Belonging in an Adopted World: Race, Identity, and Transnational Adoption

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Since the early 1990s, transnational adoptions have increased at an astonishing rate, not only in the United States, but worldwide. In Belonging in an Adopted World, Barbara Yngvesson offers a penetrating exploration of the consequences and implications of this unprecedented movement of children, usually from poor nations to the affluent West. Yngvesson illuminates how the politics of adoption policy has profoundly affected the families, nations, and children involved in this new form of social and economic migration.

Starting from the transformation of the abandoned child into an adoptable resource for nations that give and receive children in adoption, this volume examines the ramifications of such gifts, especially for families created through adoption and later, the adopted adults themselves. Bolstered by an account of the author’s own experience as an adoptive parent, and fully attuned to the contradictions of race that shape our complex forms of family, Belonging in an Adopted World explores the fictions that sustain adoptive kinship, ultimately exposing the vulnerability and contingency behind all human identity.

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Editorial Reviews

Anthropological Quarterly
Brilliantly nuanced and beautifully written, Belonging in an Adopted World is ethnographically stunning. Barbara Yngvesson is an eloquent narrator, and her analysis will be clear and accessible to anyone ready to think afresh about citizenship and family life.

— Eleana Kim

Carol Greenhouse
"Brilliantly nuanced and beautifully written, Belonging in an Adopted World is ethnographically stunning. Barbara Yngvesson is an eloquent narrator, and her analysis will be clear and accessible to anyone ready to think afresh about citizenship and family life."
Anthropological Quarterly - Eleana Kim
"Brilliantly nuanced and beautifully written, Belonging in an Adopted World is ethnographically stunning. Barbara Yngvesson is an eloquent narrator, and her analysis will be clear and accessible to anyone ready to think afresh about citizenship and family life."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226964461
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/15/2010
  • Series: Chicago Series in Law and Society
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Yngvesson is professor of anthropology at Hampshire College, the author or coauthor of two previous volumes, and an associate editor at American Anthropologist.

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Read an Excerpt

Belonging in an Adopted World

Race, Identity, and Transnational Adoption
By Barbara Yngvesson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-96447-8

Chapter One

The Safehouse of Identity

Adopt 1. To take into one's family through legal means and raise as one's own child. 2. To select and bring into a new relationship, as a friend, heir, or citizen. 3. To take and follow (a course of action, for example) by choice or assent. 4. To take up and use as one's own, as an idea, word, or the like. 5. To take on or assume.... [Latin adoptare, to choose for oneself : ad-, to + optare, to choose, desire.]

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition

Genealogical Fictions

In July of 1999, my son Finn and I visited my parents in West Virginia. My mother, age eighty-five, frail and just released from the hospital, was sitting with us in her favorite spot on a balcony that overlooks their meadow and the steep wooded hill beyond. In the past weeks, we had all wondered whether she would sit on this balcony again, and so the moment was especially poignant. Finn, who had turned eighteen in June, had been working with my father—repairing a leaking pond, sawing fallen trees, hauling cut wood to the barn. As we relaxed in the cool of the evening, my mother turned to Finn and said, "You know, Finn, I feel that you are really one of us. You know what I mean—really part of our family." Finn looked back at her, the hint of a smile in his eyes. My mother spoke out of the deepest affection for Finn, and saying he was "really one of us" was her highest compliment.

My father, who has devoted months of research over the past several years to family genealogy, was similarly affirming his grandson's place in the family when he offered to use his Family Tree Maker software to develop a genealogical chart for Finn if I would just provide the names of parents and grandparents for him to start with. When I asked why genealogical research was so compelling, my father replied, "I like puzzles." But he agreed that his interest was captured no less by the assumption that he was putting together "his own" puzzle, and he hoped that the information would be of interest to his children and grandchildren "one of these days." At the same time, the idea that Finn, whom we had adopted almost eighteen years previously, needed a separate genealogy if he was to locate himself properly in relation to us and to his "own" family, reflected my mother's need to reassure him that he was "really one of us, really part of our family." In both cases, the implicit ground of family—of what it means to be "one of us"—in the genealogical connection of parent to child is reaffirmed, even as real families take shape in ways that radically and irreversibly transform both the lived experience of belonging and the narratives that shape it for those one considers "one's own."

Adoption writer and consultant Betty Jean Lifton captures the emotional resonance of the biogenetic narrative in her account (1994, 36) of "the story," as told by a friend to his seven-year-old daughter:

It made his daughter very happy and secure to hear the story that began not with her but with her parents who created her. Sometimes her grandparents and other relatives showed up in the details of the story of before she was born. The child knew without having to be told that her narrative was connected to the narrative of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents down through the generations, and so she was connected. Her narrative revealed her identity. It told her who she was. If there had been essential people missing from the narrative—her Mommy, Daddy, grandparents, and other members of her clan—it would have been difficult for her to feel connected as she did. For most children, like my friend's daughter, their narrative is as much a part of them as their shadow; it develops with them over the years and cannot be torn away. Unless, of course, they are adopted.

