Eventually I knew I would get around to the topic of cross-cultural adoption. Having lived in China for so long meant that I have witnessed a lot of things that have shaped my thinking on this topic. I will do my best to explain this complex topic on which entire books have been written, in this simple five or six paragraph blog, and leave the rest for you to ponder and research on your own. In other words, I will get you all riled up and then leave you to figure things out for yourself.
First of all, I am not at all against cross-cultural adoption, although you may get that impression as I roll out some caveats. Don’t be alarmed by them; just think about them and then toss or keep what is helpful. Cross-cultural adoption can be a beautiful thing, but it does have a few twists and turns that “regular” adoption does not. Of course we begin with a true story or two.
When we first arrived in China, it did not take very long for us to find out about the routine practice of foreigners adopting Chinese babies. Not only did several of our team members do so, but we witnessed countless adoption groups many times when we headed up to Beijing for some R & R at a Western hotel. We would be sitting at our breakfast table with our family chatting about the days plans, when we noticed quite a few foreigners in the restaurant. The fact that these couples were composed of two foreigners, and not the oft-sited old white dude with young Chinese girlfriend piqued our interest. When we would return to the hotel later that day, we would see these same mostly middle-aged couples with their baby strollers and diaper bags, and Chinese infants, beaming with excitement.
This scene had different effects on me as our 2 year China stay turned into a 9 year China stay. At first I was impressed and emotional; those lucky babies will now have a good life. All of them had come from an orphanage, and many had been left there due to having some physical or mental problem, but now they would get some proper care and have two doting parents. I felt that these children were lucky, and as an adoptive parent myself, I smiled at each of them as we passed them, not wanting to speak to them directly as it would interrupt their reverie. I naively assumed my kids were similarly disposed, and thinking along the lines of those lucky kids. As is often the case, this post will probably bring some comments from my kids, and I will learn more about their views on adoption in general, which I welcome.
A few years later, I had added some more dimensions to the adoption schema I had developed, and began to question the all good status of cross cultural adoption. I was still not against it, but I began to see some of the difficulties of it more clearly. For one, many Chinese lamented the loss of a Chinese child into a Western family, with the resultant loss of Chinese language and culture. They were glad, they told me, that the child would have a good life, but what a dear price to pay. It made them a little bit sad to see so many of their own give up their heritage, even if they were happy that the child would be well cared for. I would often ask why more Chinese did not adopt these children, and was told that it was too expensive, that these children often had physical deformities (which was often true), or that they were not keen on accepting a stranger’s genes if you will, into their family. (I begged to differ on that last one since essentially most marriages do precisely that, and if I am correct, that is good for the gene pool.)
So this bittersweet reaction of the Chinese became part of my own understanding. Later when I would see this same scene at breakfast (and we saw it a lot in our 9 years) I would hope that the parents would be sure to teach these children some Chinese, and introduce them to some Chinese culture. I hoped that they could come back to China one day to see their native land, and I hoped that it would be a positive experience for them
A second struggle that often surfaces in cross-cultural adoption is that of looking different from the rest of the family. One of these things is not like the other is usually pretty easy to guess “before I finish this song.” My kids all look like each other and like us, so their adoption is not common knowledge. And no matter how much the parents try to forestall the pain of feeling different, sometimes their best efforts fall short. An episode of Intervention (a show that my husband claims I am addicted to even though I have assured him that I can stop watching anytime) featured a young Indian boy named Gabe who was adopted into a white American family. Although it may be painful to watch this episode, I found it very insightful about the struggle of fitting in when the whole world knows you are different.
Gabe’s story illustrated the “I know I should be grateful but actually I feel sad” phenomenon that can be a factor in cross cultural adoption. Some families I know have adopted more than one cross-cultural kid, and often even siblings, and this seems to be a good solution. We’re different does not seems as lonely as I’m different. (I learned this back in the ’60s from Three Dog Night.)
I think these hurdles can be overcome; but perhaps it is good for parents to know that they are there, and to prepare for them. I will always be happy when a child who had no mom and dad gets to have one. I simply have exchanged my rose-colored glasses for clearer ones.
I’ll close with a conversation I had about ten years ago with a close friend who had children naturally (note my avoidance of the phrase of her own), and who had also adopted one special little girl (cross-culturally). Perhaps it will bring some comfort to those who have been adopted by someone from another culture. I knew my friend would tell me the truth so one day as we sat in her apartment in China, I asked her now that she had experienced motherhood from both perspectives, did she feel any different about her adopted child, compared with her natural born children? She had knowledge that I did not, and I was curious. Without hesitation she told me that there was absolutely no difference in her motherly feelings, and that it is impossible for a mother to hold back and not love all her children with everything she has. I liked that, and tucked it away to share one day. I guess Valentine’s Day is a good day to share it, and I hope it helps someone. Happy Valentines to all my cross cultural adopted friends! And to that Special One who knows me as Aunty Liz, an extra measure of hugs and kisses to you today!