Showing posts with label international adoption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international adoption. Show all posts

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adoption on TV: "Modern Family" or "Parenthood"?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

A gay dad sits at the dining-room table, making a scrapbook about baby Lily's adoption. A tiny conical hat perches on his head. It's all the funnier because this dad—ex-college-football player Cameron—is so large.
"Look at this." Cameron reverently holds up the hat.

"Oh my God!" cries Mitchell, his partner. "Lily's little hat that we bought her at the airport in Vietnam!"

Cameron puts it on, its red ribbons trailing beside his cheeks.

Mitchell eyes him. "Remember how cute she looked in that?"

"Remember how I used to wear it and walk around and act like I had a giant head?" Cameron giggles.

"That was good acting," Mitchell says.

Politically incorrect? Over-the-top satire? Yes on both counts, but that's why a sharply written sitcom like ABC's Modern Family gets at the uncomfortable  aspects of adoption—especially for us white middle-class adoptive parents.

In many ways, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the fruitiest of gay stereotypes, but the hat episide of Modern Family that aired last spring ("Two Monkeys and a Panda"), veered plenty close to my own adoptive family. My Vietnamese adoptee is older than Lily—and he's not been slapped with an Asian flower name—but he's got his own tiny conical hat.

It's taken me awhile to appreciate Modern Family, so I'm only now watching Season Two on DVD; the show is currently in its third season. But I'm up to date with another show also in its third season—NBC's Parenthood—and lately I've been struck by the contrast between the two when it comes to adoption.

I used to enjoy Parenthood, even when this drama about the Braverman family in Berkeley, California, slopped into preciousness. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) Braverman oversee the clan from an artsy Berkeley house that's probably just up the hill from Chez Panisse. The four adult Braverman children are by turns believably angst-ridden and annoying. But their kids make the show engaging. And the evolving story of young Max, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in Season One, is notable for its unvarnished look at how hard this can be on a family.

Yet, the current story involving the quest of Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) to adopt a baby is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the ups and downs of the adoption process. It leans heavily on a heroic adoption narrative—just the sort of thing Modern Family skewers brilliantly.

The basic narrative goes like so: Two prospective adoptive parents, after battling with infertility, deeply long for a child. They have plenty of money, a huge extended family, a homey house. Meanwhile, the pregnant birthmother is destitute, without family, friends, or the child's birthfather. She struggles mightily over whether to give up her baby for adoption, but when she decides to do so, the music swells. She tearfully surrenders her infant. The End.

In Parenthood's version of this cliché, Julia and her husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) have a biological daughter, but Julia can't get pregnant again. They decide to adopt, and Julia, a high-powered lawyer, flings herself into the bureaucracy of private domestic adoption. Before you can say "adoption agency," she's frustrated. She can't just make it happen by writing a check.

This isn't what bothers me about the story, though. On many levels, adoption is a financial transaction. Julia's chop-chop way of going about it is true to her character. One of her brothers even says she's trying to "buy" a kid. To whit: In the September episode "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby," a young woman named Zoe (Rosa Salazar) conveniently turns up pregnant and ready to get rid of "it." Zoe runs the coffee cart at Julia's law firm, and Julia shadows her like a vulture. Before long, she asks Zoe flat out if she can have her baby.

It's improbable soap opera, but I like Julia's upper-middle-class myopia. I like the fact that Zoe, who's attractive and bright, responds, "Um, no."

But here's what I don't like: In under a month of TV air time, Julia has become a saint. She's apologized to Zoe. In a recent episode, Julia takes her to the hospital when she feels ill, then brings Zoe home for the night. In Julia's fancy kitchen, the unhappy pregnant girl gets to observe perfect-dad Joel playing with their daughter. Soon after, Zoe shows up on their doorstep again, saying, "If you still want to have my baby, you can have it. You have a nice family."

On Parenthood, it's all hugs and tears—though maybe not The End, because the adoption plot is still unfolding. Maybe once Zoe has her baby, she'll change her mind. And if the adoption does go through, maybe it will be an open one in which Zoe remains part of the Braverman saga. Wouldn't that be cool?

The run-up isn't promising, however. I can just picture the Braverman clan rallying around the new adoptive parents after a few predictable twists. For example: Zoe almost revokes her consent; her ne'r-do-well boyfriend shows up and tries to stake his own claim; the baby is born with a disability—but saint-like Julia and Joel love the child anyway.

If only adoption were being handled as realistically on Parenthood as autism is. The heroic baby hand-off is never the end, as many real birthparents and adult adoptees will tell you. Even the broad satire of Modern Family, which portrays only the adoptive parents' point of view, gets across how much these gay dads have changed over the months they've been parenting.

With Parenthood, there's reason to hope that the ensuing adoption complications may yet rise above clichés. I'm drawn to the Bravermans, a big happy clan, TV fantasy though they are. I long for a form of community my own tiny family of three doesn't have.

But when a drama like this strikes too many false notes, I end up feeling manipulated. As someone who grew up in a working-class suburb south of Berkeley in the same era, it's already tough for me to suspend disbelief. I know how much the Bravermans reek of a particular kind of groovy privilege.

Most TV families—and Modern Family is no exception—are middle-class and inwardly focused, and they generate an ever-expanding tangle of unrealistic plotlines. But if the characters expose all their nasty, unpretty edges, I stay hooked. That's especially true for an adoption story, which is why I've grown fond of those argumentative, accessorizing gay adoptive dads.

Their comic outrageousness—and obvious self-deceptions—cut far closer to the truth than a thinly disguised melodrama with a pretty soundtrack.

Links to Episodes:
"Two Monkeys and a Panda" (Modern Family, aired March 2, 2011)
•  "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby" (Parenthood, aired September 20, 2011)
"Nora" (Parenthood, aired October  11, 2011)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Last Airbender": Do We Take Our Kids?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

As I watched the trailer last weekend for The Last Airbender with three eight-year-olds, two of whom were Asian adoptees, I knew I was doomed. Even as they hissed at each other that Aang's tattoo was wrong—where's the blue arrow??—they were hooked by the special effects, just as they were meant to be.

M. Night Shyamalan's summer action extravaganza is set to open July 1, gunning for a big holiday weekend. The first review I read this morning was in the Boston Globe, and others are popping up online as I type. What's the initial verdict? Ty Burr of the Globe writes:
"The Last Airbender is dreadful, an incomprehensible fantasy-action epic.... The film probably should have stayed a cartoon; live-action kills it dead."
I should be doing a gleeful air-dance like twelve-year-old Aang, the movie's namesake and Dalai-lama stand-in. In Salon and elsewhere, I've been writing for months about the casting controversy—three of the four main characters from the anime-inspired Nickelodeon cartoon series are played by white actors in Shyamalan's movie—as have many Asian-American activists, including cartoonists like Gene Yang.

Today Roger Ebert tweeted a link to what he calls "The best writing I've seen on the racist casting of 'The Last Airbender.' Devastating." It's by Vietnamese blogger Q. Le at Floating World.

We should feel vindicated.

Well, of course I do. It seems that Shyamalan's auteurish blindness about casting white actors in Asian roles represents benighted moviemaking throughout. Burr says of Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, who play the brother-sister heroes Katara and Sokka, that their "crime, again, isn't that they are Anglo but just painfully dull."

Here's the thing: My son—an adoptee born in Vietnam—broke into tears two weeks ago when he thought I was going to forbid him to see the movie. He knows I've been railing in print against the racism implicit in the casting, so he assumed he'd be sitting at home while his friends all streamed to the theater and Airbender parties.

This is one of those unlovely damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't, white-adoptive-parents-trying-to-be PC quandaries.

I assured him he could see it if he wanted to; that anything else would be unfair. I have strong opinions about it, I told him earnestly, but they don't have to be your opinions. It's OK, it's OK, it's OK.

No, it's not.

