China Connections: Fearing the Adult Adoptee

[This piece was written for China Connections, a newsletter for the FCC in New England, in their most recent issue.]

‘Three core fears seem to drive the avoidant, defensive or hostile approach to interacting or communicating with adult transracial adoptees.’

I have been blogging at Harlow’s Monkey for a little more than two years. I began blogging as a way to connect with other adult adoptees, especially those who had been adopted transracially or internationally. I had no way of knowing that the majority of my readers would be adoptive parents. What started as a personal, rambling collection of thoughts about my experience as an adult Korean adoptee became an extension of what I’ve now come to terms with as my life as an Adoption Poster Child™.

My first official “job” as an Adoption Poster Child™ occurred when I was 16 years old, in the living room of an adoptive family and fellow church members. That day I sat with several adoptive parents of younger kids and answered questions about how I felt about being adopted. Since then, I’ve spoken with adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents at conferences, trainings, on panels and one-on-one. I’ve found most adoptive and prospective adoptive parents are eager to hear what I have to say about “adoption issues,” which means they want to learn about how to deal with issues of attachment, loss and grieving.

Talk with white adoptive parents about race and racism, however, and the walls go up.

For many years, I’ve seen first hand that most adoptive parents are afraid to talk to adult adoptees. While many adoptive parents breathe deep, swallow hard and plunge into the tough terrain of listening to adult adoptees, others become openly hostile and defensive. I have certainly experienced both reactions through comments I’ve received on my blog and personal e-mails from adoptive parents.

What Adoptive Parents Fear

Three core fears seem to drive the avoidant, defensive or hostile approach to interacting or communicating with adult transracial adoptees.

For some adoptive parents, the stories related by adult adoptees serve as reminders that international and transracial adoptive families are not “normal.” Many of us talk about how difficult it was to be always seen as different. For adoptive parents who came to adoption because of infertility this is often a very sensitive issue. If a parent has dreamed of having a child biologically, raising a child of another race can serve as a reminder of their infertility. Attempts to downplay the racial markers of their child such as changing their names to more Anglo-sounding names, or making comments such as, “I don’t think of my daughter as Chinese, she’s just my daughter” are sometimes efforts to erase racial difference. Although I believe these things aren’t done out of malice or with any conscious intent to negate the race of the child, the impact is that it does send the child the message that there is something wrong with being perceived as a racial “other” or having too much of an “ethnic” identity.

My family loved me so much and accepted me so unequivocally as a member of their family that they could not recognize or see me as different from them – a Korean American. They loved me despite being Korean, and any attempt on my part or on the part of society to differentiate was a painful reminder that our family was different.

Another core fear for many adoptive parents is that their child will grow up to be an “angry” adoptee – angry at them for adopting them or will reject them as their parents. When I speak on panels, adoptive parents often want to know what kind of relationship I have with my own adoptive parents. Throughout the years, this answer had changed. I have never had a bad relationship with my parents. That is, we’ve never been estranged for any reason. But for a number of years we had a very superficial relationship because my parents shut down when I dared mention anything about my adoptee journey.

This is quite common among adult adoptees. As adoptees, many of us learn to protect our parents from our internal feelings because any negative thought or feeling is perceived as rejecting them. For example, when I went off to college and began to explore my Korean and Asian identity my parents were hurt because in their world of either/or, my search for a Korean or Korean-American identity meant that I was rejecting my “American” identity and by proxy, them. When I decided at age 35 to legally change my name to incorporate my Korean birth name, my mom became very angry. During one especially heated conversation, she told me that incorporating my Korean name wouldn’t make me less “American.” My response was that giving me an American name didn’t make me less Korean. My name is now a blend of my Korean name and the name my parents gave me when I was adopted, since I am neither just Korean nor just American but a blend of both. My adoptive parents have had to work hard to accept me as a Korean American, but the more they are able to accept that part of my life, the closer we become.

Two years ago, I participated in a panel for an adoption agency’s pre-adoption training. After three of us who were transracially adopted had spent an hour sharing our stories and experiences of being raised in white suburban or rural families, one gentleman who  had listened with his arms folded across his chest for most of the hour, raised his hand to ask a question.

“Can you tell me what your parents did right?” he asked, with a furrowed forehead. “After all, you all seem well-adjusted. Your parents must have done something right.”

His question perfectly expressed how adoptive parents often have a difficult time hearing our stories. These parents worry they are not doing enough or can’t do enough; in other words, they don’t want to fail their children. As a parent myself, I can relate somewhat to this fear since none of us wants to be a bad parent.

