Reversing the gaze

Culture keepingDespite the stacks of "regular" books on my nightstand, it is rare that I make time to read a book that is not a required text for one of my courses. I made an exception, however, with Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption and the Negotiation of Family Difference by Heather Jacobson.

I was contacted by the publisher and asked if I would read and review the book. I'm so glad I made the time. In light of a lot of the discussions I've been part of (as subject, link, or participant) lately in the blog-o'sphere, especially with the young teen starlet who likes to make "goofy faces," this book is all the more relevant in the whole context of international and transracial adoption discourse.

Although I'm not personally mentioned (she mentions adult adoptee blogs and forums), Jacobson does mention the huge influence that adult Korean adoptees have made on the way in which adoption agencies now think of "culture keeping" and the encouragement they give adoptive parents to engage in incorporating their internationally adopted child's ethnic culture into the family. Jacobson writes,

"These cautionary tales from the past have had a profound effect on how the adoption community (and industry) approaches the ethnic socialization of internationally adopted children. Contemporary adoption practices, policy, and international adoption discourse now emphasize the importance of culture keeping."

I thought it was interesting that in this study Jacobson compares the culture-keeping of White adoptive parents who adopt from Russia with those who adopted children from China. The practices and extent of culture keeping vary quite a lot between these two families. A big part of why this is has to do with race; the visible differences for the Chinese adoptive families compared to the Russian adoptive families, who can choose whether or not to disclose the adoption, means that for the Russian adoptive families the lack of racial differences (although the cultural differences are huge) could be a reason to not engage in culture keeping.

I liked that Jacobson ties in the responsibilites of culture keeping as an expectation placed on the mother, and that definitely is what I've seen in my own practice experiences. Whether it is in the contexts of adoption or in parenting in general, there exists a noticeable silence about fatherhood and fathering. Jacobson writes that she did not specify in her call for participants that she was looking only for mothers and in fact, shares that often times adoptive fathers who were contacted "handed over" the project to their wives almost as if there was an acknowledgment that it was their wive's job to do the culture keeping (Jacobson's sample had 46 participants – six were fathers. Single parents and GLBT parents were also in her sample).

One of the findings from this study (and although it is no real surprise to me, it is still somewhat shocking) is how much the adoptive parents of Chinese children did not consider having a racially and ethnically Asian child to be problematic in the same ways as if they had adopted a Black or African child.  Those who chose not to adopt a Black child often did so because of racist family members who would not accept a Black child but didn't object to an Asian child; often the "model minority" stereotype was a factor, and some seemed to encourage that stereotype. To me, this reinforced the perception that there is little or no racism towards Asians, which is false. This is also worrisome to me because it seems to suggest that adoptive parents actively encourage stereotyping and promotes a racial hierarchy.

I was also interested to read Jacobson's critique that although parents of Chinese children often participated in culture and language schools and camps, FCC, and participated in what I call the "tourist" version of cultures (that which can be purchased), that

"the China-adoptive mothers I interviewed did not look to Chinese or Asian American mothers as role models for how to raise their children, nor did they see themselves as connected to earlier international-adoptive mothers (with children from Korea, for example) or interracial (biological) families. Rather, they…considered themselves "pioneers" when it came to raising their daughters."

Jacobson also finds in her study is that despite the heartfelt attempts to recognize the importance of keeping their child connected in some way to their ethnic cultures, many of these adoptive parents struggled with how much and in what ways to do so. Some, it seems, felt pressured by other FCC families they know who seemed to be doing "more" in terms of culture keeping. However, as Jacobson recognizes, these attempts towards "authentic" Chinese culture that many of the adoptive parents wanted reflected only a certain kind of "Chinese" culture – that is China as in the country of China (far away) or Chinese immigrant communities. Jacobson found that China-adoptive parents determined that Chinese immigrants practiced a "more genuine Chinese culture" and not a "watered-down version of Chinese-ness" and furthermore, these adoptive parents were disinterested in current modern, Chinese American history or politics.

Overall, I thought this book was definitely thought-provoking and highly recommend it. One thing I was thinking about as I read this, was the idea of "reversing the gaze."* Reversing the gaze here in this context is about how the adoptive parents construct ideas and activities around culture and race rather than looking at how the adopted children construct their identiies in terms of culture and race. Frankly, I'm getting kind of tired reading about how we adoptees are doing; I'm interested in how adoptive parents are doing too.

*thanks to Indi for the information on "reversing the gaze."

* ETA 3/2 – Although this book is based on a research study, I wanted to let people know it's a very accessible and easy to read book!

