radical love: an alternative approach to transracial adoption?

Here’s another post where I’m hashing out a concept I just read about, so if I got it wrong or you have something to add, please share!

Love is a tricky term in transracial adoption. Many adoptees feel that love, in its most commonly understood form, is used as a way to silence our own interpretations of our experiences, with love being the trump card pulled when we express viewpoints opposite of the dominant one: “But your parents loved you like their own and loved you enough to take you in!” or, “Your biological mother loved you so much she gave you up.” Because of the nearly impenetrable love-dominant messaging inherent in adoption, adoptees feel compelled to stay silent or risk serious conflict and emotional upheaval if they try to push conversations past and through love.

Most parents, adoptive or not, love their children. But love in adoption carries more weight and risks than traditional parent-child relationships. Adoption’s love, in its rawest form, is transactional. It is based on a parent’s obtaining of a child and learning to love someone based on a promise to care and protect. In exchange, a child receives a home, an education, and other material and immaterial things that presumably offer a more productive life than the imagined alternative. This is not to say that this kind of love can’t be learned or genuine or is “bad,” but instead I’m showing that adoption almost always carries with it the premise of love, both received and given.

The growing scholarship and public conversation on transracial adoption, however, is showing that love is simply not enough. Love in adoption seems, to me, predicated on creating a family structure similar to one not made by adoption and one based on same-race (or even interracial) biological kinship. Love, at times, is weaponized against adoptees. It often forces adoptees into identities and narratives that might not reflect their own self-conceptualizations, and that’s when love becomes a powerful, dangerous tool, and where it conveys ownership of a body and a narrative.

What is Radical Love?

An alternative form of love that may better serve transracial adoption as a system and as a family structure might be radical love. What makes it radical? Well, like all things stemming from academia, it’s a term that takes two already loosely-defined words and combines them to make them confusing and higher-browed than they need be (sorry, academia). There’s nothing “radical” about it (like, you don’t need to go running through the streets with a sign or drastically change your worldviews; it’s also not “radical” in the 80s sense of the word, either–sorry again) and the “love” it promotes goes beyond thinking about how we care about someone. It’s also not explicitly about romantic love, either. Instead, radical love offers us a new way of being with and being for not just ourselves, but the community (and family) surrounding us.

Because radical love has no official definition, I will borrow from Claudia Cervantes-Soon’s interpretation:

[Radical love] is “manifested through mutual humanization, the transgression of borders of power relations and gendered expectations, and a commitment to the collective struggle for justice.”

In other words, it’s about framing the way we love one another in a way that respects and overcomes each other’s position in society, where you recognize that that person’s perspective and identity is deeply shaped and entwined with the internal and external relationships and systems they encounter. We radically love someone when we recognize that our power can impact another negatively, and we radically love someone when we learn to listen to their stories as part of a social whole that validates and empowers, rather than subordinates and controls.

For me, the appeal of radical love is its emphasis on community and its de-emphasis on the individual. Love is not a one-way avenue, nor is it a two-way street, and it is especially not a dead-end! But to me, radical love embodies respect and listening, where your needs and perspectives aren’t set aside to account for another’s, but instead interacts with the other person’s, and ultimately, the entire community and society.

Radical Love and Transracial Adoption

So, how can we apply radical love to transracial adoption?

First, we promote transracial adoption as a person in power (the adult; the white adult) entering into a legal form of kinship where transaction is implied. Rather than seeing that fact as a cold, unloving part of family-building, we accept it. We accept the challenges that form of kinship can create, and we can recognize the power imbalances that might happen throughout the family’s life due to this inherent structure.

Second, we recognize that our family isn’t formed in a vacuum. Each member–children included, non-White children especially–occupy a lower social space in the family (parents above children, older siblings above younger, etc.) as well as in the community as a whole. We embrace and show our love by engaging in conversations and activities that show we are actively addressing their oppression, in ways that go beyond treating children as “passive objects” (thanks again, Claudia Cervantes-Soon!) who simply absorb social messages and instead as active participants who have the agency to create their own identities both inside and outside of the family.

Third, and most importantly, we promote the development of unique identities in the child, while respecting that these identities are fluid and will shift in reaction to family events as well as their perceived social status. These identities must go beyond the child being “adopted” or not. The child may reject their adopted status for a time, or forever. The child may wish to identify closer with their racial and biological roots. Or, they might not. Regardless of the child’s comfort or discomfort with what adoptive parents have provided out of love, a more “authentic” form of caring would be one that proactively engages with a child’s rejection of an imposed identity (that is, an “adopted child”) and instead of pleading with or scolding them into changing it, a parent demonstrates “unconditional acceptance”–the same form of respect that they would wish for themselves.

