#AsianChildhoods: Course Introduction

When choosing the best variety of children
first select one
that will best suit the needs
of your whole family
that will thrive in your local environment

The most important factor to consider
in selecting
is the ability of the child to survive
the intended use from adults
is there adequate sunlight to support
space that favors intolerant varieties of children?

Consider your choices, conditions
to plant children
installed
for an instant family.

—Julayne Lee, “Consider” in Not My White Savior (2018)

Transracial adoption pedagogy offers childhood studies scholars and the general public a deeper insight into how certain childhoods are constructed for adoption and particular family norms are upheld as ideal for adoptive families. In this syllabus, you will explore transracial adoption’s entanglement with Asian children’s bodies while drawing connections between queer theory and transracial adoptive families. For this course, we will focus specifically on Asian transracial adoptees—that is, Asian children with White American parents—and interrogate how this family structure impacts Asian children’s identity construction. However, this syllabus is meant to be a “living document,” a roadmap for additional syllabi that encompass transracial adoption’s history, structure, and relationship with children of other races.

Because of the multiple intersections that exist between Asian children and other demographics (for example, LGTBQ+ Asian children, impoverished Asian children, etc.), a course that spans Asian childhood and critical adoption studies can broaden Childhood Studies scholars’ understanding of how this unique group navigates both racialized identities and their role in kinship structures. Additional courses can provide opportunities to explore and resist the ways Asian adopted children tend to be spoken “around” by their White parents and “professionals”, and what type of impact this has on a population already marginalized by race. A childhood studies-focused approach, then, will better situate and center Asian children and prepare scholars to make connections between this group and the myriad other childhoods we study.

Critical adoption scholars have attempted to introduce adoption studies to college-level curriculums, with varying results. Since public knowledge of transracial adoption tends to follow two very conflicting extremes of thought (“adoption is beautiful” versus “adoption is harmful”), creating a public syllabus that acknowledges both extremes while moving beyond them is challenging. Some scholars have identified issues with adoption pedagogy, noting that adoption itself is a unique occurrence that students only have “tangential experience with” (Kim, Myers, McKee, and Raleigh 2019, 2). Other professors have attempted an interdisciplinary approach, integrating adoption studies into scholarship on “diverse family forms” (3). Finally, some academics have attempted to “bring adoption” into the classroom by focusing on adoption and mental health (Branco 2019) and adoption in literature and media studies (Novy 2019, Bartz 2019, Singley 2012). 

As noted, this syllabus attempts to unite and strengthen childhood and critical adoption studies through a child-focused perspective. Each syllabus section is introduced with an excerpt from an adoptee-produced work of either prose or poetry, to ground the readings inside and within actual lived experiences. Reading lists also include work from transracial adoptee scholars. The use of adoptee words and research throughout this syllabus will bring their scholarship into focus, and de-exceptionalize adoptees’ status as a niche group of “others” who speak from the sidelines.

The first portion of the syllabus introduces students to queer theory and how I will use it as an analytical framework for transracial adoption. Students will explore how, in the mainstream attempt to normalize transracial adoptive families, these structures will remain and always have been queer.[1] This section will also prepare students for later discussions on the Asian child’s body and how it remains outside of White acceptability, yet remains an object of “exotic” fascination and desire. A short unit on American family history and readings critiquing the “mythical” heteronormative, White nuclear family will help students understand how even the policies and transactionality of transracial adoption queer normative perceptions of family. In other words, transracial adoption is queer because of its use of a non-White child’s body to form a kinship structure that didn’t previously exist.

The second syllabus section contains a brief introduction to childhood, with readings centering on contemporary children and childhood studies. However, this subsection is optional for Childhood Studies scholars. Its inclusion here is meant to assist non-academic audiences with understanding how childhood studies views children and why childhood, in this course, is based on the logic that childhood only belongs to certain races and certain classes. Doing so will hopefully expose how Asian children’s bodies are used and constructed for kinship making, while simultaneously raced and de-raced according to political and social histories. The next two subsections deal specifically with “Asian youth identity” and the conflicts encountered when such socially ascribed identities fail to account for outliers (such as adoptees) within marginalized racial groups. Of note is this section’s analysis of the terms “Asian American child” and “Asian adoptee,” as it asks students to differentiate between the two and how children are forced to navigate between two non-normative ascribed identities.

The course’s final section focuses on the education provided to transracial adoptive parents. This version of the syllabus does not include an expansive critique and analysis of the provided readings. However, future iterations will offer students—and potential transracial adoptive parents—new and critical ways of thinking about a child’s positionality and a parent’s role in racial identity formation. Adoptive parents as well as scholars are invited to review this section’s readings, as they are specifically selected and created by critical adoptee scholars and writers who speak directly to and about subjects explored in previous syllabus sections. This is a deliberate attempt to reposition children and their concerns at the center of childhood and adoption discourse. Alice Stephens (2018), author and transracial adoptee, wrote in the epilogue of her novel, Famous Adopted People, that “When we were children, our parents offered us an explanation about how we came into the family….In the dominant narrative of adoption, the protagonists are the adoptive parents, and the adoptees are the catalyst for the plot which revolves around the Herculean labors the parent-heroes must perform in order to obtain the object of their desire” (325). This section, therefore, seeks to rewrite the plot for past and future adopted children and help both scholars and parents re-visualize the impact of a family-building structure that purports to work in a child’s best interest.

Ultimately, this public syllabus troubles the myths and norms of a celebrated, but often misunderstood, non-normative form of kinship making and the children caught—and lost to—its web. As this syllabus grows, my hope is that it becomes a repository of adoption resources, both academic and narrative, that anyone—scholars or not—can turn to as a list of resources. Hopefully, students reviewing this syllabus will reposition transracial adoption as an integral and critical part of understanding the construction of the Asian child’s racial identity. Again, this public syllabus is not meant to exclude transracial adoptive research for non-Asians. It is instead a starting point for additional conversations about how transracial adoption ascribes dual identities to subaltern children.

In the interest of full transparency, I have a strong personal motivation for conducting this ongoing work: Asian Americans, adopted or not, need greater visibility (#StopAsianHate) in public race discourse. We need inclusion in discussions about race in America, especially since the rise of anti-Asian sentiment post-Coronavirus pandemic. My hope is that you—a parent, adoptee, Childhood Studies scholar, or generally curious ally—recognize the need for increased Asian representation. I hope you will read and share this syllabus as an act of solidarity. As the first public syllabus of its kind, I hope it is transformative. I hope it inspires uncomfortable conversations. I hope it shifts some part of your subconscious acceptance of norms and alters how you have conversations with both yourself and others about Asian Americans, transracial adoption, and what it means to be a family.

Finally, to invoke Edward Said (1997), this syllabus aims to push beyond simply teaching and exposing the greater public to the nuances and history of transracial adoption and Asian American children. Rather, as Said proclaimed, “what I should like also to have contributed here is a better understanding of the way cultural domination has operated” (28).

Back to Syllabus main page…


[1] Transracial adoptee and adoption scholar, Kimberly D. McKee (2019) has also attempted to bring transracial adoption and queer theory together. This syllabus and her work can serve as excellent conversations for students to join.

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