by Catherine Ceniza Choy
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following piece was presented at an invited talk for the Library of Congress sponsored by the Library’s Asian American Association on November 21, 2013. The event also marked the launch of the author’s book, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (NYU Press, 2013).
Good afternoon. It’s an honor to be invited to give this talk at the Library of Congress. I thank the Asian American Association of the Library of Congress, especially Wendi Maloney, for organizing this talk. And I’m grateful to all of you for being here.
I want to share with you today a range of stories about my new book, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (NYU Press, 2013), stories about how I (an Asian American historian who is not an adoptee nor an adoptive parent) came to the project, stories about the book’s institutional archival methodology and how it helped me see a different narrative about the history of Asian international adoption in the United States, and stories about the centrality of race in this history.
The introduction of my book begins with a story about an experience I had while living in Minnesota about twelve years ago.
I was finishing my lunch, about to get my one-year-old daughter ready to visit another part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and I was taken off guard by a question posed to me by a woman who I did not know. She asked me: “Where did your little girl come from?” Judging by the woman’s age—early- to mid-60s—I doubted she needed a lesson on sex and reproduction. Thus, I thought I had been asked a variation of the question that has been posed to virtually every Asian in the United States, whether they be newly arrived immigrants or fourth generation Americans: “Where are you from?” This is a question for which New York City, the place of my birth, is not the right answer. “My family is originally from the Philippines,” I explained. “My daughter is a third-generation Filipino American as well as a fourth-generation Korean and Chinese American on her father’s side.”
When the woman drew a blank look, it struck me that I had completely misinterpreted her question. She wanted to know from where in Asia I had adopted my daughter. She explained that her daughter had recently adopted a baby girl from China.
International adoption from Asia has transformed the racial and ethnic landscape of the heartland of America to the point where—as in the situation I just described—it has become a social norm. According to a 2009 local news story, more than 13,000 Korean adoptees live in Minnesota, the largest number of Korean adoptees in any one place in the world. In the Twin Cities, the phenomenon of Asian international adoption is especially visible because of its predominantly transracial nature, with primarily white parents adopting Asian children. During one visit with my daughter to our neighborhood playground, I observed that I was the only parent of an Asian child who was not white.
Asian international adoption in America is not solely a regional phenomenon, however. It has contributed to the transformation of the United States into an international adoption nation. The United States is the top recipient of internationally adopted children in the world. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, international adoptions in the United States have more than doubled between 1991 and 2001. In the new millennium, Russia, Guatemala, Romania, and Ukraine are top sending countries of adoptive children to the United States. However, Asian children have comprised the majority of children internationally adopted by U.S. citizens. Between 1971 and 2001, U.S. citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries; 156,491 of those children were from Asian countries.
Asian international adoption has also made a mark on our national culture. It has become a powerful way to imagine contemporary U.S. multiculturalism because it shapes one of the most intimate, emotionally-laden, and cherished institutions: the family. The publicity about celebrities adopting internationally has made the American public highly aware of the possibility of families becoming transracial. For example, the omnipresent publicity of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s “world’s most beautiful” family—formed through the international adoptions of a Cambodian boy, an Ethiopian girl, and a Vietnamese boy in addition to their three biological children–has contributed to a popular perception of international and transracial adoption as a socially acceptable, if not desirable, way to create a family.
A darker, more problematic side of international and transracial adoption of Asian children lurks alongside these celebratory narratives. The specter of American racism and nativism towards Asians haunts the joyous imagery of these adoptive families. In Sex and the City, Charlotte York’s desire to adopt a Chinese baby is met with her mother-in-law’s disapproval of having a Chinese member in their MacDougal clan. “Me no like Mandarin baby,” the mother-in-law succinctly explains. And while this specific example of popular culture might be easily dismissed as a dark, humorous vestige of an American racist past in contrast to its post-racial present, since the late 1990s a growing body of memoirs, documentary films, and anthologies by Korean American adoptees who have come of age underscore the theme of their numerous mundane encounters with American racism.
These works remind us that the historical legacies of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States–codified for example in U.S. immigration legislation, which targeted Asians for exclusion during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, and anti-miscegenation laws in fourteen states that prohibited interracial sex and marriage between Asians and whites until the U.S. Supreme Court made such laws unconstitutional in 1967—persist in more recent times.