The idea of a biogenetic narrative as the shadow other of a child that must be "torn away" to place a child in adoption underscores the erasures that constitute adoptive kinship. But it is also revealing of blind spots that accompany efforts to think and practice a narrative of family—or even of connection—outside the genealogical frame (Povinelli 2002). The image of tearing away the genealogical shadow of a child recalls a passage in the memoir of Swedish adoptee Astrid Trotzig (1996), who explains that the baby picture in the passport that allowed her to enter the Kingdom of Sweden from Korea in 1970 was "torn away" from a larger photograph that included her Korean foster mother holding her (at the time she had the name Park Suh-Yeo, given by Korean child placement authorities) (23). The foster mother was Trotzig's only link to a complicated past that included reproductive policies of the Republic of Korea and its marginalization of women whose out-of-wedlock children could not be accommodated in Korea's strongly patrilineal society.

Here, a national narrative that privileges connection to paternal parents and grandparents "down through the generations" excluded Park Suh-Yeo from belonging in her native land. Indeed, to create an adoptable child from the foundling taken by police to child placement authorities, officials in Seoul first provided Trotzig with a fictive genealogy, in which Park Suh-Yeo was established as the family head and her family's only member (Trotzig 1996, 34–35), then positioned as if she had no (foster) mother. Thus she qualified for adoption in Sweden, where her fictive genealogy was canceled so she could become a completely Swedish child.

The story of Trotzig's adoption, a variation on a familiar narrative in which children must be abandoned so that "family" can be preserved, illuminates a central thread in the emergence, consolidation, and (in the post-1950s period) globalization of the liberal legal form of adoptive kinship. Neither the birth mother nor the adoptive parents constitute a "real" (two-parent, biogenetic) family, but both are constant reminders, as in the case of our son Finn's adoption, of the power of a genealogical imaginary in defining what a real family consists in. The constant slippage (as in the conversations with my parents, above) between real and fictive belongings positions the adoptee and the adoptive family and, in very different ways, the birth mother in a virtual space where they are simultaneously real and not real. The adoptive family is the only de facto family of the child; yet it never becomes an unmarked (nonadoptive) family. The birth mother ceases to be the adopted child's mother; but the promise of "papers" documenting her existence or even her death may pull the adopted child (and the adoptive family) "back" to seek some trace of her (or may pull the birth mother "forward" to seek information about the adopted child) (Yngvesson 1997; Yngvesson and Coutin 2006).

Finn's adoption also involved the legal erasure of his preadoptive history and the legal construction of our family "as if" it were genealogical (Modell 1994, 2). But the circumstances surrounding his placement with us made it possible for us to forge connections with his birth family and remain in contact with them. This contact, focused initially on my relationship with Finn's birth mother, Diana, substantiated my own connection to Finn, my sense that he was my child because he was her child. Connections such as these, developed in juxtaposition to and always in tension with the closures and cut-offs that establish the adoptive family as if it were the only family of the child, both challenge the autonomy of that family and help to constitute it as real. The labor of kinship in adoption begins with this emotional work, whether it involves the birth family, as in our case, or records found in a children's home, hospital, or court archive, as may be the case in transnational adoptions.

For our family, the emotional work began when my brother relocated to Bolinas, California, on the day of Finn's birth, moved into a house with Finn's birth mother's best friend, and gradually became an intermediary between Finn's birth family and ours. What started as a series of chance events, culminating with Finn's formal adoption almost a year later, became in retrospect (and from my perspective) the frame for an adoption story that seemed to move almost in spite of itself toward Finn's becoming our child. My brother's involvement was crucial to my experience of these events "as if" they were taking place within our family, while their fortuitousness imbued the narrative of Finn's adoption with a sense that it was meant to be, a quality remarked on by other adoptive parents with stories that differ significantly from ours.

The emotional experience of adoption as "meant to be" both mythologizes and realizes adoptive kinship. A relationship that is "only legal" is in some sense (in a Euro-American socio-legal universe) "only" a paper relationship (only a chosen relationship) and lacks the emotional and cultural force of a "natural" connection, a connection that compels us in spite of ourselves and is believed to precede and to endure beyond the more planned beginnings and endings of legal parentage, legal marriage, or legal citizenship. A birth mother I interviewed some years ago as part of my research on open adoption conveyed the importance of this sense of kinship as natural connection when she described the adoptive parents with whom she placed her child as "not just anybody, it's not just somebody [my lawyer] knows, it's somebody that Jim [her boyfriend] knows, it's somebody that I know" (Yngvesson 1997, 55).

As anthropologist Marilyn Strathern (1995, 351) points out in a paper on kinship and technology: "What gave Euro-American culture its modernist cast ... was that the core of the family was constituted in the procreative act of the conjugal pair in such a way that the child's biogenetic closeness to its parents endorsed the nurturing closeness of the conjugal couple. Though the parents were not born kin to each other, the child was born kin to both of them. The child they produced created a closeness" (emphasis added). The labor of jointly producing a child retroactively creates the (genealogical) kinship of the parents in a Euro-American cultural universe, and in this sense the child completes the family by making the parents "naturally" kin to one another in a way that law alone cannot. In an analogous way, the birth mother I interviewed completed the adoptive family by placing her child with known parents, people she considered "like" her in fundamental ways and with whom she hoped to maintain an ongoing relationship. Her identification with the adoptive parents as the ideal family she could not provide for her child elided the distinction between genealogical and adoptive kinship by "creating a closeness" between adoptive parents and child that derived from her own connection to both.

