Flexible Production: International Adoption, Race, Whiteness


Anthony Shiu

Michigan State University, East Lansing MI

Copyright © 2001 by Anthony Shiu, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    It is always possible for the postromantic celebration of the "spirit of the people" to be made to serve the interests of some overall exploitation of all people.
    --Jean-Luc Nancy[1]

    All Asian children are gorgeous, are they not?

    --Steve Forslind[2]
  1. A critique of international adoption may begin at certain historical moments: with the founding of the Holt International adoption agency in the 1950s, at the end of the Vietnam War with "Operation Babylift" in 1975, or with the fall of Rumanian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. For the purposes of this essay, the central focus will be on the rise of international adoption in the 1990s and the concomitant legal, national, and social institutionalization of the practice. It is during the 1990s and the first years of the twentieth century that legal apparatuses have been developed to facilitate and, apparently, advocate for international adoption: the 1993 Hague "Convention on International Adoption," the 1996 "Small Business Protection Act" signed into law by President Clinton, and the recent "Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001." These moments (and documents) of either (supposedly) benign globalization or "family" advocacy have ushered in a new age of adoption from abroad. At the same time, the past decade or so of international adoption has produced an increasing reliance on the hope of "family" as the cornerstone of solutions for world peace, helping the "Third World," and infertility.

  2. Take, for instance, a commercial from a recent J.C. Penney advertising campaign, which provides us with an image in miniature of the apparatuses of international adoption: a middle-class white couple wakes up in the dark, the wife stating, "It's time."[3] The couple rushes to get ready to leave their house while, unbeknownst to them, people in J.C. Penney t-shirts ready the house for a visitor: baby clothes are put in a closet, the home is tidied up, and the couple's car keys are placed in a conspicuous spot near the front door. We assume, unsafely, that the woman is pregnant and ready to deliver when she yells to her partner, "I can't breathe so good." The commercial then cuts to the couple at the airport. Waiting at the gate, the couple watches as an older white woman leads a one- or two-year-old "Asian" girl by the hand to them. The female, tears streaming down her face, picks up the Asian child. The commercial ends with a "J.C. Penney Catalog" graphic, along with the slogan "It's all inside."

  3. The slogan can be taken in three different, but related, ways. First, the J.C. Penney Catalog provides everything a white middle-class consumerist family could need. Second, the couple's spacious suburban home is a self-contained and self-nourishing space. And finally, international adoption -- the cradling of the Asian child amid flowing tears -- proves that beyond different "racial" looks, it is what's "inside" (the emotive, affect-based world of mother-daughter "bonding") that really matters in all of this business surrounding the creation of a family.

  4. It is this moment, the moment of (racial) affect and desire in light of capitalist/consumerist longing, that this paper seeks to interrogate in terms of the questions and concerns surrounding international adoption; questions of political commitments, personal desires, and racialist logic are at stake, especially in terms of the rising popularity of the practice. In 1999, 7,596 East and South Asian children (from China, South Korea, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines) were adopted by Americans, accounting for 46.4% of all international adoptions (United States Immigration). China and South Korea were two of the three most popular countries for Americans to adopt from. Yet recent polls reveal that only 3.4% of white Americans (68,000 of 2,000,000) are willing to adopt "transracially" (Kleiman 336). With the costs of international adoption running from $5,000 to $25,000, it is curious that such significant affective investment occurs in international adoption while "transracial" adoption is neither desired nor actively pursued (332). Erika Kleiman offers a matter-of-fact answer: "The primary reason people adopt from abroad is that they cannot find the children they want in the United States" (332).

  5. In Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, anthropologist Kath Weston argues that the traditional nuclear family exhibits a "tendency to create ties primarily with people they perceive to be 'like' them, using one criterion or another to gauge similarity" (206-7). Yet despite her contention that gay and lesbian families have the ability to choose "beyond" likeness -- and we can read "likeness" as corresponding to "racial" similarity here -- Weston's final argument is not an argument at all; "families we choose" do not offer a "defensive countermove," but only a "stepping aside to evade the paradigmatic blow" of the ideology of the heterosexual nuclear family (213). This stepping aside, then, begs the question of whether international adoption -- choosing, more often than not, a racial "other" as a member of one's own family -- solves anything in particular. Put another way, we should interrogate the foundations of international adoption, noting motivations, normative values of the concept of "family," and the solutions that the practice supposedly provides.

  6. It is unclear how the introduction of a racialized other into a white middle-class family is reconciled with the problem of racial oppression. In another context, Rey Chow argues that Americans' fascination with the "native" and the "oppressed" is, frankly, a "desire to hold on to an unchanging certainty. . . . It is a desire for being 'non-duped,' which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control" (Writing 53). But this control, as we will see later on, is also a control over the (re)production of the ideologically dominant white middle-class family; "family," as such, becomes an accomplishment and a privileged end to itself. But when the "natives" and "oppressed" come to roost in the white suburbs -- and are sought out, desired and "wanted" -- how is the problem of race confronted -- if at all?[4]

  7. In this paper, I will first move through legislation and conventions surrounding international adoption and, to a lesser extent, domestic adoption; buoyed by the tortured logics of "reverse discrimination" and white entitlement, international adoption law and practice plods along with an ideology of consumerist privilege. Later, I will quickly document some of the paradigmatic justifications for international adoptions that appear in white adoptive parent's narratives of adoption from East Asia; these justifications run the gamut from affect-based longings to the eroticization of racially marked bodies. This paper will offer alternative ways to think through what international adoption means -- in the greatest possible sense -- for our understandings of "race," equality, and community. In the end, the question of whether the "family" as goal/ideal holds any promise for community past the threshold of race will be broached.