In fact, I wonder what his opinion will be. We'll do our best to boycott the film this opening weekend— activists and others are calling for a boycott of at least the first two weeks in order to put a dent in Airbender's take—but I doubt we'll make it past July 4, considering that he wants to go with friends.

Or as my husband wryly put it this morning, "If it's a real dog, we better not wait more than one weekend."

Here's the other thing, though: It won't just be a matter of suffering through a reeking mess for two hours. The main media spin will be the trials of M. Night Shyamalan—so gifted! so much potential!—what curse is the great director suffering under?

Burr's review begins like so: "The Last Airbender has had more bad karma than almost any movie deserves." He details its "litany of disasters," from the cartoon's main title (Avatar) being ripped off by James Cameron to pissed-off fans to the last-minute 3-D forced on the film to the director's string of flops. Burr notes that it would have been great if Shyamalan had overcome the odds, perhaps like young Aang himself, to produce a winner.

Scott Mendelson writes in his Huffington Post review, "As a film from the man who once wrote and directed such films as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it is a heartbreaking tragedy, a 'sign' that perhaps the once-great M. Night Shyamalan is truly 'broken'."

So Shyamalan the Fallen looks like the main review focus, rather than the persistent whitewashing of Hollywood films. I confess to my own secret hope that The Last Airbender would be good, even awe-inspiring. At least then my Asian son and I—not to mention other parents and fans of all races and creeds, adoptive or bio—could have had a real discussion about whether casting decisions should reflect the racial and cultural referents of source material.

If Peltz, for example, had turned out to be a great Katara, then I'd be willing to eat a few words. But given that it sounds like "great" doesn't describe anything here—as Christopher Kelly ends his review in the Miami Herald, "It's a little early to be saying this, but I'd wager good money that you won't see a worse movie this year"—I'm left with the utter cluelessness and cynicism of Hollywood. Of the lousy 3-D, Burr of the Globe writes, "I've got winking-Jesus postcards that look better."

Which means The Last Airbender deserves every bit of its rotten karma. I'd lead with "One bad decision begets another...and another...and another."

Like Fire Lord Ozai and his evil daughter Azula, give me some real opposition, please. Otherwise, where's the fun?

The best outcome may be that a few of the money-people behind movies wake up. When I watched the trailer with my son and his friends last weekend, we were in a theater to see the re-make of The Karate Kid—a movie with people of color in all the main roles.

My advice? Despite the postcard-romantic scenes of China in the new Kid, it had a lot to offer my kid. If you can avoid the Airbender juggernaut, don't let it give Jackie Chan a run for your money.

This is a revision of a post that also appears on Open Salon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Adoption, Russian-Style: Are We Up to the Challenge?

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

The saga of seven-year-old Russian-born Artyom Savelyev’s adoption gone wrong has once again focused attention on the controversies that dog international adoptions.

Artyom’s tragic journey begs us to consider if there is a difference between an adopted and a biological child—and if so, does adoption give a parent the right to return a child when the relationship disappoints?

As the adoptive mother of a twelve-year-old born in Russia, I have to say an emphatic no.  From the moment I held my son in my arms and smelled his skin, I knew he was a part of me. These kids are not Russian dolls. They didn’t ask for us. We wanted them.

The problem is, Artyom’s story has become a convenient hook for Russian politicking as well as for commentators who know little about the experience of parenting deeply troubled children. Sensationalized headlines make great copy, but they distract from the truth.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the actions of Artyom’s adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, a 33-year-old single mom and nurse, “a monstrous deed.”  Pavel Astakhov, the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, threatened to suspend adoptions unless Russia and the U.S. sign a treaty to ensure that Russian children are better protected once they leave the Motherland. Acrid complaints about the treatment of Russian adoptees in the hands of American families have resurfaced, specifically 16 deaths due to abuse since 1996.

What is omitted from the storyline is Russia’s own treatment of children who are abandoned and orphaned and then placed in institutional care.

The Russians also conveniently seem to forget that protective laws are already in place. The United States and about 80 other nations have signed on to and ratified the Hague Convention, a body of treaties whose purpose is "to work for the progressive unification…of private international [adoption] law…” (from Article 1 of the Statute of the Hague Conference). Standardizing these practices, especially when it comes to money, adoption disclosure, and parent training, seems a crucial tool for monitoring pre-and post-adoption placement. Russia, however, is currently a non-Hague Convention country.

Brandeis researcher E.J. Graff, laid out in the Boston Globe this past week just how dire Russia’s intransigent position could prove to be.  Thousands of institutionalized children who desperately need homes may not be placed in one. Those placed might fear return to their first country if the placement does not go well.  

Russia officialdom’s outrage is a hollow distraction as it tries to dig into the deep pockets of American largesse. Lacking both the political and financial will to fix their corrupt institutional care system, the Russians would love nothing more than to have American dollars pay for the care and oversight they themselves have chronically failed to provide.

In the pecking order of Russian social services, institutionalized children get a very thin slice of the safety-net pie. In a 2007 report, Unicef cited that nearly 200,000 Russian children lived in state institutions and were provided only the minimum of custodial care. With a low qualification threshold for childcare workers and a woeful lack of adequate resources, the staff often reflects the same lethargy as the children in its care.

Compounding the neglect is the Russian political tactic of delaying international adoptions. Since 1998, when we adopted our son, the waiting period has doubled from four months to eight, if everything goes without a hitch. The intention is to give Russian nationals the opportunity to adopt before proceeding with an out-of-country placement. The reality is that Russians have been slow to adopt.  The number of children available greatly outpaces the demand.

While the media, the U.S., and Russia wrangle and posture over the legal machinations of this case, the real-life tragedy has been pushed off-center like a sidebar. 

Last year, Americans adopted 1,586 children from Russia, the third highest rate for non-domestic adoptions. Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, stated on NPR last week that more than 60,000 Russian children have been successfully adopted in the United States.

When looking at failed adoptions, Johnson said the rate is 15% for both foreign and domestic adoptions. Biological families, like adoptive families, can also become unhinged. In 2006 (the most recent year for which there are statistics), the number of children in domestic foster care topped 510,000.

So if many kinds of families do fall apart, why has this story captured our collective consciousness?

Simply stated: shame.

Artyom’s story tells us not just that two nations and assorted agencies supposedly working on his behalf failed him but that our American ideal-laden notions of parenting, family, and adoption did as well.

How frightened and alone this seven-year-old must have felt, plucked, like a toy in a claw-operated prize booth, from where he lived and flown across the ocean to an English-speaking home in predominately white, rural Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Although some facts have dribbled out through the media free-for-all, we really know very little about Torry Hansen or what actually occurred in her home. Hansen herself says she will not speak or meet with investigators unless she is formally charged with a crime.

Artyom’s life both prior to and after his adoption is a mystery, deeply concealed by both language and cultural barriers. It is unclear when Hansen began to feel overwhelmed by his unhappiness. Was she self-blaming and resentful? Or was the reality of life with her adopted son so removed from her imaginings of motherhood that she found the situation unbearable?

Adoptive parents may be able to empathize with Hansen, but what we need, as a society, is a reality check. Adoption is not a trial run. When we adopt, as when we birth, we bring into our orbit of love and care a being wholly dependent on us. It’s about a no-turning-back lifetime commitment to raising a child and helping that child navigate his or her way safely into adulthood.

I know something about what Hansen must have been going through. Like her, I am a single parent. (My husband died three months after we adopted our baby son. Our biological daughter was three at that time.)  Like the alleged reports about Artyom’s disruptive behavior, my son has been a tough kid to parent: four schools, multiple therapists, meds, lots of acting out, and need for in-home support.

But unlike Hansen, I never thought it an option to relinquish my son, despite extreme moments of exasperation, his bouts with unpredictable behaviors, and the number of gray hairs he has given me.

Although my son was just five months old when we adopted him, institutional neglect was already apparent. He was constantly hungry, underweight, malnourished, listless, prone to self-soothing, and subsequently chronically ill for the first four years of life.  In pre-school, the best that could be said about his social skills was “does not play well with others.”