In the chapters that follow, the tension inherent in adoptive kinship—that it simultaneously constitutes and disrupts a genealogical imaginary for what a "real" family consists in—is a central theme. The work of the birth mother interviewee, like my own work in creating a narrative that made (natural) sense of Finn's adoption, are part of this process of simultaneous production and disruption of genealogical kinship. A similar process goes on discursively, where the implicit difference between an adoptive (that is, a legal) relationship of parent to child and the procreative (more "natural," more "real") relationship of giving birth naturalizes the latter. Without the assumption that before the adoption there is a natural real, there would be no need for adoption law to cancel the prior relation of birth parent to child, for adoptees to search for a birth parent, or for the adopted child and the adoptive family to remain forever "as if."

The Work of Adoption Most troubling is always to meet questions about myself and my origin. As though it is not natural that I am here.

—Astrid Trotzig, Blood Is Thicker than Water

The efforts of my father to trace Finn's real history, my mother's affirmation of his real connection to our family, and our own sense that he was fated to become our child are all dimensions of the emotional, cultural, and legal work that is required to transform adopted families into real ones, families that are "one of us," families that can be imagined as part of a larger Euro-American narrative of the "meant-to-be." At the same time, as Astrid Trotzig's observation in the epigraph suggests, the lived experience of adoption is in tension with what and who this "real" (this "us") and this "meant-to-be" consist of.

The work of adoption takes place in multiple ways and in multiple settings: in the first encounters of adoptive parents with their children in the orphanages of Delhi, Addis Ababa, Cali, or Guangzhou; in the private struggles of adoptees to fit into their adoptive families, birth families, schools, and workplaces; in organizations of adult adoptees, such as AEF (the Association of Adopted Eritreans and Ethiopians) in Sweden or AKA ("Also Known As," the adopted Koreans' association) in the United States; on Internet chat groups and adoption research Web sites; in moments such as those on the balcony with my parents and Finn; and in public, collective gatherings in the United States, Korea, Sweden, and elsewhere.

One of the smallest but most visible of such public gatherings took place in Seoul in October 1998, when 29 Korean adoptees from eight Western nations gathered at the Blue House for a ceremony in which President Kim Dae Jung described his nation as "filled with shame" over practices that had sent so many of Korea's children abroad during the previous forty years (Kim 1999). A year later, in Washington, DC, more than 400 Korean-born adoptees from thirty-six U.S states and several western European countries met for the first Gathering of the First Generation of Korean Adoptees, an event that has since been repeated in Oslo and Seoul and has led to a reimagining of what a "Korean" diaspora might (or might not) consist in (Hübinette 2004; E. Kim 2005, 2007). And in May 1999, 2,700 adoptees and their families, agency and government representatives, and staff from children's homes and welfare organizations on four continents gathered at a "jubileum celebration" to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Adoption Centre, Sweden's premier organization for transnational adoption.

Each of these gatherings testified to the ways in which adoption opens up conventional understandings of individual identity, national belonging, and family form. In the sheer emotional energy they generated, the gatherings contributed to this opening up. At the same time, the conversations that were begun there and continued in other arenas spoke to the contradictions of a practice that has been shaped by the felt needs of adoptive parents to complete (rather than open up) their families and by the concerns of adopting states to control (rather than bridge) their national boundaries. These needs and concerns work to reproduce rather than unsettle inequalities that are realized in the relationship between sending and receiving nations and birth and adoptive mothers and especially in the figure of the adoptee.

I was present at the largest of these gatherings, which took place at Sollentunamässan, a vast exhibition hall in the center of Stockholm, on a chilly spring day in 1999. Adoption Centre (AC), Sweden's principal adoption organization and one of the largest such organizations in Europe, was hosting a weeklong series of events. AC, known for its pioneering work in the field of transnational adoption, is responsible for Sweden's place as the nation with the highest per capita population of transnational adoptees in the world—approximately 1.5 percent of cohorts born in the 1970s and 80s (Cederblad et al. 1999). Beginning with a conference at Stockholm University's School of Social Work that focused on problems of residential care and the importance of providing a family for every child who needs one, the events continued as a series of workshops, organized by region (Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, and so forth). Child welfare professionals from Sweden's main sending nations, as well as from other adopting nations, were present at the celebration.


Excerpted from Belonging in an Adopted World by Barbara Yngvesson Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


A Letter


Chapter 1. The Safehouse of Identity

Chapter 2. The Only Thing We Can Give Away Is Children

Chapter 3. National Resources

Chapter 4. A Child of Any Color

Chapter 5. Early Disturbances

Chapter 6. The Body within the Body

Chapter 7. Return


Appendix: Tables



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