Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Authentically Asian

I'm not trying to start a fight but I speculate that we'll get some pointed feedback on this. I was planning on posting something about the NY Times article that came out last month (NYT charges for it now but *hush* you can read it here). Talking about trans-racial adoption, especially from Asia, is a hot button topic that tends to generate a lot of heat but not always much light.

My general impression - and I'm quite open to be illuminated on this - is that with the recent generation of Chinese adoptions (vs. the older generation of Korean adoptions) by non-Asians, the adopting parents are at least aware enough to recognize that racial difference might play some kind of role. However, I don't think there's a uniform response as to how to resolve that tension (though ignoring it is probably not the best option) and personally, I think it will be very interesting to see what happens as this generation of Chinese adoptees come of age over the next 10 years. Personally, I predict a wave of self-made films and documentaries exploring the topic (as there already has been amongst Korean adoptees).

I mentioned this several years ago, but I was also struck at how normalized the practice as become within American popular culture. There was a wave of TV commercials a few years back that all were based around Chinese adoption by white parents and let's not forget the Sex And The City subplot with Charlotte and her second husband adopting a baby from China as well. Personally, I found the fact that it became so normative, so quickly, to be rather facile - any time Madison Ave. and Hollywood can absorb a potentially contentious social phenomenon faster than the rest of America, one should take notice and be wary.

The thing is, the common explanation (read: defense) of the practice is a hard one to argue with, at least on the surface: "we're giving these children better lives." I mean, sure, I'd rather grow up in Park Slope or Noe Valley than a Zhuzhou orphanage (especially if I were a woman) but the defense is deployed in such a way to shut down any concerns about how transracial adoption creates its own set of challenges for the children involved.

I'm not implying that the adopting parents aren't aware of this on some level, but their "solutions" can sometimes be painful. I don't think folks in our community want to turn a deaf ear to attempts by non-Asian parents to span the culture gap but it doesn't mean we can't roll our eyes once in a while when we read things like this:
    (this comes from a friend who helps run a Chinese American organization in the Bay Area. He frequently gets emails like this from non-Asians adopting Chinese babies.) link

    "My husband and I are in the process of adopting our first child from China. We will be visiting San Francisco next week and would like to see Chinatown, or at least the non-touristy, more authentic parts, as part of our education. Do you have any suggestions for a tour we might take and/or a good local restaurant for lunch and a few shops where we could purchase a cheongsam for our daughter or other traditional dress? We want to be authentic as possible."

To quote from the NYT piece (this being from someone who specializes in transracial adoption workshops):
    "It is one thing to dress children up in cute Chinese dresses, but the children need real contact with Asian-Americans, not just waiters in restaurants on Chinese New Year. And they need real validation about the racial issues they experience."


Violet said...

They want to dress their new daughter in a cheong sam? What about raising her as an American?! If they want to learn about Chinese culture they should try to make some Chinese friends.

I hope they don't name her Suzy.

Gia-Gina said...

What is authentic Asian and how would a non-Asian know? Unless they have spent a considerable about of time in an Asian environment.

While living in Seattle I personally knew and met many babies and children that were adopted from China. One instance sticks out in my mind rather profoundly. I was with another nanny friend eating pizza at a deli sort of place when I see a Chinese baby staring at me. I looked back at her and smile. She was shy but stuck her arms out to me and wanted to be held. Her mom almost burst out crying as she gave the little tot to me. The mother said "She is so timid, she won't go to anyone. I am so suprised." I told her it was normal and that lots of babies have reacted this way to me. They know I am Chinese and loved the long hair.

I then gave her the number for the Families with Children from China organization that one of my friends used to run.

I hope she gets a chance to meet other moms and children with babies from the same background so they can share and learn from one another.

sume said...

It's adoptive parents like that who scare the living daylights out of me.

Kristen said...

Ack. Before my "knowing" days, I met a Korean girl who was adopted by American (white) parents. I started talking about food, culture, etc. to which she said - I've never had Korean food - in fact, I don't know anything about it.


I'm all for adoption - my Chinese relatives who couldn't have kids adopted a little girl - BUT when you are so unaware of the many issues that this person will have - being taken from a majority status in ethnicity (and minority in gender most of the time) to a double minority status amongst other things, it seems logical and appropriate to provide them with some type of support and education.

