Some of you are aware that I’m creating a public syllabus for transracial adoption, using Asian adoptee studies and resources as the foundation for a broader discussion of transracial adoption and its impact on American society as a whole. Because it’s SpRiNg BrEaK, I’ve decided to update you all on its progress, as well as solicit feedback from all of you on content, scope, and whatever else you want to add/change.
First off, I’ve decided to weave queer theory throughout the syllabus, in an effort to resituate how we think about children and families in general. Secondly, I somehow forgot that I am first and foremost a childhood studies scholar, seeking to impart critical adoption studies and Asian childhood studies into childhood studies, not the other way around. To do so, I’ve since recentered the syllabus to focus on how children’s bodies are invoked to uphold a heteronormative, White family, while transracial adoption remains a space where non-White bodies are used as specters of racial harmony. Both the family and the non-White child’s body, though, are queered through transracial adoption: the family, because an intact biological family wasn’t always the American way, and the child, because, to invoke Kathryn Bond-Stockton, was always queer.
I’ve also updated my audience. Initially, I wanted my audience to be adoptees, adoptive parents, and social workers. It dawned on me that most of us may be familiar with these resources and concepts, so I’ve chosen to view adoptees and adoptive parents as collaborators, although I’m sure many of you might enjoy the syllabus anyway. However, social workers, mental health professionals, childhood studies scholars, and Asian American studies scholars are now my intended audience. Although social workers and mental health professionals may be seeking knowledge that will inform their practice, I am not qualified to speak on integrating these topics to therapy. Instead, I hope this syllabus provides background information that helps them recontextualize their approaches to this group.
For childhood studies and Asian American scholars, my goals are more self-serving: I really, truly want this subject to become a key part of both their curriculums. In a world where the justice-minded of us are seeking to decolonize curriculums, it is, no lie, quite painful to see the absence of this subject from childhood studies. I can’t speak to Asian American studies, so if someone can fill me in, that would be great. But I provide two critical reviews of Asian American history and youth studies that omit Asian adoptees, and I hope the rest of the broader scholarship does not follow that pattern.
Ultimately, my goal is to de-niche the topic of Asian American children and transracial adoption. This is a HUGE task, though, one that I believe will take at least my lifetime, if not more, to accomplish. I have tried to be as inclusive as possible for sources here, especially of those by adoptees themselves, and I hope that I have included as many as possible. However, I see this syllabus as an ongoing, public collaboration, with a life far extending past its due date for my class (Hi, Dr. Silver!). So, if something isn’t covered now, I absolutely will hope to include it later.
Here’s the breakdown of what it looks like so far:
Section one: Historicizing (Queering?) the American Family
I haven’t quite worked out the title for this section yet, but this section introduces my use of queer theory, provides some historical context behind American family construction in general, and invokes Julayne Lee’s poetry and Tobias Hubinette’s work throughout. I also critique a recent piece by journalist David Brooks, in which he argues that the nuclear family is a long-gone ideal but can be supplanted by other forms of kinship. Strangely, he omits adoption as a kinship form here, which I expand upon in the syllabus.
Something I’m toying with here is integrating a book on the ethics of transracial adoption with the concept of the “ideal” American biological family, and how adoptees are the one subset of the population that requires such stringency to obtain. What I’d be interested in exploring here is how claims that adoption redefines the nuclear family aren’t new, but rather made new by adoption agencies, popular media, and marketing. By applying queer theory here, we can see how the non-White child-figure (or the imagined orphan-child-non-White-figure) is used to complete a family that never existed, a “ghostly” specter of liberal subjectivities, but I haven’t quite figured this part out yet. Any thoughts would be appreciated!