  8. Before moving to an analysis of the conventions and laws concerning international adoption, it would help to remind ourselves how privilege and social power influence (and determine) changes in the law. Perhaps the most well known international adopter, Mia Farrow, has a long history with international adoption (most notably with the Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen debacle). Farrow has participated in international adoption since the early 1970s; in her memoir What Falls Away, she reveals the initial impetus for seeking "foreign" children -- in this case, her daughter Lark Song, from Vietnam:
    In 1971 and 1972, in London's parks, I marched, pushing a twin stroller alongside Vanessa Redgrave, to protest U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. The senselessness of André [Previn] and I having another baby when already there were so many children in the world needing homes was dramatically underlined by the war, as it stretched on interminably. . . . It was in this climate that we decided to adopt a Vietnamese war orphan. (171-2)
    Farrow equates a resistance to the war effort with orphaned children in a curious, yet realistic, equation and critique of imperialism and suffering. By lodging such a critique apart from an engaged argument with US military policy, Farrow eventually dislodges any of her protestations (in the park with Vanessa Redgrave) and institutes an economy of "protest" through the introduction of war orphans into her and Previn's kinship group; we can get at the root of her emotive demonstrations against the Vietnam war through an earlier "confession" in her memoir: "I was [in my childhood] much as I am now: a pair of eyes on a stalk, a soul no different from most souls, forever trying to understand, needing to give and to love" (7). And this logic of "souls" carries through to the end of her book, where she speaks of her "existence" as "existing purely in relation to an infinite whole" (7). What defines this "infinite whole" is a lacuna for Farrow, but it is easy to discern that her relation to the process of international adoption is both rooted in a belief of radical relativism and emotive "truth": most "souls" can be equated by their need to "give" (to whom?) and to "love" in a sort of universalist system.

  9. But not all is easy for Farrow, and her eventual adoption of Soon-Yi Previn in 1977 was met by legal restrictions; federal law prohibited more than two visas per family for the purposes of international adoption. "We had our quota," Farrow writes:
    Forget it, the agency told us: to change the law would require an act of Congress. But we already had been sent a blurry black-and-white two-by-two-inch head shot of a child. . . . This was my daughter. . . . My old friends, Bill and Rose Styron, sought the help of Massachusetts Congressman Michael Harrington, and he agreed to sponsor the bill that was necessary. . . . Finally, in 1977, Congress passed the bill. Soon-Yi could come home. (179-80)[5]
    And though the reach of her powers of influence may seem extreme in relation to "average" Americans, this excerpt dovetails nicely with the next section on the reformulation of international and transracial adoption law. Changing the law and having the connections to do so point to the relative ease with which Farrow can utilize her "connections" and take advantage of her standing in order to participate in the systems of universalist emotive love that she has constructed. These are amazing powers, yet not atypical; the recent history of (international) adoption law is also the recent history of arguments by whites against "reverse discrimination," all to allow the adoption of racialized children into homes that, while financially solvent, are oftentimes wholly unaware of how racialization will affect their children and unwilling to even acknowledge that international adoption is, in a sense, a will to power.

  10. In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly ratified the "Convention on the Rights of the Child." Noting that children need "special protection" from human rights abuses, the Convention seeks to insure that children are to be protected from "exploitation" and "inadequate social conditions." Race (or racial status) appears in the Convention, but under the guise of "ethnicity" and "culture." In Article 20, adoption, according to the U.N., must pay "due regard to the desirability of continuity in a child's upbringing and to the child's ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic background." It isn't exactly clear what makes up "due regard" for the United Nations; indeed, the phrase -- quite similar to the "best interests" expression heard in U.S. adoption cases -- can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At minimum, the United Nations acknowledges that there is "difference" in children's backgrounds, and that such differences, in some contexts, are salient. Because the Convention is a human rights document, it makes sense to assume that this salience of difference is to be worried about, especially in terms of exploitation. This, perhaps, is the limit to what we can take from the Convention in terms of its particular stance concerning race.

  11. On the other side of the divide, the Hague's 1993 "Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption" marks a transition from "due regard" to an advocacy of international adoption. If we can take the U.N. convention as an affirmation of the continuing importance and ramifications of "difference" in the world, then the Hague convention institutes a paradigmatic shift from the "due regard" of the child to an international crusade in support of international adoption. The Hague, though citing the U.N.'s "Convention on the Rights of the Child," seeks to establish a set of regulations among "Contracting States" that safeguard children against exploitation. At the same time, this convention never enumerates how these Contracting States should "give due consideration to the child's upbringing and to his or her ethnic, religious and cultural background." These two conventions, in the end, don't reveal the possible motivations for international adoption, save the Hague's mention that a child "for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding."

  12. When looking at U.S. laws concerning domestic and international adoption, however, it is particularly shocking that the "due regard" and "best interests" of the child are submerged beneath concern for the "fair" and "equitable" treatment of those who adopt the most: married white couples. Nowhere is this crusade more evident than in U.S. law. The "Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996," designed to counter race-matching policies in adoption, shifts the traditional concern over the rights of the child to concern over the supposed "discrimination" that white parents could face when attempting to adopt a non-white child. Section 1808 of the law affirms that "race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child, involved" should not be considered in the adoption process.[6] So, any child's "needs" -- and we can think of the U.N. convention here -- are superseded by the needs of whites (the primary subjects of the above citation) to not be "discriminated" against, hence the act's strategic citation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Much like the recent challenges to affirmative action (Hopwood v. State of Texas, Gratz v. University of Michigan, etc.), the "Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996" (referred to hereafter as "SBJPA") affirms an embattled "whiteness" in need of "protection" from the ravages of "reverse-discrimination." Beyond the agonizing and tortured logics of color-blindness and reverse discrimination, Sandra Patton points out that the new embattled whiteness is, in all actuality, a move to secure "white entitlement" (Patton 21). Whiteness, here, becomes both a racial status and ontology -- a way to buttress "race" by claiming a white racial being.

