What is it like to meet the mother who rejected you as a baby? Richard McComb talks to Chinese Brummie Tina Freeth about being reunited with her mum over dim sum.
Tina Freeth waited 31 years to meet the mother who gave her away when she was a 12 day old baby.
What did she feel like when she finally got to speak to her birth mum, a Hong Kong Chinese living in Birmingham? Were there bitter tears and recriminations, or joy and elation? In a film, or a feature in a women’s magazine, there would be a little bit of both.
Tina is keen to deflate my expectations before we meet at her home in Sutton Coldfield. In an email, she tells me: “My only concern is that it’s not really an UPBEAT [her emphasis] ending as we’re not like bosom buddies or anything. People often think that meeting one’s birth parents will be like an amazing experience and you’ll feel whole or something, but I think often you can be quite disappointed.”
Tina’s story is complicated by the fact that she knew who her mother was. There was no dramatic “reveal” as her mum stepped out from behind a curtain or walked through a door. The two of them had been involved in brusque, formal exchanges over the years. The city’s Chinese community remains tightly knit and people tend to know each other’s business, the who’s who and the what’s what.
Tina’s mother, Wendy (not her real name) worked in the restaurant trade and Tina had seen her working in local restaurants. They never spoke.
“Chinatown is small,” says Tina. “When I was younger I used to see her in restaurants. I recognised her. She would say ‘hello.’ I think people knew I was her daughter, but I was not part of that world.”
She recalls she was eight years old when Jean Freeth, her foster mother (later her adopted mother) pointed out Wendy. It wasn’t really explained who Wendy was, but there was a complicit understanding. “My mum would say, ‘It is Wendy.’ I knew who she was talking about. Jean was quite possessive so she would not have said, ‘Go and speak to your mother.’ She wanted to be my mother.”
Tina, now 35, was born at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham in June 1977 and was fostered days later by child-minder Jean and her husband Ron, a cleaner, in an unconventional private arrangement. Tina suspects money was exchanged and that her blood parents made regular payments to the Freeths, at least for a few years.
At the time, Jean and Ron were fostering three other Chinese children. “Mum just said we were the best children in the world,” says Tina.
The Freeths also adopted two white brothers, Tony and Kevin (not his real name). They lived in a council house in Selly Oak and money was tight. The children’s clothes were bought from jumble sales and the markets. Tina recalls how casual racism was part and parcel of domestic life. Tony, who died in 2009, was a skinhead and held forthright views about Birmingham’s growing immigrant population, although Tina never felt anything other than being loved. “Tony liked me because I was his little sister,” she says.
“I didn’t feel too weird being Chinese and having white parents. My mum says she used to get funny looks when she was going to the markets with four Chinese children. She always said, ‘If people don’t accept us, just ignore them.’ She wanted us to be thick-skinned. I am not, but she wanted us to be like that.”
Tina, who was formally adopted by the Freeths when she was eight, went to Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School in Bournville and got a degree in American Studies from the University of Birmingham, where she also took a Masters in American literature and film. She started writing fiction in 2006 and drew on her experience of meeting Wendy for the first time to produce a short drama for Yellow Earth Theatre’s Dim Sum Nights, which was performed in Birmingham late last year.
Tina had re-established links with her father – a former restaurant waiter, now a tai chi teacher – in 2006 but contact with Wendy remained elusive. She planned to introduce herself at her mother’s birthday in Chinatown in November 2008 but ended up leaving the bar before Wendy arrived. She left a birthday card with her phone number.
Over the next couple of days, mother and daughter exchanged texts and arranged to meet for dim sum at Chung Ying restaurant. It was a time of conflicting emotions for Tina.
She says: “I had this idea about Chinese mothers being very stoic and unemotional. Every time I had seen Wendy she didn’t smile. I think I was afraid of her. I was scared she would reject me again. I have met other adopted kids and they have said similar things. I was nervous and took some photos of me at university and as a child.”
Wendy, then 52, was slightly late arriving and Tina feared she might not turn up.
“But she came in and I think we hugged. It is all very vague. Her English is not great and the conversation was quite superficial. She speaks Cantonese and I don’t speak any.”
In the absence of a common language, they talked about food and their favourite dim sum varieties. After three decades of not speaking, they found themselves talking about steam prawn dumplings and egg tarts. Wendy disclosed she treated herself to foot massages on her rare days off. In the circumstances, it was a bizarre conversation.
Tina says: “I was basically sitting in front of a stranger that resembled me. I didn’t know who she was. I felt quite sorry for her because she seemed lonely. She was working long hours in a restaurant. Her life consisted of six days of working very long hours.” The meeting lasted for one-and-a-half hours and went well in the sense that Tina did not feel rejected all over again. “But I didn’t get the answers to my questions. Why was I given away at 12 days old?”
She asked outright why she was handed over to strangers in hospital: “She said she could not remember. I think it is unlikely she could not remember. Maybe it was too painful.”
Tina was grateful to get an insight into her estranged mother’s life. She says: “Day to day, life was tough for her. I felt better because I had met her. It is like this thing inside you heals. I am actually very lucky to have had the journey I have had.”
It is significant that when Tina speaks about “Mum,” it is Jean Freeth, not her birth mother, to whom she refers. “It was not like Wendy was going to replace my mum ever,” she adds.
Tina has kept in touch with Wendy but only fleetingly, usually by text. She has two children of her own now, with her Spanish partner Jose, who is 45, and expected Wendy to become more involved with her grandchildren. It hasn’t happened. Tina’s son, Santiago, is two and baby Alma is 11 months old. She loves both her children dearly but discloses she was desperate to have a daughter.
She says: “I really wanted a girl. I am Chinese and I always heard when I was growing up that the Chinese prefer sons. When I was small, I thought that was maybe why I was adopted, because I was a girl. When I was grown up, I wanted my own little girl in some way to reverse the idea of Chinese people wanting boys.
“I love Santiago, I really love him. But I wanted a girl. In China, lots of girls are adopted because sons are preferred and because they’ve got the one-child policy. A lot of people who have girls get rid of them.”
There is a striking similarity between the young Tina, who I see in faded family snaps, and Alma, who spends much of the afternoon playing with my shoe laces.
Tina says: “She looks just like me in old photos, doesn’t she? But she is happier. There are lots of pictures of me crying.”