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Why Are So Many Adoptees Angry?

I would like to share an email commuication I recently had with a reader who asked me the following, with my reply to him/her at the bottom:

Q: "Why are Korean adult adoptees so bitter? I have read so many blogs and walked away feeling that some were even suicidal. Some would never be happy even if they weren't adopted. It sounded as if they were using this as an excuse to feel so bitter.

"We are raising our daughter whom we adopted from China giving her every opportunity we can for her to learn about her culture and language. We believe China has a richer history and society than we do here in the US. The adoption agency advocates every parent who does adopt from China to do this.

"If our daughter decides she doesn't want anything to do with it it will be her choice not ours. We will even try at a later time in her life to give her another opportunity to do so again. I know a few Korean Adult Adoptees and have talked to them prior to us adopting from China. They are not bitter and in fact encouraged us to adopt from China or Korea."

A: The issue of transracial adoption is very complicated and difficult to summarize in just two paragraphs. But in the interest of trying to answer your question, I will try to do so.

As you note, not all Korean or transracial adoptees in general are 'angry.' Perhaps it's not even most. But many are, and the main reason is that they grow up in a highly-racialized society in which they are raised to implicitly think that they are White, but then encounter racism outside of their family based on their non-White physical appearance and Asian ancestry. Even if their adoptive parents are extremely comfortable and proactive about discussing racial issues and the continuing legacy of racism in American society, this disconnect between their socialization and how they are treated in public is often extremely painful and alienating.

What makes it worse is that in fact, only a small minority of White adoptive parents are comfortable and capable of proactively discussing racial issues with their adoptive children. Unfortunately, just exposing their child to Asian culture and/or trying to be colorblind and teaching their child that everyone should be equal in society is not enough -- parents need to recognize the ongoing mechanisms of racial advantage and disadvantage that still exists against American racial minorities, which includes such transracial adoptees. As such, their parents' inability to help the adoptee effectively cope with these inevitable social disconnections often leads to confusion, resentment about their situation, and anger.

Obviously, every adoptee's situation is unique but this pattern of growing up thinking that they're White, but then experiencing racism because in fact they're not, is common among many transracial adoptees.

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Adopted Asian Americans

In the last several decades, the adoption of children born in Asia to new parents in the U.S. has become increasingly common. As these adopted Asian children grow up in predominantly White families, they frequently encounter adjustment and ethnic identities issues and conflicts about their "place" in American society.

Historical and Sociological Background

Various economic, cultural, and demographic factors have contributed to this phenomenon. On the "push" side, an oversupply of children from impoverished areas in Asia combined with a cultural devaluation of girls frequently leads many birth parents to give their children up for adoption. "Pull" factors in the U.S. and other western countries include large numbers of couples who are unable or unwilling to conceive children themselves have created a demand for overseas adoptees. Further, inside the U.S., the number of children available for adoption, especially infants, has dropped considerably in recent decades and has also led many prospective adopters to look at Asian children.

The practice of Asian-born children being adopted by primarily American (and predominantly White) parents began during the Korean War, as many Americans (including Harry and Bertha Holt, who later became the founders of Holt International, the nation's most well-known Asian adoption agency) sought to remedy the plight of growing numbers of children in Korean orphanages by adopting them and bringing them to the U.S. to live.

Studies tell us that for example, of the 265,524 orphan visas granted by the U.S. State Department between 1948-2000, 92,402 of them (34.8%) went to children from South Korea. Estimates suggest that anywhere between 110,000 - 150,000 Korean adoptees alone currently reside in the U.S., ranging in age from infancy to their 50s.

