An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Musings on the “Benefits of International Adoption.”

March 9, 2010

My apologies for such a long time in between posts! Since I’m a DC resident I’ve been dealing with the snow, and that coupled with my graduate school studies have kept me quite busy. I’ve got some new posts in the pipeline coming soon, so be patient with me.

Some of you may have seen this recent Newsweek article, written by Jeneen Interlandi, an internationally adopted woman from Colombia. Overall I like the article, I think it’s timely and I agree with most of it. But there are a few ideas I’d like to explore.

The Benefits of International Adoption

One idea that Jeneen references is the divide between her American identity and her Colombian one, and says this disconnect is the product of her childhood experience. Her quote here, “My loss of ethnic heritage has been more than compensated for in the multitude of opportunities afforded by my adoption,” has not been my experience.” She glosses over the significant lack of knowledge about her own culture by saying she likes being a “cultural chameleon.” I’m not going to discount how Jeneen feels. If she says she’s “OK” with this, who I am to argue she should not be. But my experience has been so vastly different.

My concern is that someone may read this story and think that all adopted children feel the same way about losing their cultural heritage. I can tell you, I don’t feel as she does, at all. I’m personally glad that my parents figured out ways to keep my birth culture alive for me as a child and as I grew older. As someone who identifies as an Indian, I want to stay in touch with that part of who I am.

I’m not making a judgment of Janeen’s parents or her upbringing. She was raised when it wasn’t easy to impart birth culture to your adopted children. I’m merely saying that in my opinion keeping a child connected to their birth heritage is crucial. She continues further in the article citing studies which show that “transracial and transcultural adoptees don’t face any higher risks of psychological problems or identity issues than domestic, same-ethnicity adoptees.” This may be true. But I don’t think that just because it’s not statistically significant, doesn’t mean the possibility should be discounted. Or that it’s an issue which shouldn’t be explored.

I don’t understand why same-ethnicity adoptees are even compared. They are definitely not the same. A child that is the same ethnicity as their parents won’t get stares and questions like “are those your parents?” For my white parents, hauling along three brown kids for dinner at the local restaurant when we were younger brought attention. This is not the same as having five people whom all share the same skin color going out in public as a family.

A set of issues that same-ethnicity adopted child faces, are surely not, at their deepest level what an adopted person from a different ethnicity endures. They wouldn’t feel like they never fit in racially with their peers. They wouldn’t think about how hard it is to explain why their skin is brown, yet they have a Western name, or why they don’t speak their native language etc…

Our society tries to minimize racial differences, by pretending they don’t exist. But the fact remains; if you have anything other than white skin in this country people will treat you differently on various levels. Will that lead to psychological issues? Maybe, it certainly could.

The overall point of her article seems to be that raising a child with love is more important than having re-connected with its birth culture. I disagree. I shudder to think that perspective adoptive parents who believe that merely loving a child, and raising it with support and care, as well as providing for it financially, if it’s from another ethnicity is “enough.” It’s not. There needs to be both love from the parents and connection to the birth traditions. That being said, I’m not going to advocate that cultural bonds trump a safe, secure and loving environment for a child. That stance would also be ridiculous. I believe firmly in both.

However, we live in the 21st century, in my mind you have no business as parents (I don’t’ care how much you love a child) raising an internationally adopted child without any association to their birth origins. I’m not necessarily asking that you move to a more diverse area, but your own child should never be the “diversity experience,” in your life.

If you have no interactions with people of races and ethnicities other than your own, and even worse no desire to learn about them for yourself, kindly remove yourself from considering transracial adoption. You’re doing a child no favors by taking them from their birth culture and indoctrinating them in yours, except for physical comfort. And as much as I love children, material benefits are not a good enough reason in my mind to internationally adopt a child.

In this connected, flat world we live in, there are myriad opportunities for you to come into contact with people who are different from yourself. Especially if you are even thinking about international adoption, for one simple reason; international adoption is expensive.

There is a self selective process in which impoverished families aren’t even in the international adoption discussion. So that makes parent’s refusal to be “diversity minded,” even more galling. Those who internationally adopt are not living in public housing, in the middle of nowhere, existing on food stamps, and doing menial jobs with little education.

Rather the demographic for internationally adopted parents is educated; usually globally aware, and at least middle class or close to it. It costs quite a bit of money to adopt. The article quotes figures as up to $40,000 to adopt a child. Those fees are exorbitant, and I don’t agree with having to pay that much money. But I’m not going to discuss that in this post.

My point is that those who internationally adopt these days presumably are one’s who generally take interest in other cultures, eat different ethnic foods, have friends who don’t look just like them, and live in diverse communities. For people who have access to different worlds like that, they have no excuse for not trying to raise their child with some form of their birth culture or at the very least exposing them to cultures different from their own (assuming they are Caucasian and white.) Merely giving them love, while not providing any gateway to their own cultural heritage forgets half the equation.

