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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
I am very pleased to present an interview with my friend and colleague, Professor Leslie K. Wang, faculty in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, regarding her new book Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China. Her book explores the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of western humanitarian organizations caring for orphan children, many with special needs, in modern China. The book’s description:
It’s no secret that tens of thousands of Chinese children have been adopted by American parents and that Western aid organizations have invested in helping orphans in China — but why have Chinese authorities allowed this exchange, and what does it reveal about processes of globalization?
Countries that allow their vulnerable children to be cared for by outsiders are typically viewed as weaker global players. However, Leslie K. Wang argues that China has turned this notion on its head by outsourcing the care of its unwanted children to attract foreign resources and secure closer ties with Western nations. She demonstrates the two main ways that this “outsourced intimacy” operates as an ongoing transnational exchange: first, through the exportation of mostly healthy girls into Western homes via adoption, and second, through the subsequent importation of first-world actors, resources, and practices into orphanages to care for the mostly special needs youth left behind.
Outsourced Children reveals the different care standards offered in Chinese state-run orphanages that were aided by Western humanitarian organizations. Wang explains how such transnational partnerships place marginalized children squarely at the intersection of public and private spheres, state and civil society, and local and global agendas. While Western societies view childhood as an innocent time, unaffected by politics, this book explores how children both symbolize and influence national futures.
What initially motivated you to research this dynamic of international adoption from China?
My interest in the topic of adoption dates back to when I studied abroad as a college student at Peking University during the late 1990s. At the time few Westerners lived there and Chinese society and economy was beginning to change very quickly. One day I visited the Forbidden City and was surprised to see two white American couples with strollers each carrying a Chinese baby girl. For the first time I became aware that children were being both abandoned and internationally adopted, and I wanted to find out how their movement across borders related to China–U.S. relations. Once I returned to the U.S. these issues became the focus of my senior honor’s thesis, then my master’s thesis, and eventually expanded into my dissertation and ultimately this book.
What’s your most notable or poignant memory in the time that you spent in China researching this topic?
During my fieldwork in orphanages, I was most touched by the moments when young children expressed deep care and compassion for each other. For example, oftentimes when another child was crying or in distress, kids as young as toddlers would run over to alert me to come help. One of the most poignant memories I have is from the four months I spent volunteering with a Western humanitarian group I call Tomorrow’s Children, which ran an infant palliative care unit on one floor of a Chinese state-run orphanage. I spent weeks getting to know a hilarious, spunky, and intelligent three-year-old girl with heart failure named Rose. Despite her poor physical condition, this tiny child would ask to “hold” other babies in the unit, clapping her hands before reaching out to hug them. I still have photos from these times, which I hold dear because Rose passed away shortly after.
Your book highlights the challenges faced by special needs youth in China. As China continues to modernize, how has its treatment of people (and particularly children) with special needs evolved through the years?
China does not have a great track record in terms of its treatment of individuals with disabilities, including children. Part of this is due to the state’s single-minded emphasis on furthering economic modernization and raising China’s global status since the late 1970s. To attain these goals, authorities have sought to create a productive, “high quality” workforce that only includes those who are able-bodied. Consequently, those who are seen as unable to contribute to this national agenda have been cast to the societal margins. Furthermore, there are lasting and pervasive cultural stigmas against disability in China that state officials have only exacerbated by maligning special needs children as undue burdens on their families and the country. That said, since the early 1980s, a set of policies has been enacted to protect the rights of disabled people. There is general consensus, however, that these laws have not been enforced uniformly, especially within rural areas with little access to financial, medical, and educational resources.
China recently rolled back its “One Child” policy and now allows two children per family. How do you think this change will affect international adoption in China?
For the past decade the trend of Chinese international adoptions has completely transformed. Most notably, whereas the majority of available children were once healthy female infants, now most international adoptees are children with minor to major special needs (many of them boys). Secondly, the overall rates of Western adoption have dramatically decreased as more domestic adoptions have taken place and more families have founds ways to keep additional children. The ending of the One Child Policy will likely intensify all of these shifts as citizens can have two children without penalty.
Beyond helping the Chinese children in their care, what are some other motivations on the part of the western humanitarian NGOs in this dynamic?