Immigration Visas Issued to Orphans
by Country of Origin and Year(s)
Country Avg. per Year
2008 Only
China 2,975 66,535 3,909
Russia 2,653 53,069 1,861
S. Korea 1,704 34,087 1,065
Guatemala 1,643 32,856 4,123
India 371 7,417 307
Romania 351 7,029 <50
Ukraine 333 6,654 457
Viet Nam 302 6,032 751
Colombia 302 7,064 306
Kazakhstan 290 5,804 380
Philippines 265 5,302 291
Bulgaria 95 1,891 <50
Cambodia 56 1,128 <50
Source: U.S. Department of State

After the passage of legislation that eased the adoption process, the practice became increasingly common in the 1970s. During this time, several Asian countries experienced political and/or economic upheavals that resulted in the worsening of living conditions for many of their citizens, particularly poor, working class, or rural families. These events led many families in vulnerable circumstances to be more willing to give up their infants and young children to be adopted.

One of the most visible examples of this situation were the events surrounding the end of the Viet Nam War in 1975. One month before the South Vietnamese government fell to advancing North Vietnamese communist forces, "Operation Babylift" was approved by President Gerald Ford that would airlift 2,700 orphans out of Viet Nam to be adopted by families in the U.S.

Many of these children were those who had lost their parents, were children of American GIs whose Vietnamese mothers had put them up for adoption, and/or were malnourished, sick, or disabled. After a disastrous first flight that crashed shortly after takeoff and killed 154 children and adults on board, several planeloads of Vietnamese children eventually landed in the U.S. and were adopted into predominantly White families.

Also during the 1970s, adoptions from other Asian countries such as China, South Korea, the Philippines, and India began accelerating. In addition to worsening conditions within each Asian country, many of these governments began to streamline their adoption procedures to make it easier for overseas families to adopt children in their countries.

While comprehensive statistics on Asian adoptees are very difficult to find, the most accurate information comes from the U.S. Department of State, who keeps track of all immigration visas issued to orphans, which are required for international adoptions. The table above shows the number of such visas issued by years(s) and country of origin.

The results show that from 1989-2008, China sent the most adoptees to the U.S. on average. But in the latest year where statistics are available (2008), it was surpassed by Guatemala. However, due to recent suspicions of orphans taken from their families through fraud or coercion, the U.S. State Department has indefinitely suspended adoptions from several countries, including Viet Nam and Guatemala. Also, as shown in the State Department statistics, perhaps the most notable trend in recent years is the significant increase of adoptions from African countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Liberia, and Ghana.

Questions About Legal Status of Orphans

The vast majority of these Asian adoptees have been and continue to be girls and this has led to one of the criticisms surrounding such Asian adoptions. Specifically, many people (not just Asian Americans) feel that because of centuries of deeply-ingrained patriarchy and discrimination against women, these Asian countries continue to systematically value the life of a girl much less than that of a boy. Boys are valued more because they can supposedly contribute more labor and have more legal rights.

As critics argue, the result is that when there are too many girls being born, they are too quickly considered "excess property" that needs to be disposed. Many claim that's the reason why so many Asian girls are adopted each year. Although these criticisms are directed toward the cultural, political, and social systems of the Asian country and not at the adoptees themselves or their American adoptive parents, this gender imbalance continues to be a point of controversy for all parties involved in the adoption process.

Looking forward and looking back © Justin Pumfrey/Getty Images

In recent years and despite the 1993 passage of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, there have been numerous suspicions and controversies regarding child trafficking and whether or not the status of these Asian children as orphans is valid. Allegations involving many countries of origin include instances when children are kidnapped outright, or taken from their families through fraud or coercion, or when mothers have been paid money (or given non-monetary incentives) to relinquish custody of their children for adoption.

In fact, several adoption agencies have been charged with fraud involving improper adoptive activities and a result of these issues, the U.S. State Department has imposed significant restrictions on or even indefinitely suspended adoptions from certain countries. For example, in April 2008 and in the wake of a State Department report that alleged pervasive corruption and baby-selling in Viet Nam's adoption system, Viet Nam temorarily suspended all new adoptions to Americans. A similar moratorium on adoptions from Guatemala was briefly imposed as well. In recent years, the legal status of orphans have been subjected to increased scrutiny in order prevent such incidents of fraud and coercion.