  13. What happens in the above sections of the SBJPA is that the "children's needs" are equated with the majority's (white parents') desires. Since the great majority of prospective adoptive parents are white, these statements work to prevent the "discrimination" of whites through previous race-matching policies so that they can become parents. Children become the strategic discursive wedge -- indeed the very "good(s)" desired -- that enables the law to work towards fulfilling white middle-class parental desire; promoting a certain degree of "colorblindness," the SBJPA declares that even considering "race" when placing children is not in the child's best interests. Neil Gotanda speaks to the issue of colorblindness and the law:
    More concretely, an individual's assertion that he [sic], "saw but did not consider race," can be interpreted as a recognition of race and its attendant social implications, followed by a suppression of that recognition. . . . [T]he suppression does take place, and the external world accommodates it by accepting and institutionalizing the repression rather than attempting to expose and alter the conditions of racial exploitation. (22)
    As such, promoting colorblindess is akin to promoting a repression of histories (and the potential) of exploitation. Such a policy institutes a possibility (not "recognizing" race) as a rule, an impossible potential as law. Cheryl Harris argues that white privilege, as legally articulated, is always concerned with property and access to it:
    The law expresses the dominant conceptions of "rights," "equality," "property," "neutrality," and "power": rights mean shields from interference; equality means formal equality, property means the settled expectations that are to be protected; neutrality means the existing distribution, which is natural; and, power is the mechanism for guarding all of this. (1178)
    It is this power of law that provides "whiteness" with its enforceability. By enforcing colorblindness in adoption, the SBJPA also assures whites that this "neutrality" in adoption procedure will only affect the child's placement and not the "existing distribution"; "civil rights" means easy access to the adoption of children of color.

  14. Finally, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 and the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 are two recent pieces of legislation that encourage international adoption.[7] The former is a document that agrees to the Hague Convention and establishes the regulations concerning international adoption in the U.S.: the accreditation of non-profit agencies that perform the "home studies" of potential adoptive parents, annual immigration reports about the adoptees, and the establishment of a "registry" of adoptions to be maintained by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. The tax relief act, on the other hand, provides a permanent "adoption tax credit" of $10,000 per child. This bill, which also repealed the "marriage penalty," aims to provide financial incentives for getting married, having children, and adopting children, among other things. Taken in tandem, these two piece of legislation further legitimize and institutionalize domestic and international adoption. Further, any concerns about the racial status and background of adoptive children that appear in the U.N.'s Convention have taken a back seat; individual American's rights -- or perhaps heterosexual married couple's "rights" and middle class "rights" -- are protected from government intervention legally and monetarily.

  15. That which binds always excludes, or at least this is the case with international adoption taken in its most general sense. What becomes the binding -- the act of taking an-other into one's own family -- ensures, down the line, that such a taking-in already possesses the mechanisms that ensure a keeping out, an exclusion predicated upon the marking of what belongs and what doesn't, as Marc Shell demonstrates:
    [I]t is only our opposition to another group of siblings, who are not quite us, that makes us siblings. Here the uncompromising conflation of species with family has made universal nationalism a dangerous and cruel ideology. For the universalist ideology of love and kinship leads -- and has led -- inexorably, to actions of hatred and unkindness. From the position "all men are my brothers" it comes to follow easily that "only my brothers are men, all others are animals." (Children 22)
    Two of the top three countries white Americans adopt from internationally are Asian: Korea and China. Yet at the very point of desire for family, the child becomes the cipher, the being/entity that serves as the silent and mediating ground upon which notions of family, parenthood, nation, and race are played out and given theoretical meaning(s). Between what is known (and/or what will become known, eventually) as a son or daughter and the consistent racialization that their bodies will provoke lies desire: for the body that will fill the "family" gap for parents, for the "cute, "Oriental" faces that bespeak both good aesthetics and racial otherness, for the "American" above all else, and for the endurance of the idea of separateness that grounds any conception of race.

  16. Let us look at a parents' narrative of a trip to China as a preliminary example of how such logics play themselves out; the following excerpts come from O. Robin Sweet's and Patty Bryan's recent how-to book, Adopt International: Everything You Need to Know to Adopt a Child from Abroad. A set of anonymous parents writes: "[W]e have some very good friends from China, who gave us a personal interest in that country, and we also felt a profound concern for the abandoned children there. . . . We feel that everyone born in the United States has at least a glimmer of hope, but the same is not true for a child, and especially a girl, born in China without family support" (130). Interesting to note is that the "personal interest" for the parents resides in their friends, yet at the same time, they feel it necessary to posit the equation that hope is directly related to life in the United States. Rather than note the dire consequences of "abandoned" children in the US, their gaze turns west and the only option remaining is China. Also, the excerpt shows a strain of bourgeois individualist-type thinking; predicating a "glimmer of hope" on residence in the US simplifies and compresses the intense problems and concerns that such a residence will have for a child easily racialized. Yet, this is not a concern.

