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Social Text 21.1 (2003) 29-55
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Embodying Chinese Culture
Transnational Adoption in North America
Toby Alice Volkman
Isabelle, who is six, makes a list of all the children she knows and begins to identify those among them who are, as she is, adopted. Naming three other Asian children in her New York City first grade class, she pauses, then shakes her head: "No, but they look adopted." Isabelle's mother asks, "What does an adopted person look like?" Isabelle replies, "Chinese." 1
In the 1990s, families in the United States began to adopt children from other regions of the world in unprecedented numbers. Although adoption across national borders had its beginnings in the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean conflict, it remained for decades a relatively unnoticed phenomenon. "The quiet migration" is how a demographer writing in 1984 described the movement of children for adoption across national borders (Weil 1984). That description now needs to be revised. Over the past ten years, transnational adoption has become both visible and vocal. How has this shift occurred? And how might the contemporary practice of transnational adoption provoke new ways of imagining race, kinship, and culture in North America?
Visible and Vocal:
Adoption from China
In 1994, when I traveled to China with my husband to adopt our daughter, I had no inkling that we were on the cusp of what would become an enormous wave of Chinese adoptions. Neither did I sense the tremendous changes in adoption practices that were under way, the heightened attention to all aspects of adoption that would become so defining of this moment, or the ways in which my lived experience would touch so intimately on contested anthropological terrain. Soon after returning to New York, however, I realized that our very personal act of creating a family through adoption was simultaneously, if unwittingly, part of a larger, collective project. In that project "culture" figured both prominently and, for me, a bit uneasily. This essay is the fruit of my efforts to understand parents' fascination with the imagined "birth culture" of their adopted children. I argue that this fascination may, in part, represent displaced longings for origins and absent birth mothers, and I attempt to situate such [End Page 29] longings within historical and cultural shifts in adoption discourse and practices over the last ten years.
Adoptions from China to the United States soared from 115 in 1991 to 5,081 in 2000. 2 By the end of the 1990s, China had become the leading "sending" country of children to the United States and the world, and more than 30,000 adopted Chinese children, mostly girls, were growing up with their (mostly) white parents in North America. In February 2002, bookstore windows in Manhattan displayed Valentine's Day specials, among them I Love You Like Crazy Cakes (Lewis 2000), a children's book about a single mother adopting a baby girl from China. The mainstreaming of Chinese adoption has occurred in part through the incessant media attention that has been lavished on adopted Chinese girls over the past decade. 3 This interest shows no signs of abating, with a steady stream of articles in disparate venues. On a page entitled boldly "How America Lives," the Ladies' Home Journal featured "Citizen Amy," an adopted five-year-old Chinese girl in Kentucky, American flag in hand (Leader 2001).
Numbers and media attention do not in themselves suggest profound transformation or the normalization of adoption. They surely do not reveal the ardent embrace of a new transracial kinship; the Ladies' Home Journal knows that this is not really how most of America lives. Nonetheless, the phenomenal growth of adoption that crosses lines of nation and of race—and its media presence—hint that interesting changes are in motion, changes that must be situated within larger processes of rewriting kinship, identity, and culture in North America. 4 I focus here on adoption from China, because Chinese adoption and the communities that have developed around it have become remarkably visible and vocal. Families with children from many...