How Adoptive Parents Deal With Racial Differences

On the other side of the adoption process, questions and criticisms have been raised in regard to the cultural appropriateness of such interracial Asian adoptions. In this regard, the issues can become rather complicated. On the one hand, from a cross-national and relative point of view, many argue that despite the cultural barriers and struggles that Asian adoptees might undergo in the U.S., they are still much better off materially and even emotionally than if they stayed in their orphaned situations back in the country of origin. On the other hand, critics of interracial adoption argue that American political, economic, and military policies through the decades contributed to the push conditions that many Asian countries face. Further, critics feel that non-Asian adoptive parents will "whitewash" these Asian children into White society so that they quickly and perhaps permanently lose their Asian identity and sense of ancestry.

Sociologists Jiannbin Lee Shiao and Mia Tuan recently completed a study about various aspects of this issue and in particular, on the parenting styles of parents who adopted from Korea. They found that parents dealt with the racial differences between themselves and their children by using one of three approaches:

  1. Emphasizing the Exotic: objectifying their children or showing them off as if they were an exotic pet
  2. Active Acknowledgement: recognizing the importance of race and racism in America, encouraging discussion, and careful observation if their children encountered any racially based problems
  3. Colorblind: overlooking, ignoring, or pretending racial differences did not exist

This third approach was the most commonly used one. Within this colorblind approach, many adoptive parents consciously or unconsciously feared that acknowledging racial differences might interfere with the process of integrating their child into their family and their community. Many adoptive parents also did not have the skills to cope with the racial differences between them and their children and used this strategy by default because they were uncomfortable dealing with racial matters. Such parents were basically surrounded by Whiteness their entire lives and had little if any familiarity with other groups or cultures other than their own.

Within this colorblind approach, there were often two secondary results. The first was conflating Asian & Asian American -- sometimes adoptive parents would occasionally expose their child to Asian culture that might include language classes, going to Asian restaurants, cultural events and activities in their communities, books and other media from or about their country of origin, and even involvement in adoption groups or camps where their children can interact and socialize with other Asian adoptees. But in doing so, many adoptive parents do not distinguish the difference between Asian and Asian American. This is actually quite common among Asian American in general -- that many are assumed to be foreigners, even if we were born or raised here in the U.S.

The other secondary result of the colorblind approach was to frame their child as an "Honorary White". Even if adoptive parents tried to be colorblind, because their social environment was based on White culture, by ignoring racial differences, they ultimately reinforced Whiteness. By normalizing Whiteness, adoptive parents essentially and unconsciously socialized their children to be White and to see the world from a White perspective. Parents saw themselves as raising their children to be "normal," with little awareness that their definition of normal was White centered. Inevitably, in the process of treating their child as White, they were unwilling or unprepared to deal with incidents in which their child wasn't treated as White and instead, encountered racial prejudice and discrimination based on their Asian physical appearance.

In other words, many adoptive parents were open to cultural exploration, but not racial exploration -- "Asian-ness" was seen almost like a commodified culture, rather than a racial identity. Again, this is not to say that adoptive parents were "bad" parents or that they purposely misled their children into thinking that they were Whites. Instead, and in many ways, adoptive parents were a reflection of the White majority culture around them, their thoughts and actions framed by conventional and deeply-embedded racial boundaries.

Cultural and Identity Issues Faced by Asian Adoptees

As described in studies and books written by Asian adoptees that have emerged in recent years, their experiences confirm that because they tended to grow up in an almost all-White environment, they never had to think about their ethnic identity -- they just assumed they were like everyone else around them. That is, until they experienced some form of racial prejudice or discrimination from schoolmates, strangers, or even relatives of their adopted family. Because their adoptive families and parents either could not shield them from this almost inevitable process, or could not adequately understand or support their feelings, many of these adopted Asians experienced an "identity crisis."

This kind of cultural confusion frequently involved a viscous cycle in which the parent would unconsciously reinforce Whiteness in socializing their child, but on occasion expose them to Asian culture. The child frequently resisted such efforts because they seemed too different from their "honorary White" lifestyle, and they didn't want to be seen as different. This resistance to Asian culture reinforced and perpetuated the honorary White status.