The increasing popularity, since the 1960s, of the seemingly positive stereotype of Asian Americans as “model minorities” in relation to negative stereotypes of African Americans adds an additional layer of complexity regarding how race informs the phenomenon of Asian international adoption. Although positive and negative stereotypes of these communities are dehumanizing and dangerous, they have influenced both international and domestic adoption in the United States. Some scholars have argued that these stereotypes undergird a racial preference for Asian children over African American children.
Furthermore, the decreasing supply of white babies in the United States in the late twentieth century—a result of the creation of the birth control pill, the legalization of abortion, and the increasing social legitimacy of single parenting—contributes to the commodification of Asian children for an international adoption market. Several scholars have strongly criticized international adoption by documenting and highlighting a global market that transports babies from poorer to richer nations, likening it to a form of forced migration and human trafficking. Thus, Asian international adoption is simultaneously highly celebrated and deeply controversial.
But these international and transracial sensibilities about family making, and the heated debates that they generate, are not as new as they seem. They have a history.
My book Global Families explores the historical origins of this highly visible and growing phenomenon of international adoption from Asia. This study seeks to move beyond one-dimensional portrayals of Asian international adoption as a progressive form of U.S. multiculturalism on the one hand or as an exploitative form of cultural and economic imperialism on the other. Rather its major objective is to move towards a nuanced, complex understanding of its history as a history of race, foreign relations, immigration, and labor as well as intimacy.
This study was primarily inspired by the six and a half years I spent living and teaching in Minnesota—first, accompanying my husband Greg when he taught at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and then working as an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota—in the late 1990s and first few years of the new millennium. Gustavus Adolphus College and the U of M had hired us primarily on the basis of our professional expertise in Asian American Studies, a relatively young interdisciplinary scholarly field created out of social protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s, that emphasizes the study of the history, artistic expressions, and contemporary concerns of Asians in the United States. Neither Greg nor I are part of families in which adoption has played a major role. However, we were immediately struck by the presence of Korean American adoptees in our undergraduate classes. They sought to learn more about their personal histories in a larger socio-historical context through Asian American Studies. However, in the late 1990s, little research had been conducted by and about Asian international adoption in the context of the field. Most of the scholarly studies on Asian international adoptees in the United States were psychological and medical studies that focused on the adjustment of the adoptees. These were important, pioneering studies, but they also framed international adoption as a problem to be rectified rather than as a dynamic phenomenon to be studied on its own terms. In addition to the desire to conduct a groundbreaking study in Asian American Studies, I was also moved to undertake a study of Asian international adoption because of the Asian American Studies commitment to create knowledge that is relevant to the Asian American communities in which we live and serve. While a resident of Minnesota and a professor at the U of M, I recognized Asian American adoptees as important members of that community.
I am also a trained historian and, upon embarking on a study of Asian international adoption in the United States, I learned that the University of Minnesota housed the records of the International Social Service-United States of America Branch (ISS-USA) in its Social Welfare History Archives. Organizational records and in-depth oral interviews have been vital resources for recent historical and ethnographic studies of U.S. domestic adoption, adoption in the Americas, and Korean international adoption. Global Families complements these works through its close reading of ISS-USA organizational records, and its analysis of ISS-USA adoption work in Japan and Hong Kong as well as Korea.
The ISS-USA records were a gold mine in many ways. The scope of the collection was large. An especially rich feature of these records was its correspondence about adoption, both that concerning programs and services that the ISS offered, and that between ISS-USA and prospective adoptive parents, independent adoption agencies, state social service agencies, and ISS branches in other countries. Taken together, these records enable us to see the key role that an international social service agency, local social workers, independent adoption agencies, humanitarian organizations, and individual adoption advocates from many different walks of life played in this history. These interactions were not always cooperative. Indeed conflict over how international adoption should be facilitated was a major theme of the correspondence.
Interestingly, the historical origins of the ISS-USA were not rooted in the world of adoption. Rather, its early history was linked to the growing social awareness of family problems related to international migration more broadly. Early-twentieth-century problems that plagued family members who were separated by national borders and at times vast distances led to the creation of an international, independent, and nonsectarian organization in 1924 that could coordinate social welfare casework across national boundaries. Initially called the International Migration Service, the organization changed its name in 1946 to the International Social Service to reflect the breadth of its casework. Although such casework was varied, by the late 1950s, casework related to international adoption constituted the major activity of the ISS.
