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Over the past several decades, transnational adoption of Vietnamese children has developed from a response to war into a routine option for foreigners trying to build families. This article explores how the logics that have emerged within Vietnam to make sense of the transnational movement of children reflect both broader neoliberal ideologies of family and selfhood and late socialist anxieties about class differentiation.
Child welfare professionals, the media, and casual observers in Ho Chi Minh City explain rising adoption rates as due to the desperation, ignorance, or emotional inadequacies of poor, rural single mothers who abandon their children. Such claims about maternal unfitness are part of a growing neoliberal tendency in Vietnam to render the family and reproduction technical problems to be solved through the application of scientific expertise. Although rendering technical has elsewhere been analyzed as a process of depoliticization, this article argues that it is neither objective nor value neutral. Rendering technical succeeds by convincingly rendering its targets moral: in this case, expert intervention and social commentary about monstrous abandoning mothers construct a morally ideal maternal subject who recognizes that appropriate child rearing requires particular family configurations, material resources, and forms of knowledge. At the same time, ascribing such notions of personhood, self-improvement, and expertise to a global neoliberal advance ignores details of ethnographic context and history in Vietnam, where neoliberalism operates as much through exception as through normalization. Recent idealizations of particular family configurations and forms of personhood compellingly resonate with preexisting moral discourses about motherhood, family, and political economy, including those promoted by the state in earlier phases of socialism.
Narratives about failed reproduction also reveal the particular contours of urban middle-class anxieties in a late socialist context. Through “monster stories” identifying particular kinds of classed, gendered, and localized subjects as unfit parents for reasons of individual morality, education, and “cultural level,” urban middle classes implicitly justify their economic, social, and geographical privilege in terms of a moral worth that their class others lack. Such claims nonetheless provide space for contestation precisely because moral renderings are flexible and contingent. One such rejoinder, in the form of a birth mother’s eloquent testimony, invokes universal notions of human rights and scientific theories of child development to argue that the structural inequalities created by recent economic transformations have denied some vulnerable citizens the ability to express appropriate maternal femininity and moral personhood.