  17. Later on, the parents discuss their trip from the airport to the orphanage:
    Our facilitator [translator/guide] finally arrived and took us to our hotel, a rather grim place, where the Canadians we were joining [though the couple are Americans] were also staying. The next day we all took a train to Zhenjiang and spent the night in another grim hotel across the street from the train station. The following day we took a hideous bus ride to Nanjing, the capital of Jingsu, the orphanage's province. (131)
    The prominence of pejorative adjectives is alarming in this excerpt, as is the apparent un-realness of China's depravity. Gloom and disappointment seem almost innate, yet this shouldn't be a surprise considering the hopelessness that the parents have already bestowed upon life in China. Seemingly innocuous, the previous two statements are actually the first steps and presuppositions that are normally lodged against China in order for the parents to justify -- through narrative -- their participation in international adoption, as we will see later. And there is another discursive step taken: the tying in of "race" to "culture": "We truly loved China and the Chinese people we met, and we are extremely proud that our daughters have come from such an ancient and incredible culture" (136). Though this statement may seem out of place with the previous misery and sadness of life in China, it is actually the next logical step, for to make admissible racialized, Chinese children to a white American family necessitates two things. First, that the child possess something other than "race"; this is why an "ancient culture" -- perpetually past tense and non-threatening -- can prove to be valuable. Second, that the racialized body of the child -- race being one of the enabling conditions for judgements on culture being made -- signifies something of "value"; what gains value or holds importance are not the material conditions of the adoptee's previous life, but rather the very ability to shed such material conditions -- there is a "glimmer of hope" waiting in the U.S. -- for admission into a white American "particularist kinship system," which Marc Shell defines as having "human kin and human aliens" (End 19). There are human aliens in this narrative, and the Chinese -- ancient and incredible -- are no more; in the new adoptive family, they become excluded, unaffiliated, and ineffably previous.

  18. Parental yearnings, at least those voiced in the narratives explored here, are clandestine in the sense that more often than not, desires are submerged beneath what seem to be relatively "neutral" statements. For example, Phyllis Schneider mentions the pre-process of adoption where parents must pass a "home study" implemented by adoption agencies in order to assess the "fitness" of prospective adoptive parents. She writes: "The agency says we must come up with three sponsors who will attest to 'our reputation as solid citizens and generally decent people.' We've decided to stack the deck: we'll ask for [a letter from] . . . our friend, Carol, who just happens to be Japanese" (169). Schneider purchases into a currency of authenticity, especially since she believes that a note from a Japanese friend (we never know if the woman is Japanese or Japanese American) will fully authenticate Phyllis and her husband as worth prospective parents of a Korean child; (misunderstood) national origin sanctions the veracity and truthfulness of her "Asian" friend's assessment. Seeking racial approval and advocacy, Schneider posits an authenticity of race that will supposedly garner approval from the adoption agency. After she and her husband adopt Soo Mee, Schneider mentions a reaction to her child: "Several months ago, Ted [her husband] and I overheard an elderly lady, seated next to us in a restaurant, remark, 'Look at that adorable baby. Those Japanese children are so quiet and reserved. Such a little lady'" (320). The elderly lady's statements are not contested by Schneider, nor are the judgments challenged in her narrative (except that she mentions that Soo Mee is from Korea). Both Schneider's comment on her Japanese friend's ability to sanction her parental ability and her non-response to the elderly woman's racialist/racist statement very much depend on the skin -- and all of the supposed cultural values embodied within it -- of the child; because there is no disavowal and because Schneider rarely engages in substantial and critical race discourse, she simultaneously lodges authenticity in yellow skin and gives currency to behavioral race decisions, legitimating her parental abilities with an ambivalence of attributes for both her daughter Soo Mee and her "Japanese" friend Carol.

  19. In order to legitimize their participation in the international adoption process, most parents, in their narratives, deploy a temporalizing strategy; Johannes Fabian describes this strategy as a way of "encoding time" so that what is expressed is a "passage from savagery to civilization" that justifies "the procurement of commodities" (74, 95). The types of statements made by parents are submerged judgements on the unfitness of Asian countries, and, conversely, the reification of America as the developed, capitalist space necessary for "proper" child rearing. This is a strategic textual maneuver in which national superiority and "civilization" serve as the backdrop and the very condition of possibility for such pejorative maneuvers to be enacted. Noting the very incommensurability of "senses" in foreign places, O. Robin Sweet talks about her first trip to the orphanage where her adoptive child lived: "Every time I entered the orphanage, the same strong, nasty-sweet odor overwhelmed me to the point that I wanted to vomit. I am not sure all orphanages have that smell, but be prepared for odors unlike you have known. Be prepared for anything" (Sweet and Bryan 88). In this context, it is easy to position one's self as arbiter of cleanliness and propriety, making the adoption of the child not only an introduction into a "stable" kinship system, but also an escape from indelible fetor.

  20. Another example is Steve Forslind's extended description of Nanjing, China:
    After pictures, we all walk three blocks to the health clinic. It sits at the side of the road that runs along a wide canal. On closer inspection, we find that the canal isn't a canal, but the main sewer for the city. . . . It appears to be at least 10 feet deep of percolating human waste. . . . Incredibly, there are park benches along the "canal" and people are picnicking, and young lovers hold hands, seeming oblivious to the smell. . . . Later, Mike [another adoptive parent] and I go out exploring and find the real marketplace. . . . There we find what to most Westerners would be unimaginable: live puppies, kittens, ducks, chickens, frogs, eels, turtles, rabbits, crabs, shrimp, even an ostrich and a peacock. . . . I turn my back to the scene. ("China")
    Though he seems to be giving an accurate description of the settings, Forslind chooses, for a relatively large part of his narrative, to focus on the sewage and the almost unreal nature of young lovers being romantic among the "percolating human waste." Likewise, his extensive cataloging of market goods betrays his talk of "most Westerners"; the very attention to detail and desire to posit the extreme (and unfathomable) "difference" of Nanjing's market goods veils the disgust that surfaces when Forslind speaks of the sewer: there must be a supposition of "normalness" before anything (the sewer and the market) can be judged derisively -- by the turning of the back. Anne McClintock, in her writing on soap, notes that cleanliness
    preserve[d], through fetish ritual, the uncertain boundaries of class, gender and race identity in a social order felt to be threatened by the effluvia of the slums, the belching smoke of industry, social agitation, economic upheaval, imperial competition and anticolonial resistance. Soap [and cleanliness, in my argument] offered the promise of spiritual salvation and regeneration through commodity consumption, a regime of domestic hygiene that could restore the threatened potency of the imperial body politic and the race. (211)
    And Forslind, by all of his invocations, will be able, through the acquisition of a child commodity, not to erase unseemly hygienic corruption, but rather to "save" a (racialized) child from his/her eventual and inevitable relegation to such depraved (racial) conditions. I will return to this notion of cleanliness with my discussion of the configurations of the adoptee's body.

