[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.