Over the course of the past three weeks I’ve had two interactions with people regarding international adoption. Both were curious to know my thoughts on the topic because I was adopted. But their reasons for talking about the subject were vastly different.
The first was an email from a couple beginning the international adoption process. A friend referred them to me. The hopeful mother wrote me a few paragraphs listing all their plans to keep their future child in touch with their birth culture, and raise their son with a solid understanding of their cultural heritage. These included steps like, serving international fare at their house, frequently traveling overseas, including the country’s culture in their home and celebrating its traditions.
She ended the note by saying according to “advice” lists she’d found on the web, she and her husband would not be able to meet specific suggestions. The two points were, having their child attend a diverse school and having an ethnically or racially varied set of friends. But given all the other ways they were going to keep their future son engaged with his birth culture, she asked me, is that “enough?”
I wrote back after a few days of thinking about her message and said, “I’m not qualified to say whether or not you have done enough. Really, I’m no expert on this.” I can tell you what I think makes sense as a person of color who was adopted. But ultimately how much you help your child to stay in touch with their birth culture and heritage is a family decision. I think it’s an important decision because it will have consequences for the child as they grow up. For me, being able to provide your child with positive enforcement of their birth culture is extremely important as they age. Helping them recognize and cultivate pride in the culture and traditions from their homeland might make exploring their identity an easier task.
I was just really excited that they have thought this through as much as she relayed to me in the email. It’s wonderful to have expectant adoptive parents grappling with the ramifications of and exploring ways to raise their trans-racially adopted child. I applaud their efforts and all other parents who have done or are doing the same thing. This is what I’m talking about when I say and believe that “love is not the whole story.” This couple clearly is thinking ahead and understands the big picture.
The second experience was not nearly as pleasant, but I share it because it’s important. In fact it’s the opposite of the inquisitive couple. I met someone at a party and in conversation I told him I was adopted. I told him I wrote a blog about it, was active in the adoptee advocacy/awareness community and it was a huge passion of mine. He immediately said, “What makes you qualified to talk about international adoption?”
I was taken aback, and trying not to get too defensive replied, “I’m not qualified (whatever that means) but since I’m adopted I know what it’s like and I’m an expert on my own adoption story.” He continued by asking me if I had studied social work in college or graduate school, or if I had ever actually worked in the adoption field. The answer to both questions was and is no. I’m not necessarily interested in studying adoption academically, or working for an agency.
I bring this story up, because it’s part of a larger problem that I’ve discussed here before. I don’t claim to be qualified, or an expert in the field, or to have the ability to explain in some high minded intellectual level the world of international adoption. I have no desire to do that. What I do know is that I was adopted, I’m a relatively thoughtful guy and being adopted is an integral part of my general identity. That makes me “qualified” enough. I don’t need degrees or schooling or job experience to write about how I feel, how others make me feel or to give voice to other adoptees out there in the world. I don’t claim to speak for them, nor do I represent all of them. I’m just one guy trying to explore what it means and writing about it.
But what irks me is this is how adoptees are treated. People go to “experts,” in the field to hear about adoption. They read books by social workers who study adopted people and expect them to have answers. The academic and social work communities have huge conferences about the ethics and morality of international adoption with professional panels, but including actual adoptees happens rarely and in small numbers. They want to talk about us, probe us, question us, but they rarely invite us to speak or to share what we think.
I just don’t understand it. Don’t adopted people themselves have some value to add to the conversation? How can a person who is adopted not add benefits to the overall dialogue about this social phenomenon? If you are not an adopted person, there is only so much you can actually know about being adopted. There’s no other way around it. Unless you were adopted, the ability one has to talk about it on a level beyond intellectualization, which includes feelings, has a ceiling because it’s not your life.
Don’t give me excuses like finding adopted people willing to talk about their experience is hard to find. That may have been true 20 or 30 years ago, but that is not the case anymore. There are a growing number of us who want to reclaim our voice and add it to the adoption arena. All you need to do is look on the internet and we can be found. I’ll be more than willing to share my thoughts and you won’t even have to pay me. I don’t have a problem if you insist, but…
Seriously, invite us to the conversation. Don’t treat us like we exist in some sort of alternate reality -one in which you can discuss adoption, our “issues,” but never actually talk to us. We’re not exotic, elusive people, sans feelings or opinions. I don’t speak for everyone, but I know that some adoptees are frustrated by their marginalization.
I don’t need to be examined, I’m examining myself.
I write as much to explore my own evolving thoughts on the journey to unlock the adoption box, as I write to give voice to other adopted people and educate all who are interested. I don’t claim to know any answers, but I hope to gain from what I’ve experienced and learn from what other’s have gone through. I know my own family story and I’m an expert in that. I’ll be as real and honest in revealing what it’s like to be adopted, as I feel comfortable being. But don’t question my “qualifications” on the topic.
There’s a beautiful tapestry that can be woven from the stories of adoptees, entwined with the academics and scholars in the field, one of increased understanding, mutual acknowledgement, and creativity in how to explore this act called international adoption. But that tapestry requires different colored threads and if the adoptee thread is absent, the pattern lacks cohesion and its richness suffers as a result.
Your post reminded me of something else — even though it’s a little far-fetched association but it’s similar logics.
Alcoholism has been widely studied from sociological, psychological and medical perspectives and alcoholics all do the path of therapist, psychiatrists, sometimes hospital treatment, and so on. Still, studies show (and from the personal experience of a family member of mine) the most efficient, long-term remedy is AA: the company of other people who went through the same experience and know the very core of your issues, having experienced themselves. We tried EVERYTHING, literally, with the person in my family and nothing could help her permanently but AA. The point I am trying to make by this seemingly irrelevant comment is that you can very well be an expert on the subject but real-life experience provides you knowledge you cannot get from books or studies or theories. Yes, it is a subjective point of view and yet this subjectivity makes its efficiency and authenticity.
Clearly, the person you were talking has no such experience and holds academia high, thinking that remoteness from the subject is the way to go. I think many of us would argue otherwise. I totally agree with you, therefore, that a more comprehensive, integrative framework is needed.
I’d never really thought about the alcoholism association before, but I think it some ways it works. I think what I’d like to see is an acknowledgement by the so called “experts” in the field of international adoption, that their word is not the final one and that adoptees themselves have something valuable to add to the conversation. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you’re reading the blog.
This is a great topic you hit upon here! I recently just wrote a TOK essay regarding this exact topic, but I totally agree with you. Adoption is one of those things that you have to experience to be called an expert about. I would even argue that people who have PhD’s, or any other sort of degree, in the field of adoption can’t be called experts, unless they’ve been adopted themselves, because they can’t feel it its deepest levels like we can. They don’t experience all the stares,questions, etc. that go along with being a TRA.
As always a great comment. I’m not sure I would go as far as to say you cannot be an “expert,” but rather what I’m trying to convey is that we need to re-define our understanding of “expert,” when it comes to the adoption arena. It’s not enough in my opinion just to have everyone getting their informaation from those who merely academically study the concept of adoption, we need to hear from adopted people themselves. Let the conversation continue– Thanks for your consistent feedback, it’s much appreciated.
Really enjoyed reading your post! Very thought provoking! Definitely made me think about things I know little about, I appreciate your ability to share your experiences and perspectives.
Catherine-Thanks so much for reading my post. I’m glad it was thought provoking for you. Always nice to hear feedback. Hope you’re doing well.