Have You Ever Really Thought About Your Birth Certificate?

I felt like I was holding a piece of my privilege.
Publish date:
August 4, 2015
adoption, privilege, freedom, gay rights, the government, transgender rights

A few days ago, I got a tightly sealed envelope in the mail.

Taped-up envelope inside taped-up envelope, I carefully sliced through the layers to get to the document within. Inside an old manilla envelope labeled "LOUISE M. HUNG" in English and "Precious Jade" in Chinese (my Chinese name given to me by my grandfather), was my original Hong Kong birth certificate.

I'd been expecting it for over a week, but the expectation of the government document did not prepare me for the rush of emotions that sprang to the surface when I held that piece of paper for the first time.

Carefully folded in fours, I held the surprisingly small, slim paper in my hands. I smelled it. I examined the reverse side of the embossing. I scrutinized the tiny, transparent words, "Hong Kong" and some government tracking numbers printed all over it — to identify it as a legal document.

Then I slowly opened it, and took a peek at my past.

Unfolded it was small, smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper. At the top it said, "Births and Deaths Registry, Hong Kong" and there was the Hong Kong Coat of Arms from when Hong Kong was a British Colony. I spent the first nine years of my life as a British citizen.

The print was in tomato red, in both English and Chinese. The ink with which my particulars had been filled out was in black — it had not seemed to have faded since my birth.

I saw my identification number, my birthdate, my mother's name, and my father's name. My sex was listed as "girl" in loopy, cursive writing.

I found it interesting that there was a section where my father's "Rank or profession" was requested, but not my mother's. I don't know what birth certificates look like now, but I wonder if this focus on the father outside of being "the father" is still the case. I was only born 33 years ago, but so much has changed in that time, I wonder if our records have caught up?

I was waiting for this piece of paper for a very practical reason. I need it to confirm my right to live in a foreign country. I need it to finish up some paperwork I started a while ago. At face value, it's just a government document that records my birth.

But holding it, thinking about that time 33 years ago when pen was put to paper and I was written into official existence, I couldn't help but feel a lump in my throat, the pressure build behind my eyes.

When my husband asked me why I was so quiet, why I was staring at this little piece of paper, my response without a thought was, "I feel like I'm holding a piece of my privilege."

Because of this government documentation — directly or indirectly — I have the ease of gaining visas, rights of abode, and various other legal rights and documents. I have never really even had to think or wonder about the specifics of my birth.

My parents, one woman and one man, are not questioned. The "girl" on the certificate is who I identify as, and there is no question as to it in the eyes of well, anybody. The name I know myself as, matches the name on the document.

If this birth certificate were to be lost or destroyed, it would only take a bit of cash and nine days to get it replaced (I called Hong Kong to ask). No changes to be made, no questions to be asked.

Comparing me to my birth certificate is merely a formality, one that I've already seen various government officials do with a hint of boredom.

My birth certificate and other documents like it, are allowing me to live the life I'm carving out for myself abroad. In the few days I've had my birth certificate, I've been continually thinking about how this evidence from the beginning of my life is enabling me to move forward with my future.

Of course, we are not our birth certificates. My birth certificate is not the only thing that affords me my privileges. But at this moment in my life, I can't help but think about how it is a huge indicator.

A few hours after getting my birth certificate, I commenced avoiding work by chatting with a friend of mine over the interwebs. I told her how relieved I was to have my birth certificate, how all my immediate visa issues were now able to be resolved, and I mentioned some of the specifics I outlined above. She listened and expressed genuine support and interest in my latest acquisition.

I asked her if she had ever seen her own birth certificate, and she told me that, being adopted, she has an Amended Birth Certificate but has never seen her original. She doesn't know her birth name, and getting a passport was, in her words, "a huge pain in the ass." We went on to have an interesting conversation about what it means to have a "plain, old, boring birth certificate." It was enlightening.

I'm not throwing pity toward those who are adopted, those whose gender is not the same as on their birth certificate, those who have to fight for parental privileges of their babies, and countless others who have to battle the constraints of a birth (or death) document. And I'm not admitting guilt for my circumstances.

But what I have realized is that my birth certificate, and my identity in the (relative) upper echelons of modern culture and society, are tightly intertwined. I admit, this is a new thought to me, and I can't believe it hasn't dawned on me before.

Look, my life is not perfect. I am a Chinese American woman who grew up in the American Southwest. I've had some unfairness and ignorance come my way. But in a lot of ways, my life has not been, and hopefully will not be, a battle. I don't know if the truth is the same for so many of my loved ones.

I wanted to write this because it's an aspect of privilege I'd never thought about, never talked about with anybody — never really knew to talk about. But if the only way we can move forward and broaden our terms of equality is by acknowledging what privilege is and how it presents itself, I felt it was important to share what I'm in the process of learning.

I'm grateful to have my birth certificate, for so many more reasons than I expected.

What are your experiences with birth certificates? What do current birth certificates in the US or around the world look like? Has there been progress made?

Please share if you feel comfortable, I'd like to know more.