But instead of his challenges pushing me away, they have fueled my quest to be a better, smarter mother. I have attended workshops, support groups, individual and family therapy, and secured mental-health services.

I say this not as a putdown to Hansen, or any other parent who has struggled with difficult children, but as a way to offer insight into what it takes to nurture, care for, and love a child that flails against your best intentions. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I have benefited from a highly educated, massively professionalized, and resource-intensive urban area. As an older parent, I have many friends who have also adopted, and together we share our uncertainties, experiences, and support systems.

With professional help, I learned to overcome the great waves of inadequacy I encountered when my son was a toddler and I wasn’t sure I was up to the job of being his mother. With the loving support of friends and family, I have navigated through the tough social and educational choices I needed to make for the well being of my son.

I have learned that asking for help is not shameful and does not reflect on my parenting inabilities. I have learned, as all parents must learn, that the needs of my son are often much more urgent than my own.

And I have also learned that the only thing shameful about this kind of struggle is a lack of funding and political will for the services families truly need to care for their children. If we’re not up to the job, then who is?

To read more about Fran's personal story of adopting an infant son in Russia, read her 2009 Adopt-a-tude piece "Why Do the Russians Make It So Hard to Adopt?"

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Russian Adoptions: Who's at Fault and What Do We Do?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

When I first saw the pictures of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev—who is close to my son’s age—in Moscow, after his adoptive grandmother put him on a flight from Washington, D.C., by himself, I wondered what the hell is wrong with us.

Who is “us”? That’s the question. American adoptive parents? Not most of us, by any stretch. The American adoption agency involved, which has now had its license suspended by the Russian education ministry? Again, that’s painting with a broad brush. The Russian orphanage in which by some reports the boy was mistreated? Who knows?

I wanted to blame somebody, though, as did the many commenters on news stories and blogs about Artyom’s fate this past weekend. Adoptive mother Torry Hansen and grandmother Nancy were right at hand, courtesy of the AP. Here are a few comments about the story from Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog:
“This is totally unconscionable and irresponsible.”
“This woman's (I cannot say—‘mother's,’ for she doesn't deserve such a title) behaviour is despicable.”
“This article made me cry. It takes the patience and endurance of Mother Theresa to deal with special needs children. Where did this woman not understand the commitment to a young, troubled child that she adopted into her family?”
Last week, Nancy Hansen decided to fly Artyom (called Justin by his adoptive family) back to Russia because his violent behavior had become too much for them. According to one of the AP stories, his grandmother “chronicled a list of problems: hitting, screaming and spitting at his mother and threatening to kill family members.” He apparently slammed one aunt with a statue when she pushed him to do math homework. (The family was home schooling him.) Hansen says he threatened to burn their home down.

Back in Russia, he was accompanied by a note from adoptive mother Torry Hansen, who is a registered nurse: “This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues…I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues…. After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.''

As of Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was threatening to suspend all U.S. adoptions, calling this “the last straw.”

Grandmother Nancy says she had no idea she was setting off an international incident. She did tell an AP reporter, "The intent of my daughter was to have a family and the intent of my whole family was to love that child."

I hate stories like this, in which a child becomes abandoned over and over again, unwanted by anyone. I hate what this does to me as an adoptive parent of a son born in Vietnam, of the doubts I start to feel about whether I had any right to everything that my family means.

I’m also waiting for more facts. The problem, as usual, is that a media storm has managed to make the situation even murkier, spreading an array of misinformation about international adoption, attachment disorders, and what constitutes “normal.”

Shocking headlines like “Boy from Russia said ‘he’d torch our home’” and “Grandmother: Boy terrified adoptive kin” keep the focus on extreme behavior. Here’s the blurb that introduces the AP report in the Seattle Times: “Torry Hansen was so eager to become a mother that she adopted an older child from a foreign country, two factors that scare off many prospective parents. Her fear came later.”

A distorted look at “the inside story of adoptions that go horribly wrong” aired on ABC's Nightline Friday, including videos taken by parents of children having “meltdowns.” (Click here for the accompanying article.)

This prompted developmental psychologist Jean Mercer to debunk some myths in a Psychology Today blog. She rightly castigates Nightline for running home videos without questioning the parents’ interpretations. In one case, shortly after a pair of Russian sisters had been adopted, the older sister wanders around her American home in tears, clutching a blanket, and crawling under furniture. Mercer notes,
“[T]he parents seem to have regarded it as such bizarre and unacceptable behavior that it needed to be recorded because no outsider would believe it.
“But what do we actually see in this video of a child who has been in the adoptive home for about a week? Let me just inquire how similar it might be to your own behavior, if you had been taken by very large people who spoke a different language, put on an airplane with little comprehensible explanation, and taken far away to a new house, new food, new ways of doing things? Would you be grateful?”
Meanwhile, it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective. According to the U.S. State Department, there have been about 15,000 U.S.-Russia adoptions in the past five years. I’ve heard that in the last fifteen years, it’s about 50,000. As many adoption experts have noted, most of these don’t go “horribly wrong.”

Whether Artyom is really psychopathic and violent is unclear. Even if it were true, shoving him onto airplane is at the very least an act of ignorant desperation. Giving him an American name when he was already six years old indicates a lack of awareness and empathy. The Hansens—not to mention those parents supplying videos of their children for Nightline—appear to have little understanding of what it means to suddenly land in another culture.

Yet something much larger is at play than the actions of two unfit adoptive family members. Based on the official outrage of Russia—following on the travesty of American missionaries trying to hustle Haitian “orphans” out of that country after the recent earthquake—the practice of international adoption is once again under fire.

There are lots of ethical reasons why it should be. In Haiti, a number of the children involved still had biological parents. In many other developing countries, from Vietnam to Ethiopia, there’s always been the risk of money paid for babies to finance a less than savory adoption industry.

Yet there’s the flip side, too, and you see it in Russia and Haiti: social welfare systems that simply are ill equipped and far too under-funded to support the rolls of abandoned children. What you see is poverty and its brutal impact on society’s most vulnerable: children who receive little or no adult care.

Let me say it again: you see poverty, on a global scale, ramped up by the churn of developing economies. The Harvard University Project on Global Working Families, research that surveyed 55,000 people in a variety of countries and is detailed in Jody Heymann’s book Forgotten Families, makes clear that many children have no one to take care of them. Here’s a quote from my own 2007 review of Heymann’s book in Women’s Review of Books:
“Of the working parents interviewed, nineteen percent in Vietnam left their children alone or in the care of an unpaid child; 27 percent did so in Mexico; and a whopping 48 percent did in Botswana, which has almost no publicly funded child care.”
Even the reference in a USA Today story about Artyom—“United Airlines allows unaccompanied children as young as 5 years old on direct flights. Children age 8 and above can catch connecting flights, as well”—chills me.

So maybe we should blame global capitalism and every one of us (that “us”) who participates. Maybe it’s not just the Hansens of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Maybe we should blame general ignorance about international adoption—for example, the various media commentators ranting about the numbers on the rise when in fact they’ve been in steep decline since 2004.

Our son was a baby when we adopted him from Vietnam, from an orphanage in which he seemed very well treated by affectionate staff. He is now a happy and healthy little boy. I say this not to vaunt my own skills as a parent but to add that even my son, who remembers nothing of the orphanage—an orphanage that was far from a horror show—has occasional meltdowns. When he was just a little younger than Artyom, he would cry uncontrollably when I left him at school. My son still sucks his thumb, though he’s working on it.

Loss experienced by young children can be profound and impossible to process rationally. The fact that my mother was hospitalized when I was six still sits in my soul. Sometimes I believe my own loss has helped me to understand my son’s; other times, I think that all humans walk alone.

In my adoptive family, some days we walk in the light. We are together, we are whole. But have we really become a world in which so many children have no safe homes?