Jae Ran said...

As an adult who was adopted from Korea at age 3 to white parents who had no clue about parenting a child of a different race, while I am at least happy these newer a-parents know a little bit better, I cringe at the thought of trying to purchase "authenticity."

Like another poster said, who cares about the cheong sam. Stop shopping for authenticity and start living it.

but I could go on and on about transracial and transcultural adoption . . .

R2Dad said...

Where they grow up seems to be really important if the adoptee is to have any sense of who they are. Here in the Sunset (SF) there are 500+ square blocks of Asian homes and businesses, primarily Cantonese-speaking immigrants. My half-half kids as well as the Chinese adoptees we know have no choice but to interact with Chinese every day--on the bus, in school, in every store. While urban SF isn't for everyone,parents here have embraced this multiethnic community--why else would you live here, instead of the safer, cleaner, roomier and vanilla suburbs? the most enthusiastic white parents I've met are the ones who have kids attending Alice Fong Yu elementary, which is an immersion Cantonese/Mandarin school here.
Just like Gia-Gina's experience, my own boy loves interacting with Asian men (especially gong-gong), because he identifies himself as "Chinese-baby". The wife and I think it's a hoot, and normal and healthy behavior. I think in white middle-america it would be so much harder to raise a balanced and conifident adoptee kid without that Asian community interaction.

papa2hapa said...

As a Korean Adoptee to white parents I really dislike the idea of "authentic" asian culture.

One of the main problems I encountered growing up was that Asians and non-asians never considered me "Korean" or would say things like, "but you're not really Asian."

To me, being adoptee is authentic asian culture...and therefore we need to expand our definition of authenticity to include the adoptee identity.

If we don't, we'll continue to differentiate and we'll always treat adoptees as "different."

KristieD said...

My (white) anut adopted 3 kids from korea. One as a baby and the other 2(brothers) were 2 & 4 at the time of the adoption. (my aunt had tried for years and years to have children and was told she could not. 4 years after the final adoption she did get pregnant and also has 2 natural children) My cousins have had what they themselves consider to be a wonderful life and family. They are diverse and have been introduced to many cultures, not just the ones they owe their heritage to.

My only complaint about this is: What about Asians who arent from asia? And whose parents arent from asia? The ones who are completely immersed in the american society? Are they any more inclined to give an Asian perspective than their white/black neighbors?

maybe i am just ignorant. but my cousins seem to have adjusted just fine and are quite happy. And i am happy my aunt was able to adopt them and make them apart of our family.

daddy in a strange land said...

Got this from a fierce KAD sister blogger who shall remain nameless (but c'mon, y'all know) b/c of all the haters who piled on after she dared to post [gasp!] her own opinions and experiences on her own blog (esp. after the NYT article):

A couple of a-parents have a blog about their experience with this stated purpose:

"The purpose of this blog is to share our adoption experience and to provide our daughter with the background for her adoption. She will become an American citizen the day the plane lands in the US with her in our arms. We will keep her involved in the Chinese traditions-taking her to China from time-to-time to expose her to her native origins and to always be mindful of her personal identity."

Okay, fine. (I guess--not taking this thread's discussion of the problematics of "authenticity" into account, let alone the issue of Asian vs. Asian American experience and identity for transracial adoptees in white families and communities, but...okay.)

But the blog's title?

"Anna Our China Doll"

Um, yeah. No. No, really. No. No. Nononononononononononono.

Didi said...

I hope they don't name her Suzy.

Suzy would be better than "Jade", which is what our former neighbors named their adopted-from-China daughter.

What about Asians who arent from asia? And whose parents arent from asia? The ones who are completely immersed in the american society? Are they any more inclined to give an Asian perspective than their white/black neighbors?

By inclined do you mean entitled? If so, I absolutely think they are.

To me, it seems like the idea of asian assimilation - in the eyes of the average American - is the opposite of black assimilation. Most people see a black person and assume that their ancestors came here centuries ago and that they're "American" - it never occurs to them that the person could be Haitian or Dominican or Ethiopian or Nigerian, etc. With asians, the assumption goes the other way - they're automatically seen as an immigrant, even if they're fifth generation, and treated as an immigrant.

Poppa Large said...

