Clark Kent, Adoptee
Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption
edited by Jane Jeong Trenka, Julia Chinyere Oparah, and Sun Yung Shin.
Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006, 318 pp., $20.00, paperback
Beyond Good Intentions: A Mother Reflects on Raising Internationally Adopted Children
by Cheri Register
St. Paul, MN: Yeong & Yeong Book Company, 2005, 183 pp., $18.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Nichols
As a white adoptive mother of a Vietnamese child, I have to believe my love will carry us through. I am beset with fantasies of protecting my young son, of keeping him safe. But I wonder, how much can love heal? I’m not Vietnamese. At five years old, my son is culturally a white American, obsessed with Superman and the blond-locked Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale. Says Ron M., one of the many transracial adoptee contributors to Outsiders Within, “I have had the mind-bending experience of looking at people I know to have features similar to mine and having racist thoughts about them.”
Reading Outsiders Within will challenge all white adoptive parents. It put me on the defensive, with its weight of rage from adult adoptees—“I still asked the wind why I was posted up like a modern-day slave on the block”—and its grief—“For years, I practiced cutting you [birthmother] out of my heart, or tried to, until I found out that the beating of my heart determines my humanity, and that cutting is cutting, and cutting means being alone in pain.”
I first flipped through this mix of memoir, polemics, academic research, poems, and haunting graphics looking for reassurance. She still talks to her adoptive mom, right? The answer is as complex as the political issues raised here, and that’s the point. Transracial adoptees don’t speak with one voice, and their experience has been marginalized until now, as if they’re all still children, and white adoptive parents and social workers remain the “experts.” In the Korean adoptee community, this is called “KADpropriation”—KADs are Korean adoptees—contributor Sunny Jo writes in “The Making of KAD Nation.”
“[O]ur very lives are acts of transgression,” editors Julia Chinyere Oparah, Sun Yung Shin, and Jane Jeong Trenka point out in their introduction to Outsiders Within. “[O]ur bodies—born in one place and raised in another, speaking different languages, nourished from different tables—are manifestations of the uneasy and often violent clash of…race and nationality.”
This is a brave and unusual book. Regardless of what I wanted to hear, it voices my fears about what my son will face, and it’s a relief to grapple with them openly on the page. Cheri Register’s Beyond Good Intentions also emphasizes the emotional and political fallout from international adoption, in this case from the perspective of an adoptive mother of two adult Korean American daughters. All these writers make clear that if the initial loss of birth parents is denied, if white parents continue to believe they can “solve” racism by ignoring difference, love may not, in fact, be enough.
“I was probably one of the only Asians they had ever encountered in the flesh,” writes Vietnamese adoptee Indigo Williams Willing of her experience growing up with white kids in 1980s Australia. “We…had identical accents, and each was as ‘typically Aussie’ as the next, yet somehow I became different.” As an adult, Willing is the founder of Adopted Vietnamese International and has a nuanced view: “[A]doptees need not give in to notions that cultural attributes are inherent or that one is better than the other. But where does such powerful knowledge leave these outsiders within?”
That’s the question underlying the entire collection. Outsiders Within literally covers a lot of ground, with pieces by Korean Danish, African American, First Nations Canadian, and black British adoptees. The more academic essays delve into everything from the Holt Agency’s evangelical Christian influence on Korean adoption to the “disappeared children” of the Salvadoran civil war to the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. The collection is organized into six parts—such as “Colonial Imaginations, Global Migrations”—but it’s the personal stories that stand out, wherever they appear.
Some of the writing is stunning. In “Love Is Colorblind,” Jeni Wright describes stepping out of “one of my first showers by myself” at nine years old:
I lean over the sink so my nose is almost touching the glass and mouth to the ugly girl staring back, you look like an ugly African bush girl, over and over until my breath clouds over my face. I start to write ‘jungle bunny’ in the steam but I am crying too hard to finish.
Says Heidi Lynn Adelsman, the white sister of a mixed-race brother in 1960s Minnesota, “[n]o doubt we talked about race when Mike was first adopted. Children speak their curiosity. But I don’t remember conversations on racism.” At twelve, her brother began running away and eventually became estranged from the family. By his late twenties, Mike was in prison and had AIDS. Adelsman writes,
When Mom went to see him there was no guard on duty, so Mike was in a locked hospital unit. Mom couldn’t get to him to comfort him or talk with him. But there was a window. She stood outside looking at him looking at her, both crying. It seemed familiar, the window, the wall. It was a metaphor of our lives together.
