I don’t watch award shows anymore but when I learned Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan won awards at the Golden Globes last night for their roles in Everything Everywhere All At Once, I had to watch their acceptance speeches. I’ve seen the film several times – the first time was at a theater and I’ve watched it a few more times while on flights. It is one of my favorite movies of all time.
There are many reasons I love the film – for its story about family, a woman who feels her life has been about surviving rather than thriving, a daughter who wants a deeper connection with her mom, while another daughter wants a deeper connection with her father. And then there are the specular aspects and multiple timelines (more on that in my recommendations). I see something new and fantastic each time I watch the film.
But another reason I love the film so much is the majority Asian cast. As a Korean adoptee kid raised in the nearly all-white burbs of Minnesota, I can’t ever remember seeing a film that had Asian characters who were not merely stereotypes, people serving only as props, or the butt of a joke. The Asians I saw in film and tv spoke broken English or had heavy accents. I wasn’t a Star Trek fan so I missed Sulu as one of the only examples of an Asian man who was not portrayed in a stereotypical way. I saw some terrible, terrible yellowface. The first film I saw featuring a majority Asian cast was The Joy Luck Club in 1993 – I was 25 years old.
I have heard and read other Asian Americans talk about the lack of representation in media, but those of us who were raised in areas where Asians were scarce really feel this with additional complexity, I think. It’s so hard when you see that Asians are routinely seen as foreigners and jokes – but if you have family members around then at least you have some idea of what Asian adulthood might look like and can see beyond those stereotypes. Those of us who were raised transracially didn’t even have parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles to serve as role models and mirrors. Did you know that a study by Rose Kreider and Elizabeth Raleigh found that according to 2009 Census data, the average Asian adoptee lived in less diverse counties than the average white child with white parents?
As a parent, and as an adult, I had to work to find media that highlighted Asians in non-stereotypic ways. I used to order DVD sets of K-dramas back before streaming platforms existed to watch with my kids. Although by then I was living in a much more diverse neighborhood and had a very diverse community of friends, I was still so hungry for better representation of Asians in media and film.
I love that Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan both received so much recognition for this film in particular. I love that there is another film that includes Asian Americans, where so much of the story has such a universal heart and narrative. Maybe most of all, I loved that they both addressed the lack of representation for Asians in Hollywood in their speeches. What beautiful role models they are for all those Asian adoptees out there, needing windows and mirrors.
I recently came across a research article about Nepalese first families (I choose to use the term “first” instead of “birth”). The research on the experiences of first families (i.e. families who relinquish or lose a child to adoption) is scant. Compared to research on adopted children, adoptive parents, and adopted adults, first parents are truly underrepresented and this is particularly true for intercountry adoption. As I read this article, I was struck again by what we can learn about the value of an issue from the attention (or lack of it) by researchers, scholars, policy makers, and thought leaders. Some of these resources are behind paywalls but I will provide a link (if available) to accessible sites. Here are some examples of research I’d like to elevate.
Active Waiting and Hope in Transnational Adoptions: Nepali Birth Families and their Children by Chandra Kala Clemente-Martínez. Abstract: Most academic studies and public debates about transnational adoption prioritise the experiences of adoptive parents and the voices of professionals, but the perspectives and voices of birth families are rarely heard. I address this shortcoming through a critical analysis of the transnational adoption system by exploring the narratives and experiences of Nepali birth families. Drawing on a 14-month ethnographic study, I explore how birth families’ search for their children illuminates the concept of ‘agency-in-waiting’ and opens up new possibilities for thinking critically about the politics of adoption and the experience of ‘waiting’. The invisibility of birth families in scholarship about adoption belies the fact that many birth families actively search for the children they lost to adoption. This research makes visible the power inequalities that shape family policy and opens new avenues for deconstructing hegemonic narratives that exist in transnational adoption by focusing on birth families’ narratives.
The Legacy of Exploitation in Intercountry Adoptions from Ethiopia: “We Were under the Impression That Her Birth Parents Had Died” by Shelley A. Steenrod (accessible link). Abstract: Ethiopia legally banned intercountry adoption in 2018 following reports of corruption, illegal practices, and child trafficking. While the intercountry adoption program is now closed, the enduring legacy of exploitation continues. Through interviews with adoptive parents, this study explores what and how adoption-related exploitation occurred. It also describes a cyclical and iterative process that adoptive parents, impacted by adoption-related exploitation, undertook to understand whether and how referral, concerning, and emergent adoption narratives fit together.
Intercountry adoption and the social production of abandonment by Riitta Högbacka (link currently is open access as of the date of this blog post). Abstract: Although the objective of intercountry adoption is to provide parentless children with families, it also has other unintended consequences. Postcolonial theorists have shown that the intercountry adoption system is shaped by unequal power relations between the Global North and South. Drawing on interviews with South African adoption social workers and birth mothers, this article shifts attention from Global North perspectives to those of the Global South. By focusing on the circumstances of how children become available for adoption, some of the ways in which the adoption system participates in creating the pool of ‘abandoned’ children are explicated.
If I Give You My Child, Aren’t We Family? A Study of Birthmothers Participating in Marshall Islands–U.S. Adoptions by Jini L. Roby and Stephanie Matsumura. Dr. Jini Roby is the first Korean adoptee social work scholar whose work I read! I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing her speak a couple of times. Abstract: While poverty is suspected to be the major reason for birth families relinquishing their children for international adoptions, little is known of the impact of the interplay among the economic, familial, and cultural aspects of a particular sending country which culminates in the adoption decision. In this study, the authors studied 73 birthmothers in the Republic of Marshall Islands, a small Western Pacific island nation with a total population of 68,000, to explore the influences that led to their adoption decision. Their findings reflect an environment of extreme poverty, the breakdown of traditional family support systems, and the exploitation of the cultural understanding of adoptions. [Accessible link here]
Birth families and intercountry adoption in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Sara Brittingham. This is a Master’s thesis. I could not find an abstract but this study included 9 family members of children placed for intercountry adoption.
Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice by Hosu Kim. This book is based on Kim’s research. Book description: This book illuminates the hidden history of South Korean birth mothers involved in the 60-year-long practice of transnational adoption. The author presents a performance-based ethnography of maternity homes, a television search show, an internet forum, and an oral history collection to develop the concept of virtual mothering, a theoretical framework in which the birth mothers’ experiences of separating from, and then reconnecting with, the child, as well as their painful, ambivalent narratives of adoption losses, are rendered, felt and registered. In this, the author refuses a universal notion of motherhood. Her critique of transnational adoption and its relentless effects on birth mothers’ lives points to the everyday, normalized, gendered violence against working-class, poor, single mothers in South Korea’s modern nation-state development and illuminates the biopolitical functions of transnational adoption in managing an “excess” population. Simultaneously, her creative analysis reveals a counter-public, and counter-history, proposing the collective grievances of birth mothers.
I’m so excited to share my dear friend Shannon Gibney’s new book, The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be. I highly recommend this unique and thought-provoking memoir. Shannon and I (along with several adoptee friends) have talked about adoptees lives as specular, the multiple lives we may/would have had if we had been adopted by different people, or kept in our families of origin. We talk about ourselves as our ghost twins or doppelgängers. I think some of the most interesting and expansive art explores these ideas. Katie Hae Leo’s play, Four Destinies, and Matthew Salesses’s book, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear are two excellent examples of adoptee work that explore these ideas. I can’t give this book enough love!