"But the blog's title?

"Anna Our China Doll"

Does the blog also start playing David Bowie's "China Doll" when the page opens?

Oof again.

Poppa Large said...

How about "Chyna"?

Confession (I always was a little disappointed to discover that Chyna Phillips wasn't actually, you know, Chinese).

I also have to say that while I think being named "Asia" when you're actually Asian is a bit too literal, it's not a bad name on other people, like Asia Argento.

Poppa Large said...


I think you're confusing the issue here. As many people have noted, the idea of an "authentic" Asian or Chinese experience is a misnomer. Culture and identity are not fixed objects that can be picked up or worn or eaten, etc. So it's not that Asian American parents are more "authentically Asian" than other parents since the whole idea of being "authentically Asian" is more or less a myth to begin with. (On the other hand, I think one can easily identify things that are INauthentic but that's another topic for another time).

So, when you ask if Asian American parents - acculturated in America - are any more or less qualified to give "an Asian perspective" vs. non-Asians, I think this is the wrong question to ask.

The better question would be: are Asian Americans parents more likely to understand the kind of realities around race and ethnicity that an Asian child (whether biological or adopted) is likely going to face in America, ESPECIALLY as it pertains to being Asian in America?

By that token, I think Asian American parents who actually grew up in America (as oppossed to Asia) would be the most qualified - and therefore empathetic and supportive - to help their kids deal with the challenges of racial and ethnic identity in America because they went through it themselves. Asians who grew up in Asia may not have as well-tuned a perception of how race/ethnicity plays out in America.

That doesn't mean non-Asian parents can't be empathetic and supportive either. It's just that Asian American parents are more likely to be able to relate, I would think, based on their own childhood experiences.

Not to mention the other obvious point: Asian American parents who adopt Asian kids actually are more likely to look like their kids and I'd think this would matter to some degree.

In any case, just to reiterate - I don't have a problem, on general principle, with transracial adoption. My only concern is that non-Asian parents who adopt Asian kids (or really, non-white children in general) have to be attenuated to race and racism rather than being naive or ignorant about it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree on so many points. I think a lot of white people---particularly the ones who find themselves in the position of adopting asian children--have convinced themselves that there simply are no racial issues in the US anymore. Period. In their opinion, all that ended in the 60s. So why would they need to teach anything about race to their children? We got this reaction from some of our family when we adopted our children and talked about racism and wanting to move to an area that was more racially mixed or not being willing to live in certain areas that were all white.

I have come to accept that being adopted out of China ---while a great thing for my husband and I--may or may not always be viewed by my kids as a great thing and that even if they decide overall that it was a positive, there is still a loss for them. A non-asian parent can't give adopted asian kids authentic [whatever that means] Chinese culture but they can haul them to a real Chinese school, be there themselves and put themself in situations where they can try to make friends and relationships with people who are Asian, who are Chinese and who can help the kids with all that stuff. But doing that is not always easy, can be very hard and in many parts of the country, nigh on to impossible because the region just doesn't have any Asian people living there.

I feel for those kids being adopted now into all white parts of the country.

papa2hapa said...

I am from the group of KADs who didn't get access to "culture" camps or internet networks until our adult years.

I've been to many KAD conferences and met teenagers who come because their parents make them come. They begin to feel like objects on display.

One of the most asked question I get at these conferences is from white parents who approach me to ask "when should I tell my son/daughter about their adoption?"

This is one of those win/lose situations. If you constantly remind your child that they are adopted, send them to culture camps, make them dress or read or watch cultural things, then you risk alienating them from the core family and making them feel different.

If you never discuss it, or rarely discuss it, you run the risk of resentment later on in life when the child begins to ask why it was never addressed or why they never got to go to a culture camp, or why they can't speak their birth language.

I don't know...I also feel that many white parents who are rich have a feeling of "savior" for these children.

My issue of "saving" these kids from horrible conditions is complex. For one, China and Korea or huge economic successes. There really isn't poverty in South Korea which has become, I think, the 8th most productive country in the world.

So I wasn't necessarily "saved" from poverty.

The real issue is that both China and Korea truly frown upon single mothers, or mothers who have children out of wedlock. If we could change the attitude in Korea and China about that, then perhaps things would be better.