Apparently so. At this moment, all I can do is hug my boy close.

This piece also appears in Martha's Open Salon blog, Athena's Head.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Haitian Adoptees: The Problem with "Why Not?"

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

This is the third in a series of commentaries on Adopt-a-tude about Haitian orphans and international adoption. The press spotlight has been on ethical infractions, for very good reason. But now we have local news stories about U.S.-Haiti adoptions that have been completed successfully. The word "savior" is never mentioned, but that's where the focus seems to be—again.

It's Saturday morning, and the Boston Globe has a beautiful, provoking, complicated photo above the fold on the front page. A dark-skinned girl with a purple headband and huge grin tackle-hugs a white woman with strawberry-blonde hair.

They're sitting on an oriental rug that's covering a hard-wood floor. The caption: "Wislandie, an 8-year-old orphan from Haiti, is right at home with adoptive mother Beth Wescott of North Andover."

I love this picture. As an adoptive mom myself, it's a relief after all the mug shots of misguided missionaries trying to smuggle children out of Haiti. In the video that accompanies the online version of the story, "A New Home for Wislandie," adoptive mom Beth gently rocks a little girl who is lively and mischievous but also clearly in need of comfort.

Yet the Globe's photo spread, video, and story by Maria Sacchetti—"Joy, Frustration Brought Home"—raise big questions for me, too, because of all that isn't said or shown. This front-page feature, more than all the press about those criminally ignorant Baptists, exemplifies the cognitive dissonance that's part of transracial adoption.

Why is the white-savior storyline so entrenched? And why is it so hard for the "objective" journalistic voice to talk about race?

The racial difference of these Haitian adoptees and their adoptive parents isn't mentioned once in this story. Perhaps the photo and video are supposed to lay that issue on the table—and they do—but the story frame is the usual one of dedicated church members (Wislandie's adoptive father is a pastor) visiting Haitian children in a Christian orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

To be fair to Wislandie's new parents and the orphanage (the Marion Austin Christian School) and this story, "about 10 Boston-area churches regularly send mission groups to help at the school," Sacchetti writes—and the connection prospective adoptive parents have formed with children apparently often goes back to when they were toddlers. Many of the prospective adoptees are in their teens.

Before the earthquake, some adoptions were already in-process; according to the article, a few like Wislandie's have been successfully completely. But other potential adoptive parents and adoptees wait, mired in even more bureaucratic red tape, as conditions for the orphanage children worsen. (In this same issue of the Globe, the story above Sacchetti's, after the jump to page A8,  is headlined "Haiti Wants Refugees Back in Ravaged Areas.")

As Massachusetts state rep Barry Finegold asks: "These children are never going to have families in Haiti, so why not try to bring them into loving families in Massachusetts?"

Yes, why not? The rhetorical question rings true in the most immediate way for long-time orphans. Seventeen-year-old Auguste Joseph wants to join his frustrated adoptive parents in Ashby, Masschusetts. Like other kids in the orphanage wearing Red Sox T-shirts, Auguste is quoted as saying, "I'm dying to go.... I've been waiting for a long time."

Why not?

For many of us in the international adoption community—adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoption workers—this question is far from simple, though. After "why not?",  I also wonder "what next?"

There are hints of the dissonance to come in an evocative description at the end of the Globe feature: Wislandie is now wearing pink Crocs and has a bedroom of her own with heart-patterned wallpaper. "It is not an easy transition," Sacchetti writes; the girl's adoptive parents "look alternately joyful and exhausted."

Most haunting: "Even though she has so much now, Wislandie insists on dividing every snack or sandwich, to give away half to her mother, father, or sister."

The story then closes with her adoptive mom insisting—rightly—that her daughter isn't the only one who's lucked out.

Yet this is really just the prologue. The rest of the real story, which varies with every transracial adoptee and his or her particular family circumstances, is full of complications of race and culture and loss that apparently can't be accommodated in a mainstream news feature.

Here's where have I to ask: Why not? Why can't a daily paper like the Boston Globe, in a metropolitan area that includes a large Haitian immigrant population, tell this story as more than one white family's joy and the frustration of other waiting white families?

At least one caller to a January 20 NPR show, "Where Will All the Haitian Orphans Go?", raised issues of cultural and homeland loss. These were treated seriously by Tom DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, the guest on this edition of Talk of the Nation.

Other sources, such as the ColorLines' blog RaceWire, have grappled with the racial question of whites adopting Haitian orphans. And as one topic on the Haitian Internet Newsletter, "Haiti's Orphans, what are we going to do about it?", puts it:
"Let me ask you a question:

Do you really think that the rest of the world will just fly to Haiti and take all these Haitian kids into new homes somewhere outside of Haiti so they can live happily ever after?

The orphan children of Haiti are Haiti's problem and now is the time to start talking about how we're going to deal with it.

This is our country, these are our kids..."
Discussions about race and culture and international adoption are all over the Internet and in various blog and editorial forms, even in mainstream-press outlets. But you wouldn't know it from this Globe feature about Wislandie.

Interestingly, a number of the online comments to the story so far have been negative, pointing out snidely that there are American black kids waiting for adoption, too. That kind of knee-jerk response flips too far in the other direction, but it's obvious that readers and video-watchers are reacting immediately to the racial difference.

You could argue that daily news features are really people stories. Americans adopting orphans from countries like Haiti or Vietnam (as in my own family) can surely be heart-warming.

Simplifying the emotional storyline, however, by focusing only on getting home to America has political and social implications. It seems to deny that differences of race and culture matter. And I don't think daily news is off the hook for promulgating musty stereotypes—letting anonymous online commenters criticize or go out on a limb rather than reporting on what this white mother, for example, thinks about parenting a black child.

Of course Wislandie is happy to be free of the current devastation in Port-au-Prince, where many families huddle under nothing but bedsheet tents as the rainy season approaches.

Yet what will she think of her homeland as she gets older? Will she make connections with the local Haitian community in Boston and Cambridge? Will she keep speaking French and Creole? Will she realize that Haiti has a rich history and literature, a complicated history, that it is not just defined by poverty and disaster?

That is the international adoptive parenting journey. It is very possible that Wislandie's adoptive mom and dad will help her along the way. In the video, Beth holds the girl close and talks realistically about adjustment challenges and the scene in Haiti.

But not until I read more mainstream stories that dig into white adoptive parents talking about race—and not until I hear more about the links that could be forged between adoptees and the Haitian American community—will I believe that the discussion of international adoption has moved beyond saving those poor lucky kids from a place better left behind in the rubble.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Asian Adoptees, Anime Heroes, and the Racebending Controversy

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

I began writing about the anime-inspired Avatar/Last Airbender cartoons in order to rave about how much everyone in my small family loves them. But I soon discovered that the live-action movie, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, has been cast with mostly white actors in the lead roles.

The controversy has been brewing for awhile, but I'd like to alert other adoptive parents to this "racebending," as it's been called by Asian American critics, especially after a glitzy ad for the movie ran during the Super Bowl. Please take a look at for information about the movie protest.

Who would have thought I’d develop a midlife crush on anime?

It’s true that at a recent showing of the New England Anime Society I felt a hundred years older than the mostly male geek audience. I had to leave within five minutes, unable to sit through the dialogue.

An approximation: “Look at his underpants!” “Ooh, he’s wearing underpants with a heart on them!” (Snigger, snigger.) “Careful, that girl on a bicycle has breasts.”

I won’t claim cartoons like this grip me. I've never been a big animation fan. But The Last Airbender, the epic Nickelodeon series, exists on a different plane altogether.

Whether it's My Neighbor Totoro, the kind of Japanese shorts I saw at the anime festival, or the American-flavored Nickelodeon series, these cartoons are undeniably Asian-themed.

As in Japanese anime, some of the characters have white skin or those big manga eyes. As in Kung Fu Panda, the Airbender cartoons employed mostly white voice actors; sometimes the young heroes sound like they've walked off an iCarly set.

