48 and 49 is for most purposes negligible. At an earlier time in life, however, it can mean almost everything.
Had Khara’s true birth date been given in the information that came with her from the adoption agency, many aspects of her life would most likely have played out far better. It wouldn’t have fixed everything, of course, such as the attitude of her adoptive parents, but it would have lessened her burden, and her long term life quality would, with great probability, have been massively improved.
Consider a child assumed to be one year and ten months of age, but who is really only eight months old. The difference in development is staggering. Language skills, mobility, comprehension, agility, learning ability and so on. If you judge the development and performance of a child from the perspective of one more than twice, almost three times its age, not realising the error, things are beginning go very wrong from the very beginning. She isn’t “developmentally challenged”, “undernourished” or “sick”, she’s simply a fraction of the age you judge her by! As a 22 months old toddler, she would have been disastrously behind, weak, underdeveloped, almost handicapped. As an eight months old baby, however, she was a perfectly normally developed child. The fact that this was not picked up on by her adoptive parents, or by the nurse at the first medical checkup, is infuriating.
Also, a child of six years, and one of seven, will likely be at very different stages in their growth and development, which far exceeds the difference between a 48 and a 49 year old. Put a six year old child in first grade along with seven year olds, and teach by methods designed for seven year olds, and you will probably find yourself watching a child struggling to keep up, falling behind, failing, losing faith in her ability to learn and master skills that the others grasp with relative ease. Again, either the adoptive parents or the teachers ought to have picked up on this and done something about it, but none did.
I suspect that everyone involved trusted the information provided by the adoption agency, and saw little reason to dispute it. That said, Holt International, who is the adoption agency in question, is an American-run business, which is about as Western as you can reasonably expect to get, and should thus know the importance of such little details for someone who is about to grow up where such things matter, and whose life quality might depend on it. That said, with everything I’ve learned about adoption practices over the last thirty years of knowing Khara, I conclude that adoption is in most cases not for the benefit of the children who get adopted, but for the adoption agencies themselves, and they simply don’t care as long as they get paid.