I also think that Hollywood's recent obsession, if you will, with transracial adoption scares me because of the sense of "entitlement" the stars give off with their ability to adopt easily. I don't know, but I sure hope they have to go through all the rigorous screenings that "average" citizens do in order to adopt.

peachboy said...

If white parents of adopted Asian babies need to actively seek new friendships with Asian Americans, shouldn't that alone be a red flag? We should establish a rule that white folks must have current positive references from at least twenty Asians before they can adopt one. If you haven't met one, you can't adopt one. (And, you're not qualified because you dated an Asian woman in college, white guys).

Robyn said...

Growing up in Hawai'i, I knew kids who were adopted from Korea but you wouldn't know until they told you--or someone else did, so i guess we knew it was significant somehow. Someone should do a study though, on adopted Koreans/Chinese who grow up in hawai'i, sf, etc. vs Iowa or whatever.

Also, another bad site parallel to the China Doll thing: Little Panda. Google it.

Poppa Large said...

"We should establish a rule that white folks must have current positive references from at least twenty Asians before they can adopt one."

I'm just trying to imagine what this would look like...

"So yeah, uh, Ashley and Seth are a pretty cool couple...for white people. I mean, I caught Seth using my computer to look at porn but it was just Suicide Girls, not any Asian stuff and Ashley always makes it a point to ask me for recipes when I cook Chinese food for them but she's not fetishizing the cuisine or anyting. Plus, she doesn't realize my kung pao recipe is from 'Cooks Illustrated' in any case.

papa2hapa said...

Does "Cooks Illustrated" also have a good recipe for bimbimbap?

And what does the centerfold look like in that book? I sure hope it doesn't sexualize bokchoy!

Hungry Jaye said...

Hi, I'm de-lurking here.
I'm also an adoptee from Korea and was in a family that was the polar opposite of these modern day a-parents who try to give their kids some education about their native culture. In my house, every single effort was made to isolate me away from anything Asian. It was a hard road to ride down, I was singled out for not being white but at the same time I wasn't allowed to identifiy with any part of Korea. I don't feel like an authentic Asian-American or even remotely Korean and I sure as hell am not white. It's good to see that a-parents are now addressing the issues of ethnic identity but it 's still very much in the early stages before a definitive handbook comes out.

I do have a huge bone to pick with those over-educated elitist mommy types when they say things like 'celebrating my child's birth culture' or over-intellectualize about ethnicity. I know it's a very complex subject but do they have to crow to the whole world about their child's history and how they're being raised? It's like they're expecting applause from both communitites. But how will the kids feel when they're older, knowing their adoptions were so publicized? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

"we could purchase a cheongsam for our daughter or other traditional dress? We want to be authentic as possible."

Ew. Ew. Ew. I want to go wash my eyes with bleach after reading that. Ew.

Ms. Novak said...

I very much agree with papa2hapa:

"To me, being adoptee is authentic asian culture...and therefore we need to expand our definition of authenticity to include the adoptee identity.

If we don't, we'll continue to differentiate and we'll always treat adoptees as "different.""

Lately I've been asking myself, "What is 'Asian-American' for adoptees?" For a while now I've never felt Asian enough to be considered an Asian-American. I wasn't raised in an Asian family, I didn't grow up in Asian culture, I don't face alot of the cultural conflicts that young people have with being Asian and American. For me, I've felt like I've been 'in the middle'; not Asian enough and not American enough to fully be considered either one. Talking with bi-racial friends, it was somewhat akin to their experiences of 'which one am I?'or 'which am I more of/like?'
As for the cheongsam and authenticity issue, yeah, the parents need to find better integration tools than dresses and restaurants. The kid won't appreciate it later; it puts an embarrassing spotlight on the child over something they didn't choose or volunteer.
Any other adoptees hate those adoption shows on TLC or Discovery Health? They infuriate me to no end.

papa2hapa said...

Eww. If you're going to use bleach, at least have some fresh scented Clorox. That'll make the mess somewhat pleasant.

About "authentic" and being caught in the middle.

I feel that as a whole community (asian, adoptees, adoptives, and non-asians) should think of adoptees as part of whatever culture they claim to be.

Since I'm genetically, blood linked to Korea, I am part of the Korean experience.