But anyone who's watched the animated Airbender series knows that everything in it, from the character names to the music, is steeped in Asian cultural references. What my son sees in the cartoons are Asian heroes taking charge of the action—heroes who look like him.

That's why I'm frankly appalled that white actors will be playing many of the young heroes in the upcoming movie of The Last Airbender. In a good play on words, critics have called this racial reworking of the movie yet another example of "racebending."

Because my son has just turned eight, I want to celebrate what he so obviously loves about the Airbender series—the martial arts sequences, complete with lightning and ice arrows; the Asian imagery; the teenage heroes—and its particular meaning for us as an adoptive family.

I know I’m on suspect cultural ground here. Yet my son, an Asian adoptee, is growing up in a white American household. The Airbender cartoons are an anime hybrid created by two white American guys with the help of Korean animators—a fitting metaphor for us.

Now here comes a special-effects extravaganza of a movie, one my son will surely beg to see, which is another kind of metaphor. It will symbolize why Asian adoptees often feel like honorary white people.

I do worry about how my boy will put himself together as an Asian American man; I've come to see his fascination with anime and manga cartoons as a way for him to grapple with his heritage on his own terms. But with the Airbender movie, he'll get no help. Directed by the high-profile M. Night Shyamalan, it's in the works for this summer and may soon become a juggernaut. 

Shame on you, M. Night Shyamalan.

My husband and I can never claim we have a personal understanding of racism. We could be accused of ripping off Asian culture in adopting a child from Vietnam. Our family can't be reduced to that, but if I'm mercilessly honest, I have to admit that Asian culture is as appealing to me as it is to other white Americans who dabble in martial arts and yoga, attend anime festivals, and go to Chinese New Year's parades.

That makes it even more important for parents like me to challenge racism, unconscious and otherwise, and to name it for what it is.

When I mentioned to my son that white actors will be playing many of his favorite characters in the movie—including Aang, the last airbender and center of the story—he said, "What? That's weird. That doesn't make sense."

No kidding. Here's a fun YouTube montage from the animated original:

Aang is a bald 12-year-old monk with a blue arrow tattooed on his forehead. He's also a reincarnated spiritual leader known as the “Avatar.” He's the Dalai Lama, not Gandalf. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005. Because we watched all three “Books” on DVD long after it was broadcast, we could see as many episodes as we wanted in a sitting. Every time we’d say a collective "No!" at the end of one—my son always adding, "What a cliffhanger!"—we’d look at each other and hit play for the next. (In case you’re wondering, the Avatar cartoons have nothing to do with the James Cameron movie.)

When the series opens, the Fire Nation is ruled by an evil lord who wants to take over the world. In The Last Airbender universe, benders have magical powers based on the four elements—air, water, earth, and fire. The Avatar is the one person who can bend them all. Aang is very young to become the Avatar. But the Fire Lord is on the march again, and Aang, with the help of his loyal companions, has to learn fast how to bend the other elements.

For those who don't love fantasy, there's no way to avoid the inflated portentousness this gloss implies. It’s manga-meets-The Lord of the Rings-meets Buddhism.

Yet it works. At least the animated version does. Thank God we've watched the cartoons before Shyamalan's epic rolls out. Here's the trailer that ran during the Super Bowl last night:

Impressive as it looks, it seems too bombastic and literal. As for the racebending casting choices, cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang have written eloquent posts about why this is a problem. Take these excerpts from Kim's post, written a year ago "on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration":
"[I]magine if someone had made a 'fantasy' movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...

...but everyone is white.

How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villains and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about The Last Airbender suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will....)

But curiously, when similar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved." 
It's true that outcries of racism by the model minority are generally shrugged off by mainstream America. This trailer from an upcoming documentary called Yellow Face emphasizes why protesting the racial reworking of a kid's TV show is not just "silly" or a waste of effort.

The Shyamalan movie, the first of a planned trilogy, will likely get a big promotional push, especially after the success of Cameron's Avatar. That Shyamalan, an Indian American, went with such casting choices indicates how unconscious racism can be. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire will play the crucial role of Prince Zuko, but only after replacing the original white actor cast for the role.

Just to be clear: Japanese and Korean creators of anime characters, be they super-ninjas or ghetto-talking African Americans, aren't off the hook for perpetuating racist stereotypes.

These days, there's an endless parade of martial-arts superhero franchises (and action figures and trading cards to buy), but most of this drek never rises above the ridiculously rote. There still aren't many positive, complex images of Asian characters in popular media—people who aren't karate-chopping villains on speeding trains or running nasty industrial cartels.

Which is why it's such a shame that many of the Airbender heroes won't be Asian in the movie.

In the Airbender cartoons we get Katara, a waterbender with healing powers, and her brother Sokka, resident goof and complainer. We get Toph, a blind earthbender who can bowl over bad guys four times her size and sees the world through her feet. We get Appa, Aang's flying bison, whom the loyal buddies ride through the air. 

There are kick-ass evil girls as well as good ones; soldiers who ride bird-horses; a haiku rap contest; even an old and cold soul in the spirit world who steals people's faces.

There are romantic entanglements, far more than in the buddy-plot of The Lord of the Rings. Aang’s cheeks often turn pink—in best anime style—in the vicinity of Katara.

Most important, there's character development and moral ambiguity, especially in the person of Prince Zuko, the banished teenage son of the Fire Lord. Zuko starts off trying to capture the Avatar in order to regain his father's approval. By Book Two of the series, Zuko is in a major tug-a-war of conscience over which side he's on. 

Adults will get more of the satirical references in The Last Airbender cartoons, but I think my son really understands and wonders about the same conflicts I do. To "bend" this story racially in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience is to do a real disservice to the complex questions about history and family the cartoons raise. 

In an early episode called “The Library,” Aang and his companions, along with a professor of anthropology, find a legendary library of all the world's knowledge almost completely buried by sand in the middle of a desert.

Once they enter the library through an upper window, they meet an Owl-like spirit who runs it. The Owl is not warm and fuzzy. This amoral spirit looks like a kabuki-painted demon in a black shawl.

Still, the Owl agrees to let them stay as long as they don't take away knowledge in order to hurt other humans. Sokka, in particular, doesn't keep that promise, and the Owl flies into a frenzy. They flee for their lives, just escaping before the library collapses forever into the sand.

On the way out, however, the professor can't make himself leave. He stays behind and disappears with the rest of the library. 

"Why didn't he leave?” my son asked. “Didn't he die?"

“Some people will do anything for knowledge,” I said.

He didn’t look convinced.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “Some adults just get obsessed.”

"Why?" His voice quivered. “Did he die?” 

I wanted to comfort my boy then, as if he were a baby, murmuring it will be fine, it’s all right, you will never lose anybody you love. Ssshh, real adults don’t act that way. 

I reached for him, but he slapped my hands away.

“No!” he sobbed.

I stayed with my son as he cried and raged—internally kicking myself. Stupid professor. Except I understood the man’s love of books and his obliviousness, just as my son knows some adults really do disappear.

More recently, he and I have talked about which Airbender episodes are the most disturbing. He doesn’t want to watch something like “The Library” again, and I’ve since wondered if I should have spared him the disturbing parts. But on balance, I'd say no.

Birthdays have their own emotional weight for adoptees. My son has just celebrated another one with us—happily, I think. Yet birthdays inevitably evoke missing parents, too, and in his case, a missing race and culture. At eight, my son is full of joy. He may also be excited by the prospect of traveling beyond his white American existence, a desire that churns up guilt and grief.

The point is, his journey will be complex. Shyamalan's movie may ask big questions, too, but he's got a hard act to follow.

Late in the animated series, Prince Zuko visits his family’s summer house on a remote island, discovering photos of his mother and father when he was a small child. In the pictures, they're laughing; they seem happy. Teenage Zuko, estranged from his father, his mother gone, becomes more furious and sullen.