The idea of radical love isn’t to simply sit back and let a child run amok. It also isn’t blindly saying “yes” to a child without any dialogue or feedback. Instead, it’s a conversational way of allowing for a child to claim ownership of their identity, despite the traditional adoption narrative that implies they are “perpetual children” who exist because of an adult’s love.

Adoption agencies should consider radical love as a progressive acknowledgment that the children they serve (because it’s supposed to be “for the children,” right??) do occupy subordinate societal positions, and the children of color are absolutely denied the same privileges as White children. Radical love is more than performative educational programs designed to inform White parents about their child’s racialized experience; instead, radical love would center the child’s identity–and arguably, their entire sense of self–as a growing, evolving, fluid construction of their own design, that they themselves own. Radical love frees the child from its beginnings as a “needy” object in need of a home. Radical love, by contrast, incorporates their experience as a person taken in by adults and allows them the power to move in and out of that status as the child desires.

Radical love, in essence, could transform transracial adoption by opening up the boundaries of family and situating it within the greater society–just like any other family. Even though arguments historically position families as a private space, the truth is that families–especially transracial adoptive families, because of their obvious visibility–are indeed a public entity that is influenced by the state and community in which it resides. Radical love could also destigmatize adoption and adopted children, by giving adoptees the space to question and push back on the oppressive design of adoption (most notably, legal documentation issues come to mind), while allowing them to interact with their families and friends in a way that no longer others them as someone taken in, but instead repositions them as someone taking control.

Transracial Adoption Public Syllabus Update #1!

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.

This was the most “exciting” picture for “syllabus” I could find. Woo hoo!

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.

the queerness of transracial adoption

Thinking about how to “solve” the problems inherent in transracial adoption, that is, those of white supremacy, systemic racism, and overall, the rush to place children of color (CoC) in “good” homes, might be missing a more theoretical framework. Bear with me, as I’m working through my research ideas here but tell me if I’m onto something. But if we’re to consider transracial adoption and all of its current flaws without discussing not why, in its current form, it harms CoC, but instead how its existing and historical theoretical structure functions to oppress rather than serve, we might actually more successfully challenge the present practice and finally rebuild it.

Drawing on Kathryn Bond-Stockton’s* queer child theory and Hannah Dyer’s exploration of childhood innocence through the lens of the “queer contours of childhood…those that exceed the confines of normalcy and resist normative assessments of emotional and social growth” (6). Remember, Dyer and Bond-Stockton aren’t necessarily queering every child or saying every child is “gay” as we know it, but rather applying queer theory (as I understand it) to speak to “nonnormative gender and sexuality but also [emphasis my own, because that’s key] all that is deemed strange and unruly” (5).

What can be more “strange and unruly” than transracial adoption? Setting aside for the moment that the heteronormative, same-race family structure still persists as “normal” for most of American society, transracial adoption is not only “queer” in the sense that it challenges, both openly (obviously a CoC and their white adoptive parents will stand out as queer) and through its channels of family-building (legal, home evaluations, etc.: all very counter to the interior and private family life), but in that it uses as its capital a child. Not just any child, but a child already marginalized–or queered, as Bond-Stockton says–by color. In this sense, how does transracial adoption queer, twice, transracial adoptees?

Queering transracial adoption, then, is already done. It is “done” in the sense that it queers traditional American family norms and it is “done” because the child involved is queered by color and queered by transracial adoption’s racial disunity. Transracially adopted children have no option, within this framework, but to grow sideways (thanks again, Kathryn Bond-Stockton). Growing up transracially adopted means being forever marked by difference–queerness–between yourself and the individuals designed to help you grow upwards. It is this inherent queerness that encourages sideways growth, forcing the child to thresh out new paths of belonging, both to their adoptive family, the members of their race, and their multitudes of social networks (not ACTUAL social media, but sure, that works, too).

Sideways growth isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. Actually, for the transracial adoptee, the child’s horizontal growth means establishing a multitude of new coping mechanisms designed explicitly to react against normative structures. This doesn’t mean that transracially adopted children possess some mystical inner strength, and most certainly there are those who find themselves pressured into upwards growth no matter how much they resist, but instead the CoC is implored to create an identity unlike any one offered by the various social groups with whom s/he would “normally” identify.