Section two: Constructing the Asian American Child
While all the sections are fun, this one is shaping up to be the one I’m enjoying the most. We start by understanding the definition of a child in general, using historians like Philippe Aries and Robin Bernstein to demonstrate that childhood and children are relatively recent social constructions that change in definition from time to time. This fits nicely with this syllabus, as the figure of the adopted child is invoked in different ways, depending on the current social American climate. I trace the very White roots of “childhood” and situate this against transracial adoption as a way of using imaginary and real children to solve adult issues like racism and political strife. Here I also introduce Kathryn Bond-Stockton’s concept of the “child-intruder” birthing his or her parents, when that child-intruder is not of its parents’ race. Queer theorist and my favorite, Hannah Dyer, makes an appearance here, but I haven’t fully fleshed out which chapters we’ll read of hers.
A significant portion of this section involves critiquing two works that set out to study and center “Asian American youth,” but curiously, both (rather large) volumes leave out Asian adoptees. I use this omission to highlight the liminal space that Asian adoptees occupy, while using queer theory–or the queerness of being “of color” in the United States–as the bridge that should unite that population. Significantly, I point out that the difference in parenting (such as being raised Asian or raised White) does create lines between “Asian children” and “Asian adoptees,” but ultimately, both groups experience racial dysphoria (a term I expand upon in the syllabus) and tensions from their assumed proximity to whiteness. Therefore, Asian children–adopted or not–share an Eastern origin said to “embody distance” (Sara Ahmed 2006, 121) that stems from ongoing Orientalism. From here, I take “embody distance” to argue that this is the reason both sets of children experience the “perpetual foreigner” myth and why this forces “sideways growth” (Bond-Stockton) and “queers” their experiences.
It is within this section that I draw upon JS Lee’s Keurium, which she defines and translates as “a longing for anything that has left a deep impression in the heart–such as a memory, person, or place.” I argue that the Asian child’s body, portrayed by adoption agencies as assimilatable (uhhh? I’m using that word. LOL) when “orphaned” but “alien” when situated within its biological immigrant family, is invoked as both an “object of desire and exchange” (Kim 2010, 12). This ties neatly to Robin Bernstein’s work, who argues that childhood has always belonged to White children, while children of color’s identities are subject to political and social needs throughout time and space.
Section three: Training White Adoptive Parents
In this section, which has received the least attention so far and will hopefully be expanded upon for my next update, will not be an instructive guide for White parents. Instead, I will provide a critique of resources provided to White parents of non-White children, and I will also provide commentary on existing critiques of post-adoption and pre-adoption services for this population. My hope is to situate these materials against popular discourse surrounding transracial adoption, and place these works and “guides” against what transracial adoptees themselves have said they wish their parents knew. But honestly, I haven’t even gotten to this point so it could absolutely change. However, I’ll be calling up transracial adoptee Kit Myers’ work on adoption pedagogy here, as well as much of the adoptee stories, works of art, and more.
Well, I’m actually glad I shared this with you, as it completely became evident to me where I’m investing all my time LOL. But that’s the point, as I wanted to keep you all updated AND hold myself accountable here. Also, please don’t panic if you don’t see certain adoptee scholars represented in this update, as I’m still working through much of the material. It’s also quite realistic that at this point I’m mis-reading or plain out missing some pieces of the puzzle, but as I work through my draft and revisions, I’ll again post updates when they’re ready!
One more note: The majority of the material I “assign” are pieces that I’ve provided analytical commentary on, but I have selected archived video, additional scholarly articles, etc. that are part of the curriculum but I don’t directly discuss. Perhaps over the summer I’ll work through those, but the end goal is that this will be something I can teach, and then teach others how to teach, as well.
Anyway, thanks for letting me share this! PLEASE, any feedback you have or suggestions, I am very open to and want to hear. This is for us, about us, and mostly for the children who come after us. But mostly, the goal is to achieve visibility not just for Asian children, but to create a conversation that asks why “Asian children” and “Asian adoptees” are viewed separately, how we can unite them through a queer theoretical lens, and what it would take to insert transracial adoption into the broader discussions about race and the American family.