International Adoption and Racism
By Rebecca Kendall
It is an odd experience to spend 40 years in a racial majority then become a minority overnight. As a Caucasian woman I enjoyed an anonymity I was never even aware of, but that instantly changed on April 7, 2004 when a six-month-old Korean boy was placed in my arms…and I became a mother.
Nine months earlier, as my husband and I slogged though the home study process, our adoption agency helped us prepare for issues that would likely arise on becoming a transracial family, including an eye-opening meeting with young-adult Korean adoptees who spoke candidly of the challenges they faced growing up. We assured our social worker we were indeed prepared to handle racism and intrusions into our personal lives. “For God’s sake,” I thought, “it’s the 21st century in New York City! How bad could it be?” Famous last words.
We traveled to Seoul to be united with our son. On our first outing we quickly became accustomed to women pinching and patting our son’s cheeks, men giving him candy, and telling him he was a “lucky boy,” while being equally subjected to looks of embarrassment or anger. South Koreans are in the midst of a cultural conflict over the status of their orphans, and my husband and I understood that we put a face on this struggle.
Upon our return to New York City, I expected to receive some attention now and then (as any new mother would), but was overwhelmed by the barrage of reactions that confronted me every day. Most people were polite, yet the conversations invariably led to such remarks as, “He’s so cute, I can’t believe his real mother gave him away. What’s wrong with her?” And I could put my son through college if I had a dollar for every time someone said, “I thought they didn’t want the girls…how’d you get a boy?” Dozens wanted to know his birth story, and how much it “cost to get him.” One young woman even inquired as to whether or not I had “ordered him online…you know, got him off of the internet.”
It is not uncommon for unwitting, well-meaning people to offer up what is known as “positive racism” which can be just as damaging as its more blatant counterpart due to the imposed pressure to live up to the implied expectations. For example, one of my physicians, upon discovering we’d adopted from Korea, congratulated us for choosing an Asian country because, “they’re smart and respectful people,” and that would make parenting much easier.
My little guy was only 18-months-old the first time “negative” racism was directed at him personally. We were at a neighborhood playground when an older child saw my son, stopped dead in his tracks, and slanting his eyes with his fingers, started shrieking, “Chi-NEESE! Chi-NEESE!” while running circles around my boy. Even though he was just a toddler, my son knew something bad was happening…and that it was about him. The frightened and confused look on his face took my breath away and absolutely broke my heart. Even more devastating to me, was the realization I wouldn’t always be there to shield him from such hate. Although judging from my response to the child, I’m not sure how effective I would be anyway since the best I could come up with was to bellow, “HE’S KOREAN-AMERICAN!!!”
It has taken my son, now three-and-a–half, to teach me most about managing unwelcome queries. I simply ask him, “Do you want to answer that, honey?” More often than not his response is a simple, “No.”
“He doesn’t want to answer that right now.” I report to the questioner, effectively putting an end to any further interrogation.
I have become so accustomed to being part of a transracial family that it’s strange to walk around the city without my son as just another white woman. I continue to strive to find a balance between protecting my family and educating people about international adoption; while learning more than I ever thought possible from an insightful preschooler.
I wouldn’t go back to being invisible for all the kimchee in Korea.