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An “Orphan” with Two Mothers: Transnational and Transracial Adoption, the Cold War, and Contemporary Asian American Cultural Politics

From: American Quarterly
Volume 61, Number 4, December 2009
pp. 855-880 | 10.1353/aq.0.0110

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Officially she was never born. You will not find a record of her birth, not even in her small hometown. A miraculous conception in Korea, an anonymous drop-off at an orphanage, a hasty but surreptitious send-off to a foreign land. She is a paper child of ghosts.

—Me-K. Ahn, Living in Half Tones

Society has already told you and me that we have become Americans because of someone else’s charity. Now we’re being told that our cultural displacement had a purpose—multiculturalism. By growing up in white families, we can be examples, Luuk. We can show others that racial harmony is possible. We just can’t show our burdened backs . . . I guess someone forgot to ask us if we wanted to become America’s diversity mascots.

—Kari Ruth, “Dear Luuk”

Recent high-profile transnational, transracial adoptions by white U.S. über-celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, coupled with dramatic increases in the numbers of such adoptions in the last decade, have made what Toby Alice Volkman calls “new geographies of kinship” highly visible.1 Yet this “new” visibility and relative “popularity” of transnational adoption obscure the long-standing history of the practice, a history whose modern origins we can trace back to the end of World War II and one that intersects in complex ways with America’s imperialist and gendered racial cold war in Asia.2 Indeed, America’s protracted cold war military interventions in Korea and Vietnam have helped to produce the significant migration of Koreans and Vietnamese to the United States not only as immigrants, military brides, and “refugees,” but also as transnational and transracial adoptees.3 The adoption of Korean babies after the end of the Korean War inaugurated what ultimately developed into the world’s largest and longest standing transnational adoption program, and the adoption of Vietnamese babies was made possible in the final days of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. government launched a controversial “campaign” called Operation Babylift to airlift more than two thousand “orphans” out of Vietnam.4 This intersection, or conjoined genealogies of cold war imperialisms in Asia and transracial adoptions out of Asia, impels us to reckon with the complex politics and affects of transracial adoption as not simply or solely an individual private matter motivated by altruistic desires to form new kinships and to provide better lives for orphaned and abandoned children. It is also a highly racialized and gendered process implicated in the United States’ imperialist, capitalist modernity and indeed its foundational or constitutive projects of racial formation and “nation building” both domestically and internationally. In this article, I seek to highlight the cold war relations between the United States and Asia as a particularly charged, protracted, and significant condition of possibility and locus for a practice whose disturbing intersections with imperialist violence witnesses a proliferation of global locations.

I grapple with these complex intersections, politics, and affects by analyzing Deann Borshay Liem’s First Person Plural (2000), a fraught autoethnographic documentary on Liem’s experience of being a transracial Korean adoptee, and Daughter from Danang (2002), a PBS documentary about the Vietnamese “Babylift” and a transracial adoptee.5 I argue that these films constitute an important site of knowledge production and representation that offers an unsettling hermeneutic of the imperialist and gendered racial logics of the U.S. cold war in Asia by displaying the psychic and material complexities of adoptions that are not only transnational, but also transracial and gendered. The films make visible how the conditions of possibility of transracial adoption surface at the disturbing nexus of the successive forced migrations engineered by U.S. and Western capitalist modernity, cold war imperialism in Asia, the white heteronormative bourgeois nuclear family ideal, and the long-standing imperialist desire to “save” the world. More specifically, within the context of the cold war in Asia, American military intervention and war produced the conditions—the birth of GI babies, increasing numbers of orphaned and abandoned children, devastation of local economies, and unequal economic and neoimperial dependencies, to name just a few—that led to the availability of children for adoption. This new supply of potential adoptees coincided with the demand...

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