Such sideways growth, and the transracially adopted child’s external pressure to resist it, might account for the transracial adoptee’s struggle with racial identity and familial security. Underlying the stability offered by an adoptive home is a normative violence. Though dramatic, that violence is the adoption industry’s historical tendency toward ignoring or erasing grief and loss and racial needs. Dyer asks: “What could happen for the adult’s politics [because transracial adoption is undeniably political and colonial] and sense of well-being if we took seriously the ways that aesthetic experience can cause interruptions to the symbolic contexts in which one grows up?” (3). Despite Dyer’s reference to her own great study regarding the material aesthetics of childhood, this question fits transracial adoption theory, because “in the visual and aesthetic cultures of childhood we can glimpse and indeterminate future that doesn’t calibrate injustice but locates hope in the wreckage of violence” (3-4). In other words, all those haters of critical adoption scholarship would finally understand that making “transracial adoption” for the child and “making it better” means not eradicating it (**sigh** I’ve never said that or supported it) but improving it through theory and extensive critique.

Hopefully, I’m able to pursue this line of thought. I think that Foucault’s philosophies work well here in establishing theory. And yes, I’m an over-eager doctoral student just reading this and ready to apply it, but man if anything can help me get ready for publication, I’m going to use it! LOL.

Let me know your thoughts!!!

* I initially did not like her work. And then I found myself returning to it more and more, organically. I think that means I love her. Ha.

things transracial adoptive parents should know

two women taking selfie
Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

you’ll fail your child if you actively blind yourself to their race. you’ll confuse your child, who’ll grow up profoundly uncertain in a world hellbent on categorizing them by color.

allow their color to paint their world.

don’t celebrate their color with tokenized references to superficial beauty and pride; show them their color is a daily part of their life by addressing its social complexities, historical relationships to white society, and negative–yes, the racism–reactions to it.

point out the lack of racial mirroring across all colors in media. acknowledge your child’s desire to be white, should that happen. recognize why this is happening and lean into their insecurity by admitting how they deserve better. tell them representation can be, should be, better.

in a same-race home, your child would have been taught racial survival skills you can’t provide. accepting your limitation as a parent isn’t defeatist. instead, your weakness can help you grow. if you don’t have friends of your child’s race, get them. if you aren’t in an area where they’re available, ask yourself what that means for your child.

ask yourself how, if you can’t navigate racialized conversations on your own, your child will manage.

your child is subject to unique health issues related to their race. accept that. find out what they are–it’s not racist to accept racial differences. your child probably already as a limited or unknown medical history. do not accept this as an unfortunate fact. find the funds to test them so if they get sick, it’s not a reactive crisis response. adoption is an investment in a child’s life. obtaining genetic testing and other medical records is a gift that could quite literally last them their lifetime.

ask yourself what books you’re reading to your child. if the main characters don’t look like your child, question that.

your child will search your face for any resemblances, no matter how illogical. this is a natural, human response as they search for belonging. this will never stop. you can’t solve this for them, so let them ask about their birth family. let them search for them. if it makes you uncomfortable, imagine never knowing who you look like.

imagine never knowing why your body behaves as it does while it grows.

grayscale photography of woman

listen to their friends. do you hear race or religion used as jokes? those aren’t rites of passage that children must endure. show your child it’s unacceptable by confronting those children. this will instill more confidence in your child than any transracial adoptive family social group you join. this will show them you see them and your next to them during their struggle as a person of color.

talk about race. read books by people of color who talk about race. if you didn’t do this before you adopted your child, ask yourself if you truly were prepared to raise a child of a different race, then pick up a book and read it. consume black culture. consume asian culture. consume any subculture you don’t fit into as a white person to show your child it’s normal. let your child question it. let yourself admit you can’t fit into it, but you want them to embrace it.

 if you didn’t have friends of color before you transracially adopted, ask yourself why. if you still don’t, consider what message this sends your child.

love your child by loving your differences. you won’t follow a similar life path; color has already split that road. this is not a bad thing; in fact, that’s a strength. lean on each other’s racialized world views. let race be a permanent guest in your home instead of a taboo specter. all of this will allow your child to flourish in their skin, instead of resenting it. that should be the ultimate goal of every transracial adoptive parent, and only when you can embrace their status as a person of color will you help your child grow.