From my experience, the majority of Western humanitarian aid groups in China that are involved with orphan care are faith-based — typically Christian and Catholic. Although many volunteers would have liked to proselytize, they were limited in doing so by China’s atheistic stance toward religion. Therefore, I found that many of these groups engaged in “lifestyle evangelism,” in which they tried to use their work to set an example for local people to follow; they accomplished this by encouraging locals to care more about marginalized youth and by importing first-world care practices and philosophies about children into local orphanages. So beyond merely helping institutionalized youth, I would say that numerous Western NGOs were also motivated to expose Chinese people to more global notions of human rights.
The luster surrounding China’s meteoric economic rise during the last 30 years seems to be waning, as citizens from both developed and less-developed nations are increasingly weary about the negative impacts of globalization. How do you think this recent trend will affect international adoption from China going forward?
While it is true that China’s development has slowed down in recent years, I don’t believe that this has impacted Western parents’ desire to adopt. If anything, the demand for Chinese children (especially healthy female infants) has increased over time and stayed high in countries across the global north. The major difference is that domestic changes in China have shifted the supply of adoptable youth to include more disabled, ill, and older kids. So I would say that the lower numbers of adopted Chinese children have more to do with the implementation of domestic Chinese state policies that don’t specifically have to do with international adoption.
One country that has transitioned from being less-developed to highly-developed is South Korea. They were also a source of large numbers of international adoptions but have dramatically reduced the number of its children adopted internationally in recent years. Do you think China is headed in that direction?
Definitely. As I noted earlier, China is already headed in that direction. For the case of South Korea, during the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics government authorities were heavily critiqued for “exporting” babies to other countries. As a result, the South Korean government began to slow adoptions and ultimately decreased them by more than two-thirds. In China’s case, the numbers have dropped dramatically from a high of roughly 14,000 foreign placements in 2005 to fewer than 3,000 in 2014. Since the emphasis now is on special needs children, who have low chances of domestic adoption due to cultural stigmas against disabilities, this trend may continue for some time. It’s conceivable that China will eventually stop adoptions altogether, though it is unclear when that time might be.
As Gang wrote in his post that I reprinted, when the mainstream media talk about international and transracial adoption, too often the voices and experiences of the adoptees themselves are completely ignored or marginalized. Hopefully events like this will help educate everybody that the adoptees themselves have much to contribute toward the academic and personal understanding of this complicated issue.
The topic of international and transracial adoptions seems to be on many people’s minds these days. Last week, PBS began showing a series of documentaries about such adoptions and their trailer for the series is below. My fellow Asian American blogger Jeff Yang has also written an article summarizing these documentaries in his regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
The blogosphere has also been buzzing about National Public Radio host Scott Simon’s recent on-air interview and discussion and book Baby We Were Meant for Each Other about his family’s adoption of two girls from China. Some readers found Simon’s narrative inspiring while others criticized him for some ethnocentric assumptions. For example, Malinda at ChinaAdoptionTalk offers a very well-reasoned response to some of Simon’s comments about the adoption process.
To add more substance to this emerging discussion on international and transracial adoption, the following is a post (reprinted by permission) originally titled “NPR’s Scott Simon Discusses Adoption on Fresh Air” by my former student and now colleague Gang Shik at his blog The Transracial Korean Adoptee Nexus. In his post, Gang asks the question, Why is it that whenever the media talks about transracial adoption that the last person they seek to for their input are the adoptees themselves?
It came as no surprise to me that the person talking about adoption, was an adoptive parent. As always, it appears as though adoptive parents are the only “authorities” on adoption. I come back to this same problem every time I hear a program on adoption. Why aren’t adoptees being called on to discuss their experiences? There are professors, researchers, artists, musicians, and poets who all have incredibly interesting stories to tell and who are professionals with opinions on adoption that go beyond the merely personal.
There are three topics I’d like to address with this post. First, I will look at adoption, assimilation rhetoric, and the “magic” of the familial integration. Second, I want to discuss a few things related to how Mr. Simon and his wife have decided to parent their children. And third, I will discuss the politics of racial identity.
As with most of my posts, I want to first start by saying that this is not meant to be slander, nor is it meant to be malicious by any means. The point of posts such as these, and the point of all my posts on my blog, are to discuss representations of adoption in the media, and the often overlooked discussions of race and identity for transracial adoptees. Whether you are an adoptee, adoptive parent, member of the triad, or any other concerned individual, this post is meant to inspire dialogue.
For as long as I can remember, adoptive parents have talked about their child(ren)’s first moments with them as being instantaneous and almost magical. “That first moment was magical. We knew, that s(he) was ours.” In so many ways, adoptive parents want their child(ren) to feel as though they were meant for each other. I do believe that these sort of narratives can gloss over some of the more important details that are occurring to an adoptee that are invisible to adoptive parents.
