Transnational or transracial adoptees are a marginalized group whose experiences reflect the complex relationship between family of origin, our social context, and how we perceive ourselves.
With the continued rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans and other racial reckonings in our society, my own sense of belonging has felt blurred. I’ve been spurred to interrogate my own identity, community-beliefs, and stances on advocacy — all of which tie into the mental health experience of transnational adoptees like myself.
To better understand the challenges that international Asian adoptees face, it’s important to understand the context of how we came to the States. According to Catherine Choy’s Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America, it was during the 1950s and 60s that the Korean War initiated the rise in Asian adoption to the U.S.
The narrative was that these war orphans were coming to live a better life with all-American families. All-American in this narrative meant those who were White, Protestant, upwardly mobile, and attractive. The adoptees were characterized as model children who would become “good Americans,” contrasting starkly with the idea of a bleak war-torn Asian society.
The militarism, imperialism, and Cold War politics during World War II all framed international adoption as a humanitarian endeavor. Choy uses a 1958 Parade magazine article by Karl Kohrs as an example. The piece, entitled “An Orphan Boy comes ‘Home’ to America” speaks about the “plight of Korean children” and Kwang Jin Chun’s adoption.
The renaming of children and their subsequent consumption of US food, toys, clothes, etc., signified their transformation into “Americans.” News articles and popular media presented assimilation as a linear and benign process, enabled by speaking English and engaging with American pop culture.
Because of the earlier socio-political influences affecting their family formation, Korean adoptees have been at the forefront of Asian American adoption research. I want to honor the work done by intercountry adoptees before me and recognize that they have set a baseline for my understanding of adoption.
As for adoption from China, the One Child Policy is the most cited impetus for an increase in Chinese-American adoption. According to Amy Klatzkin, this policy was created in 1979 to curb rapid population growth in China during a time of stagnated economy and political upset. The One Child Policy paved the way for a rapidly increasing adoption rate between China and the US–mostly of female children.
In 1988 the U.S. State Department issued twelve immigrant visas to children adopted from Chinese orphanages. By 2000, the number of children adopted peaked with 5,053 children coming as adoptees. As of now, 82,456 adoptees from China live in the United States, 84% of which are assigned female at birth.
There is no one diaspora story, but most start with loss. At least initially. You leave one place in hopes of finding another to call home. But all of the proceeding steps to acculturate can be daunting at best, isolating at worst – separating yourself from members of your family or friends, going to another country, possibly learning a new language, losing access to your history, the list goes on. For transnational adoptees, this choice is often made on their behalf, at a young age, without their consent or full understanding of its ramifications.
Before I went to college, I didn’t totally understand how my adoption played into the larger picture of migration. However, as I met more international adoptees and other young adults from immigrant families, they connected me to numerous reading lists, research papers, and professors to follow. Learning more about the history of international adoption allowed me to contextualize my own experiences.
With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and conversations about protecting our elders, transracial adoptees are faced with the reality that our families will never fully understand our fears or experiences with racism. This is true for all interracial families with white parents. Learning more about the ways in which Asian Americans have been simultaneously framed as the model minority and as the “Yellow Peril” shaped how I have come to see myself in the context of immigration.
It is not love alone that allows for the creation of transnational families; structural support from international, domestic, and non-government organizations makes profound differences in the ability of families to thrive. Understanding this gave me the vocabulary to speak about how I can love my family here and still mourn the disconnect from my birth culture and biological family.
Being raised by a single white mother meant I didn’t have the same mirrors that other children have access to. My mom was insistent that my race didn’t matter and that she would love me regardless of my background. Although well-intentioned, a color-blind approach to parenting meant we didn’t have any substantial conversations about how I had to navigate the world differently as a Chinese American until I was much older.
My main experience of being an Asian American was defined by difference. I didn’t have any positive understanding or experience to balance it out other than this sense of being othered.
I didn’t dislike being Asian, but it wasn’t until I went to college and was able to talk to more Asian adoptees that I began to feel more comfortable in my cultural identity, sense of self, and what I can claim as a transracial adoptee.
