Face to face: Can we speak up?

I was visiting with my brother and his family and we went out to a “Chinese” restaurant chain for lunch. As we were dealing with the quasi-Asian menu (Pad Thai in a Chinese restaurant?) a woman walked by with the child now in her care. The girl was from China, and the mother was wearing a “Chinese” silk jacket. I stared at her, and I felt compelled to tell her something, but I didn’t know what that might be, and I didn’t dare actually let something out of my mouth, for fear of what I might actually say.

This has happened a lot while I’ve been visiting in the States, and sometimes it is an older adopted child that I feel like speaking to. Are we allowed to speak in such instances? Why or why not? What might we say? Has anyone ever spoken up in such a situation?

9 thoughts on “Face to face: Can we speak up?

  1. I personally would never open myself up to such discussion if it weren’t solicited by others, as I would feel very vulnerable if the person was overly defensive. And if my discomfort was because I was doubtful and it raised critical red flags, it would be best for peace’s sake to ask questions in an effort to disprove my criticism, both to bite my tongue from getting me in trouble and also sincerely in an attempt to grow.

    But too often talking to adoptive parents my doubts turn out to be fears realized: That silk jacket really is a co-opted cultural artifact and costume that makes a gross caricature of what their child lost and is merely an exotic prize for them. Too often they don’t really want to hear my answers to the questions they ask, but merely want reassurance that their child will survive unscathed like (they hope) I appear to be. Or, they want to have a we-love-adoption love fest and tell me all about when “we” did this and “we” did that and…Once in awhile I am pleasantly surprised by adoptive parents, but that’s typically because those adoptive parents are reaching out to me for real input and not just validation, and that’s typically from the comfort of their homes at a safe distance via technology.

    I think the ironic part of this is that the few in-real-life conversations I have had are based upon racial matching and cultural profiling. THEY seek ME out. And I don’t generally advertise, “adoptee for consult” when I am out and about. It seems that in the color-blind world where they claim racism is disappearing that they make a bee-line for me because I clearly stick out like a sore thumb, like their little one does.

    I really don’t enjoy theses exchanges, feel used by them, and gain nothing from them. I guess I’d ask: Why in heaven’s name would you want to subject yourself to that?

  2. Forgot to address speaking to the older adopted child. Maybe if there was an opportunity without their parents hovering so the child could feel uncensored. But, otherwise I’d feel the child would have to limit themselves and it would be uncomfortable for them.

  3. At what point though is the woman in this example’s overt expression of her status as an adoptive parent a “voiced” action? I felt, as an emboldened adoptee, compelled to “answer”; to have my own voice “heard”. If we are not allowed to so respond, what does this say about this communication in the first place?

  4. I have to weigh in on this because for me its so complicated. My mom just wanted a baby in 1961 and I was the first available (for all kinds of systemic reasons). When I was four she and I went to Idaho Falls. In the bathroom of a restaurant a Native woman looked at me and looked at my mom and said, “That isn’t your baby. Give her back!” Mom answered, “She is too my baby.” What needs to be understood is Mom was an amazing woman, and tried as much as she could in late 20th century White middle class to provide me with a sense of self and pride in my ethnicity – it’s just that the rest of society worked just as ferociously to undo what she did. But to have her parenthood called out so viciously, I believe, was heartless. If I were in her shoes I wouldn’t want a complete stranger to tell me they disapproved of my seemingly inappropriate kinship. I believe the only way we can have our own voice heard is by making it available to be heard in a wide range of venues, but to step in, uninvited into someone’s life is not a place I would ever feel comfortable being.

    • Both these viewpoints seem valid to me. I think it’s a level of degree.

      For instance, the plethora of saved, chosen, born in my heart, etc. t-shirts out there are purposely put in people’s faces to purportedly challenge public opinion but really seem to me to be fishing for validation. I’m not sure co-opted traditional costume is much better. They all turn the child into a poster child for adoption, so I can understand wanting to rush to the child’s defense for that. But because such practices border on zealot-level conviction that drowns out critical thinking and civil debate, one might get a black eye if one were to challenge them back. I think it’s a matter of personal economics. We adult adoptees are cursed with having to forever be educators, and so we have to weigh the black eyes with the rewards or burn out.

