Adopted Chinese daughters seek their roots

by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

This article comes via Financial Times (which in itself is interesting to me – a story about adoptees returning to their country of birth in a publication about the world of finance?).

I have several thoughts about this piece, some of the language and themes I really struggle with and find incredibly problematic, like this:

And one American mother who visited the orphanage squat toilet with her nine-year-old Yangzhou girl reports that the child gripped her hand as she perched precariously above the evacuation hole, and proclaimed that she was glad she had not been left there forever. Those of us who live in China (as my family does) know that squat toilets are a trial for any westerner. They are a wake-up call that, to those used to western toileting ways, China is still a foreign country.

Yeah…moving on.

One of the things I find most fascinating about this article is the idea that China seems to be bending over backwards to welcome “back” their “lost girls” (referencing the book, Lost Daughters of China here). The author of this article writes:

But now, as the balance of global economic and political power shifts subtly in favour of China, Beijing is reaching out to all these lost daughters – and welcoming them back home.China has invited thousands of foundlings back to their birthplaces for government-sponsored “homeland tours” which, like last year’s Beijing Olympics or next year’s Shanghai World Expo, give the country a chance to show off to the world. On one level, what the Chinese adoption authorities call “root seeking tours” – filled with extravagant expressions of love and kinship and lavish gifts for the returning orphans – are a transparent public relations exercise aimed at raising money for Chinese orphanages, justifying the decision to export surplus children and countering decades of unfair international criticism that Chinese people “hate girls”.

In a blog post I wrote, Client, Ambassador, Gift (based on Sara Dorow’s concepts in her book, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender and Kinship) I wrote from an adult adoptee’s perspective what it felt like to be “welcomed back” by the country that sent me away because they didn’t want to deal with my welfare or the welfare of poor/single women and families.

In the article, the author describes this scene:

To the maudlin strains of “There’s no Place like Home”, the deputy mayor of the city told the children at a welcome banquet: “You are not guests, you are family.”

Which reminded me of the time I attended the 2004 Gathering in Seoul in which the Vice Minister of Health and Welfare said that he “loved us” and how the other officials there encouraged us to come back and “bring our families.”

I felt like they were saying, “hey, we didn’t want to support you so we found other families in wealthier countries to do it, and since they’ve got money, come back, visit our great parks and temples, eat our great food, spend lots of money on trinkets and show them what a great country we are! But forgive us, we love you, we really, really love you!”

In that older post, I wrote:

Language programs, so we can be translators as well as ambassadors and bridges. Our skills and knowledge of the “west” now being appropriated by the same country that rejected us, as we are asked to forgive and forget – and bring all our educational and financial assets with us. Not only did they not have to support us financially – or our poor families – they have received fees for adoptions (agencies receive substantially more per diem for each international adoption facilitated than for domestic adoptions, hence the incentive to continue international adoption) and they still receive charitable donations from around the world. To top that off, now we are encouraged to return and spend money in our mother land economy as well as stay and live and work here and become cultural and financial bridges between the two nations.

I wonder how many other adoptees there that day felt incredibly used by South Korea. Rather than helping me feel “better” about my adoption, the constant parade of “but look what a great country we are NOW” by South Koreans and their pleas to think of our “two motherlands” only makes me angry.I don’t think there was a single Korean speaker that didn’t mention at least once that Korea is now the 11th or 12th OECD now.

This “We had no choice but to give you away when we were poor, but now we’re not so come back and spend money here” is like some cruel, abusive relationship. And they wonder why some adoptees have attachment issues.

I have a problem with the way many of these “motherland” and “root-seeking” tours are conceived and carried out. I have never gone on any of these types of tours that are often a part of adoption agency programs but believe me, I know enough people who have gone on them, and read Eleana Kim’s articles (see here and especially here) to understand how they operate and how adult adoptees feel about the tours and their experiences of “returning to the homeland.” Kim writes in “Our adoptee, our alien: Transnational Adoptees as Specters of Foreignness and Family in South Korea”:

Since the late 1990s, adult adopted Koreans have been officially welcomed back to their country of birth as “overseas Koreans,” a legal designation instituted by Korea’s state-sponsored “globalization” (segyehwa) project. Designed to build economic and social networks between Korea and its seven million compatriots abroad, this policy projects an ethnonationalist and deterritorialized vision of Korea that depends upon a conflation of “blood” with “kinship” and “nation.” Adoptees present a particularly problematic subset of overseas Koreans: they have biological links to Korea, but their adoptions have complicated the sentimental and symbolic ties of “blood” upon which this familialist and nationalist state policy depend. Because international adoption replaces biological with social parenthood and involves the transfer of citizenship, to incorporate adoptees as “overseas Koreans,” the state must honor the authority and role of adoptive parents who raised them, even as they invite adoptees to (re)claim their Koreanness. Government representations optimistically construe adoptees as cultural “ambassadors” and economic “bridges,” yet for adoptees themselves––whose lives have been split across two nations, two families and two histories––the cultural capital necessary to realize their transnational potential seems to have already been forfeited.

I’d rather read what an adult Chinese adoptee has to say about these trips (and I’m sure that in another few years, we will) than hear about how adoptive parents find comfort and justification in these homeland tours and how they find Chinese toilets disgusting. Yeah, thank God I was adopted so I didn’t have to live with squat toilets (I wonder if this family had ever gone camping and used an outhouse or dug their own litrine? And to think for some Americans, this is a “fun” vacation).

But anyway, judge for yourselves. It was an interesting read.

You can read the article here.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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