One of the most disturbing insights from Outsiders Within is that the love of adoptive parents can be an infantilizing trap. In her moving poem “If I Pull Away,” Shandra Spears writes, “Mom and I collect rocks; / Dad and I skip stones across the water. / My heart breaks as I smile, / Because this is the only way we can be together / Me as a baby girl child, and / them loving the child they remember.” An Ojibway adoptee in white Ontario, Spears sums it up:
This is the half-life of adoption stories:
Half-in and half-out of identities,
Half-in and half-out of careers,
Half-in and half-out of relationships,
We swim on top of a pool of stories
While others build adult lives on solid ground.
None of the contributors to Outsiders Within argues that all transracial adoptions go wrong or that the love of white parents isn’t genuine. Some cast the challenges they’ve faced in a positive light—Mark Hagland, a Korean American adoptee and gay journalist, calls them “a wonderful spiritual gift.” Yet even if their own family experience was good, many of these writers view transracial adoption as the latest form of white exploitation and colonialism. Co-editor Jane Jeong Trenka, author of The Language of Blood and a Korean American adoptee who’s returned to her birth country, has been especially vocal about her opposition to international adoption.
She’s not alone. “[S]ome striking similarities come to mind when we compare the Atlantic slave trade and international adoption,” notes Tobias Hübinette, a Korean Swedish adoptee and academic. “Both practices are driven by insatiable consumer demand, private market interests, and cynical profit making.” Sociologist Dorothy Roberts points to the institutionalized racism of American social services. “The public would not tolerate white children being placed in foster care at the rates experienced by Black children,” she writes. Hübinette echoes her: “One can only imagine the reactions if Korean middle-class couples, whether in Korea or living overseas, suddenly started to adopt white children.”
Outsiders Within situates the adoption choices of privileged whites in a network of global power inequities, and for this reason it demands an audience far beyond the adoption community. The rhetoric is overblown at times. Yet by insisting that the personal terrain of family relations is undoubtedly political, the editors and writers are consciousness-raisers in the grand tradition of This Bridge Called My Back.
Still, I question the “insatiable consumer demand” for international adoption. It’s certainly increasing—immigrant orphan visas issued by the U.S. Department of State have almost doubled since 1996—but international adoptions in the United States seem to have topped out at about 20,000 a year, with fewer visas issued in 2006. Stringent ethical standards are a must. But for anyone who’s visited an orphanage in a developing country, the sight of rooms full of cribs with crying babies doesn’t square with the polemics. These children can’t languish forever, waiting for corrupt bureaucracies to catch up.
A few writers claim international adoption has been on the rise since the 1980s because of the “tremendous social pressure for Americans to become parents,” in Kim Park Nelson’s words. This is an oversimplification. Just as adoptees want and need to be the agents of their own lives, adoptive parents aren’t automatons marching to the beat of popular culture.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to learn. When my son was two years old, we lived in Nice, where his gamine looks attracted plenty of oohs and ahhs. But my husband and I also slammed up against the entrenched racism of southern France. Once two white boys pointed at our son and pulled back their eyelids, as their father laughed along. I felt enraged, speechless. I felt like a child, unable to manage my own emotions or to make sense of them.
My son was looking the other way, examining something in the dirt. I doubt he noticed; even if he had, at two he would have thought the attention was funny, which disturbs me more and more as I think about it. At the time, we walked away, and I kept my eyes averted, some deeply instinctual response kicking in. Don’t look at us. I suddenly remembered a Chinese American friend in San Francisco describing her own silence when somebody yelled gook at her from a passing car. She’d been shocked, but she hadn’t yelled back. She’d told me this as if it were obvious—that’s just what you do—then looked embarrassed at my incomprehension.
As Cheri Register tells it in Beyond Good Intentions, “I often meet younger adoptive parents beaming over cute little kids tucked into…state-of-the-art strollers. I smile back knowingly, but don’t dare say what I’m thinking: Don’t be surprised if your daughter shoplifts, or slips into a deep depression, or flies into a rage and threatens you with a knife before falling into a sobbing heap on the floor.”