We don't consider any American who lives in Hong Kong, for example, for many years to be culturally Chinese. Even if they can speak a mean Mandarin, they would never be Chinese.

So why should I then be considered "American" (which is a totally non-sensical identity tag anyway) when I'm Korean.

My vote is for the quarter of a million Korean Adoptees to basically force Korea to accept the fact that adoptees living abroad is part of the Korean culture.

Oh, and I do hate those TLC adoption stories. I especially disliked the one mom who said, "Adoption was never a second option. It was a first choice."

I have weird feeling about her.

Poppa Large said...


I hear what you're saying but using genetic "blood-links" to constitute a connection to culture leads down the slippery slope to a lot of things, including eugenics and things like Hitler's Final Solution. I'm not even trying to be dramatic here: what links people through culture has nothing to do with genetics - it's about lived experiences.

I would disagree that someone who would be racialized as non-Asian couldn't be considered culturally Chinese if that's the environment they grew up in and are culturally fluent in (not just in terms of language but customs and sensibilities).

Furthermore, I'm not sure how "American" is a non-sensical identity tag but somehow, "Korean" is not. If anything, Koreans should be vitally aware of the ways in which their national identity has been shaped through geo-politics rather than solely genetics (on the latter note, genetically speaking, aren't Koreans just Chinese, a few generations removed?)

papa2hapa said...


I don't think I meant to indicate that genetics was my only link to Korea. That would be very much like eugenics and rationalize a sort of fanatical resistance to accepting anybody outside of blood relations as Korean.

My intention was to point out that in Korea, they tend to shun anyone who isn't culturally Korean. Yet at the same time they accept very warmly "white" Americans who make attempts at being Korean.

I know many adoptees who returned to Korea and said that they were treated worse than "whites" because of the expectations of all Koreans to be culturally Korean.

For example, if I didn't speak Korean properly to a taxi driver, I got verbally reprimanded, so most often I just tried to say it in English.

Of course, the worse thing I learned to say in Korean was "I don't speak Korean."

That only made the situation worse.

It was that kind of thing that made me well aware that Korean adoptees were not on the radar of most Koreans.

I think it is only now being addressed in Korea, but it's pretty ugly sometimes. Including people who hold up signs at KAD conferences that say "Stop Korean Adoption / You're stealing our children"

About American being a non-sensical identity tag...

I see your point. If I want Koreans to change their perception of "Korean identity" then I should be willing to accept that that too will be a "immigrant / Adoptee" culture just as America is.

Zoe said...

If you feel like being further horrified, check out the following site:
This guy justifies adopting transracially from China, as opposed to domestically, for reasons such as (and I quote): "It seems that alcoholism, drug abuse and antisocial behavior are all strongly hereditary. Having a kid is a crap shoot, genetically. We try instinctively to better our odds by choosing our mates. Given the prevalence of abortions here, most of the kids available for adoption in the US come with a greater-than-average risk of problems, in my opinion." In other words, potentially "high risk" kids don't deserve to be adopted? Ha, dare I warn this guy of problems of prostitution, heroin, and rising HIV rates in China? Later he talks about how parents have to be careful not to end up with a Chinese baby who's been "malnourished." Of course, who'd want to adopt a malnourished child--we should let them all starve as we adopt only the perfect, risk-free children. No flaws allowed.

There's lots to pick apart from that post, just go to the FAQ's but be forewarned that your blood pressure may rise.

On another note, regarding the comment that someone who is non-Chinese, even if s/he grew up in a Chinese environment, would never really be "Chinese"... I have a friend who is Caucasian, adopted by Chinese American parents. Her parents' jobs led them to move to HK, China, and Singapore, with my friend basically growing up in HK and China. Although her parents are American by citizenship, they spoke primarily Chinese to her and her brother (their bio son), sent their kids to local schools, and it was only for college that my friend came to the U.S. In spite of her race, culturally, she seems very "Chinese" to me (I myself am half Chinese), and in fact, this is the ethnicity with which she most identifies since she has no idea what her biological ethnicity is, and the only family she's even known happens to be entirely Chinese. She even speaks English with a slight Chinese accent and her Mandarin is something to be envied by even most Chinese. Of course, the one piece missing from the puzzle is that in the U.S., she's never treated like a Chinese American in terms of racial discrimination as she is assumed to be part of the majority, so she does enjoy a certain privilege that the rest of her family does not, though in Asia she's faced some prejudice, so she still has somewhat of an idea of what it's like to be viewed as an "outsider."