  21. Two other instances of temporalization reveal the various ways in which "difference" comes to configure disgust, annoyance, and solipsism in relations to white middle-class American adoptive parents. First, Laura Francis-Bohr, a social worker from Lansing, Michigan, speaks of the bureaucratic adoption process in China: "'After that [sending off adoption documents to the Chinese government], you have no control,' Francis-Bohr said. 'What we like to say is, 'It's China.' We don't know how their system works. There's no rhyme or reason. You just have to wait'" (Birkenhauer 3D). This very lack of control -- a loss of privilege and status -- produces the phrase "It's China" filtered through a sense of inevitable inefficiency. Her notion of inefficiency is interesting, though, because Francis-Bohr then shifts the blame for the loss of privilege over to the Chinese government, which, of course, possesses no "rhyme or reason" because of the simple "unknowability" of China for the Michigan social worker. Francis-Bohr expresses no culpability and she never utters a word of acceptance or understanding, just plain irritation and annoyance at the processes the Chinese government must go through before providing her with the very commodity/body she seeks: a child. Concurrent with this haughtiness is a kind of middle-class solipsism, disturbingly reflected in Eliza Thomas' narrative: "[T]he director bundled us all into tiny taxicabs, and we drove helter-skelter to the very outskirts of the city, through extreme and ever-increasing poverty at speeds that would have truly alarmed me, if I hadn't been so preoccupied [with the first meeting with her adopted daughter]" (Thomas). Most striking in this description is Thomas' own sense of self-importance: driving through the poor, indigent sections of town to meet her prospective daughter, she proceeds to ignore the living conditions -- the very conditions that her daughter comes from -- to focus on her own anxieties as the prospective white middle-class American parent of a Chinese child. Thomas, "scared and ambivalent" about becoming a parent, rarely speaks of her child in the narrative and, quite surprisingly, never mentions her name, revealing a certain sense of self-absorption despite (because of?) the child she is now responsible for (Thomas). At the end of her story, she speaks for both her and her new daughter upon their return to New York City: "And I know that she knows it too: we've made it home" (Thomas). Home, of course, could never be China.

  22. A direct offshoot of these examples of dirt, contagion(s), and inefficiency are the tests that the adopted children must undergo upon their arrival in the US. The battery of tests is as follows: "Hepatitis B profile, purified protein derivative (Mantoux) test with Candida control, complete blood count with erythrocyte indices, fecal examination, Venereal Disease Research Laboratory (VDRL) test, urinalysis, vision and hearing tests, dental exam, ELISA [HIV] testing" (Sweet and Bryan 104). Of course, the unknowable nature of the child's past life plays a part in all of these tests -- precautionary or not. Even so, the extensive testing also points out the uncontrollable nature of the child's body before it lands on US soil; hence, the body must go through a period of "cleansing" -- ridding something akin to the "residue" of the country of origin -- and "acculturation" because the adoptee's countries are often poor and unable to participate in U.S. medical conventions. This is a process of purification, an eradication of the (always potentially) diseased body and dangerous country of origin, as evidenced by another narrative: "We've [an anonymous couple] gotten sick each time we've gone to China -- nothing more serious that what was probably twenty-four-hour food poisoning -- but I wouldn't go to China without a good supply of Lomotil" (137). McClintock describes a "poetics of cleanliness" as a "poetics of social discipline":
    Purification rituals [be they taking Lomotil or performing medical examinations] prepare the body as a terrain of meaning, organizing flows of value across the self and the community demarcating boundaries between one community and the other. Purification rituals, however, can also be regimes of violence and constraint. (226)
    We have Shell's particularist kinship system here, where there are clean, disease-free bodies and bodies that are admissible only after their cleanliness has been checked, confirmed, corrected, and regulated -- kin and (assimilable) aliens. This new "terrain of meaning" -- the entrance into a white middle-class American family -- also has one more facet besides medical acceptability: aesthetic and bodily approval.

  23. Pictures sent to the prospective adoptive parents before obtaining their children provide us with rich narrative examples of desire manifested in and through images. When talking about the famous Tom Thumb wedding in America, Susan Stewart mentions: "The body becomes an image, and all manifestations of will are transferred to the position of the observer, the voyeur. The body exists not in the domain of lived reality but in the domain of commodity relations" (124). And it is the representation of the body in pictures that serves as tangible proof of the "product," of the child soon to be an "American." The picture as currency -- proof of existence and medium of desire -- transmits information to sate parental longing; here, the proof is in the will to possess the image. Eliza Thomas provides another powerful example of the commodity relations implicit in transnational adoption:
    Her photograph showed a child with a thatch of dark hair, wise and kind eyes, and the beginnings of a smile. She seemed oddly, reassuringly familiar, and simply beautiful. . . . [When I met her in China,] I was shocked at how strange and unfamiliar my daughter was to me. She was nothing like her sweet old photograph: her head was shaven, her eyes were unhappy, she was distant and unsmiling, strained and worn-out, and much too thin. . . . My hope centered around her old photograph: a normal, healthy, happy little girl. (Thomas)
    If we go back to Harris' notion of property and white skin privilege as intermingled and co-supportive structures, then it is evident that Thomas' dissatisfaction and ambivalence emerges out of a non-correspondence between the image and the body of the child/property. By centering "hope" and her dreams upon the photograph, Thomas imposes a synchronic, static ontology upon the child's body -- a body invested and populated with so much parental desire -- that serves as the point of reference: the past image as the expectation for the present, yet fading and unhealthy body. I want to recognize the importance of parents for these children and not attribute pure domination to them, for it is impossible to condemn adoptive parents for imbuing hope onto photographs. But it is impossible not to note the power and domination which fuels the ambivalence for a healthy child on the one hand, and the expected/ideal child on the other; with the invocation of (material) value -- be it of health, demeanor, or aesthetic appearance -- there is already a putting into play of notions of worth and acceptability. Difference -- in this case physical inadequacy -- provides for both static pleasure (in viewing the racialized Asian child) and consumerist disappointment.

