Sunday Times

David Lai Stu­dent of life

- Venezuela · Shanghai · Beijing


Folded and un­folded dozens of times, the two-page let­ter in his hand is as fa­mil­iar to David Lai as the lines on his palms. The read­ing and re-read­ing is an ex­er­cise to some­how un­ravel the puz­zle of his birth mother. David turns 24 to­day. He was born in the year of SA’s democ­racy, to a woman who signed her name Jia Keng and set­tled on the English name “Byron” for her boy. His birth mom, he’s told, ar­rived in SA from Shang­hai, China, in the early 1990s. When she fell preg­nant out of wed­lock she couldn’t go back to China with­out a hus­band and chose to give him up for adop­tion through Jo­han­nes­burg Child Wel­fare.

Joburg cou­ple Gail and Dou­glas Lai were on the adop­tion wait­ing list when that got the call that a sixweek-old Chi­nese baby was up for adop­tion. It was an im­pos­si­ble co­in­ci­dence; it was their mir­a­cle, who they chris­tened David Sean Lai.

Along with the let­ter, Jia Keng left two pho­tos and two pieces of gold jew­ellery that fea­ture a mo­tif of a dog for the Chi­nese zo­diac year of David’s birth. There was also a teddy bear and a list writ­ten in Chi­nese — 14 points of love through gen­tle in­struc­tion: “Check tem­per­a­ture of bath wa­ter with el­bow”, “don’t give ran­dom medicine” …

“I wish I could find her and know what her life is like. Does she have an­other fam­ily? Do I have brothers and sis­ters?” says David.

“I have dif­fer­ent emo­tions. Some days I’m grate­ful she was self­less to give me up for a bet­ter life, some days I’m cu­ri­ous, and some days I’m an­gry and frus­trated,” he says. ● LS

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