As we watched Zuko burn the photos, my son snuggled closer to me.

“It’s sad,” he said.

I nodded my head against his glossy black hair. “It’s very sad.”

Oh, my dear boy. Happy Birthday.

This post appeared on Open Salon in a slightly different form as "How I Became an Anime Fan—Not a Racebender."  Some of the comments there indicate why racism keeps sneaking in under the wire.

All drawings by my son and used with his permission.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Find My Family": An Adoptive Parent Responds

By Lisa at Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

The ABC reality show Find My Family first aired in the United States this past November. Each episode involves the reunion of an adoptee with his or her birth parents. Emotions run high. Tears flow on-screen and off. In other words, it's great television—but does that make it a good depiction of adoption?

Click here to watch recent episodes.

From the literal "family tree" on a sunny hillside to the earnest hosts, Find My Family pushes different buttons for adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive families. Even some mainstream TV reviewers have called the show "grotesque." When it was first picked up by ABC (it's based on successful "relationship reality" programming in Holland and Australia), Variety ran this headline: "ABC adopts 'Find My Family' show."

But clearly not everyone in the adoption community feels the same way. The "grotesque" remark from a TV critic doesn't account for why reunions really are emotional and difficult to pull off. At Adopt-a-tude, we'll be running responses to the show from different angles. We'd like to invite the adoption community to talk about this together.

First up is adoptive parent Lisa, the Caucasian mother of a Chinese-born daughter. Posts by an adult adoptee and a birth mother will follow this week.

I came to Find My Family already grappling with a whirlwind of emotions. A recent discussion on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode blog opened my eyes to the very real pain adult adoptees may experience. Watching the December 7 episode of Find My Family last week, I felt I understood the emotions expressed by adult adoptees Kari Spencer and Jennifer Curtis—and that's not just because of the recent discussion on Motherlode

I've seen some of these same feelings reflected in my 9-year-old daughter's eyes, if not her words. The sense of abandonment. Of feeling tossed aside without explanation. The potential for all that to gnaw away at one's sense of self worth.

I understood too the longing: "I deserve to see where I came from." And sadly, as a single mom raising a daughter who's an only child, I've spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying whether my daughter will feel "alone in the world"—as more than one adoptee on the show articulated. In truth, the show made me long all the more for the possibility that my daughter might someday find and connect with her Chinese kin.

So, on the one hand, the show made me question again the wisdom of closed adoptions. The bottom line is blood relations are family. You don't cease being "family" just because you're not there. Adopted or not, we all have far-flung family members. Is there a draw there? The possibility for that sense of kindred connection? I'd be lying if I said no.

The truth, for me personally, is that I think if I were Kari Spencer's adoptive mother in the first story aired on last Monday's show, and Kari Spencer's birth mother had—as she claims—returned within those first, very early (three) months and demonstrated that she and her husband had both the desire and means to raise Kari, wrenching as it would have been, I think I’d have wanted to give Kari the chance to be with her biological mother.

The American Adoption Congress highlights the issue this way:
“The AAC believes that all children have the same core of basic needs, and that these needs can be met most easily when children can grow up in the family into which they were born. Every effort should be made to preserve the integrity of this family. When birth families are unable to meet the ongoing needs of children born to them, however, we believe that adoption provides the best alternative—provided the adoptions are humane, honest, and rooted in the understanding that adoption does not erase a child's connections to the family into which they were born. We believe that those who have lived the adoption experience are in the best position to articulate the importance of these conditions and to bring about an adoption system that is based on them.”
I think the AAC’s focus and priorities make sense. That said, there's a broad range of adoptee experiences and opinions. While it's clear there are a number of adult adoptees who are active, vocal, and angry, I’m curious to know how broadly representative their opinions are. I’d love to see a broad-based, statistically meaningful study that represents the full range of adoptee experiences to date.

In the meantime, as much as I feel sympathetic to the pain articulated by the adult adoptees and birth mothers in Find My Family, I'm also an adoptive parent and—I’m human. So while I understand the deep-seated need to discover the connection and sense of belonging that comes from blood ties, from the sense of having been molded from the same clay, there is another part of me, in my head, in my heart, that feels there are things about Find My Family that are one-sided, superficial, and potentially exploitative.

What individual—adopted or otherwise—doesn’t fantasize about the perfect family, the one that's truly attuned and connected to who we are on a cellular level?

Family is in part based on DNA. But that's the raw material, and it's just the beginning. Family, particularly the intense job of parenting, being the mom or the dad, is about being there, day in and day out, year in and year out, through the good, the bad, the sick, the rebellious, and ugly. It’s a commitment, a bond that grows in the heart and in the wiring that develops in the brain. It comes from living and breathing as a family unit, so much so that you unconsciously share the same gestures, the same manner of speech, the same quirky sense of humor.

It's about the emotional equity, the sweat equity, and, at the risk of sounding crass, the financial equity as well. It's about paying the emergency room bills, the annual doctor's bills, the dental and orthodontic bills. It's about putting money aside each year for college. It's about the puppy in the window, the school ski trip, the camping adventure, and presents under the tree each year at Christmas.

It's not just a climb and a hug on a sunlit hill thirty years later.  

So I’ll admit that when the Find My Family hosts and adoptees kept saying, "That's your mother" and "We found your mother" and "We found your family"—as if these adoptees were still orphaned and alone in the world—I couldn't help but cringe. I wondered what the adoptive parents were feeling as they viewed this footage. Yes. This was the birth mother who had clearly struggled and grieved her lost children. But what about the woman who was there all those years doing all the actual...mothering. Who was she? The babysitter?

I know how subjective and biased I sound as I read what I've written. I think it's the sweat equity talking. But I don't honestly know how, or if I can, disengage from that. The bottom line for me is that, as an adoptive parent, the show made me feel incredibly invisible.

If, broadly speaking and in actuality, adoptive families form a “triad,” the show should try to represent the reality, not just a selective slice, a single fairytale moment in time. Include the full triad. I know this can be sticky. But that’s in part the point—and the reality.

Within my own family, among myself and my cousins, we have more than seven examples of adoption to draw from. They include two international adoptions, two open adoptions, two closed adoptions, and a foster parent who became an adoptive parent. In the case of the foster parent, she only moved to adopt her daughter after four or five years of waiting for the birth mother to overcome her addictions and provide for her daughter. When the birth mother proved unable, she relinquished her claim to “mother” her daughter.

In the case of our family's two open adoptions, sadly, the adoptive parents pursued and tried to maintain the originally agreed-on connection. In both instances, to varying degrees, despite ongoing efforts, the birth mothers dropped away. This isn't to say open adoption is a mistake or a bad idea. It's just to say every adoptive circumstance is different. Families fracture. Pain can result any number of ways. The question is, what "family" will be there to pick up the pieces?

I'll be interested to see what kind of follow-up occurs on Find My Family. Will they choose only those stories that offer a happy ending? I'm sure there will be many wonderful, heart-warming connections and re-connections established. These are wonderful to see. But what will they do if, over time, some of the romance in these newly discovered relationships fades? Real families inevitably entail real conflict.

As an adoptive parent in the trenches dealing with the grit and grind of everyday life, the challenge I grapple with is the everpresent threat of the phantom perfect parent—as much as I know we're all human and that birth parents undoubtedly have their struggles. I’m wondering what Find My Family will do with those stories where the birth parents are found and the adoptee is confronted, God forbid, with a second rejection? This is real life as well. It happens. But then this raises another issue.  Is this really appropriate material for prime-time television?

I'm wary of an opportunistic prime-time reality show competing for ratings that paints a one-dimensional, overly romantic view of adoptees and birth families when the picture is, in reality—like most real-life families—far more complex.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is My Son Lucky?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

He’s so lucky to have a parent like you.

She’s lucky to be here.