  24. Yet disappointment is rarely mentioned by adoptive parents, at least in regards to their children. For instance, Laura Rittenhouse shows the picture of her prospective daughter to friends:
    I pulled out a tiny copy of a photo which showed big, open, bright eyes set in a round face. Ni Yan looked interesting, but it was her rose bud lips which captured my heart. . . . I showed Ni Yan's photo to friends. "Beautiful," "alert," "adorable," "naughty," "totally kissable," "smart," and "wide open" were the words they used to describe her. (Rittenhouse)
    Here, desire is most manifestly seen in the attributing of characteristics to the photo; the key words, if we are looking for the stereotypical language of Americans, would probably be "beautiful" and "smart," signifying both the "beauty" of Asian children and the intelligence expected of them. On the other hand, "interesting" and "rose bud lips" disclose both a strangeness and the site of intense attraction. The words that Rittenhouse's friends use are inextricably bound up in a system of significations and expectations engendered by the Asian face they are looking at; how can race not be a factor in how these people discern the certain values they "see" in the static image they are exposed to? Submitted for approval but constrained by (significatory) expectations, the commodity flows embodied by the image provoke and serve as the very condition of possibility for such reactions.

  25. Maybe novelist Tama Janowitz can help to shed light on this problematic power gradient implicit in the image. After adopting her daughter from China, she speaks of the next child she wants to adopt: "Maybe in the fall I'll look into adopting one from India. Yes, I can see her already: perhaps a bit older than Willow [her present daughter], one of those gypsy/street-urchin/waif types, with dark skin, gold bangles at her slim wrists and ankles, and thick, wild hair" (102). Quite intriguing in this statement is Janowitz's erotic coding of the Asian Indian body as a site of intense aesthetic, racial craving and as vessel of sexual promise through bodily appearance. Robert J.C. Young clearly describes this erotic economy: "In this characteristic movement of attraction and repulsion, we encounter the sexual economy of desire in fantasies of race, and of race in fantasies of desire" (90). Janowitz marks the fantasized adoptive/adopted Asian Indian body as racialized -- the first signifier of disavowal when uttered from a space of skin privilege -- then relies heavily upon this racialized logic to present to her readers the sexual promise of the proposed child's "slim wrists and ankles, and thick, wild hair." Imagining and yearning for a future child, Janowitz inhabits the intersection of white middle-class Americanness and international (racialized) adoption -- where child commodity and ontological longing collide and buttress the other's psychic and material weight.

  26. Much akin to the racial economy of the above narratives, many parents' stories are supported and framed within an economy of consumerist expectations. Such expectations involve both the body of the child and the nationalism of the narrator(s). Even though what is most important in these international relationships is the provision that the children will reside in new, relatively race-less homes -- if we give credence to notions of the average American "nuclear family" -- the consumerist entitlement to inspect and judge products/children rips at the edges of "colorblind" love and affection toward the adoptees. Connie Christy and Drew Seguin adopted Celine (formerly Lin Xiaofang) from China in early 1998. But when they met their new daughter at the orphanage in China (the location is never mentioned), the narrative takes on a consumerist tinge: "They didn't know if she was healthy. She was wrapped in several layers of blankets, so they hurriedly unraveled her, ensuring she had all her digits and everything else was intact. She looked perfect" (Birkenhauer 3D). Looking perfect and being healthy, based upon the visual inspection of the child's body, is located in the look of surveillance by the parents. And this surveillance -- a judging, discriminatory type of scopic gaze -- introduces the possibility of rejection rooted in imperfection; these inspections are rooted out of a corporeal desire for Christy and Seguin to create and acquire their ideal daughter. Another striking example occurs in an anonymous parents' narrative:
    Of the seven families in our group, three of them, including us, had to reject the first child they were offered. The child we were assigned could not hold her head up straight (it was tilted to her shoulder), even though she was almost two years old. We did now know the cause of her condition, but, in fairness to the rest of our family, we knew we could not adopt her. (Sweet and Bryan 135)
    One can almost imagine a parade of children, led in rows across the prospective adoptive parents' line of vision, for systematic inspection. Though the parents never give any explanation of what "in fairness to the rest of our family" means, we do know that a decision based on value (or the absence of such) has been lodged and, in turn, rejection results. And this appears in Sweet's and Adam's how-to book on international adoption, noting the low quality of children/goods and the irresponsible nature of the Chinese orphanage directors in showing value-less goods to the parents.