In contrast to the more well-known divine mission of Oregon farmer Harry Holt and his Holt Adoption Program to save Korean war orphans through adoption by born-again Christians in the United States and the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck who founded the international and interracial adoption agency Welcome House, the records reveal that ISS social workers expressed ambivalence as well as advocacy regarding the phenomenon of Asian international and transracial adoption. During the formative Cold War period of Asian international adoption, the ISS concluded that international and transracial adoption was a viable, indeed a beneficial, form of making a family. Yet, its official publications also strongly noted that it could also work against the best interests of the children—even wreaking havoc on their personal development, the lives of their birth and adoptive families, and the effectiveness of social welfare work in Asia and America—if not handled professionally and ethically. As a result of studying these records, I was able to glean the complexity of international and transracial adoption, its radical and progressive possibilities of a world profoundly united across national, cultural, and racial divides through family formation, but also its strong potential for reifying the very national, cultural, and racial hierarchies it sought to challenge.
My premise is that the history of Asian international adoption is best understood as a unique, but also increasingly normative type of family formation in our self-consciously global age. It is one important form of what I call “global family making.” I define “global family making” as the process involving the decisions made and actions taken by people who create and sustain a family by consciously crossing national and often racial borders. The history of international adoption speaks to the way in which family formation needs to be understood on a global social, political, and economic scale, and not solely a personal or local one. I hope that the concept of global family making connects the seemingly uncommon world of adoption to the broader forces of international migration that bind so many of us.
In the 1950s and 60s, the ISS-USA’s emphases on the many different needs of families (not solely adoption) and nations (not solely the United States) produced a more critical perspective on international adoption than the two other major organizations involved in Asian international adoption in the mid-twentieth century, the Holt Adoption Program and Pearl S. Buck’s Welcome House. Rather, ISS-USA workers were invested in the “best interest” of the child, which signified increased social services in the birth country as well as adoption in the United States. As a result, the ISS-USA produced a different kind of practice and conversation about international adoption that went beyond humanitarian rescue efforts. Their story was not as popular as Holt’s and Buck’s in large part because it rejected celebratory narratives about the largesse of American Christian and liberal families, and criticized the actions of potential adoptive parents and lay adoption workers. By contrast, the ISS-USA engaged in complex questions and concerns about the social, political, and economic inequalities that created and reproduced international adoption. It also anticipated the problems of racial alienation and racism in international, transracial adoption in the United States.
The life history of ISS-USA Assistant Director Susan T. Pettiss is amazing. A recent tribute to her life’s work (Pettiss passed away in 2006) illuminated the breadth of her social service work for children and refugees. After leaving an unhappy and abusive marriage, she embarked on a pioneering career in social work. Pettiss traveled to Berlin soon after Germany’s surrender in World War II to help concentration camp survivors find lost relatives. Upon her return to the United States, she located sponsors for refugees from Latvia, Poland and Lithuania. She then worked in Shanghai to help Russian and Jewish refugees after the Communist Revolution and later in Vietnam on behalf of Amerasian children. She was an advocate for black freedom in the United States and a critic of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.
Race and Rescue in Early Asian International Adoption History
Beginning in the 1950s, American families began adopting children of different racial backgrounds from countries abroad in significant numbers. These pioneers of global family-making adopted Japanese and Korean war orphans and Korean “mascots.” However, mixed-race Asian and American children in these countries soon captured the hearts and minds of the American public and became a focal point for the work of international non-governmental organizations such as the International Social Service (ISS).
Post-World War II U.S. occupation of Japan (1945-1952) and U.S. Cold War involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) created a population of mixed-race children of American servicemen and Japanese and Korean women. Japanese and Korean societies rejected these children as “improper” children because many of them were conceived outside of wedlock, they looked physically different, and even more importantly they embodied the unequal political relationship between occupied and occupying nations. Although an American military presence in Japan and Korea was responsible for these children’s births, the U.S. government bore no official responsibility for the children’s or their mothers’ welfare. Non-governmental organizations and concerned individuals stepped in to provide some relief to the children and their mothers. Separate orphanages for mixed-race children in Japan, such as the Elizabeth Saunders home in Oiso and Our Lady of Lourdes Baby Home in Yokohama, and special wings of orphanages in Korea, such as the Choong Hyun Baby Home near Seoul, offered better care for these children. Thus, international adoption and humanitarian rescue were inextricably linked during this time period.