Of course, her situation is very rare. I don't know of any other cases where a non-Asian child has been raised by Asian parents in a predominately Asian environment.

thisislarry said...

I've had the weird guilty feeling before that these adopted asian kids would know their 'culture' better than my third generation chinese kids.

Here in Silicon Valley (as elsewhere I'm sure), you get lots of uber-parents who will go to the hilt to celebrate the cultures of their adopted kids. You also have very vibrant and authentic immigrant cultures (SF, Cupertino, etc etc) to tap into.

Compare that to me and my wife, typical 2nd generation assimilationists. In many ways I identify more with adoptive white parents than first generation asian parents. I've even browsed asian-adoption websites to look for resources for providing my kids some 'culture' -afraid that what I had to offer was more Californian than Chinese.

This conversation has made me feel alot better that my confusion is not unique, just one more viewpoint among many.

Poppa Large said...


Ah, ok - I hear what you're saying now. And yeah, Korean cultural nationalism is pretty hardcore (and short-sighted from the sound of it).


Just to reiterate: personally, my point was never around one's "cultural" identity. I'm not particularly culturally connected to China in terms of the practices and customs I grew up with. However, my identity in America is fundamentally shaped through my ethnicity and race and that wouldn't change regardless if I knew how to do a ribbon dance or not.

I think the point people have been trying to make here is that you can't substitute a sense of self and community simply by inundating your children (biological, adopted or otherwise) with sets of "authentic cultural experiences". It comes down to how healthy is one's sense of self in a racially diverse (and at times, divisive) society such as America's.

daddy in a strange land said...

Others have echoed this point, but I think that, more than transmitting some kind of "authentic" (whatever that means) "Asian Culture" to TRA kids, what gets overlooked by a lot of white a-parents is the idea of Asian-American identity and experience. What it means to be an American of Asian descent, part of that history, especially when raised in a white family and/or homogeneous community.

My wife and I have actually had not-quite-tongue-in-cheek conversations about befriending the white a-moms of transracially adopted Asian kids that we meet at the kiddie gym, purposely and purposefully so that there can be some other AsAm presence in their kids' lives. (Not because we want to "teach" them to be "Asian," whatever that means, because that's a fallacy, and yes, our half-joke is based on an assumption that may, hopefully, be wrong, about the diversity of their social circle--but this is Bakersfield, after all.)

R2Dad said...

My wife feels the same way. She is 2nd generation British of Chinese parents, but doesn't speak Mandarin--dropped it because of brutal racism growing up. But we have carved out a path to give our kids the opportunity to be as involved in the chinese community as they would like. fortunately we both love eating dim sum, so every sunday morning we're hoovering up har gow nearby
Props to her, since she continually has to deal with people who can't understand or don't approve of her not speaking. But she knows this is an important part of our kids education and hopefully identity, so she continues. I don't know that I could do that if I were in her shoes.
What works for us is building a routine around activities with chinese people--shopping, eating, haircuts, etc. I know she feels more comfortable around other asians--OK, except when she is lugging around the white dude--especially since she didn't have that opportunity growing up. That's what she likes about the US--she can be as british, american or chinese as she wants, at any time. the other side of the coin is, she'll never be accepted as fully chinese, british or american. From the stuff I've read, she sounds like a lot of people in here. This site is very helpful in allowing me to better understand her.

Brooklyn Mama said...

So true. My husband and I are white adoptive parents to our Chinese-born daughter, and we far more prioritize living in our diverse, largely Asian, neighborhood than dressing our kid up in "authentic" Chinese clothes, or attending "Culture Day." We're learning as we go, though, and trying to do right by our girl. And slapping her in a cheong sam every once in a while is just not going to cut it. Thanks for this discussion.

I do want to say, though - do you really think that the depiction of transracial adoption put across by Hollywood and the media is the reality of it? They're depicting the visibility of the phenomenon of international adoption, but in a hugely superficial and inaccurate way.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the comments. To learn about Chinese culture, and how Chinese Americans thrive in the U.S., how about making friends in the Asian American community?