Her last point is that adult adoptees have various resources to get in touch with their birth culture/heritage. I definitely agree, and I have connected with a number of other Indian adoptees and other adopted adults from various countries. It’s also much easier now for an adopted adult to connect with others from their same birth country, and ethnicity thanks to the web and social networking.

But joining an adult adoptee group, actively seeking out adopted people from your same birth country, those are decisions one makes when they are old enough to do so. I’m much more concerned with parents making time and giving effort to connect their child to their birth culture/heritage as they grow up, when they are still under the family’s influence. It’s one thing to make a conscious choice to get in touch with your birth culture when you are an adult. It’s quite another to be raised by a family that honors and respects your birth heritage by giving you chances to interact with it. And to be raised in a family which enfolds your birth culture into the whole family’s narrative and supports you with love, and care sounds like the best for everyone involved.

What do you think? Did I read too much in Jeneen’s story? Is raising an internationally adopted child with love and acceptance, but without birth cultural connection “enough?” Or is connection to their birth culture/heritage more important or should there be a healthy combination of both?

March 9, 2010 at 4:22 pm

After reading this story, I have many of the same thoughts that you do, and agree with you on the most important one, that potential parents of trans racial children should be culturally aware and expose their children with their birth country’s heritage, only love isn’t enough. I believe that in this day in age, there really is no excuse for parents not to expose their children to any evidence of their culture because especially in the United States and Western Europe, where most adoptive parents come from, there is a plethora of opportunities due to the large number of immigrant communities in those countries. But, in the article, Jeneen mentioned an incident with the language and how she was so excited to have another Colombian student in her high school but she didn’t acknowledge her as Colombian b/c her inability to speak Spanish. I believe that in a situation like this, it is partly to blame on the adoptee yourself b/c you can be proactive and learn the language of your birth country on your own. I started with this after my recent trip to India. I had many people come up to me and speak Hindi and it was so frustrating not being able to respond to them so i went ahead and bought tapes in the “teach yourself” series and got a head start in learning Hindi, and i also have Indian friends at school I can practice with I( spoke Hindi up until five years old when i left India, so I still have the receptors). DO you think that language is the responsibility of the parents or the child? because it is probably one of the biggest aspects of the culture the child should be exposed to.

    April 1, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Hey Adam
    Great point about language. Not sure how to answer. I think it would be great if the parents helped expose their kids to the birth languages. I think there is value in connection like that. However I would hesitate to say it’s anyone’s “fault” if this isn’t the case. You can make the conscious decision that you want to learn your own native language, but I won’t fault a parent for not raising their child with language lessons. I think that learning a language of one’s birth culture would be a rich experience and maybe create a connection that has been lost.
    In terms of responsbility of the parent or the child. Teaching a child language is a much more time intensive endeavor than merely teaching/exposing them to native culture/tradition. I can understand why some parents would shy away from it.
    I think it’s awesome that you’re learning Hindi again. I hope to do the same in the next year or so.
    As always thanks for reading and your comments. Hope we get to meet in person someday!

    -AJ

Carolyn
March 10, 2010 at 10:44 pm

AJ, thanks for sharing your views as usual. As a fellow transnational/ethnic/racial adoptee, I fundamentally disagree with the main thesis of your article, which is that love and a caring environment are not sufficient in an international/transracial adoption. As someone who was raised, along with my adopted sister, through complete and total assimilation, my perspective and upbringing suggest one completely different from yours. I honestly don’t think that one is better or more appropriate than the other, they are just different. I have examined international/interracial adoption from a myriad of lenses, as you have – personal anecdote and observation, my own emotions and reactions, an attempted academic understanding through child development classes at university, volunteering with young Korean-American adoptees, and two years living and working in the country of my birth. My thoughts on your post:

1) Learning about birth heritage as a crucial component of interracial adoption: While I think that learning about the country of one’s birth is important, I would hesitate to say that it is a crucial component to one’s upbringing. Let’s say my parents sent me to language class every week (like my Korean-American friends did) and sent me to Korea every year but refused to hug me. Or refused to say “I love you”. Love is the crucial factor in interracial adoptions, not heritage. I know you write that you firmly believe in both, but it still seems you think that denying a family a child because they refuse to embrace the child’s birth culture justifiable. I take issue with this.