The Role of Race

This leads into the third core fear I see in adoptive parents, which is strongly tied to the transracial aspect of adoption. Adoptive parents don’t want to be seen as racist, and the feedback I get from some adoptive parents is that no matter what they do, it isn’t good enough to “solve” or fix the racial inequalities still so prevalent in American society.

Adoptive parents are right to be concerned. In more than 36 years as a Korean adoptee, I figure that 75 percent of my “adoption issues” stem from being raised as the only non-white member of a family and community that did not prepare me for the harsh reality of being a member of American society marked as “other.”

Often I hear from white adoptive parents who insist that raising their internationally or transracially adopted child in a majority white community hasn’t been an issue for their child; their community knows the family and they feel completely accepted. Most of the time, these adoptive parents have young children. Ask some adoptive parents whose kids are teenagers or young adults – or better yet ask the adoptees themselves – and you’ll find that the adoptee has experienced racism in their school or community, or sometimes even in their own families. Adoptees rarely tell their parents about these incidents.

I know that when I first began reporting the teasing at school or in my neighborhood, my parents minimized the racist taunts or name calling as “all kids get teased for something. If it wasn’t being Korean, it’d be freckles or wearing glasses.” Except that I wouldn’t get pulled over by the police for having freckles and I wouldn’t be beat up over wearing glasses. But those things could happen to me because of my race.

It is incredibly difficult for white adoptive parents to reconcile how anyone could treat their child differently because of his or her race because of the deep love they feel for their child. Most white adoptive parents have not experienced racism themselves. This means that by pretending it doesn’t exist, these parents can protect themselves from the awful truth that we still live in a racist society and there are people who will dislike their child simply because of his or her race. Burying our heads in the sand is naïve and potentially dangerous. Adoptive parents must be able to teach their child racial survival skills. After all, children eventually grow up and live on their own. Parents will not always be there to protect them.

Taking Time to Listen

Why should adoptive parents take the time to listen to adult adoptees – especially when what we say seems at times to focus so much on the negative? I suggest looking at our adult adoptee community in a couple of ways:

  • As a reliable roadmap for your child’s future: By listening to us talk about challenges we’ve encountered, parents can recognize what are the journey’s common threads and this can help to normalize the adoption experience. When a child has questions or concerns about their adoption, it is overwhelmingly likely that adult adoptees have addressed them. Just as a mom and dad would want to read a parenting book by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton or some from the Sears Parenting Library, anthologies such as “Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption” or “In Their Own Words” are excellent reference guides for parenting a child of a different race.
  • As your child’s future cohort: For 15 years, the adult Korean adoptee community has been organizing. Now we are seeing adult adoptees from Vietnam, Columbia, and China starting to gather themselves into groups as well. Some days I look at my children and wonder how they got to be so big so quickly. Wasn’t it yesterday that I was potty training them, then sending them off to kindergarten with a lump in my throat. My daughter is 14, and soon my son will be 10. It won’t be much longer until they’ll be out on their own. My job as their parent is to prepare my kids for adulthood. Adoptive parents must do the same.

Back when I was a teenager speaking to adoptive parents, I used to say that love was all that mattered. And I believed it – that “love is enough.” Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that it isn’t true. Love isn’t enough – it’s just the beginning. You must love, but you have to expand beyond the feeling and you must act and be an ally.

Someday, your child will be one of us. I’ll be waiting to welcome them with open arms.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

18 thoughts

  1. Thank you for that post. I make every effort to be an informed adoptive parent and even so, I see myself in your post. There is always that nagging feeling of not being “normal.” It exhausts me some times to explain things and talk about adoption to strangers in a bookstore, I cannot imagine how my son will experience this one day. I only hope that with the help of adult adoptees such as yourself I will listen to him with an open mind and heart and support him. You are right… Love is the beginning, but we have to move forward from there. Thank you for taking the time to speak on this matter. It is much appreciated! Also, thank you for posting your book list. I have read and am planning to read many of the titles and find them to be most helpful!

  2. Thank you so much for your post. My husband and I strive to be informed adoptive parents, but it is often a struggle to know what is right and/or how to go about it all. Like Karen, I find it exhausting to be on display 24/7 … I cannot even imagine how that feels to the adoptees themselves. My four cousins, all adult TRAs, mimic your words — they felt unprepared to live as minorities once they came out from under “the white umbrella.” Thanks so much for speaking on this issue… love is the beginning, but education is key.

