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Social Text 21.1 (2003) 1-5
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Toby Alice Volkman
Sierra Song E, Marty, and I sat with our noses pressed against the glass straining to see the land as it intermittently appeared and vanished through the clouds. Almost in a whisper she confided "I think that place right down there may be where my birth parents live, Mommy. I think maybe they might be looking up and wishing that their little girl could fly down to them for a visit. Someday, maybe I will look for them. I'm sending them a wish now. It is that I hope they have enough to eat and they are happy. I hope they are not missing me too much. I wish I could tell them that I will come back to China again and again. I hope they catch my wish, Mommy and Daddy—don't you?"
In the early 1990s, the adoption of children across national borders began to accelerate at an astonishing rate. Although transnational adoption originated more than fifty years ago in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, the current wave of adoption is unprecedented in magnitude and visibility. Immigrant orphan visas issued by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services nearly tripled between 1991 and 2001: from 7,093 to 19,237. In the United States alone, more than 139,000 children have been adopted internationally in the last ten years. Over 50,000 of these children were born in China or Russia.
What are the implications of this massive movement of children, almost entirely from poor nations, to the more affluent West? The essays in this issue explore transnational adoption from multiple perspectives, encompassing both "sending" and "receiving" countries: birth parents who relinquish children, adoptive parents and adopted children, and adult adoptees. All of the essays view adoption as situated in the midst of larger social and cultural transformations and, inevitably, in the space of familial intimacy and the public sphere. In its transnational mode, adoption enters into and informs the complex politics of forging new, even fluid, kinds of kinship and affiliation on a global stage. These politics start from, rather than end on, the critical insight that identity is a social construction (see Taussig 1993).
Questions of belonging, race, culture, and subjectivity loom large in the discourses of transnational adoption. In an earlier era, adoption across borders was assumed to be straightforward: A child traveled to a new [End Page 1] country and stayed there. A child born in Korea and adopted in Minnesota was expected to grow up, and remain, simply a (white) American. Parents and adoption organizations did not question that their acts were good deeds. The past was erased or contained in an abandoned "there"; the racialized trace of origins tended to be treated as manageable. Today, adopted people—children or adults—are expected, or at least invited, to explore their multiple identities: to retain a name, to imagine their birth families, to learn about "birth cultures," perhaps to visit the birth country.
As an anthropologist and interpreter accompanying a group of Chilean adoptees and their Swedish parents who traveled "home" to Chile, Barbara Yngvesson tracks one such exploration, suggesting that these journeys unsettle the narrative of exclusive belongings, the notion of a singular identity, a self that can be made whole. Contemporary adoption discourse echoes the ambivalences discussed in Yngvesson's essay: the contradictory narratives of the child "rooted" in his or her original culture and the child as freely transferable, to new kin and culture, in the global marketplace.
At least some of the popular culture of adoption has begun to acknowledge the impossibility of "exclusive belongings." An American mother wrote on the Internet of her hopes to give her daughter "what she would need to have a fulfilling, but divided life." The daughter, six-year-old Sierra Song E, echoed her mother's thoughts: "Part of me lives here now and part of my heart is in China now, you know?" Her mother replied: "That is the way it should be—you are a daughter of each of...