Life in the fishbowl

I’m about 3/4 of the way through Signe Howell’s book, The Kinning of Foreigners: Transnational Adoption in a Global Perspective
and while I’m finding it a very interesting read, I’m also finding myself surprisingly sensitive to feeling
like a caged monkey being poked and prodded for the purposes of
research and science.

I’m always conscious of being in this strange world as an adult transnational and transracial adoptee who is also an "adoption professional" and soon to be adoption researcher;  this third space,the proverbial fence or tightrope, attempting to balance or straddle (or whatever overused cliché seems applicable) between didactic notions of being.

Research has tried to define me in terms of these dyads – Am I more Korean or American? What has had a greater influence in my life, nature or nurture? Are we, as adoptees, researched from a perspective of our strengths or our pathologies? Studies seem to indicate we’re "well-adjusted" or completely f*ed up. What is given more credence, empirical research by "professionals" or the personal narrative?

And so it goes with how I’ve used my life in the adoption fishbowl thus far.

I think it’s pretty common for individuals who were adopted to use personal narratives as a vehicle for making connections – personal, psychological and spiritual – with each other. The personal narrative has been very important for me. Through sharing my experiences in exchange with other adoptees I was able to normalize my experiences and that helped bring me out of isolation which I’ve learned is so common among transnational adoptees.

The problem with sharing the personal narrative is that eventually it feels very pathological. Not only do you risk sounding whiny, but you also risk being critiqued. Unlike research, however, what’s being critiqued is your very essence. Especially when it seems people really want drama-filled, angst-ridden stories. We tend to gravitate towards Brother’s Grimm or conversely, Disney’s happy-ever-after endings. My life just hasn’t been that tragic nor Pollyanna. That’s why I bristle when people want to use strictly anecdotal evidence to prove a larger point.

I’m cognizant of this and so I set boundaries around what information I share. Knowing that everything that is written on a public blog is open to anyone with internet access means I sometimes struggle over whether to share something personal or whether to highlight yet another research study. Both are important; one must see one’s experience as both a singular existence and as part of a pattern of larger social behavior too. Sociologists and psychologists compare you with a cohort of others and
look for correlations in either your socialization and/or genetics with
your current status and rate you on some bell curve of "normalcy." 

I also question the dependence on research studies. Call me cynical too – it’s not that I mistrust all researchers who happen to also be adoptive parents – but I’ve learned to be wary because sometimes there are biased researchers. Either way, as I’ve said before, we need to take both into consideration. For example, I know that in a so-called random sample study on the "adjustment" of transnational and/or transracial adoptees the outcome might be that adoptees are "well-adjusted." Usually the metrics for what constitutes "well-adjusted" are things like mental health diagnoses, behaviors (often reported by adoptive parents, not the adopted individual), whether the adoptee has friends, or scores in a certain range on some ratings scale. If I were to take those research studies at face value, I’d have to agree that it looks like transracial/transnational adoptees do, in fact, do well.

But there are two concerns I have about these "adjustment" studies. I have the additional information of being closely connected to adult Korean, transracial and international adoptee groups and from personal narratives and anecdotal stories I would say the studies don’t show the whole picture. Many adoptees "look" from outsiders to be "well-adjusted." So as I told one of my former co-workers who once described me as an example of an adoptee who is "successful" – just because we appear this way doesn’t mean we don’t have or have had a lot of really hard times in our lives – and still, as adults, struggle to reconcile what we experienced with our adoptions. If those questions were asked differently or if the research was measuring other aspects of our lives, we might see some very different results.

Secondly, even if those numbers are small, they are important. For example, the number of adoptees I know who were physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their adoptive parents, for example, are shocking. Yet most adoption professionals and adoptive parents are extremely unwilling or unable to give this information any credence because 1) it’s not an empirical study and 2) the numbers are so small that compared to the large overall numbers of adoptees who aren’t abused by their adoptive parents, it can’t be considered legitimately an issue. This is where professionals and parents say things like, "the numbers aren’t any different than parents who abuse their biological children" or, "it’s statistically insignificant." And while both those statements might be valid, it doesn’t invalidate that some adoptees are abused by their adoptive parents and that it’s just wrong and adds another layer of trauma on that adopted individual.

All of this is not to debate the merits of research or conversely to promote the personal narrative but just to say that sometimes I step back and look at my life and realize how much bigger this whole adoption thing has become. I have spent years trying to make sense of my adoption and the majority of the work I’ve done has been with the help of other adult adoptees. I’m this weird hybrid of adoptee, adoption professional, adoption researcher. Three hats to wear, three-headed hydra, always trying to combine them all together. Neither the personal narrative nor the research tells the whole story. Both need to be considered as important aspects of explaining the experience. Sometimes science can provide a name to a feeling or behavior, but it just can not explain at the core what my experiences were or how they made me who I am today.

Sometimes I just feel strange being the subject and object of research. Every now and then, like tonight, reading a book about how transnational adoptees behave and think makes me realize how strange my life has become. I guess that’s part of the reason why I work and study adoption as well as live it in my own life. I didn’t want to always be looking at other people from inside the fishbowl.

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2 thoughts on “Life in the fishbowl

  1. I’ve revisted this post several times in the past 24 hours. . . there are so many powerful observations you make here that have given me much to think about as an adult adoptee.

  2. I’ve got the Signe Howell book in my pile of books I need to read, too. Your comments are very helpful; I think there’s an assumption that “with all the homestudies adoptive parents have to go through, of course no abusers will make it through.”
    But, well, first, I think it’s actually pretty difficult to catch abuse before the fact (and many child abusers won’t necessarily have abused, e.g., their partners. Or even their other children–sometimes just one child will be singled out).
    And I also think it’s complicated by the fact that a) the people whose homes are being studied are the ones with the money that drives the system, and b) there’s still a strong cultural equation between a “nice home” (i.e., well-appointed, clean, tasteful, photos of smiling family members) and the absence of abusive behaviors. The term “homestudy” itself even seems to play into that.

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