This post is the second in a three-part discussion of adoption research featured at the Adoption Initiative’s conference.
The second plenary speaker, Jae Ran Kim (social worker, researcher, and blogger formerly known as Harlow’s Monkey), opened with the story of her adoption. Or, as she called it, “the story of our adoption,” the rescue narrative ascribed to all transnational adoptees. She invoked Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story: show people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. The single story of transnational adoption is a story of deprived children, where every day in institutional care is a lost chance for that child to have a “normal brain,” and a story of promise and possibility that adoption works. But, she notes, a lot of the story is left out. Despite the rhetoric of the “best interest of the child,” adoption is a system created to serve the needs of adults and institutions (referred to throughout the conference as adultism).
She points to the fact that only one adoption agency in Minnesota was founded by a person who aged out of foster case, whereas all the rest are either religious corporations or founded by adoptive parents who wanted to share their good experience with others. What this means in practical terms is that the dialog is focused on the adults, with little attention to the lifelong holistic well-being of adoptees or to the racism, discrimination, or identity confusion that they may feel even when they appear successful. On panels, adoptive parents get to tell “horror stories,” while adoptees only get to talk about their rescue and gratitude. And when adult adoptees try to change the dialog, they are criticized for their “subjectivity” instead of being valued as the people most impacted by adoption, and in whose best interest the system purports to operate. Instead, they are subject to the phenomenon of “adoptee exceptionalism,” in which their triumph over adversity is held up as proof that adoption works, and the more “damaged” they are, the more valuable their narrative. She described adoptees as a “model minority within a model minority,” and are asked to be spokespersons for the gratitude that adoptees feel at having been rescued. This can cause adoptees to feel intense pressure to prove that they were “worth the investment.”
To illustrate her perspective, and the importance of the voices of child and adult adoptees, Kim told two parables. The first is the familiar “starfish story” that is apparently well-worn in adoption circles:
A little boy is on the beach picking up starfish and flinging them into the water. A man comes up and tells him, “There are thousands of starfish on this beach! There is no way you, alone, can make a difference!” And as the little boy tosses another starfish into the ocean, he says, “It made all the difference to that one.”
This narrative is problematic, Kim explains, because even though it helps people feel like they can make a difference to the 143 million orphans worldwide, it does nothing to address why there are so many starfish washing up, or what is happening to the ocean. Instead, she hoped that the discussion could be more like a second parable (I kind of think she made this one up.) (ETA: In fact she did not, it is a Hmong story told to her by her first social work professor.):
A villagers from a town next to a river kept having to rescue people who were drowning in the river, coming from upstream. They wondered if they should build giant nets to catch the people as they floated down the river, until someone asked if anyone knew why the people were drowning. The villagers went upstream and discovered a dragon tossing people into the water. They banded together and slayed the dragon, and ended the problem of the drownings.
“The starfish want to not forget the other starfish,” she said, “we want to slay the dragon.”