  27. At the beginning of Laura Rittenhouse's narrative, she mentions: "I explicitly stated my desire for a baby no older than 6 months in my application to the Chinese government and to anyone else who would listen" (Rittenhouse). Later, at the scene in the Hangzhou orphanage where she holds her daughter for the first time, she writes: "When she was put in my arms, I checked to see if she had the right number of fingers and toes, we looked at each other, and then she nestled her head onto my shoulder and fell fast asleep. It felt like she was saying, I've come home" (Rittenhouse). She easily shifts from demands placed upon the adoption -- a child not past a certain age that possesses the requisite number of digits -- to a feigned attempt at linguistic projection for parental comfort. "I've come home" is a multivalent statement, signifying the home that Rittenhouse configures as "mother" and the home that will be adoptive custody by a middle-class white American; speaking for the child, Rittenhouse provides us with narrative wishes and consumerist desires centered on and embodied in Ni Yan, her new daughter. Solipsism, specifically American nationalist self-importance, is revealed in my final example of white middle-class American consumerism. Bruce Porter talks about the adoption process: "[Y]ou run all your paperwork . . . through the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an impenetrable, indifferent agency that forces American citizens to go through the same bureaucratic maze as foreigners clambering for green cards" (31). He never mentions that without this "inconvenience," his daughter -- "like just about every Chinese baby, meltingly cute" -- would remain in "draconian" China, unable to fulfill his parental desires (24).

  28. Finally, I want to focus on how adoptive parents situate their children within a color-blind discourse and, in turn, how this discursive move provides further justification for their actions at the exact site of epistemological rupture. Through the previous examples, it is apparent that Chinese and Korean children are simultaneously bound to their "origins" -- for example, China's "ancient and incredible culture" -- and, like a wonderful magic trick, are made into intimately knowable beings -- Thomas' "reassuringly familiar" comment. It is the usual non-mention of their children's "racial" status in America that indicates the parents' recuperation of a generic "humanity" in which both they and their children live. Steve Forslind, at the end of his narrative about he and his wife's fourth adoption from China, talks about his daughters: "We've found that these kids easily fit in and want little more than to be part of a family unit and to be loved for who they are: children" ("Adoption"). But this is suspicious, especially considering his invocation that "All Asian children are gorgeous, are they not?": it is impossible, logically, to introduce an argument on the racialized, aesthetic value of children while concurrently upholding notions of liberal humanistic relativism. This disavowal of racial(ized) life so that the Chinese children can be conveniently reduced to "children" articulates a universalist assumption on youth; Forslind refuses to confront or demonstrate an understanding of how his children will eventually be racialized -- even by their father. This is especially so since he refuses to acknowledge this in his narratives by promising an "inclusion" rooted in parental "love" and "fit[ting] in" -- signifying and promoting an "assimilation" that his race talk must invoke. Bruce Porter also mentions how he will (not) deal with his daughter's physical/"racial" difference in the future:
    As for raising a child of a different race, Sara and I feel that being in a place as culturally diverse as New York would pretty much obviate whatever problems might arise. It won't be long before Hanna [formerly Li Sha] will realize that she has obviously been adopted, and by age 6 or 7, when she starts asking questions, she'll already know that her new parents love her very much. (46)
    "Pretty much" is an uncertain term, obviously inadequate to the demands that a heavily racialized New York brings about. Again, reducing discussion of race to the child finding out that her parents "love her very much" -- racial education through emotive osmosis -- seems wholly inadequate to the problematics of an American social context. This is Forslind's logic, but with a new valence: emotion, not acceptance, will be the unifying feature of the new international adoption -- a sort of sentimentalized racial understanding.

  29. "Love" and emotion then, will solve nothing, and international adoption in this context further instantiates the enforced border between "civil rights" and white entitlement, racial/racist longing and universal love/"understanding." And perhaps at the core of the problems surrounding international adoption are strategic decisions about the question of relationality. For the most part, white adoptive parents embody an ambivalence about the (raced) body of their adopted children and how it relates to mainstream racial politics; this ambivalence, in the end, justifies their consumerist longings and desires to secure flexible options for creating family. Rey Chow points out that there is a narrow line between the "embrace" of racial others and an investment in a racial politics that demands racial difference:
    The indiscriminate embrace of the peoples of color as "correct" regardless of their differences and histories is ultimately the desire for a pure-otherness-in-pristine-luminosity that is as dangerous as the fascism of hateful discrimination from which we all suppose we are safely distanced. (Ethics 32, emphasis in original)
    Indeed, international adoption from Asian countries relies upon a "captivity called 'otherness'" in which "what remains constant is the belief that 'we' are not 'them,' and that 'white' is not 'other'" (31, emphasis in original).

  30. But what happens at the moment before such decisions are made, at the moment that occurs previous to any decision about how one is related to another? In The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy argues that "Community is revealed in the death of others," but Nancy means this in terms of a community that knows death as the founding possibility for something-in-common (15). If we think backwards from the concept of "race," we end up neither with "identities" nor "races," but an understanding of being-in-common that knows that "singular beings are, present themselves, and appear only to the extent that they compear (Moudileno's translation of Nancy's comparaissent), to the extent that they are exposed, presented, or offered to one another" (58). International adoption presents us with a community or family that is founded on a project -- an aim -- that relies not upon compearment [?}, but upon racist logics hidden by color-blind love. Multiethnic, international "love," then, is an accomplishment, and love will always expose "community at its limit" (38, emphasis in original); before one makes racial and nationalist distinctions, there is nothing or, better yet, there is no ground for a decision to be made about an other. Instead of a racial "being" enabling desires for international adoption, a politics must be developed where, as Nancy argues, "Being itself is given to us as meaning. Being does not have meaning. Being itself, the phenomenon of Being, is meaning that is, in turn, its own circulation -- and we are this circulation" (Being 2, emphasis in original). This understanding of Being as circulation, in the end, allows one to say "we" without the traps and follies of racialist discourse; in other words, we would be able to say "we" "in all possible senses of that expression, and by saying we for the totality of all being" (3). And at this point, whiteness and white privilege are exposed as that which preys upon the racial divisions that allow "whites" to come into being as Beings.

