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Bernard: International Adoption

03/28/11 5:55PM By Emily Bernard
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(HOST) Recently, international adoption has become a topic of hot debate; but commentator Emily Bernard believes that along with the idea of a complex identity comes the opportunity for cultural abundance.  

(BERNARD) Some stories about international adoption are about poverty or lack.  A child unwanted or abandoned; a lost history.  I prefer the stories about bounty.  You have two worlds, I tell my twin daughters Giulia and Isabella, two countries, two languages - two stories to tell about how you came to be.

My daughters were born in Ethiopia, and we became a family when they were one year old.  Formally speaking, their second story began in a courtroom.  In just a few minutes, they were rubber stamped into a new life.  But really my daughters' second story began in a hotel room in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.  The distance between the remote outback where they were born and the posh Hilton hotel cannot be calculated in miles.  

Isabella could not get over the faucet in the bathroom; my husband could lull her to sleep only by turning the water on and off, like a lullaby.  

One morning, I held Giulia in my arms while she flipped a light switch.  "Wow," she said, as the room lit up.  Between the faucet and the light bulb, there was no going back.  But the past is always present.  "Memory resides nowhere, and in every cell," said the late neuroscientist Dr. Saul Schanberg.  Where does memory live when you leave your native land before you learn to tell the story of your life?

Three years ago, when Giulia and Isabella were two, my family traveled to Washington, D. C. to meet our Ethiopian adoption liaison for dinner.  It was his first visit to the United States.  He had spent the day playing tourist, visiting monuments and museums. "Americans," he told us, "you really know how to preserve your stories."  

We all met up at Queen of Sheba, one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in Washington.  When I took Isabella to the bathroom to change her diaper, Giulia agreed to stay with the waitress, a beautiful young woman in traditional dress, who knelt and held her hands.  "Twins?"  asked the waitress when Isabella and I emerged from the bathroom.  I nodded.  She asked me where they were from.  "Tigray," I said.  

I knelt with Isabella while the waitress began to speak to Giulia in Tigrinya, and Giulia nodded or shook her head.  Then, Giulia looked at me and put her arm around my neck.  She pulled me closer as her conversation with the waitress seemed to pull her deeper and deeper into memory.  You belong to me, said her fierce two-year-old grip.  I leaned in until our bodies made a bridge between the past and the present.  With all of my might, I assured her through my skin, "And you belong to me."

We do belong to each other; but Giulia, along with her sister, also belongs to something else, something mysterious and incalculable, deep inside of their cells.  Where the girls' identity resides in the world between past and present, there and here - that is a story they will make up on their own.
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