Global Family Making

Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America
Catherine Ceniza Choy
New York: New York University, 2013, 229 pp., $23.00, paperback

Reviewed by Miliann Kang

I was reading Global Families in my doctor’s office when a woman approached me and asked me about my book. I showed her the cover. She explained that she was the mother of two children adopted from Vietnam, so I offered to lend her the book when I was finished. She hesitated, then asked only half-jokingly, “Is this one of those books that will make me feel really bad about my family?” I was saddened but not surprised by or unsympathetic to her response. Like the practices, determinants, and actors in transnational adoption, this field of study can be complex, contradictory, and multilayered.

In thinking about transnational adoption, I wear two hats. The first is that of a feminist sociologist and ethnic studies scholar who focuses on reproductive politics, labor, and migration. The second is that of an Asian American mother who is raising a child in a community that has a large number of Asian adoptees. It is often hard to wear both hats at the same time. I know I am not the only one in this situation: many others are highly critical of adoption practices, and the social contexts and histories that fuel them, yet like me they have great respect and affection for individuals and families who have created strong, loving bonds through adoption. Much popular and scholarly literature, however, has set up these two positions as antagonistic and irreconcilable. Unfortunately, this often has resulted in texts and research that do not speak to—or with—those who might both benefit from and contribute to understanding the histories, current realities, and future directions of transnational, transracial adoption.

reflects and addresses these tensions. It rejects simplistic humanitarian notions of “saving” orphans from destitute, war-torn nations, and celebratory multicultural narratives of acceptance and racial progress. Instead, it offers an incisive critique of the US military, economic, and social policies that have fueled high rates of international adoption, especially from Asia, while remaining attentive to the experiences of adoptees and their families.

Choy offers a wide-ranging yet interconnected history of international adoption in the US from multiple sending countries in Asia (mainly Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China). In weaving together these disparate national contexts, she develops the concept of “global family making,” which she defines as “a process involving the decisions made and actions taken by people who create and sustain a family by consciously crossing national and often racial borders.” She asserts that this process of global family making is “not solely a personal or local one,” nor one that is relevant only to international adoption. While acknowledging its very personal dimensions, she shows how international social, political, economic, and military developments shape new family formations and determine their potentially widespread effects. For example, Choy discusses how the presence of international adoptees has generated positive attitudes toward immigrants and how they have changed the demographics and culture in regions such as the Midwest, which had been overwhelmingly white.

Choy’s main assertion—that race “is fundamental to understanding ... early Asian international adoption history as well as the lived experiences of Asian American adoptees”—may seem obvious, but it nonetheless needs constant rearticulation to counter current “color-blind” rhetoric. After World War II, many state and nonstate actors became involved in the “problem” of the mixed-race children of US GIs (popularly referred to as Amerasians), arranging placements for them outside of their home countries. While the blame for mistreatment of these children has often been laid at the feet of supposedly backward, homogenous Asian countries, Choy argues that “Japanese, Korean, and American prejudices contributed to the social ostracism of mixed-race children in Japan and Korea” (emphasis in the original). She backs up this statement by pointing to US antimiscegenation laws, which discouraged servicemen from marrying foreign brides and claiming their children as their own.

As a historian, Choy utilizes and unpacks the “gold mine” of material documenting the International Social Service, USA Branch (ISS-USA), which she accessed through the University of Minnesota’s Social Welfare History Archives. While other scholars have drawn on these organizational records to chart histories of international adoption from specific countries, Choy pieces together a longer and broader picture of ISS-USA activities throughout Asia over half a century.

As early as the 1950s and sixties, social workers and administrators at ISS both shaped and challenged US adoption policy; they did not simply enact orders from above. They asked whether overseas adoption served the best interests of children, or whether it would be better to support domestic social welfare programs that would allow these children to stay in their home countries. Although many of the issues they raised were ignored, by bringing in these voices, Choy shows that the high rates of international adoption in the US from Asia were not inevitable or the natural outgrowth of poverty and war. Instead they emerged out of a US public relations campaign that constructed Asian children as unwanted orphans, thereby reframing US military operations in Asia as humanitarian efforts in the face of rising antiwar sentiment.

Yet Choy also views international adoption as a “human story comprised of the efforts of many seemingly ordinary people.” She pays particular attention to the individuals who shaped this story.  These include such well-known figures as Henry Holt, the devout Oregon farmer who built links between US Christians and Korean orphanages as part of his missionary vision, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who founded Welcome House, an agency that facilitated international and interracial adoption. Their efforts served to normalize international adoption and lend it moral authority, while also setting up concrete mechanisms to facilitate it. Choy shows that celebrity adoptions are not a new phenomenon, but hark back to the movie star Jane Russell, who played a leadership role in the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), mobilizing Hollywood star power for fundraising and policy initiatives. One of the most interesting and in-depth profiles in the book is that of Jim Bouton, the all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees, who adopted a four-year-old Korean boy, Kyung Jo—renamed Bobbie Bouton. The family’s story was publicized by the sportswriter Leonard Shecter in an unusually honest and reflective narrative that dramatized struggles over language, food, and attachment, and challenged the simple assimilationist notion that these children could easily become and be accepted as Americans.

The final chapter, “To Make Historical Their Own Stories,” presents narratives by adult adoptees. Rather than focus on such narratives in isolation, though, Choy brings them into conversation with other aspects of Asian American history.  The narratives she examines include Marlon Fuente’s Bontoc Eulogy (1995), about his search for his grandfather, a member of the Bontoc tribe in the Philippines, who was put on live display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991) about Hollywood and US government representations of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Choy’s close readings of two documentaries by Deann Borshay Liem, First Person Plural (2000) and its follow-up, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010), are particularly nuanced and moving. Through examination of adoptees efforts to recover and understand the stories surrounding their births, separations, and placements with overseas families, the films show how the adoptees have made sense of the complex histories that they have lived, shaped, and been shaped by. While this chapter is the most theoretically rich of the book, bringing in these new topics and processes only at the end of the book may have prevented Choy from giving them the full attention they deserve. She offers a compelling analysis of the recuperation of history by Asian American artists through memory and imagination across a range of issues—but to appreciate this readers need some familiarity with the films she analyzes and the debates about them. For those most interested in the topic of international adoption, the chapter may be challenging because of its multiple themes and contexts.

Choy’s ability to capture, passionately and compassionately, the particularities of individual, organizational, and national histories is the main strength of her book. Her concept of global family making deserves serious consideration as it bridges the micro and macro processes that come together to shape normative and non-normative family structures, including multiracial, queer, and extended family formations. While the book has the potential to illuminate a range of debates regarding how race, militarism, globalization, and the agency of both groups and individuals have affected international adoption, readers won’t find groundbreaking theoretical arguments here. Choy builds on a number of recent books in the field, providing a welcome synthesis rather than cutting-edge analysis.

Going back to the interaction I described at the beginning of this review, I hope the woman I met in the doctor’s office and others like her, whose lives are directly touched by international adoption, will read this book. In Choy’s incisive and sensitive writing, I hope that they will see themselves reflected not as “good” or “bad” individuals or families, but as participants in a collective saga of personal and political upheaval that is still unfolding.

Miliann Kang is an associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work(2010), which won awards from the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association.

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