  31. Family and whiteness, then, will always embody the form of a decision, and perhaps this should be the "paradigmatic blow" that Kath Weston would find helpful: that which relies upon "difference" -- racial, ethnic, linguistic, etc. -- will always secure borders, ensure domination, and benefit from the diminution of those who "need" inclusion. By grounding life on the surreptitious belief in "race" that color-blindness demands, international adoption gives new life to the old racial vernacular. And the racial "inclusion" of international adoption only exacerbates the fact that we are replicating the processes that exclude in the first place.


  1. From "Cut Throat Sun." An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Ed. Alfred Arteaga. Durham: Duke UP, 1994, 118. Back

  2. From "More Adoption Web Sites." 26 Apr. 1998 http://www.tiac.net/users/sunny/adoptsts.html. This quote was taken from Steve Forslind's former web site; the revised page (without this quote) may be found at his new site at http://adoptnh.org/adoptsts.html. Back

  3. This advertisement appeared in September 2000 on network television, mainly during television coverage of the Sydney Olympics and shows like "Big Brother" on CBS. Back

  4. There are two dominant strategies employed when thinking about adoption in light of racial status: attempts to think through the repercussions of racial inequality and, on the other hand, color-blind attempts to explain away racism or disengage from the question in the first place. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers employed the former and advocated for the practice of "race matching" in domestic adoption; referring to the adoption of African American children by whites as "cultural genocide," the organization clearly lodged their argument through a kind of "strategic" essentialism that Sandra Patton summarizes as "concerns about racial identity and survival skills" (qtd. in Patton 9). In 1994, the Association published "Preserving African-American Families." This position paper presents us with a toned-down stance where, if race-matching should fail, the placement of a black child with a white family would be acceptable, if reviewed by "appropriate representatives of the African-American community." Even though the NABSW statements both advance notions of biological and essential "race"/blackness, it is crucial to note that an understanding of the mechanisms of racialization is still on the table, though reactionary. Back

  5. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact bill that Harrington introduced to the House of Representatives in 1977. Most likely, Farrow is referring to H.R. 1552 (a "Private Bill") which was introduced on 6 January 1977; the full text of the resolution is as follows: "Provides that a certain individual be classified as a child under the Immigration and Naturalization Act." Back

  6. Note the sequence of the parties named, with the "child" qualified by an "or" in relation to the main subjects/parties to be protected: adoptive and foster parents. Back

  7. The former has been signed into public law by President Bush but has yet to be published. Back

Works Cited

Birkenhauer, Tracey. "Baby Love: Local Family Grows." Lansing State Journal. 4 Jan. 1998: 1D+.

Chow, Rey. Ethics After Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.

---. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Objects. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Farrow, Mia. What Falls Away: A Memoir. New York: Nan A. Talese, 1997.

Forslind, Steve. "The Adoption of Melody Yuanyuan-January 11-January 24, 1998." 26 Apr. 1998. http://adoptnh.org/china4.html.

---. "China Trip #1-May 15, 1995-May 25, 1995." 11 Jun. 2001. http://adoptnh.org/china2/html.

---. "More Adoption Web Sites." 26 Apr. 1998. http://www.tiac.net/users/sunny/adoptsts.html.

Gotanda, Neil. "A Critique of 'Our Constitution in Color-Blind'." Stanford Law Review 44.1 (1991): 1-68.

The Hague. Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. 1993.

Harris, Cheryl I. "Whiteness as Property." Harvard Law Review 106.8 (1993): 1707-91.

Janowitz, Tama. "Bringing Home Baby." Vogue. Oct. 1995: 90+.

Kleiman, Erika Lynn. "Caring for Our Own: Why American Adoption Law Must Change." Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems. 10.327 (1997): 327-68.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

---. "Cut Throat Sun." Trans. Lydie Moudileno. An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Ed. Alfred Arteaga. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 113-23

---. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

National Association of Black Social Workers. "Position Statement: Preserving African-American Families." Detroit. 1994.

Patton, Sandra. "Birthmarks: An Interdisciplinary Ethnographic Study of Transracial Adoption." Diss. University of Maryland, College Park, 1994.

Porter, Bruce. "I Met My Daughter at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital." New York Times Magazine. 11 Apr. 1993: 24+.

Rittenhouse, Laura. "Adopting a One Year Old: Lianne's Story." 20 Apr. 1988. http://fwcc.org/oneyearold.html.

Schneider, Phyllis. "What It's Like to Adopt." Parents Magazine. Nov. 1987: 167+.

Shell, Marc. Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics, and Nationhood. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

---. The End of Kinship: 'Measure for Measure,' Incest, and the Ideal of Universal Siblinghood. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narrative of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.

Sweet, O. Robin, and Patty Bryan. Adopt International: Everything You Need to Know to Adopt a Child from Abroad. New York: Noonday Press, 1996.

Thomas, Eliza. "Making it Home." 20 Apr. 1988. http://fwcc.org/MakingItHome.html.

United Nations General Assembly. Convention on the Rights of the Child. A. Res. 44.25. New York: United Nations, 1989.

United States. Congress. Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. 107th Cong. P.L. 107-16., 2001.

---. ---. Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996. 104th Cong. P.L. 104-188, 1996.

---. ---. House. "Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000." 107th Cong. H.R. 2909, 2000.

United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Significant Sources of Immigrant Orphans, 1985-1999. 12 Sep. 2000. http://www.holtintl.org/insstats.htm.

Weston, Kath. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.

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