Does adoption cause chronic illness? No. But do lack of health insights worsen conditions? Yes.

Another chemo-brain blog post. Apologize for the style here.

Getting cancer made me angry, not because it’s an annoying interruption to my life but because it adds another layer to the “Was there a way to prevent this?” adoption complexity.

How many of you are attending annual check-ups or such, armed with a list of your great-uncle’s colon cancer and your second-cousin-twice removed bout with kidney stones? You probably think nothing of it, as it’s become such a routine expectation in our medical visits. Let me tell you: Health histories are a privilege. To an adoptee, not knowing the full story of our parentage or family trees is just one loss we experience. But the one that tells the fullest picture of our lives, the one that tells us just what our very own bodies encompass, will almost never be available to us. To me, that’s adoption’s most profound and inhumane loss.

Without a health history, we are simply flesh and bone and fluids from….where? We ask ourselves where we came from, and perhaps obtaining a family tree can help, but adoptees lose the most tangible explanations of what makes us humans. I’d personally would have been happier knowing my medical history rather than knowing why I was given away. Extreme? Maybe. But knowing my genetic health history would have given me control over a life owned by the adoption system.

What can be done to prevent or treat these medical variables? Where can blame be placed–and should we be looking for scapegoats at all? How many parents experience the secondary shame of telling a doctor, “No, I’m sorry–my son’s adopted so we don’t know,” and then didn’t think–or know–to press for additional testing? It’s not necessarily the adoptive parents’ fault; genetic testing is costly and often not covered by insurance unless medically necessary. So who then considers a lack of medical history an acceptable patient status? Well then, are adoption agencies culpable, what with their desire to protect the privacy of the birth parents (if possible) over the child’s future health? Are they clinging to the hope that their outdated yet selectively applied “blank slate” theories will help adoptees get by on a shrug and some hope?

Knowing my genetic health history would have given me control over a life owned by the adoption system.

As you can see, there are some clear ethical and human rights questions at play, which I hope to cover in another post on ICAV’s website soon. For now, I’ll hazard to guess that adoption agencies–and overzealous adoptive parents–go in two directions with regards to their wards’ health: They can either blame “drug-addicted, impoverished mothers and fathers” for their children’s issues and end it there, or passively say “this is all we have, so let’s hope for the best.” Neither mindset considers a child’s right to grow into a healthy adult (because adoptees DO grow up). Both mindsets also set a child up for medical alienation by both parents and community; say, for instance, a child develops a mental disorder or disability, despite being placed with a “loving” adoptive family. All the love in the world won’t prevent genetic expressions or rewrite faulty DNA. Does the child become an ungrateful pariah or just another problem and disappointment? Do the parents speak negatively of the biological parents, while blithely blaming their own grandmothers for their propensity toward diabetes? Some adoptive parents are more proactive:

 

Assuming the worst is probably the best case of a life of unknowns, regardless of how uncomfortable or negative that may seem. However, in my case, I’d never assume I’d get breast cancer but I did assume I’m a ticking time bomb waiting to see what new ailments my body chucks at me.

Unfortunately, insurance companies and paychecks don’t feel comfortable investing in worst-case scenarios, given how expensive genetic testing is and how uneducated physicians are on proactively managing adoptees’ cases. While preventative medicine is expensive, it seems less costly than having a giant tumor pop up in the middle of your life. With all the funds and fees associated with adoption (that’s all I say about that), swinging a few extra thou toward comprehensive medical testing doesn’t seem like such a stretch after all.

This won’t be the last I discuss this topic, as it simply fuels my work on adoption and children’s rights. I hope to have my ICAV post ready soon, where I’ll look more closely at children’s rights and ethics with regards to intercountry adoption and lack of medical histories.

In the meantime…get yourself tested. Speak to your doctors if you need to, explain your situation, show them this post. Whatever. Message me on Twitter and I’ll be your ally. You deserve to know something and never knowing was not your fault. I’m here with you because no medical records is inhumane, archaic CRAP and we should never accept it.

Would you feel sorry for me? I hope not.

Apologies for the rambling here; chemo-brain is a real thing.

I waited for 18 years, an arbitrary length of time set by people who–from the outset–spoke for me, to find out my birth mother died several years after I was sent away.

img_5431I spent those years emotionally and verbally abused by both family and community, my racialized existence provoking shame into anger. I lost many family members and friends to death, either by natural circumstances or violent ends.