Some parents recount their experiences saying how the transition was seamless, or minimal at most. The effects of adoption on the adoptee are often dismissed as children are perceived to be “fitting in” to their new environments. There is no discussion of trauma, since many who adopt children believe this to be the least traumatic experience for a child. I’m no expert on child psychology, so I can’t speak to this last point much. But I can say that, adoption can be very traumatic.
I’ve met many adoptees who were adopted later in their lives – some are four, five or even six years old when they are adopted. So many of them have completely lost all memories of their homelands. Most are completely devoid of any bilingual language capabilities that they once had. Think of it this way. What sort of moment in your life could be so traumatic that you push all memories of it out of your mind permanently? Adoption is no easy thing for an adoptee, regardless of age, I have to believe that even young children can sense these things in one way or another.
At one point Mr. Simon said “she immediately became our child.” No doubt, she became your daughter at that very moment. However, I would urge Mr. Simon to not forget that she will forever be not just your daughter, but her birth mother’s daughter too. Continue to celebrate her life in China as much as you do in the U.S. Too often, I hear about adoptive parents who celebrate the day they arrived in the U.S. with out any concept of the life they lived or lost before they were adopted.
I do want to point something out which I found encouraging in Mr. Simon’s interview. He stated that he and his wife wish to provide their daughters with as much of their heritage as possible so that they can make their own decisions for themselves later in life. These things may not necessarily be relevant to them now, but it is important to present these aspects of themselves as important parts of them that should be available to them early on.
Simon is referring to a Chinese school that both his daughter are enrolled in over the summer that teaches Mandarin, Chinese cooking and cultural celebrations. Now, I can’t speak to the quality of these things but I do think it is encouraging to hear that they have considered the importance of making these things available to their children at an early age. He and his wife even went as far as attempting to only hire Chinese babysitters for their daughters.
Finally, I wanted to comment on a particular comment I found confusing towards the end of the interview. Mr. Simon said that he does not believe it is healthy for one to confuse identity with ethnicity. I think that the word ‘ethnicity’ has become a code word for race more recently. Some folks balk at using the word ‘race’ when referring to their adoptee children, especially when they are Asian. However, I think it is incredibly important to acknowledge this.
He says that his daughters are aware of the fact that they are Chinese. They will be made VERY aware of what it means to be Chinese American and Asian American and how this collides with their identities as young women soon enough. And I believe that this can not and should not be left out of the conversation. Race, whether we like it or not, is part of the American subconsciousness. Children are exposed to this at a very young age through television, the media, the other children they are surrounded by as they grow up.
These conversations need to happen. I’m partially encouraged by some of the things Mr. Simon had to say. However, there is so much left to change. I would encourage Mr. Simon to consider helping change the all too common adoption narrative to one that encourages and embraces the opinions and perspectives of adult adoptees. For the most part, adoptive parents are the ones given the microphone to talk about their experiences and frame how adoption is talked about in the media.
Adult adoptees are an important part of the equation since your child won’t be a child forever. I would love for there to be an NPR program that includes adult adoptee scholars, writers, educators, bloggers etc. Our voices are out there, but for the most part, we’re not listened to or honored as much as yours. As adoptive parents, and as reporters and journalists I hope you’ll consider our voices as important as your own and give us opportunities to be a part of the dialogue.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I will be mentioning new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them.
As always, please remember that I highlight them for informational purposes only and do not necessarily endorse their entire content or arguments. If you know of a recent book that I should mention, just let me know. With that in mind, here is the first such mention:
Once They Hear My Name is a step forward in our collective understanding of the cultural hurdles international adoptees tackle every day. In their own words, the nine Korean adoptees of Once They Hear My Name’ talk about how they became the adults they are today, speaking candidly about acceptance and rejection, about life struggles and successes, about experiences unique to each yet connected by common threads.
At their core these stories chronicle adoptees’ ongoing, and often difficult, quests to discover who they are. Growing up, they initially viewed themselves as typical American kids at home with baseball, pizza, playing with dolls and the rest. But often their peers – and sometimes members of their own families – saw them as strangers, good targets for ugly stereotypes.
Many of the nine adoptees chronicle their trips as adults back to Korea to find their roots and, in some cases, their birth families. These journeys yield mixed emotional results. The narratives illustrate the wide variety of ways all adoptees, not just those from Korea, and all Americans with cultural roots in Asia, wrestle with identity issues.