      I might instead comment on what a lovely silk jacket that is, and ask many detailed questions about its craftsmanship, origins, traditional use, cultural significance, how prevalent it is in modern culture, etc. I bet a lot of people would fail in due course. One can make a person realize they are wearing a costume without blatantly ridiculing them. We can plant seeds.

      Last week I lectured at a university in Korea and, upon showing them images of Korean children at culture camps, I got a big chuckle from the students when I told them that the adoptees probably wore hanbok (traditional Korean attire) more than they do. They laughed because they hate to wear hanbok, it’s very expensive, and they hardly ever do…

      At the same time, I feel adoptive parents are people too (poster-child creating, t-shirt wearing ones notwithstanding) who meant well and they shouldn’t be abused due to reverse racism. It doesn’t sound like your mom was one of those parents flaunting their act of so-called selflessness, but instread there is always that racial difference that just can’t be hidden, and it’s not right to flog somebody unrelentlessly for the something they can no longer correct. I also feel horrible for all the adoptees who get strangers cooing in our faces about how lucky they are while the parents bask, so an adult adoptee calling out their parents on cultural appropriation might be jarring but also might be a thought-provoking incident as they may be very sheltered in a world where only ponies and rainbow talk about adoption exists which may not jive with their conflicted internal dialog. We all just need to be sensitive is all.

  5. I was at a community dinner at a church hall three years ago and sat next to a man who had (I think) three adopted children. They were TRA’s. I don’t recall if I knew when I sat down. I said to him, “I’m a transracial adoptee, too.” And we spoke for a time. I thought he might be interested to think about his children growing up and becoming adults. I asked the children about where they came from and told them I was adopted. The children were probably in grade school, if I remember correctly.

    I have wondered what to say sometimes, but situations vary. I was hiking with my sons and grandson and came upon another TRA adoptee family. And I thought again about talking to them but chose not to. There was nothing really to say. I often feel like I want to reach out to the adoptee to let them know that there are many of us TRAs – and that we do manage to grow up and that you are not so alone.

  6. These responses are much appreciated; my luck with this kind of thing has usually been jarring and disturbing, for example a discussion with a woman about the girl in her care who was from Kazakhstan. I broached the subject of our (often) trafficking, and she replied: “Oh, of course I paid for my daughter!” Perhaps things are different in Beirut, where ex-pats also have no problem taking on domestic servants (a.k.a. slaves), and so the cultural barriers to such discussion are perhaps not as existent as in the States.

    But this reveals to me what is lurking behind the discussion that is more formally controlled State-side. I’m still intrigued by the allowance we make for what I would also describe as a form of zealotry, the “in-your-face” AP who has no problem advertising the status of the children in his or her care. I should also say that my impulse was not to challenge the woman I met in the restaurant, but to tell her how sad it made me to see how she was treating (mistreating) the child temporarily in her care. I wanted to say something like, “we are not geegaws; we are not cultural markers for you to take on as your own; we are voids and ciphers, and it’s not fair what you are doing.”

    • Well, I did have an interesting experience a few years ago. I met a man who was the father of three TRA girls, and he was heading a support group for TRA parents to discuss issues of parenting. I, as an American Indian, to present my experiences as a TRA, and he didn’t just turn me down, he quickly turned me down, saying something to the effect of, “We already have plenty of information regarding our internationally adopted children.” I didn’t mention I wasn’t presenting on parenting information, I was presenting on adoptee information, but it was definitely a threatening experience for him. I felt sorry for his girls; I imagine they experienced what he wanted them to experience, and was threatened by anything else.

  7. We get foster kids or kids from RTCs, group homes and shelter homes at the clinic i work in. I usually mention to them that i grew up in foster care and was also in group homes and RTCs just like they are now…i think it is important for them to see they are not alone and that they will grow up and that their childhood status will not be tattooed on their foreheads. I tell them that it was hard, that it still makes me sad sometimes to think about it. But that we can all grow up and chose to treat ourselves better than we were treated by the system. I kind of feel like it is an unofficial duty as an alumni.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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