Every adoptive parent hears the “lucky” comment at some point, especially if a child was born in a developing country like Vietnam, as my son was. Most of us have ready-made responses: No, I’m the lucky one or We all feel lucky to be a family.

If you haven’t adopted internationally or spent time with adult adoptees, it’s probably hard to imagine the mix of guilt, irritation, and confusion the “lucky” comment sparks. I’ve heard it from extended family members, strangers on the street, friends, even from a security worker at the Phú Quốc airport last December.

I’m never sure if people say it because they think it will make me feel good, because they think it’s what I want to hear, or because they simply don't know what else to say. In the case of the Vietnamese airport worker, I think she really believed it.

Talking about my lucky son doesn’t make me feel better, however. More than anything, the notion of luck emphasizes the randomness of life and the fact that a child I dearly love might not ever have crossed my path. How could that be? The thought scares me; I’m also deeply grateful. I’m all too aware of the cognitive dissonance I experience as an adoptive parent: I'm thrilled we are a family; at the same time, I know my gain is another woman's loss—and possibly a loss for my son as well.

When Mei-Ling Hopgood titled her terrific memoir Lucky Girl, I’m sure she was invoking cognitive dissonance, too, as an adult adoptee. A child’s understanding of luck changes over time. It’s not a simple notion, particularly if you’re grappling with what luck means in two different cultures and the way that has shaped who you’ve become.

Talking about adoptees as "lucky" makes them sound like charity cases. This construction of international adoption was foisted on an earlier generation from Korea and Vietnam, including those adopted through the infamous or humanitarian (depending on your point of view) Operation Babylift in the mid-1970s.

There’s been plenty of criticism of this humanitarian approach, much of it justified. Yet now the pendulum has swung the other way, with many current adoptive parents claiming they were motivated by a desire for a family rather than by charitable impulses. Critics snap back that we’re buying babies. Celebrity international adoptions and ethical violations put us on the defensive even more.

In recent discussions on blogs like Racialicious and Harlow’s Monkey, there are bracing comments about the “selfishness” of international adoption and the havoc it wreaks for children of color. These are well worth a read; they make clear that mainstream media representations of adoption and the debate about it are misleading at best.

But if you extend this reasoning—as some more hyperbolic commenters do, especially when railing again Madonna—no international adoptees are lucky. They’ve been torn from their birth families and cultures; they are saddled with unresolvable grief and identity confusion.

So, when a well-meaning person beams at my charming seven-year-old and says, “He’s so lucky,” I’m extremely uncomfortable. Knowing the sharp criticism of some adult adoptees, how can I not squirm?

Nevertheless, there really are millions of children who need homes now. Not in some distant future when all sending countries have completely overhauled their systems and the U.N. is satisfied—now.

In this way, I think my son is lucky. I don’t believe he would have been better off in an orphanage. He’s lucky to have escaped an institutionalized existence or life on the streets.

Like so many adoptive parents, I’ve been tempted by the idea that fate brought this child to my husband and me. Our being together just feels right. But if I’m honest, luck makes more sense than fate. I can’t pass off a decision I made—and the resources I have to carry it out—on God or the Universe. I’m responsible for it, for good or ill. And I'm an American, after all, who believes we make our own luck.

At the moment, my son is going on eight years old and confused about what his luck means. He still clings to me whenever he gets worried that we aren’t a “real” family. Yet close to a year after we took a return trip together to Vietnam, my son’s understanding of his own situation also seems to be deepening.

He tells me lately that he feels sad, as if he left a part of himself in Vietnam.

“You did,” I say, because it's the truth.

This post originally appeared in WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog for the Women's Review of Books. Read Martha’s review of Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood and Culture Keeping by Heather Jacobson in WRB 's September/October 2009 issue.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why Do the Russians Make It So Tough to Adopt?

Guest Post by Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, Fran Cronin’s family was featured in the Adopt-a-tude piece “Attachment: ‘Love Is Just a Starting Point.’” The struggles of Fran and her son with attachment issues were highlighted there. Now Fran describes how she came to adopt from Russia and why institutional care can profoundly hurt children.

When you are 46 and want to have a baby but biology is no longer on your side, the answer to what you want is adoption.

In 1998, when my husband and I decided to pursue adoption, we had been living in Moscow for almost four years. Our biological daughter was almost three, and we were eager to expand our family.  But as a breast-cancer survivor, living in Yeltsin-era Moscow, the farthest I got with fertility enhancement was taking little purple pills prescribed by a doctor in Helsinki, accompanied by lots of unspontaneous sex.

“We are living in the land of adoption,” my weary husband finally said. He was alluding to what we called Plan B in the family-planning manual. 

That year, the adoption of Russian babies by foreign nationals was almost epidemic. During 1998, Americans alone adopted 4,432 Russian babies, more than 12 adoptions a day. On our frequent travels back and forth between Moscow and New York, there would invariably be several families returning with their newly adopted children. The trend peaked in 2004 with the adoption of 5,865 Russian children by American families.  The following year, the Russians tightened the rules for accrediting adoption agencies, and since then the number of Russian children adopted by Americans has been in decline.  The most recent report from the U.S. Department of State revealed numbers had dropped to 1,861 in 2008.

We were familiar with adoptions, but those we knew of in our wide circle of aging-out parents were not of babies; they were all of young toddlers, ranging in age from fourteen months to three years.

Although Russian institutions were bursting with abandoned or unwanted children, the bureaucracies of both the U.S. and Russia made arduous, repeated, and capricious demands on us. (No one challenges your intent when you birth a baby.)

The U.S. Embassy lost our fingerprints. The Russians made us scramble for their coveted brightly colored (and costly) ribbons and seals. For nine months, I cleaned our apartment in preparation for home visits, crisscrossed unfamiliar and congested streets in search of obscure notaries, bought dozens of baby outfits and baby toys.

Although we made clear to every so-called adoption expert available to us in Moscow—especially those in the lucrative position of helping us identify a baby—that we wanted to adopt an infant, we were told we were misguided. What we really wanted, they insisted, was a girl at least three years old. This would safeguard us against “boy trouble” and unknown ills lurking beneath the cuddly cuteness of an infant.

We countered that there are no givens, even with a biological child. We never wanted a guarantee. The driving force was our desire for a child. Our thinking was—and I believe this even more strongly today—that in places where infants are at risk, adopting a baby as young as possible allows adoptive parents to ameliorate the wrongs of early care.

Up until we began our own adoption process, I had assumed that living in Moscow would be an advantage. I had contacts, knew the bureaucratic ropes, and felt I could facilitate an independent adoption without the hassle and pandering of a stateside agency. 

I had spent two years on the board of a nonprofit organization (ARC or Action for Russia’s Children) that actively supported alternatives to institutional care of children abandoned, abused, or relinquished at birth due to obvious physical defects. Many of these defects could have been easily ameliorated if proper medical care had been available. But warehousing children with either physical or neurological disabilities was the assumed norm. (I never once saw a wheel chair anywhere in the city.)

For example, my Russian tutor, a woman in her late thirties, revealed to me that she had a brother born with a severely low IQ. Her parents hadn’t wanted to give him up at birth. But fearing reprisals from nosy neighbors, they shuttered him in their two-room apartment rather than risk public ridicule and ostracization. Her brother’s existence wasn’t revealed until a man interested in marrying my tutor came over to meet her parents. The suitor left and never returned.

Actual numbers for any of this are hard to obtain. But the government and medical community’s rampant collusion in keeping “undesirables” out of the public eye is well known. More recently, legal introduction of parental-rights termination due to poverty, alcoholism, and out-of-wedlock birth has further swollen the institutional population. Unicef estimates that in 2002 at least a half million (or two out of every hundred) Russian children were in institutional care. Other organizations estimate the number to be as high as 800,000 and growing.