At 25, I lost my adoptive mother, though imperfect she was, to a three-year battle with ovarian cancer.

At age 34, I enrolled myself in an intensive outpatient program to deal with complex PTSD as a result of lifelong abuse.

At 35, I myself was diagnosed with cancer, but not without finally getting that key to sentient industrialized humanity, my medical history. In it, I found that not one of my maternal relatives lived (so far) past age 77. My birth mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage, her younger brother died of a bone marrow cancer, a surviving brother survived his own brain bleed, and another uncle survived thyroid cancer.

But I don’t feel sorry for myself. Instead, I laugh.

I laugh at life’s ruthless targeting of one person, of some people, of groups of people, to be the ones who absorbing every single blow. Yet there exist individuals like my husband, a white male stamped with middle America’s indelible trackmarks and unhindered by any tragedy greater than a few standard life discomforts.

It’s an angsty existential riddle, quite a cliche in its frustration: Why me? Why not others? What lesson haven’t I yet learned? but even GOING THERE strikes me humorous, bizarre. Because logical and reasoned women like me, women dedicated to answering WHY and WHAT with quantifiable, explainable THINGS, simply should know better than to ponder the universe’s absurd definition of reason.

But I can’t help it. As long as people like my husband and I exist, opposites in backgrounds but similar in all the ways that count, the preposterous workings of LUCK will nag me behind my theories and statistics.

I definitely don’t have room for self-pity. I fear only a few things in life now, a happy byproduct of such unfortunate luck: chemotherapy permanently altering my cognitive function and stamina; not finishing my PhD program; and not making it to Disney World come hell or another cancer diagnosis. Redundant tragedies inure you to anxiety, I promise.

Instead, I laugh.

I laugh hard, harder than I should because there’s something so poetically tragic about suffering and then more suffering. Forgive me if I sound self-absorbed, and I humbly nod at those who continue to suffer greater than I–you do exist.

And that’s the key right there. No matter what, it could still be worse. If cancer still isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me or my family, then yes, there’s still room for confidently facing more feckless mistakes or uncontrollable health issues. Above all else, therefore, I want to have the space to handle whatever’s worse, because no matter what, there’s always room for hope.

an open letter to mr. stephen thatcher, of Me & Korea

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In which I respond to Mr. Stephen Thatcher’s commentary from the Me&Korea May 2019 inaugural adoption conference. Mr. Thatcher is a Korean adoptee. Find his statement on page 93.

Dear Stephen,

It’s with great professional restraint that I don’t open my letter with a descriptive passage detailing my initial reaction to your Conference on Adoption essay. Instead, I’ve stepped back, breathed a few times, and hopefully composed myself enough to make myself cogent and clear.

Far from being representative and inclusive of Korean adoptees’ perspectives, your antagonistic and sweeping generalizations dismiss a swath of experiences in five judgemental pages.

Many Korean adoptees indeed encountered racism within their adoptive families and communities. This racism isn’t an “obsession,” as you described; it’s a societal fact that impacts how people of color identify themselves and develop self-worth. Evidence is not on your side, Mr. Thatcher, as color and racial issues–even within biracial and monoracial biological families–has well-documented negative effects. Please, feel free to ask for resources for this statement.

You also state:

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Wow indeed, sir, that you overlook a child’s rights when determining “worthy” placements. I’d reword this and call it “healthy” instead. If you truly care about these “orphans,” as you describe us, wouldn’t you agree that a racially competent home–one that can adequately support a child of color and their unique cultural heritage–would be best? I mean, you say it yourself:

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Obviously, no one with a heart wants children living on the streets. But we also don’t want them growing up blinded by their gratitude at the expense of their race.

You also claim adoptees “sensationalize” their experiences:

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Here’s where I’ll drop my professional courtesy and respond as myself:

FUCK THAT DISMISSIVE BULLSHIT.

In one word, you’ve handwaved a lifetime of struggle many Korean adoptees face. You dismiss it as unimportant, and downplay it as being propaganda to push an anti-adoption agenda; which is funny, because your agenda to disparage and smear other adoptees seems more community-breaking than people telling their truths.

Adoption needs these stories you find so unpalatable because if you truly want to improve it and make it better, we have to learn from our mistakes. And yes, in some cases adoptions were made to parents who had no business adopting transracially. Rather than spitting on the adoptee stories you believe are repugnant lies, you should embrace them. Humans run adoption agencies; humans are imperfect. We get blinded by love and charity but forget that bad things happen to good people and good people get rejected while sneaky ones get pushed through.

