Chinese adoptions raise questions of identity

More and more girls are adopted from China each year. Now, questions of cultural identity are finally coming to the fore.

Published March 23, 2006 6:30PM (EST)

Today's New York Times features a fascinating and comprehensive piece on young Chinese women adopted by mostly white, upper-middle-class American families. The article gets extra points for its timeliness; according to the Kaiser Network, China's National Population and Family Planning Commission announced on Tuesday that it would "continue to 'unswervingly implement' the nation's one-child-per-family policy as the country faces a peak in births." The commission contends that "lifting the one-child policy would strain the country's resources, environment and goals for sustainable growth." Since 1991 more than 55,000 Chinese children -- mostly girls -- have been adopted by American families.

The young women who were adopted as infants in the early '90s are now approaching adulthood. Interviewing Chinese adopted girls from different backgrounds, the Times notes that some of them identify with their Chinese heritage more than others, depending on "the level of diversity in their neighborhoods and schools, and how their parents expose them to their heritage." Jane Brown, a social worker who runs workshops with adoptive families and who is herself the mother of two children adopted from China and Korea, speaks to this point and gets in some zingers: "Sometimes parents want to celebrate, even exoticize, their child's culture, without really dealing with race. It is one thing to dress children up in cute Chinese dresses, but the children need real contact with Asian-Americans, not just waiters in restaurants on Chinese New Year. And they need real validation about the racial issues they experience."

The idea of race-related validation from the white adoptive family to its Chinese daughter is problematic, and the Times doesn't really go into this issue. But the article does note that the increased number of adoptions has attracted the attention of researchers and nonprofits like the Adoption Institute, which is currently "surveying adopted children from Asia who are now adults to try to find ways to help the younger children form healthy identities."

Which seems like a good thing. McKenzie Forbes, 17, who was adopted from China and raised in towns in Virginia and West Virginia where there are few other Asians, says that identifying as Asian "is something she is just starting to absorb." Forbes is looking forward to going to college: "I am feeling ready to break out a little bit. When I am around other Asians, I feel a connection that I don't feel around other people. I can't explain it exactly. But I think it will be fun to meet other people and hear their stories."

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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