Television helped publicize the solution of international adoption and the work of the ISS-USA in this area to the American public. In 1957, the Armstrong Circle Theatre, one of the longest-running anthology series in television history, presented an episode entitled “Have Jacket, Will Travel.” Written by postwar American novelist Vance Bourjaily, who served as an Army infantryman in Japan during World War II, “Have Jacket, Will Travel” featured three stories of international adoption coordinated by ISS-USA’s adoption division, WAIF.
One of the stories features Sergeant Walter and Harriet Duff, a handsome couple in their mid- to late-twenties, who are stationed in Osaka, Japan. They have been married for five years, but are childless. Walter encourages Harriet to consider adopting a mixed-race Korean and American child from Korea by highlighting the U.S. military’s accountability: “We’re responsible for these kids in Korea. They’re the sons and daughters of GIs like me.”
During a visit to Korea, Walter meets Kim, a five-year-old mixed-race Korean and American boy. Television viewers learn that although there are orphanages in Korea, the problem is more pressing for those of mixed heritage. This dramatization of the tragedy of mixed-race Asian and American children echoed the story of their critical situation that had been publicized in print media. By presenting adoption by Sergeant Walter Duff and his wife Harriet as the only solution for Kim’s tragic situation, “Have Jacket, Will Travel” pulled on viewers’ heartstrings and continued this line of thinking.
However, the second important and topical issue raised by the episode was American racism against Asians. “Have Jacket, Will Travel” presented some of the challenges regarding racial difference that potential adoptive parents of international and transracial children faced in the 1950s. As Walter’s interest in the adoption of Kim grows, Harriet expresses reluctance about the adoption of a mixed-race Korean and American boy. Her doubts stem from the provincial attitudes in their small town in the United States “in a state who never saw a Korean.”
Despite multiple challenges, Walter, Harriet, and Kim embrace in the final scene, leaving viewers with the message that, in spite of several, serious challenges, Kim’s adoption is indeed the best solution.
If this message was unclear, Armstrong Circle Theatre host Douglas Edwards explains in the closing “real life” segment of the episode that, for the last three years, ISS-USA’s adoption division, WAIF, has played a part in more than 4,000 adoptions by families in the United States. He introduces two adoptees, Deborah and Johnny, who arrived in the United States from Korea within the past two years and have been adopted by a couple in New York. Edwards tells audience viewers that Johnny, who spoke only Korean when he came to the United States, attends kindergarten and now says he speaks “American.”
Chapter two, “‘‘The Hong Kong Project’” presents an earlier history of Chinese international adoption from Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, which has been overshadowed by the more recent phenomenon of Chinese international adoption that began in the 1990s. It also links this earlier history of Asian international adoption to early Japanese and Korean international adoption. Their similarities include their emergence in the chaotic aftermath of war, the migration of Asian adoptees to the United States under the auspices of refugee policies, and their depiction by mainstream media as objects in need of rescue by the United States.
In 1958, an ISS newsletter announced that the Hong Kong Project was a new ISS program, a two-year project that involved opening of an ISS branch office in Hong Kong in the hope of finding homes for several hundred abandoned and orphaned Chinese children. Although the project targeted Chinese communities in these cities, the ISS-USA expressed an openness to transracial adoption. As an increasing number of white Americans expressed interest in international and transracial adoption, their adoption of “full-blooded” Chinese children presented social workers with another problem of race: assessing racial tolerance among potential adoptive parents and their communities.
A fascinating 1959 symposium on the “adoption of Oriental children by white American families” emerged from a group of questions posed by ISS workers who surmised that adoption of “pure-blood Chinese children might present different and more complex considerations than adoption of children of mixed Oriental-American parentage.”
The breadth and depth of these questions were striking. The questions and the ensuing discussions deserve more attention now because they provide a model of open, direct, complex, and multilayered examination of the significance of race and cultural heritage, an issue that continues to be hotly debated in the context of international and transracial adoption in the United States today. Among the questions posed by ISS workers in 1959 were: “How important is it for a Chinese child adopted by a Caucasian family to retain an awareness of, and pride in his Chinese heritage? Or, should he be encouraged to ignore such difference? . . . To what extent can families identify with a child markedly different in appearance when this difference is ‘racial’? . . . How can a family’s ability really to accept a Chinese child be assessed? . . . How can a community attitudes, trends, and degree of tolerance be evaluated? . . . What conflicts should be expected in a Chinese child adopted by a Caucasian family? How can the family be prepared to be helped to deal with them?”