You’ve also seemed to confuse classist issues with what some adoptees are really saying:

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I can’t mindread, but this seems suspiciously like you’re referring to some adoptees as whiny brats unhappy they didn’t get the toys they wanted, instead of seeing their lives as cautionary tales. Again, I’m not a mindreader but it seems you are:

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No one can fully understand or appreciate why an adoptee might objectively look at their adoption and those of others with less-than-ideal outcomes and become against it. You, like me, can’t possibly know what “reality” any of us would face had we not been adopted. I found out my family regretted sending me away. I love my birth family. My adoptive family abused me. But I can still critically look at transracial adoption and understand that these things happen, but it’s on people like me–not myopic generalists–to fix it.

Having gotten this off my heaving chest, I wonder: Do you consider me anti-adoption? Based on my responses to you and work, would you judge me as having been so shortsighted I’d be unable to determine how “bad” my life would be in Korea and how great I had it in the United States?

You likely would, but unsurprisingly, you’d be incorrect. For all my adoptive mother’s flaws, she taught me what assuming means. I am not, in fact, “anti-adoption,” but do believe a firm overhaul of transracial and intercountry adoption systems need work. This work needs to be in the child’s best interest and based on sound, unbiased scholarly research and not rants against people with whom you disagree.

For my part, I am happy for you and your adoption outcome. I agree orphanages and institutions are not equipped for long-term childhood care. And, obviously, I agree that

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but what you miss is adoption is a result of a child’s loss. Adoption promises a better life. If adoptive parents are unqualified despite their best interests, are we really doing this orphan army justice?

I’d also like to close this letter by answering one of your (presumably) rhetorical questions:

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Yes, I have. Yes, I do. And maybe you should do the same for those who see things differently than yourself.

Feel free to reach me any time. My lines of communication are always open.

Thank you,

Sunny

you’re talking about adoption and mental health all wrong

Being adopted is hard; being transracially adopted is even harder (and I’m not backing down from that one).

Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing a misappropriation of adoption and mental health and trauma; some form of conflation that gets confused as “if you are adopted, you’re automatically sentenced to post-traumatic stress disorder and many other things that won’t come out until it’s conveniently necessary to blame.”

Or, the argument goes: Adoptive parents don’t listen to adoptees since our pain is too much to bear. Or, our pain overshadows an adoptive parent’s desire for a child, so they immediately tune adoptees out because we’re harsh reminders of their wrongdoings.

All of this is true and none of it is true.

Maternal-infant separation is traumatic. No one’s arguing something so obvious and provable. But what’s missed in the “adoption is trauma” conversations is how this early attachment disruption can be repaired.   Does it cause PTSD or the newly-recognized-yet-still-debated complex PTSD (of which is my own diagnosis; more on that later). Possibly, but a basic understanding of attachment disruption AND healing must also exist; otherwise, it sounds like **gasp** there is no healing or hope in adoption.

We can’t discuss adoption trauma without a hard nod to attachment theory. I feel this is a missing piece in online adoption trauma discussions, particularly by American adoptees (again, more on this later). Very briefly, attachment disruption indeed happens with separation from a primary caregiver at any stage, but a loving, supportive home–adoptive or not–can provide a center for earned secure attachment; that is, a child finds a new attachment figure and navigates life henceforth.

Without a secure attachment figure, children and adults may end up troubled, unable to maintain healthy relationships and thus, depression/anxiety is born.

If you’ve noticed, I say a lot of “can” and “may” because adoption is a very individualized experience. It’s why we can’t argue that every.single.adopted.child is going to experience all of these things; it is important, though, to ensure adoptive parents have these potential issues on their radar, so they can more mindfully parent their adoptee. That’s a good thing, right?

Back to attachment and my earlier PTSD discussion:

ADOPTION DOESN’T AUTOMATICALLY CAUSE LIFELONG POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER!

Anecdotally, the adoptees of all races discussing PTSD are doing so as a result of being adopted by abusive parents. Or, in my case, adopted into an abusive family as well as “integrated” into a racist, unaccepting community. I have no desire to detail what my PTSD-infected life entails now, but I can tell you with 100% certainty my PTSD isn’t from adoption (although yes, that haunting grief absolutely does suck). It’s from years and years of scapegoating, shaming, emotional and verbal abuse (with some physical abuse on the side), and absolutely no community or familial support. All of this could happen in a biological family; the transracial adoption aspect simply augments this bitter recipe.