This is clearly not the usual upbeat guide on choosing a country or getting through the paperwork of international adoption. It’s a bracing read, distilling Register’s experience into ten short chapters about pitfalls for parents—like “Wiping Away Our Children’s Past” or “Holding the Lid on Sorrow and Anger.” She does such a good job of cutting to the quick that I’ve posted several quotes from her around my office.
Register invents a developing nation called “Tapoda” (a near-anagram for “adopt”) so as not to focus on specific sending countries. Each chapter opens with the fictional voice of a naive adoptive parent. For example: “I rarely think of my son as Tapodan; he’s just my son. If he comes home and tells me that somebody at school called him a racist name, I tell him it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Register adopted her infant daughters in the early 1980s, and they grew up in Minnesota. She calls herself a “recovering perfectionist,” prone to hypervigilance: “I wanted to be the loving, nurturing mom they ran to with their sorrows, including the loss of their birth parents and their encounters with racism. But I wasn’t ready for anger.” She describes being on good terms with her adult daughters now—one of them lives in Korea—but she’s learned the hard way that she couldn’t make everything okay.
If Beyond Good Intentions is any indication, the adoption community is starting to catch up with the lived experience of adult adoptees. Adoptive Families magazine may be pro-adoption, but it’s full of ads for culture camps, not talk of assimilation. Organizations founded by transracial adoptees have sprung up around the world—the Vietnamese Adoptee Network (VAN), Global Overseas Adoption Link (GOAL), and First Nations Orphans Association, to name a few. They are forging new communities of adoptees and providing support for visits to birth countries and searches for birth parents.
There’s no easy way to discover who you are. Many Asian adoptees describe not being considered “real” Koreans or Vietnamese by other immigrants or in their birth countries. Yet some transracial adoptees feel their multiple identities free them to cross all sorts of lines. In Outsiders Within, Sunny Jo writes, “Some KADs have come to see our KAD culture and identity as stronger than our ties to either the birth or adoptive culture.” Mark Hagland tells of attending KADapalooza in Los Angeles in 2001, where the organizers handed out “Stealth AZN” (“Stealth Asian”) T-shirts as a joke. Kim Diehl, a mixed-race American adoptee, adds,
It hurts to be a woman of color and be part of a family with white privilege. It also feels liberating to have that perspective and know firsthand how white people move through the world instead of its being a mystery.
For a white adoptive parent, having a child of color means living with complexity, and acknowledging that your reasons are both altruistic and selfish. Register calls this “the paradox of adoption,” where “the joy and the tragedy coexist.” An attendee of transracial adoption conferences—Register has met or corresponded with a number of the contributors to Outsiders Within—she has this to say about the resistance of some adoptive parents to hearing their children’s raw testimony: “We parents ought to be talking among ourselves about how we will endure over the long haul as our children grow up and away and venture into worlds unfamiliar to us.”
We should be lobbying our adoption agencies to include training about racism and how to be a transracial family for prospective parents; we should be fighting for publicly subsidized childcare and other entitlements for all working parents. We need to see our privilege for what it is so we can join collective efforts to change racist and unethical adoption practices. This is our job, not our children’s, who had no control over whether they were adopted. Adult transracial adoptees may be speaking up, but that doesn’t mean the work of building a better world is only theirs to shoulder.
Meanwhile, I am raising my little Superman, who loves to dress in fake glasses and one of his dad’s old ties, pretending to be Clark Kent. Clark is an adoptee, of course, whose birth parents lovingly sent him on a rocket to Earth before their planet Krypton exploded. My son refers to Superman’s “Krypton parents” and “Earth parents” (one of whom is actually named Martha); he likes Superman’s “peachy skin.” Am I uneasy about mixed messages? Yes. Do I love this child with every drop of my own blood, even if he returns forever to Krypton? Yes. Last week, he said, “My secret identity is Asian.” We’re getting somewhere, but it probably won’t be the place I expect.
Martha Nichols is a freelance writer and editor. A former associate editor at the Harvard Business Review and Women's Review of Books, she has published in HBR, The Chicago Tribune, and Utne Reader. She is a long-time reporter for Youth Today, a national newspaper on youth services. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and her son, who was born in Vietnam.