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Joy and Surprises from Abroad

Assimilation and Transracial International Adoption

By Adam Pertman, Author of Adoption Nation

This article examines the relationship between assimilation and international transracial adoption. Assimililation works both ways for international adoptive families.

It's no accident that Americans adopt more children internationally than do the inhabitants of the rest of the planet combined. After all, nearly every one of us came to this extraordinary country from somewhere else. We don't always find it easy to accept new waves of immigrants, but we invariably succeed in weaving their facial structures, their skin tones, and their heritage into our cultural tapestry. Throughout its history, this nation has opened its doors to people who, for more reasons than anyone can count, have needed new homes. It has taken us in, given us new lives. Adopted us.

What it has not done is force us to severe our emotional, spiritual, or physical ties to our forebears or our ancestral lands. Rather, one of the genuinely noble, enriching aspects of the American sensibility - notwithstanding the intolerance of some narrow-minded people and political movements - is its celebration of people's connections to their past. We marvel at the beauty of an African-print dress, revel in the music at a Latino festival or an Irish step dance, savor the delights of Asian restaurant, incorporate the expressive words of other languages into our own.

In many essential ways, adoption is a metaphor for the society in which it is coming of age, and in which it plays an increasingly active and visible role. More and more of the parallels are revealing themselves as the domestic branch of the institution emerges from the shadows, but they have been evident for half a century to anyone who has paid attention to or participated in the adoption of children from overseas.

"I have Korean friends now who used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make their eyes bigger and rounder, or wore blond wigs or even dyed their hair blond. Ridiculous things like that. My way of dealing with it was not look in the mirror much, I guess because I knew I wouldn't like what I saw," says Crystal Lee Hyun Joo Chappell, whose white adoptive parents raised her and three other Korean children in the small town of Dimondale, Michigan, starting in the 1960's. Apart from her siblings, Crystal was the lone Korean in her elementary school; her parents' friends were white, as were their neighbors, their friends, the shoppers at their local stores. An the adoption agency had counseled her parents not to dwell on their children's past, but to immerse them in their new realities so they would "assimilate" quickly and thoroughly.

As is still the case in many adoptions by Caucasian parents of children from other races and cultures, whether born in the United States or in other nations, the absorption process sometimes works too well. "I was brought up 110 percent American," says Hyun Joo, who has used the first name given to her at birth, along with their adoptive last name, since reuniting with her biological mother in Korea several years ago. Asked what it meant to be "110 percent American," she replies: "I really thought I was white."

So she was unprepared, even shocked, when some older boys pummeled her with profanities and racial slurs on the school bus during her sixth-grade year. The little kids in the supermarket were even more cruel: They just stared. "There were constant reminders of who I was and what I really looked like, but I learned to ignore them, deny them, pretend they weren't there. It was a matter of self-preservation, I guess. But it was pretty horrible to see an infant surprised by your face, looking at you like you're an alien. You can't fault a baby because a baby's so innocent, but at the same time you feel inhuman."

The notion of coming from another planet permeates the self-descriptions of adoptees of all types and ages, most pointedly those who feel disconnected from their personal histories. That doesn't mean, as a group, that they yearn for one specific piece of their puzzle - though most want basic data about their birth parents, at a minimum, at some point in their lives. But a lopsided majority, including those who profess little interest in their genealogies will say they feel more grounded and secure when their adoptive parents infuse their upbringings with the cultures from which they came, routinely give them information about their backgrounds, and when physical differences are apparent, expose them to other people who look like them.

Some studies, and some adoptees themselves, suggest that their inner turmoil -especially if they are deprived of background information - can lead to behavioral or ego problems . Most research, however, indicates they grow up with the same kinds of formative issues, and achieve at the same levels, as their counterparts raised in birth families. Adoption doesn't typically define adoptees' day-to-day existence, but it can play an important role in how they perceive themselves at various stages of their lives. To the extent that parents can help their children form positive self-images, give them the resources and support to feel like earthlings simply seems like the right thing to do, even when it might be emotionally or logistically difficult to accomplish.

Prospective parents who adopt from other nations regularly receive such guidance today. Indeed, because the majority of intercountry adoptions involve social workers and other specialists employed by agencies - people educated to understand these issues as opposed to private practitioners or untrained individuals, not matter how competent, making their own arrangements - the integration of other nations' customs and histories into American families, into our social fabric, is progressing rapidly.


Originally published in Adoption Nation. Reprinted by permission of Adam Pertman. All rights reserved.


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