2) Same-ethnicity adoptions “are surely not, at their deepest level what an adopted person from a different ethnicity endures.”: This statement was deeply concerning to me as I consider it unfounded and insensitive. While I think that we do have unique perspectives as interracially adopted individuals, we, similar to the Newsweek writer, do not and cannot understand the perspective of every adoptee, whether same ethnicity- or transracially- adopted. You cannot judge the “deepest level” of someone else’s emotional and psychological development. I also have issue with the word choice of “endure”. I “endured” unconditional love from two wonderful parents? I “endured” an excellent education? I “endured” not being a social outcast (which would have been my fate in South Korea had I not been adopted). I wish you could clarify what “set of issues” a transracial adoptee “endures”. Do you think that these “issues” would be more or less bearable with more or less of a loving environment and/or understanding of one’s birth culture?… See More

3) Respecting birth culture as a child grows up: I appreciate how steadfast you are regarding these issues, but you use very strong language such as “you have no business as parents (I don’t’ care how much you love a child) raising an internationally adopted child without any association to their birth origins” and “You’re doing a child no favors by taking them from their birth culture and indoctrinating them in yours, except for physical comfort.” I think you take a very black and white view of adoption here – indoctrination? Really? You provide no qualifiers or examples of what a supposed exposure to one’s birth culture involves and indicate that the obvious opposite is “indoctrination”. This is a giant, unsubstantiated leap into a very strong accusation. I look back to my own upbringing – my parents don’t like kimchi, does that mean that they “indoctrinated” me to lasagna? I think that your post would be stronger if you provided concrete examples. How far do you expect adopted parents to go to expose their children to their birth culture? I remember volunteering with the Big Sis/Little Sis program at Tufts, which placed Korean-American college students with Korean-American children. My little sis was a seventh grader; I remembered the seventh grade. The only thing she wanted to do on her Saturday mornings was play with her friends, be liked, and not be reminded that she is different. My parents did not “indoctrinate” me, they made me feel loved and accepted and chose not to treat me differently. One look in the mirror and I knew that I was different – this did not change the way they loved or treated me.

4) General demographic trends of international/transracial adoption in America: At one point in your post you also opine/claim that the type of people who are adopting internationally are “those … who generally take interest in other cultures, eat different ethnic foods, have friends who don’t look just like them, and live in diverse communities.” Is this true? I could not find demographic information on the profiles of adoptive parents, but I could find the states from which Americans are adopting the most here (http://adoption.state.gov/news/us_map.html). Comparing these statistics with the countries where people are adopting the most (in order: China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Guatemala, found here http://adoption.state.gov/news/total_chart.html), I wonder what the statistics are per state. How many of the almost 2,300 Ethiopians make their way to Minnesota, a state with a high level of adoptions? Or how many of the (most likely) 3,000 Chinese baby girls find themselves in Michigan? I make no assumptions about the level of diversity in these states, but again, would ask you, what do you think is the cultural imperative for these parents?

5) Cultural socialization as a child versus as an adult: You write that “It’s one thing to make a conscious choice to get in touch with your birth culture when you are an adult. It’s quite another to be raised by a family that honors and respects your birth heritage by giving you chances to interact with it.” Again, because you provide no concrete examples of what it means to “honor and respect your birth heritage” I must assume the worst. After university, I decided of my own accord to learn about Korean culture, cuisine, and language on the Fulbright program. I choose this program because I was psychologically, mentally and emotionally prepared for this. It was my decision and I think it helped me understand that different is not better or worse, it just is…..different. My parents did not “dishonor and disrespect” my birth heritage because they chose not to raise me to understand who King Sejong was, the significance of wedding ducks, the two-handed handshake, and the depth of one’s deferential bow; they chose to honor and respect me and their unconditional love for their child irrespective of race, ethnicity and birthplace.

As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts, I always enjoy reading them. I look forward to the next post!

Alice Carter
November 24, 2010 at 1:43 am

AJ, I am one of the parents you spoke with at the KAN carnival last Saturday.

When our daughter was younger I resisted the calls to “expose my child to her ethnic heritage” because I felt that any “ethnic heritage” I “exposed” her to would be very artificial. I felt like it implied that culture and identity were static, fixed attributes. I argued to myself that culture and identity are developed in one’s daily life – not by taking language or dance classes. And, I told myself, my Chinese American friends did not speak Chinese, did not celebrate Chinese New Year, did not regularly eat Chinese food.

But what I was ignoring was the psychological burden our Chinese daughter faces by being different, and that this burden is made greater by the fact that her parents don’t share that status. My Chinese American friends and my daughter’s Asian-American friends have Asian-American parents who model the coping mechanisms for being seen as outsiders. And they look across the dinner table and see people who have their color skin, eyes, hair.

My husband and I did not grow up having to cope with outsider status. We can’t model that for our daughter. And we grew up w. siblings and parents who looked like us.

My belated impulse to “expose” my daughter to her “ethnic heritage” is the result of 1. her very happy, enthusiastic response to it, 2. the opportunity it affords for her to spend time w. people who look like her, and 3. the opportunity for her to meet other adopted Chinese girls who can help her form the bonds that I think she really really needs.

“Whenever I see one
I know that there will someday be
this incredible sorority
of women brought here
as babies from China.

And their Great Wall
will always go all the way
through them to split
what happened in China/
what’s happened here.

But they will help each other
over this wall all their lives
until those walls at their centers
are merely their strong
and flexible spines. . . .”

I'd love to hear your thoughts!