In the late nineties, although warehousing of young adults and placement of infants and young children in detsky domes (children’s homes) was a tremendous drain on scarce resources, it was simultaneously a venue for bureaucratic power. The figurative turnkey to required adoption permits lay buried deep in the tightly bound bosom of a woman who presided as the Minister of Education. It was in her windowless basement office that I presented my multi-sealed and stamped dossier.
At the time, Russian law required that babies be available for domestic adoption up to the age of four months. The wait has since doubled and is now eight months. This waiting period was thought to be a window of opportunity for family members, or other Russian citizens in that oblast (region), to come forward and adopt. The reality was they never did.

Testing at the age of two was institutionalized as a way to categorize state-dependent children. If a child was diagnosed as an idiot, then the services provided would be marginal: no formal education or life-skills training, large warehouse-type housing, release to the streets by the age of sixteen or so.

Of course, babies reared in stimulus- or nurture-void environments will invariably test poorly. Denied the comfort of being held, the satisfaction of good nutrition, or the opportunity to bond and form human attachments, these babies grow solitary and listless. Or, as in the case of my son—who was only five months old when we adopted him—lose the desire to cry.

Leading up to our adoption, we first viewed him, on video, as a chubby two-month-old in the arms of caretakers. We then visited him at three-and-a-half months, loaded with stimulus toys and presents of simple clothing for him and other babies in the orphan ward of the hospital in southern Russia where he lived.

Six weeks later, we returned with our daughter, carrying more presents and envelopes stuffed with cash, to attend the local oblast hearing and complete our adoption. In the short span between our two visits, our son had physically deteriorated from a plump, animated, alert baby to a drawn, gray-pallored, and muscularly low-toned infant. All the toys we had given him—mirrors and soft toys with bright colors and sound—were gone.

On pick-up day, we received him bound and swaddled in a tight-fitting cloth that rendered him unable to move.

I got the baby boy I wanted; at five months, my son remains the youngest Russian adoption I know about. Yet the emotional scars of his early deficits go deep. I can’t make up for what he was denied before me.

Which raises many questions, including why do the Russians make it so tough to adopt?  They clearly are not invested in raising unwanted children—so why don’t they provide the education and access necessary for women to have control over conception? (It is not uncommon for a Russian woman to have multiple abortions as well as children they give up for adoption.) If the government does not want to release these babies into families who will care for and love them, then why don’t they provide the support necessary to help them mature into productive citizens?

Today, at age eleven, despite all the love my 115-pound body and well-educated mind can give, my son continues to need lots of care to help him feel happy and whole. For him, every day is a struggle against misread social cues; slow processing of multiple instructions; and a chronic need for attention, love, and approval.

I used to get seeing-red mad. If only someone had cared for my son, perhaps much of what dogs him and makes him fearful of his world might have slipped away.

But shaking my past at the past does not aright so many multiple wrongs. The reality is that we are here, and ever grateful together, mother and son. I don’t know what the future will bring, but as this boy’s mother, I can guarantee I will do whatever it takes for him to realize all the happiness he deserves. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Seeing in Color: Two Takes on Race and Adoption

By Lisa at Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, I attended a viewing of the Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." The showing was organized by a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization. The film, produced in 2003, has proven controversial.

The majority of the footage focuses on an adult adoptee, Jen Fero, a 32-year-old Korean-born woman who was adopted and raised in a small Oregon town in the late '70s and '80s by a loving Euro American family. Jen describes in painful detail her long struggles with the loss of her birth family, her connection with her adoptive family, her tenuous sense of belonging.

She raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive parents but for all adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds:
• Do white adoptive parents really understand the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption?

• Can white adoptive parents overcome their own losses and vulnerabilities in order to acknowledge and embrace the whole child—her race, her birth country, her birth family—including the painful loss of that first family?

• Are white adoptive parents willing to stretch beyond their comfort zones and help children of color navigate life as minorities in a predominantly white world?
The trailer shows Jen trying to explain her struggles to her mother, who in the film battles a terminal illness.

Jen's story is enough to keep any parent of a transracially adopted child awake—long into the night. To be fair, I’m guessing Jen's parents followed the accepted beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if she or he were—and had always been—your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or difference. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy that the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole.

Thirty years ago, families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption, or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen continue to teach us the price of this denial.

As difficult as it was to watch, "Adopted" heightened my own awareness. As an adoptive parent to a child of a different race—my daughter was born in China—an essential part of my job is to acknowledge and address the challenges that come with being a mixed-race family.

Thankfully, in my wanderings and search to learn more, I've also come across another video that offers both insight and inspiration. Judy and Aaron Stigger's story is a different take on the transracial conundrum, one with a far happier outcome. That's not to discount Jen Fero's story. But Aaron Stigger's perspective on his dual identity makes me smile and gives me hope.

This four-minute video was originally aired on MSNBC in October 2008 as part of "Growing Up Black in a White Family." [Correction made 10/26/09.] It was then posted by Adoption Learning Partners (ALP), an educational organization whose primary goal is to have a "positive measurable impact on adoption outcomes." ALP offers a variety of web-based courses for adoptive parents and professionals, but there's also a wealth of free information and other resources if you dig about on its site and "Community" page.

I love the message that adoptive mother and son offer in this video. Perhaps just as important as what they say is their body language, which reveals the clear, easy affection between Judy and Aaron Stigger.

Judy, by the way, was one of ALP's founders (which officially makes me a fan.)

Judy and Aaron also did an earlier interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, back in July 2007, sharing their experiences and insights on transracial adoption. There's a great summary of the interview on the NPR website. Better still, you can listen to the interview or read the transcript. (NPR has done a number of pieces on transracial adoptions, and there are several terrific links on this site.)

In the on-air interview, Judy shares one of the ways she used to respond to the classically intrusive comments adoptive families so often encounter: "People would say, 'Do you have any real children?'" She'd turn to Aaron and say, "No, I just have this plastic one."

Aaron, playing along, would hold out his arms and sing, "Ta-da!"

Judy taught her son by example, defusing an otherwise potentially awkward moment with humor while also communicating the idiocy of the question. Aaron describes his memories of growing up, of not wanting to stick out, not wanting to be different. He says he appreciated the opportunities he had to make friends with other kids and people of color.

This prompts Steve Inskeep to turn to Judy and ask how much thought she put into transracial parenting. Judy credits one experience with her daughter (also adopted, also biracial) as being an ah-ha moment:

"When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we'd gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face [sic], and said, 'Mom, was I supposed to be white?' And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it. And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive."

In time, Judy began sending holiday cards to family and friends featuring people of color. One day, her daughter received an Easter card from Judy's mother. Her daughter took the card up to her room to read it in private—but returned, flying down the stairs, holding the card out in front of her for her mother to see. The card showed a risen Christ, black, muscled, with dreadlocks. Judy's daughter declared, "My grandma loves me!"

Further on in the interview, Judy describes another moment of heightened awareness. She’d gone to attend one of Aaron's performances when he was part of a black theater group his freshman year in college. Walking into the theater, Judy realized she was one of the few white people in the audience. She realized how she stuck out, how exposed she felt—and then she thought this is how her children must feel, as minorities, living, moving, and breathing in a predominantly white world.

At this point in the interview, Aaron can't jump in fast enough. He explains, eagerly, emphatically, that this is an issue for all transracially adopted kids—for that matter, for all minorities.

"Thank you! Thank you!" He exhales. "That right there needs to be on every program nationwide!"

The message from both Judy and Aaron is that no child growing up likes or wants to be different. Children of color need friends, neighbors, and role models of color, both in their immediate world and in the imagery that surrounds them. As white parents with children of color, we need to support them, to be as inclusive as we can. We can't limit ourselves to the world of white privilege.

As Judy Stigger puts it: "You need to see the world in color."

So, I'm curious: If you're reading this, and you're a white adoptive parent with a child of color—what things do you do to support your child and see the world in color?

This post was adapted from several pieces that originally appeared on the blog Pack of Three.