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

10 thoughts

  1. My family – two Korean sons – has found this difficult, despite our living in an area with a sizable Korean population. For that matter, we have found it difficult to socialize with other adoptive families.
    In both cases, what usually brings it down are religious differences. I was surprised that not being Christian turned out to be a disadvantage in befriending Korean Americans. It is slow, but progress does happen.
    We have thought that involvement with Koreans was a good approach, but I we haven’t gotten as far with it as we would like.
    Will definitely give the book a read. Thanks for the info.

  2. Thanks for the very interesting book review. I might not have heard about this book otherwise.
    I’m often out-of-step with other adoptive parents (I’m a mom of two boys from Ethiopia, neither of whom was an infant at adoption), but it sounds like the author has totally pegged my role as culture keeper.
    Anyway, thanks.

  3. One problem I’ve noticed — this is from communicating one-on-one with certain people, not any extensive forum experience — is that some adoptive parents often have a terribly disrespectful attitude toward Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans. Our culture-keeping is often deemed not acceptable. People like me are supersensitive about that stuff anyway, especially in regard to language, and pick up on that attitude VERY quickly… this attitude probably sabotages some stated efforts to “get to know” Asian-Americans.

  4. Also, the first time an Asian-American (and if they are 1.5 generation or beyond, they are likely to be pretty sensitive, like I said) encounters an internationally adoptive parent, that’s really crucial. If they feel like they’re being disrespected they’ll have a negative view of those parents from then on.
    A while back, I once ran into a mother in my old neighborhood with children adopted from China who said she really wanted to get to know me better, and one reason was that she wanted her children to be around a lot of Asian faces. That made me uncomfortable, but I was willing to give it a go… but then she never followed up. That, along with negative internet experiences, really colored my perception.
    With another family I know, with a Chinese-American dad and adopted Chinese children… there’s none of that sense of tenseness, that “waiting to be judged” coloring the air.
    So I think adoptive parents with good intentions need to realize they’re not starting out on level ground. They might already be in a hole, and need to prove, on first encounter, that they’re “not as bad” as the average.

  5. Thank you for the book review. I hadn’t heard of it and will be looking for it now. We’ve been a family for two years now, and every day I realize more and more how important valuing my child’s culture will be for our family. This is not to say that I didn’t do my research and know from the beginning how important it would be. It’s just that I now have a deeper understanding. This isn’t about dressing up in cute clothes for Chinese New Year. It goes much further than that.

  6. Thanks for the heads up on this book – looks like one I’m going to want on my shelf.
    I’m appreciating the thoughts re: adoptive fathers handing over the culture-keeping to their wives… There’s this interesting dynamic in our house whereby even though I’m a TRAP and my spouse and our son share a race & culture, the job STILL primarily falls on me to transmit the culture. I suspect that’s because within the culture, that’s traditionally the wife’s role (but I’d be interested in knowing whether others experience the same dynamic. My AP friends with children who share a heritage with their spouse are mostly female). And I have no lived experience of growing up in the culture, or being a person of color. Boy, am I grateful that I have great support from the women on my husband’s side of the family who guide me.

  7. Interestingly Jane Liedtke somewhat discounts the influence of the Korean adoptee experience on parents that adopted from China. In some recent postings she says that the chinese adoption community was taking a much different approach to culture long before the proliferation of the korean adult adoptee experience.

  8. > and furthermore, these adoptive parents were disinterested in current modern, Chinese American history or politics.
    That is so true. As a second gen Asian American that’s why I cringe every time I see adoptive kids paraded in “native” dress.
    It’s a bit ridiculous because even Chinese kids in China don’t dress like that anymore.
    And if the adoptive parents only knew about the stereotypes that Asians have faced in America then surely they wouldn’t do that.

  9. I basically left FCC because I wanted to acknowledge modern China and Chinese politics and art – not making red paper lanterns and little jade trinkets and the other things most FCC families seem to think are Chinese culture. Needless to say my point of view makes me a tiny minority – actually I don’t know anyone else who has tried to explain to their child why someone thought the one-child policy was a good idea, what Taiwan is and how it relates to China, etc etc. Trying to do things this way is a very lonely business. But it is the only path that feels true to me.

  10. @Sara
    That’s the only way to do it. These kids don’t need tourist-safe theme park visions of China, they need to understand modern China and the modern Chinese-American community. This is the knowledge that’s going to be important to them as adults, not how to make a paper lantern. These parents have to remember that these kids aren’t going to grow up to be Chinese, they’re going to grow up to be Chinese-American. That will be their community, and sooner or later they’re going to have to meet them (probably college for these kids).

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