Below are two clips from the documentary Adopted: The New American Family that explores these interpersonal and sociological issues that many interracial and international adoptees faced growing up. In the first clip, a Korean adoptee describes a common situation faced by adoptees:

In this second clip, a researcher describes his conversations with young Asian adoptees about their experiences:

This second clip is particularly poignant because it illustrates the kind of identity confusion and internalized racism that many Asian adoptees experience growing up. This internalized racism led many Asian adoptees to avoid being associated with anything related to Asians or Asian Americans. This aversion to "Asian-ness" often becomes harder or at least much more complicated when they go to college and come into contact with large numbers of AAs for the first time in their lives, but they aren't prepared for it since they've always disassociated themselves from anything Asian their entire lives.

However, this kind of social exclusion is not limited to just Whites. In fact, Asian adoptees often encountered intolerance from AsianAms, who often shunned their attempts to connect with their "roots" because they had lost the ability to speak their native language and/or had little knowledge of their ancestral culture, or if they were perceived to be too Whitewashed. In other words, Asian Americans are not always very inclusive either and can be just as judgmental as anybody else.

Positives Outweighing the Negatives

While many Asian adoptees have faced this dilemma, this has not been the experience of all Asian adoptees. Rather, many others have enjoyed extraordinary levels of love and understanding from their non-Asian adoptive parents, who have also sympathized and comforted their children when racial discrimination has happened. They have also supported their children's attempts to find their birth parents back in Asia.

Love comes in many colors © Getty Images

At the same time, while many well-meaning parents make sincere efforts at educating their child about his/her Asian roots, observers again point out that these parents frequently forget to educate the child about Asian American issues. That is, many adoptive parents implicitly assume that being Asian is the same as being Asian American. In other words, while it is admirable that parents want to maintain their child's connection to his/her Asian culture, it is just as important for the adopted child to learn about and understand the historical and contemporary issues that Asian Americans face because ultimately, that will be the child's social and cultural environment as long as s/he lives in the U.S.

Many support groups have also formed across the country for both adoptive parents of Asian children and for the adopted children themselves. These groups allow parents and children to share experiences, support each other, and to learn together about both sides of their racial/ethnic identity. Ultimately, the fact remains that while the criticisms about the devaluation of girls in Asia ring true, that should not take away from the happiness and love that most Asian adoptees share with their adopted family who have given them a much better life than what they would have had otherwise.

Further, research has also shown that more recent cohorts of Asian adoptees have been much more open and likely to explore their Asian ancestry and racial identity compared to earlier adoptee cohorts. Similarly, more recent adoptive parents are also more prepared and knowledgeable about racial dynamics involving their adopted children. The Asian American community is also becoming more welcoming to adoptees, particularly as the number of US-born Asian Americans continues to increase, who have more exposure and familiarity interacting with people from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Also in recent years and facilitated by the internet, many Asian adoptees have started to form their own networks and communities to express their and share their experiences and to support others like themselves. Reflecting the diverse range of experiences among them, these efforts range from personal and group blogs, artistic projects, joint "homeland" trips to reunite with their birth family, support and networking groups, and more formal organizations. In fact, research is emerging that suggests that Asian Americans who straddle diverse sets of cultures are happier and report less stress and anxiety when they create their own definitions for fitting in and actively shaping their own identity, rather than waiting around and letting others dictate to them what their identity should be, or trying to gain acceptance into one particular culture or racial group.

In the end, from a sociological point of view, Asian adoptees represent just how diverse not only American society can be, but also how diverse the Asian American community is as well. As such and as Asian adoption continues to occur, Asian adoptees are likely to be an increasingly prominent feature of the Asian American population and their diverse range of experiences can be seen as resources in bridging different cultural and racial groups, which will become an increasingly important asset as American society increasingly becomes more diverse, globalized, and transnational.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Adopted Asian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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