  3. I came to your blog a few times before and even though I sometimes find myself in the role of ‘confused adoptive parent’ I am grateful for the opportunity to see IA through the eyes of an adoptee. Today I was at my daughters swimming lessons and one of the other Moms approached me to ask if my daughters were from China because she was adopted from Korea. I desperately wanted to ask her so many questions about her experiences. I can tell she wanted to talk about the girls, so I hope we have an opportunity to build a rapport. It may be selfish of me, but I also saw an opportunity for my daughters to see Asian children being parented by Asian parents. Most activities we do are within the adoption community so they are becoming accustomed to seeing Asian children with white parents. We live in the upper midwest in the burbs, when I despair about diversity there is always someone there to point out how many ‘adopted AA or Asian kids’ there are in their school…that to me isnt diversity.
    Thanks for the book recommendations too. We thought we were so prepared, but we have so much more to learn.
    For us, we are proud to acknowledge their differences, acknowledge their right to grieve(now and beyond), and their right to make choices for themselves at an age appropriate time. I think the more open we become, the more accepting of how families are made (bio, adoptive, same sex parent, single parent etc) the more we will all benefit.
    As for getting defensive, I dont have the right to, unless of course someone is spouting off an opinion that is not educated or well thought out…or if it’s in front of my small children.
    I dont believe the world will ever reach the point where there will be no orphaned children in need of safe and loving homes, or where IA will be obselete(although it is a nice dream), so I tend to see the current reality & the current needs of the children we are honored to parent through these means…I do however keep my eye on the prize…always looking for ways and resources that will make our journey together more harmonious, and their journey into self realization and discovery less painful.

  4. Hi, there, what a great post. I was a little surprised that you didn’t list a fear that I’ve encountered from many adoptive parents–the buried one they don’t want to even whisper. It’s the fear that they’ve never been and will never be “real parents.”

  5. I certainly have gotten a lot out of your writing here. Including this post.
    But from my point of view, the fears I am told I have don’t fit very well. And that does not mean I am not listening.
    My greatest fear is that I set a good example for my sons. All I want *for* them is to be aware, be kind and to think for themselves. Granted it is probably different for me in the world I live in. I have always known diversity. We have friends in rural MN (my wife worked at the Mayo Clinic) and frankly I feel damned uncomfortable when I am there visiting. 🙂
    The most important thing I believe you contribute is your perspective. And that does include reading how you see adoptive parents. But I hope that you are listening as well.
    For me, an ally is a critical thinker. And someone that is truly sincere.
    My favorite quote is from an unlikely person. ““If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – GS Patton.

  6. Ditto, JR. Damn, you’re good. Hey, where’d you learn to write like that?
    All kidding aside, I agree that when talking to APs about my experience, most of them approach it like a road map. They want to know where to turn and when. Unfortunately, we can’t predict that.
    I’d love to be able to say to an AP, “hey, around the age of 12 you need to watch for…”
    It just doesn’t work like that, especially since us adoptees tend to approach our adoptions at different ages and different ways.
    However, I’ve also encountered first hand the rejection of my experience as “different” because it was in the 70s, and not today. Too bad some APs don’t realize that racism today may be even worse, considering the political climate we’ve entered.
    Just some thoughts.

  7. Me again. I “get” that guy with the arms crossed … it’s so hard when you just want to love your kids and help them move forward like every other family you see. The constant reminder that we as a family are “other” gets tiring, but I must then put myself in my daughter’s shoes and be alert to the fact that she lives that same message every day. And as a child, she is far less equipped to deal with it than I am.
    Your writing really is a gift to people like me, reminding us to stop thinking about ourselves, and to empathize and strategize with our kids. Thanks again.

  8. I loved your post again I am an AP and just took the first of 3 course class on Transracial Parenting from an adult adoptee and your sentiments about most white AP not recognizing the racism, double standars and white priviledge was our first topic. This further expands it – so thank you!

  9. Hi-
    Thanks for your article, “China Connections: Fearing the Adult Adoptee”. I read with interest the discussion about racism, which I have been aware of in my 8 year old’s world. What I don’t know if what racial survival skills would be that I should be teaching her….have you any suggestions? I have used the word “racist” to describe people who have treated her badly or ignored her for no reason whatsover, as I have felt in my gut that those people were just that. I told her that racists cannot accept people who do not look like them, and it is all their problem. It has nothing to do with the person that my daughter is. She may have “gotten” it, she may not, but I am sure she gets it in school and other places too. I just don’t hear about it. I does indeed worry me.
    The other thing I wanted to know is if you ever felt like people were your friends because they thought it would be “cool” to be friends with a Korean adoptee. My daughter has some friends that I feel have some of that element. It bugs me a lot. However, as time has gone on, the children have indeed grown to be good friends despite the “coolness” factor, so I don’t worry about it. When my daughter was really young, we met a lady who was trying to adopt a child from China. She had other biological children. She would call up to “borrow” my daughter to take her to parades and things. The first couple of times, I let my daughter go, but after a while it made me sick. I quit taking the lady’s calls. She was making an “it” out of my daughter, like, “I will soon be getting one of these of my own!” How disgusting. My husband thought I was just being ridiculous. Well, my daughter is not an “it” and she can’t be “borrowed”. He could not see that.
    Thanks for letting us see a little of your world.