We do current and future adoptees–and their parents–an enormous disservice by arguing all of these things will happen as a direct result of adoption. While a healthy dose of awareness can help a parent seeking to improve their skills, pushing such a dystopian message surrounds adoption with despair and hopelessness. I fail to see how it benefits the child.

Instead, why not argue that an adoptee’s mental health issues aren’t solely adoption-related, but exacerbated by a family unable to cope with their individual needs? Instead of claiming every adoptee will grow to resent their adoptive parents, how about we say this grief is mitigated by trauma-informed care and supportive parenting, like that being pushed by the United Kingdom?

These aren’t bulletproof solutions. Unscrupulous adoptive parents exist, just as less-than-stellar biological parents orbit around us. There are indeed adoptive parents who’ll co-opt their child’s trauma and use it as a way to excuse their own shoddy behaviors. But instead of blaming adoption for every mental health issue experienced, I would say we treat adoption as yet another complication in an already complex life.

Adoptees are individuals, built from the hopes of one family and the loss of another; our genetics dictate who we are and whatever health problems we’ll experience–respect that.

But if we really want to help adoptive parents ensure adoptees get the best care–as it is, the adoptee should ALWAYS be the focus–guilting them into believing their child is damaged won’t help. Adoptive parents absolutely should listen to adoptees and their tapestry of mental health concerns; these are important stories and can guide a parent’s overall parenting approach. Good parents welcome advice; excellent parents incorporate it into their lives. But our horror stories shouldn’t be used as punishments for adoptive families. Instead, they should be guideposts for what not to do, and how to do adoption better.

An adoptee’s horror story shouldn’t be used as a punishment for existing adoptive parents.

Just remember that our mental health issues aren’t everyone’s pain. It’s ours and we should own it and feel welcome to express it. It’s not a tool, though, or an instrument to frighten others into listening to us. No one else has a responsibility to fix our disorders, but they do have the responsibility to listen.

Adoptive parents don’t have a responsibility to fix our problems, but they do have the responsibility to listen.

If you are struggling and have discussed it with your therapist, I’d highly recommend Princeton House (associated with Penn Medicine) as an intensive outpatient treatment center for trauma, mood disorders, and more. They’re located throughout New Jersey and offer services for adolescents, women-only, and men. But IOP is no joke! Discuss with your doctor and see if it’s right for you. Oh, and I’m not affiliated with them at all!

Also, I’m very much against self-diagnosed PTSD and other such things. Please find support because self-diagnosis is dangerous.

adoption: expectations vs. realities

Take a look at that photo. Yeah, the Asian baby with the slightly disproportionate ears and smushed-up nose. This baby mugshot was my–for lack of a better description–personal ad photo my parents received when choosing a baby to bring home.

My adoptive mother enjoyed saying how much she fell in love with that photo the moment she viewed it; another adoptee shared how her mother loving her when she knew she was conceived (huh?).

But let’s think about this. Realistically, can you truly love another person (because babies are simply people, after all) based on a photo? When adults do this, they’re usually side-eyed as being reckless and irrational. Get a grip, well-meaning friends will say. You’re in love with the idea of that person, not the human being itself.

In adoption, particularly transracial adoption, these drive-through baby-picking-ads aren’t so far off from someone browsing personal ads or trying to find the perfect hairdryer. What’s dangerous is that, with a child, this idea of what this kid is and how it’ll fit in your home can create an unrealistic bubble into which the adoptee is placed, floating around their parents’ minds as expectations, promises, and unrealistic hopes. Imagine what’ll happen when that bubble bursts. The kid ends up conforming not to their parents’ imaginary silhouette but becomes an unfamiliar (unwanted?) mix of genetics and environment.

My husband explained it like this: Pretend a family of dogs (conformists, willing to please, pack-oriented) decide to adopt a kitten (independent, aloof, intelligent). As this kitten ages into a cat, it begins displaying typical feline characteristics which run counter to dog behaviors. Dogs are social; cats less so. Cats swish their tails when angry; dogs wag their tails for myriad reasons but the well-known one is happiness. Cats drop their ears in fury; dogs drop their ears in submission.

The dog family gets angry at this cat for simply being a cat. Stop purring! the dogs say. You’re ridiculous and bad–you need to wag your tail more.

But I can’t, the cat counters, it’s something that just happens.

