dispensing with the soft focus in adoption stories
October 11, 2018 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Why do you think we are asked to lean so hard into this fantasy of everyone being the same, deep down? Nicole Chung (formerly of the Toast; previously) in conversation with Mira Jacob (previously) about Chung's new memoir All You Can Ever Know.

“Adoption narratives, historically, really have not focused on adoptees. We’ve so rarely gotten to tell our own stories. I think that’s changing, but I also think there are some people out there who feel a little threatened when we do speak up—particularly if we’re adoptees of color, talking about race and complicating the straightforward, simple adoption narrative people are used to”.

Related: Catapult, where Chung is an editor, has published a growing roundup of stories and essays by adults who were adopted as children. They’re framed in very different ways—a few of them are about international adoption, one is by a woman who was adopted by her grandmother, etc.—but most of them are about figuring out complex relationships with birth families. The series; Chung's introduction to it.
posted by miles per flower (11 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
All You Can Ever Know was really excellent. I felt a little frisson of pride reading the acknowledgments at the end of the book - Nicole thanks toasties everywhere. I miss the Toast desperately, but I am so happy to see the Toast folks continue on amazingly.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:08 PM on October 11, 2018 [7 favorites]

I absolutely devoured this book last week and I'm so glad to see her getting attention on the blue. I went to it after her contribution to the series of adoption articles on the Toast, thinking that it might just be a rehash. It wasn't, and it was really great. Her writing really helped me to clarify my own feelings on the topic, which can feel difficult to explain to people not in similar situations.
posted by montag2k at 9:41 PM on October 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

My family is a mixed international adoption family - white American parents, three adoptions from Colombia and South Korea, and two natural-borns. I'm in that last group. Growing up we had neighbors and family friends who were also transracial adoptees. My cousin was adopted from Guatemala. I grew up surrounded by all of this every day.

All I can say is that it's complicated. None of my brothers and sisters ever wanted to attempt to reconnect with their birth families. In contrast there's the cousin, who is in close contact with his birth family (mother, brother, uncles, etc) on a regular basis. One of my adoptee friends went on a journey to track down his birth family, was unable to locate them, and instead found solace in making connections in the town in which he was born.

Identity never came easily to any of us in our large atypical family. We all grew up in an environment that encouraged each of us to define ourselves, with little judgement and lots of support for our choices. In that respect, I have to give huge thanks to my mom and dad.
posted by Enkidude at 11:56 PM on October 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

My family is a mixed international adoption family - white American parents, three adoptions from Colombia and South Korea, and two natural-borns...

All I can say is that it's complicated. None of my brothers and sisters ever wanted to attempt to reconnect with their birth families.

I have a similar set of cousins; my aunt and uncle had one biological child and one child they adopted from South Korea. Their adopted daughter never expressed an interest in her biological roots (not to them, anyway).

Of course I can't know because I've never been in that position myself, but I imagine the availability of modern genetic counseling relieves some anxiety when the medical history of biological parents is unavailable.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:07 AM on October 12, 2018

As an adoptee I will add, people in our adoptive families often speak for us that we have no interest and I will say that even when adoptees say that (been there, said that, to my adoptive family members), it can be even more complicated than the complicated non adoptees see looking in. Even as someone who speaks out about adoption, I am very protective of my own adoptive parents to the point I will avoid getting together with my biological family so as not to hurt them even though I need and love them and it literally pains me to see the years go by and missed get togethers with them.

And this is even though my adoptive parents are very supportive of reunion and I say on paper that I am too. Adoption is an act of telling adoptees their biological family is not needed. The whole system agreed that. To challenge that even internally is to face a well of emotions for everyone impacted in adoption that is very hard to face and it's much easier to just stick with the story you're supposed to live. I have no doubt that for many adoptees it never matters to them at all, the way they are supposed to feel. I also know that many of us who feel deeply about it spent years saying we didn't care when on reflection, we did. I know others who didn't care for a long time and them something kicked in whether when having children and realizing what birth really means and how much bonding happens before birth- or whether when an adoptive parent dies and there becomes less fear of hurting adoptive parents and room to allow yourself to feel your own emotions...

The story that we don't care, can change for a lot of us.
posted by xarnop at 6:35 AM on October 12, 2018 [18 favorites]

This week's Code Switch features Chung and other transracial/ transnational adoptees. Definitely worth a listen.
posted by Think_Long at 6:37 AM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

My sister for example never wanted to search, she called our mother her "egg donor" and said she had no emotions about it end of story. Then after she got my letter in her mid 20's when I had searched for her for years, and I had tried to learn Lakota in case she was raised on the reservation (I got mostly nowhere with that) and called people on the reservation about her birthdate... I finally found a way to reach her. And she decided she wanted to meet me, and she realized buried in the ambivalence was not just a passive lack of interest but an ANGER. When it was me she thought about instead of the woman who made poor decisions and then did the right thing by getting as far away from her own child as possible because she didn't deserve her own children- the judgements fell apart. The impetus to actively NOT CARE- weren't there as much and we have had a beautiful relationship and she has found that she even cares a great deal about connecting with our mother despite still having complicated feelings of anger, judgements, and distancing or "not caring".

She might never have reached out to us if I hadn't sent that letter, and I might never have known her. And she might have gone on saying she just didn't care her whole life.

And we are so much alike it's surreal. We're different too, but the amount of things we talk about and just understand when I often find it so hard to meet others... it's … it's amazing.
posted by xarnop at 6:44 AM on October 12, 2018 [17 favorites]

xarnop, I appreciate the way you've spoken about reunion.

