Social Text 21.3 (2003) 1-37
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Transnational Adoption and Queer Diasporas
David L. Eng
Deann Borshay Liem's 2000 documentary on transnational adoption, First Person Plural, recounts the filmmaker's 1966 adoption from a Korean orphanage by Alveen and Donald Borshay, a white American couple in Fremont, California, as well as Borshay Liem's eventual discovery some twenty years later of her birth mother in Kusan, Korea. 1 With the hopes of alleviating the clinical depression from which she has suffered since college, Borshay Liem decides that she must see her two families together, in one room, in the same physical space. And so she orchestrates what can be described only as an excruciating "reunion" between her American parents and her Korean family, a journey of recuperation and return to origins compelled as much by fantasy as by fact. Midway through First Person Plural, however, Borshay Liem halts her narrative of reunion to offer this painful disclosure. Looking straight into the camera lens, she bluntly admits: "There wasn't room in my mind for two mothers."
I begin with this statement of a psychic predicament—the dearth of space in Borshay Liem's psyche for two mothers—because I am struck by the complicated ways by which female subjectivity and maternal blame become the site for working out a host of material and psychic contradictions associated with the practice of transnational adoption. This practice, in which infants are entangled in transnational flows of human capital, is a post-World War II phenomenon closely associated with American liberalism, postwar prosperity, and Cold War politics. In the late twentieth century, transnational adoption has proliferated alongside global consumer markets, becoming a popular and viable option not only for heterosexual but also—and increasingly—for homosexual couples and singles seeking to (re)consolidate and (re)occupy conventional structures of family and kinship.
Through this contemporary emergence of new family and kinship relations, we come to recognize transnational adoption as one of the most privileged forms of diaspora and immigration in the late twentieth century. In turn, we are confronted with an interlocking set of gender, racial, national, political, economic, and cultural questions. Is the transnational adoptee an immigrant? Is she, as in those cases such as Borshay Liem's, [End Page 1] an Asian American? Even more, is her adoptive family Asian American? How is the "otherness" of the transnational adoptee absorbed into the intimate space of the familial? And how are international and group histories of gender, race, poverty, and nation managed or erased within the "privatized" sphere of the domestic?
Attempts to answer these questions often result in significant confusion, and this difficulty suggests that transnational adoption must be analyzed not only in terms of "private" family and kinship dynamics but also in relation to larger "public" imperialist histories of race, gender, capitalism, and nation. Amy Kaplan, in the context of new Americanist studies of nineteenth-century practices of U.S. imperialism, argues that "imperialism as a political or economic process abroad is inseparable from the social relations and cultural discourses of race, gender, ethnicity, and class at home." 2 The vexing issues invoked by transnational adoption suggest that this practice might be usefully considered in relation to Kaplan's formulation. What would it mean to think about transnational adoption as a paradigmatic late-twentieth-century phenomenon situated at the intersection of imperialist processes "over there" and social relations "over here"? How might transnational adoption help us understand contemporary contradictions between processes of globalization and discourses of nationalism? For instance, how might late capitalist modes of flexible production and accumulation (in which the practice of transnational adoption must be situated) relate to the scaling back of civil rights and liberties in the U.S. nation-state, including access to the public sphere and participation in civil society, as well as claims to privacy, parenthood, and family?
It is crucial to investigate the material implications and effects of transnational adoption. However, it is equally important, as Borshay Liem's maternal predicament insists, to explore the psychic dimensions of the practice. And while we...