What’s wrong with you? the dogs chide. Why can’t you just join in instead of hiding in your room?

And over and over again, until the cat hates itself. He takes no pride in being a cat, but only berates himself for not being a dog.

In a strange twist of the turtle and scorpion fable, the cat ends up stung by the dogs who committed to loving this former kitten, only to be hurt by their inability to recognize the cat for who it was. This is the danger of loving a child based on a picture.

Racial differences add to the tension. If not properly examined, parents’ cultural competency and racial attitudes may unfairly color (pun!) how a child develops. Is this fair? No, but it is a reality. A harsh one, but in the difficult truths we can learn how better to improve.

I believe every adoptive parent loves their child, but I think this relationship needs better grounding when publically presented. To claim “love at first sight” places expectations and ideas on a human that may be impossible to fulfill. I’d rather promote the idea that parents must get to know their adopted child, perhaps in a more intense way and with guided therapy, falling in love with that entire person after a journey of mutual respect and acceptance.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Feel free to get me on Twitter or comment below!

race and adoption: the most important conversation I won’t stop having

When I first came to the public transracial adoption space, I was only tangentially aware of the “us versus them” mentality. It’s “adoptees versus adoptive parents,” “transracial adoptees versus same-race adoptees,” “everyone versus the system,” etc. I initially set out to discuss only transracial adoption, saw how interwoven transracial and same-race adoption traumas inevitably are, and thus started speaking on both transracial and same-race adoption, scared to rock the boat too much on race.

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I’m not scared anymore.

I’ve received vicious online assaults ranging from the relatively tame:

“You’re a heartless shrew!”

to the typically condescending:

“Please get help.”

to the hilariously bizarre:

“You useless amoeba!” and “You’re the Jim Crow of adoption.”

When I wrote the infamous Think Adopting Children of Color Makes You Woke? It Doesn’t piece, I was quite clear that I’m not against adoption of any kind; in fact, I recognized there indeed are white parents getting it right with their children of color and understand that yes, many are doing their best.  My experience with adoptive parents is the same as with any other group. There are excellent ones, terrible ones, and many in-between. I appreciate all of them and hope to reach most of them.

This struck a nerve that continues to sting today. When I say, “Let’s ensure cultural competency and racial awareness informs transracial adoption, so children’s racial identities are harmed less,” others hear: “You’re terrible, white people just want to help kids, or else they’ll starve in Ethiopia!” (yes, really).

“Helping” kids of color isn’t “rescuing them.” Many adoptees have said this before, but it bears repeating that rescue is a supremacist-rooted term implying the “greatest country in the world” is the best place for transracial/intercountry adoptees (yes, really, someone said that to me). Is that true? Is the West really best? I’ll let you decide, but consider this: The opposite of helping children of color is ignoring their color.

Far from being racist or Jim Crow of adoptionesque, questioning a system that places kids in colorblind yet loving homes has little basis in segregation. In fact, people of color were systematically excluded from adopting in-race because of exclusionary criteria, usually masquerading as economic, financial, and religious “qualifications.”

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My critiques are founded in historical policies, the social history of family, and race. And yes, my personal experience. Circling back to the accusation that I “make adoption all about race,” there’s truth in that statement. Adoption, like so many other government institutions, is about race. Race, power, and control. No matter how hard some push back on the issue, race matters. Denying its existence and influence on power structures denies the experience of people of color, adopted or not. As a person of color, I feel obligated to speak of color in this space and I won’t stop.

Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications.

Regardless of transracial adoption’s obvious minefields, there has never been a call–from myself, anyway–that all white people should stop adopting kids and instead let children of color simply rot away in the system. Or, even more puzzling, is the interpretation of my work as calling for “same-race only” adoptions, which again doesn’t exist in quantity due to reasons already stated.  I’d love for more POC to adopt children of color. As always, nothing is that simple.

Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications. It’s that sentence’s second clause that offends and touches nerves of would-be or current adopters; the awareness of love’s inability to protect against societal racial bias, and the idea that perhaps you can’t save a child of color by simply giving them a loving home.

Adoption, it would seem, is far more complicated. It should be, because a child’s life is at stake. Is it naive to believe transracial adoption can be done in the child’s best interest, aside from simply taking extreme “banish it” stances? I don’t think so. Parents, adoptive or not, exist on a continuum of shared flaws and toxic values. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the existence of open minds and open hearts, both of which all good parents embrace.

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