Considering the lives of transnational adoptees

This week in North Philly Notes, Kristi Brian, author of Reframing Transracial Adoption, reflects on the assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people that rightly infuriate many adult adoptees.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow earlier this month to protest the adoption ban that prevents U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Although the turnout was impressive (reported estimates range from 7,000 to 50,000 protesters) I have to wonder what really brought all these people out.  Are the protesters genuinely united for the sake of Russian children as much as they say they are? Do people feel that they honestly need to help preserve the interests of the mostly white, middle-class, U.S. adopters left with pending or halted adoptions? Of course, it’s not too tough to get folks to stand up for the sake of “poor, orphaned children,” but it’s especially easy if a critical mass of people stands practically “at the ready” to yell at the big state machinery that hasn’t done much for them lately. I suspect this was the predominant unifying element of the protesters and I certainly can’t blame dissidents for making the most of a “hot” moment to demonstrate their democratic freedoms. However, when it comes to rallying behind precious, romantic statements about the immensely better life adoptees are destined to have in the U.S., I urge caution.

Reframing Transracial AdoptionsmAs my research on transnational/transracial adoption from South Korea explains (see Reframing Transracial Adoption), “the better life in America” assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people rightly infuriate many adult adoptees. Many of the adoptees I spoke with helped me to understand their reality of navigating the imposition of gratitude that surrounds being “rescued” from a nation often implied as inferior.  While it is true that Russian adoptions into white U.S. families are often pursued as a way to avoid the racial component of adoption, questions of belonging, origins, and abandonment are nearly universal to all state-regulated adoptions.

Not only do we have a lot to learn from adult adoptee perspectives, but critically observing the rise and fall of massive adoption projects, such as Korean-American adoption (the first and longest-running form of transnational adoption) should allow nation-states to learn from one another’s mistakes. Korea went from being the world’s top “supplier” of children for adoption in the mid-1980s to a “sending nation” that is, at least to some degree, more conscious of the meaning and impact of that history. This change happened through internal and external criticism, and most notably, in recent years through the dedicated reform work of the Korean adoptees who have returned to Korea to help keep more Korean children in Korea.

While there may be heartache for families with their minds set on a particular child to “bring home,” I feel abundantly confident that criticism and worldwide scrutiny of transnational adoption serves us all. If nothing else, dramatic legislative actions such as the adoption ban should help us to fine tune our understanding of the relationship between family and the state. Perhaps it will make us ask us what the state has done for our family lately. Or what the role of the state should be in helping us form families. I suspect most of us would like to think of the state as an afterthought. It’s there when we need it otherwise we prefer to keep it out of our family matters. Yet for folks fighting like hell to have the state validate their most intimate, loving partnership as legitimate and legal, the family-state question becomes more vivid. Similarly, for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves facing the threat of losing our family members, acquiring them, or reuniting with them based on the intervening policies of a state (including policies of the child welfare system, the police force or the prison system) the power struggle can get ugly.

When it comes to your family or your government, who do you expect to win the power struggle? And in the case of transnational adoption, adopters’ vision for family must interface with the power and politics of two nations.  When the fate of our families becomes heavily determined by the “personalities” of two competitive capitalist nation-states (with many skeletons in both closets) both posturing as the top contender in human rights protections, we can only expect a stampede of contradictions to complicate our attempts at creating family intimacy.

My ethnographic research on adoptive families has led me to a position much like the one being voiced by Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov. Astakhov has stated candidly at human rights hearings on adoption that the “hysterical warnings” about international adoptions being the best viable solution for Russian children only serves those seeking profit from adoption.

The fact of the matter is, as much as we hate to admit it, transnational adoption is a marketplace driven by and reflective of capitalist modes of production. The desires of white Americans and Europeans (predominantly) are the buyers in that marketplace interested in “giving” a better life to a child of their choice. Race does play a big role in which adoption programs adopters choose. Given this fact alone, transnational adoption offers us a chance to follow the advice of philosopher George Yancy as he urges us to shift our gaze (in Look, a White!) to assess the ways of white folks rather than simply accepting them as the way things ought to be done. Look a Whitesm

My book explores the actions of white adopters in Korea’s history with transnational adoption. But more importantly it highlights the work of the Korean adoptees who have critically observed adoptive family life in the U.S. as well as the politics of race, culture and statehood surrounding their adoptions. Although Korea has provided more children for overseas adoption than any other place in the world since 1955, Korea has dramatically reduced its numbers down to 627 adoptions to the U.S. last year. That is still a lot of children being transplanted through the complex bureaucracies of two national-states that cannot begin to attend to the life-long emotional realities of adoption. The more we see those numbers decrease in all “sending” countries, the better I feel about our abilities to create home-grown solutions to globalized problems that often masquerade as new ways to embrace superficial multiculturalism.

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