ISS-USA reports maintained that ultimately such challenges could be overcome. Emphasizing the flexibility and resilience of Chinese adoptive children, they concluded that Chinese international and transracial adoption in the United States could indeed work. Given that the practice of racial matching had dominated the process of domestic adoption in the United States and also influenced social workers facilitating international adoptions, ISS-USA’s conclusion was a watershed in the history of Asian international adoption and in the transformation of the United States into an international adoption nation.
A notable absence in the archival records is the voice of adoptees. However, since the 1990s, the emergence of a sizable body of artistic work by and about Asian American adult adoptees has challenged the representation of Asian international adoption as a “quiet migration.” The final book chapter, “To Make Their Own Stories Historical,” calls attention to the socio-historical as well as aesthetic contributions by Asian American adult adoptees for adoption studies and for Asian American history. The chapter features close readings of the documentary films, First Person Plural and In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee, written and directed by Deann Borshay Liem. The memories and contemporary reflections of Borshay Liem, her Korean and American families, and other Korean women and men whose lives and livelihoods transformed and were transformed by international adoption constitute an alternative and much-needed archive for the study of adoption.
Because the ISS-USA arranged for Borshay Liem’s adoption and because Borshay Liem’s films analyze the prominent role that institutional and organizational records played in her life history as a Korean adoptee in the United States, First Person Plural and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee offer a direct and provocative link between ISS-USA organizational records and one of its adoptees speaking back as an adult. First Person Plural continues the discussion of the ISS-USA’s earlier concerns about the role of race and racism in the upbringing of the Asian adoptee in the United States.
The acceptance of Deann into the all-American Borshay family is on one important level a radical and progressive departure from late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century vehement anti-Asian sentiment. Yet First Person Plural also illuminates how the specter of anti-Asian racism haunts Deann’s integration into her new American family and community. While Denise reminisces, “People would see us and ask, ‘Is that your sister?’ You guys look just alike,” the film exposes the fallacy in this statement by illustrating the difficulty and hard work invested by Deann to look like her white American sister and peers. A major part of Deann’s American childhood was spent trying to “look like everyone else” by perming her naturally straight hair, wearing makeup to make her eyes look bigger, and even having cosmetic surgery done on her ears. Deann also acknowledges the existence of an emotional distance between her and her American parents, a distance stemming from racial differences and her vulnerability when she was a child.
Although the build up to the encounter between Deann’s Korean and American families is emotionally tense, their reunion is cordial and the families interact with one another graciously and respectfully. First Person Plural presents viewers with the possibility of dialogue between family members about the difficult issues of relinquishment and estrangement. But it also compels viewers to confront and to think more deeply about significance of racial difference and the unequal political economy of international adoption.
In conclusion, while it is important to acknowledge that global family making can result and has resulted in the breaking down of racial divides, and while some might interpret the increasing popularity of international, transracial adoption as proof of our “post-racial” society, my research urges us to take seriously the historical and present-day significance of race in the lives of global families and in the process of global family making. Race, I argue, is fundamental to understanding the demographics, discourses, and institutions of early Asian international adoption history as well as the lived experiences of Asian American adoptees. It is an analytical category that is historically linked but not always inextricably tied to racism. This is a lesson gleaned from the ISS-USA records, which demonstrates that ISS workers were sensitive to the difference between race as a socially constructed category and the practice of racism in both Asian countries and the United States. But the lesson is most powerfully felt in the cultural productions—the memoirs, creative writing, visual art, and documentary films—by and about adult Asian adoptees, most of whom are of Korean descent. In these works we learn that the absence of an acknowledgement about race is not necessarily a socially progressive or liberatory move. Rather, to ignore or to reject any critical engagement with race can be and has been detrimental. Thus, we must not conflate race and racism, but must instead recognize that a discussion about race in the history of international and transracial adoption is productive for all of our families, our societies, and our world.
© Catherine Ceniza Choy