  10. Actually, my big fear is that my a-son will decide I am not his Mommy and abandon me.
    Of course, my bio-son could abandon me too. But he won’t have an absent birth-Mom. And I know I would have idealized the hell out of a birth-Mom as a kid if I were adopted.
    I am worried about how to deal with the racism that my a-son will face (I tend to get angry, which won’t always be the best thing for HIM), but the above is what I really FEAR.

  11. Jae Ran, my sister heard about your blog from a family friend who was transracially adopted – African American into a white family. My sister emailed the link to this blog and asked if I knew you. 🙂
    I’ve been reading all of the comments and my feelings swing back and forth – being an “honorary” Korean American adoptee (friend), having two Korean-born kids, being an AP!
    I relate to each comment, except the one about having a fear about my kids thinking I am not their mom. They often say I’m not their REAL mom, but the joke in our family is that I am their FAKE mom, and their fake mom is telling them to clean their REAL room, or take out the REAL trash.
    I do have the advantage of being Korean American myself so I know what it’s like to walk out the front door and be treated like a Martian. The discrimination and racism issues are talked about constantly in our house because my kids and I often experience the same things. My husband has had his eyes opened (and they were pretty open before!) even more regarding how we are treated. He gets all kinds of comments when he is out with the kids – white dad and Korean kids. My son once said, “I pretend I’m your biological son when we are out w/o dad.” I said, “Me too! 🙂 I supposed when you’re out with dad it’s like having a neon sign on top of you that says ADOPTED BY WHITE GUY!” I joked with him that people probably think dad (my husband) was in the military and stationed in Korea at some point and brought home a Korean woman and her kids – ha ha! 🙂
    I was always puzzled, though, by people (mostly adoptive parents) who would ask, “Wow, how did that make you feel?” when we told them we met our children’s birthmoms. I would respond with, “What do you mean??” The question would be repeated, “Well, how did that make you feel? weren’t you afraid?” Afraid of what?? I always tell APs that it isn’t about me. I felt overwhelmingly happy for my children; I was in awe of being in the same room as my children’s birthmoms; I was so happy to have the chance because circumstances made it impossible to hope to ever meet them; and I felt pure joy for my children because their hearts ached to see their birthmoms – they were happy to know their birthmoms wanted to see them safe and happy, to know that their birthmoms cared about what happened to their birth children, to know that they were never forgotten by their birthmoms, and to know their birthmoms are real people they could touch and hug and talk to. What is there to be afraid of? Afraid that my children will be so happy to find their FIRST mom? I love my children and want them to be happy! If they are happy, then I am happy.
    There are plenty of biological kids (me included) who are estranged from their bio-moms for lots of reasons. The privilege of being a mom isn’t defined by biology. My stepmom is my mom – she ALWAYS puts my siblings and I first and supports us no matter what! We look out for her and care for and about her, even though my dad has passed away.
    Speaking of a-son and b-son, I don’t really like those terms. But, in our family, I am the A-mom (adoptive mom) and the birthmoms are the B-moms (biological mom). When my son was younger he always felt bad when I was referred to as his adoptive mom because he worried I wouldn’t feel important enough. I said the A-mom is like the NUMBER 1 mom, so if he called me the A-mom it would still sound respectful and I would feel special. He liked that idea. As for my kids, I don’t refer to them as the “adopted kids.” I just refer to them as my kids, which they are. I don’t have biological kids, but even if I did they would be referred to as my children or by their name.
    One of my teaching colleagues has two sons – one was adopted and one was biological. whenever she talked about her sons I would listen. One day, however, people were talking about her sons and referring to her “adopted” son and her “biological” son. After the conversation, I whispered to her, “which one of your sons is adopted again?” I told her I could never remember which one was adopted and which one wasn’t. She said,”I really like the fact that you don’t ever remember which is which because they are both my sons.” 🙂
    …just some ramblings, but the comments made my head swirl with many mixed emotions and thoughts. Thanks for keeping the comments posted and allowing us to share, appreciate, and comment on different perspectives.

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