After another reunion post here on metafilter, I reached out to my bio-half-brother on facebook. We've followed one another for 3 years but never exchanged more than a passing greeting. It's been an interesting window into his life. He clearly has a very loving family who adore him, a happy marriage, a good life. He's in touch with his birth mother. He looks . . . remarkably like my father (and my dad's genes seem to be very strong; all three of his biological children do despite the fact that our mothers have completely different coloring). My dad died when I was a kid; I didn't learn about my brother's existence until well after he died, and had my sister not let the news slip one day when we were watching an adoptee reunion episode of Jerry Springer, I'm not sure I ever would have. Still, my reaction wasn't one of surprise but . . . odd completion, even for a ten year old. Like it answered a question I didn't know I was asking.

My mom did a lot to cut us off from my dad's family and it's only been in the aftermath of taking space from her that I've been able to reconnect with some of them, a few of my cousins who I'd never before met. It's just been interesting, informative, surreal, weird. Odd little genetic quirks. The puns we make, the way we talk, the fact that we have third nipples and sacral dimples and tails (!). ADHD and ambition and being extreme night owls who are happy chatting over dinner until well into the evening. And learning health and history info too, like that our father likely had a genetic form of lung cancer and not COPD like we'd been led to believe, and that he'd moved cross country with his teenage girlfriend when she was pregnant with plans to marry her (not the story my mother told us). It's all made me think of my brother, of course. I just wish . . . we could chat a little, have a beer sometime. Trade stories. I wonder what he was like as a kid.

But he hasn't answered my facebook message and may not. I knew that going in, but there's still grief attached. he's 20 years my senior, reached out to family before I knew he existed. I have no idea what they told them (and they are all pretty intense). He exchanged a few letters with my sister when I was still a child, but eventually that faded. I suspect he found what he was looking for. I hope he did.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:46 AM on October 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's horrifying how so many white people are so deeply into denial of white privilege that they'll hurt their children by refusing to even discuss race with them. I think you could make a very good case against transracial adoption on that ground alone, I wouldn't really agree with it fully but you could definitely make a good case.

I'm sure her parents were well meaning, but it seems like child abuse, or at least child neglect, to raise a person of color and not equip them with the necessary social understandings and methods to deal with the racism they will inevitably encounter. I suppose they simply could not bring themselves to ever examine their own racial biases, and therefore were incapable of even admitting the racial biases of their community, friends, and nation.

For my own (adopted) child it's easier simply because while I am white, my partner is black, so addressing the racism our son will face has always been a fact of life. She has the lived experience of a woman of color and so of course tries to raise our son with the necessary mental equipment to navigate a deeply racist society. And I do my best to help, despite not having the lived experience of a person of color.

I'm glad she's writing, and I hope it helps others in her situation. And perhaps helps white people engaging in transracial adoption to understand that you cannot give white privilege to a child of color by pretending they're white.
posted by sotonohito at 9:51 AM on October 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Transracial infant adoptee here; upper 30s now.

I've got almost no interest in reconnection or reunion (such a loaded choice of words...) w/ birth parents. Not opposed, either – but no real desire. I don't see what I'd get out of it. Or what anybody else would get out of it. It seems ... large risk, small reward. And there's no (actual) connection between me and birth family.

Regarding my adoptive family? I've got a pretty simple and straightforward relationship. Neither better nor worse than most people I know.

I will concede, however, that I searched for (and found) my birth mother on Facebook (before quitting Facebook due to unrelated concerns). I thought of emailing her, but ... 'Hey, you birthed me and gave me up N years ago' isn't a compelling thing to write. And ... she could write me just as easily.

A lot of non-adoptee friends/family are weirdly, pruriently interested in whether or not I want to meet with my 'real' / birth parents. A lot of them have communicated that they sincerely believe in a biological-emotional bond between parent and child. They're more than happy to chalk-up any issues I have with my adoptive family to 'not being their REAL kid' although very, very few would dare to own up to it.

I HATE this attitude. The fact is, I can't easily talk about adoption with many non-adoptees at all. For the most part, they can't understand that my adoptive (American) family IS my family. That the 'yeah, but aren't you curious?' or 'don't you think you owe it to your birth mom' questions are invalidating to my personal experience and ignorantly undercut all of structures of family bonds. I'm probably not able to express it well, but there's a way in which (non) adoptees frequently reveal that they think my family experience/connection is *lesser* or somehow a facsimile of their own 'authentic' biological experience. It's gross and demeaning. I try to be patient, but it's hard.
posted by mr. remy at 11:31 AM on October 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

I eventually met my birth mother -- she even came to my college graduation -- and it was, you know, fine. She's a nice enough lady. But throughout the whole thing I sort of got the sense that everybody else was way more invested in the whole thing than I was.

And even she seemed, to the extent that I could read somebody I met twice in my entire life, to be at least a little ambivalent about the whole thing. Not in a dismissive or neglectful way, but I mean this was a decision she made twenty-some years ago at the time coming back to her long after she'd moved on and established an entirely new life. (The oldest of my half-siblings was close to finishing high school at the time.)

The experience didn't harm me in any way, so I can't honestly say that I wish I could go back and undo it or whatever... But, yeah, it really does seem like non-adoptees are most of the time way more invested in the whole kid-bioparent relationship than anyone actually in it. They just really want some kind of tearful reunion narrative to play out, I guess, but it just wasn't like that for me, and I suspect it's probably not like that for most people who do it.

(The transracial adoption thing is pretty fucked up, though. I get it, it sounds like it's a good thing because you're transferring your white-person wealth to a person of colour, but it's fucked up in so many other ways. Not only, as sotonohito says, is the kid not going to be prepared for how to live in the world as a person of colour, they're also getting cut off from their original culture and history, especially if we're talking about transnational adoption.)
posted by tobascodagama at 2:18 PM on October 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

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