Taking Ethnic Studies courses and learning more about the Chinese and Asian American leaders before me grounded me in a way that I didn’t know I needed. Knowing about the Chinese American community’s resilience in the face of trauma and discrimination—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—helped me take pride in my history and learn about ways I can continue to be involved in the Asian American network now.
Just like there is no singular diaspora story, there is no singular way to process the adoptee experience either. Self-discovery and finding our place in the world can be isolating, especially when our family may not fully understand how race plays into our daily lives.
Because the peak wave of Chinese adoption occurred in the early 2000s, many Chinese American adoptees are now finding community online through various social media pages, blogs, and groups. Speaking to each other about the ways literature and media have affected the formation of their cultural, ethnic, and racial identity is a healing process.
Most of the transracial adoptees that I have spoken to are part of larger online groups for Asian/Chinese adoptees. These spaces have been critical for me as well. Although I used to have yearly meetups with adoptees who were brought to the U.S. at the same time I was, these petered off quickly in elementary school. Finding online communities in high school was instrumental in processing how to handle microaggressions, questions about searching for birth parents, and knowing that I wasn’t alone in my experiences.
After realizing how important it was to find other people who understood my experiences, I began to interrogate why our narratives weren’t centered in the discussion about adoption. Rarely will you find a movie, book, or TV show that is written by an adoptee, let alone a transracial and/or international adoptee.
The lack of representation ties back to the historical roots of how intercountry adoption was framed – as an assimilatory process. But without knowing that others share this specific experience, it’s understandable that transnational adoptees feel unseen, isolated, displaced, and confused.
Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know was the first novel I read that truly addressed these issues for transracial adoptees, from a lived perspective. I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A session with Nicole Chung in March of 2021 where she pointed out: “In pop culture, adoptees themselves are never allowed to grow up. We are often presented as objects of desire or as a fulfilled wish. We overwhelmingly have stories from people who adopt and not many from adoptees, especially people of color.”
As I saw the reality of my experience, I saw that this reality wasn’t reflected in stories about people like me. I started to do my own research on adoption and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the importance of culturally competent children’s literature surrounding the process. Past literature on Chinese American adoption has predominantly been written by adoptive parents or families rather than by adoptive children or adult adoptees. There has been a lack of stories that allow for adoptees to grieve the disconnect from their birth culture, while maintaining the belief that their adoptive families will support this grieving process.
Getting direct feedback from adoptees and making space for their voices is the only way to fully support their growth and improve the availability of culturally competent resources, such as books, lesson plans, and inclusive activities.
When transracial adoptee narratives aren’t told from a realistic and nuanced perspective, it impacts how adoptees see their own identity. The savior narrative takes root, putting pressure-filled gratefulness expectations on adoptees, and keeping us from acknowledging the difficulty of our experience.
Racial melancholia and a sense of disconnect to one’s origins can emerge later in an adoptee’s life, if there isn’t space for them to consider adoption’s lifelong effects.
How we explain the formation of families to children matters. In-group and out-group thinking and attitudes towards race develop so early on in children, that adoptive parents must have frank discussions about how race, immigration, and adoption itself impact their children. Transracial and transnational adoption is inherently tied to the racial and immigration dynamics at play in the world.
We all have a responsibility to speak about the reality of adoption while making it age and level-appropriate. By helping teachers, parents, and other educators in adoptee’s lives understand the deeper historical significance of adoption, both transracial adoptees and other students will experience a richer cultural and empathetic curriculum.
Having more books for adoptees with various family formations (one parent, non-white parents, LGTBQ(IA)+ families, etc.), simplified yet accurate representations of the adoption process, and more representation of adoptees with various disabilities are all details that would help younger adoptees understand their position in the world. These changes can help reassure transracial adoptees that they have a community to rely on and connect with.
For me, reading other’s stories allowed me to work through the grief that comes with losing a connection to my birth parents. These stories were a resource to help me heal. But educating ourselves is only one step towards community. We have to be thoughtful and engage in other community-based advocacy work. We have to take what we learn and apply it to our lives and activism.
Taking time with family and loved ones, doing activities that help me feel grounded, and following love where I can find it are all important steps to take as my stance on adoption will inevitably change over time. Continuing to learn and grow with others is how I have found some peace in this journey, and it will take a structural push from all of us to ensure that all adoptees are afforded the same opportunity.