Putting Culture into Context: The Impact of Attitudes toward the Adoption of Chinese Adoptees

Amanda Baden. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

The practice of placing orphaned or abandoned children transracially and internationally has been the subject of scrutiny in the United States and Europe for the past 35 years. As a result of the concern expressed over the outcomes of these placements, clinicians, researchers, and child policy professionals sought to determine the “best interests of the child” by conducting research to assess the adjustment and psychological impact of adoption on children and adolescents adopted transracially and internationally. However, despite investigating variables affecting adoptees such as racial and ethnic identity (e.g., Andujo, 1988; Huh, 1997; McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, & Anderson, 1984; Shireman & Johnson, 1986), psychological adjustment (e.g., Cederblad, Höök, Irhammar, & Mercke, 1999), school achievement (e.g., Brodzinsky & Steiger, 1991; Liu, Wyshak, & Larsen, 2004), and attachment (Smith & Sherwen, 1988; Steele, Hodges, Kaniuk, Hillman, & Henderson, 2003; Ward & Lewko, 1987), questions remain about what shapes the experiences of trans-racial and international adoptees. One factor of great interest to many adopted persons, clinicians, and researchers involves the circumstances surrounding relinquished and orphaned children in their countries of origin. The circumstances surrounding relinquishment and subsequent international adoptions are often more complex than a single policy or rule can describe, and they often encompass both the reasons that may be given for relinquishment (e.g., individual, family, community, social, economic, and governmental factors) and the climate or atmosphere in which those relinquishments are made (e.g., social stigma, racial purity, social dictates). Thus, both the reasons for relinquishment and the climate in which it occurred are likely to affect adoptees’ attitudes toward their countries of origin and their fellow ethnic group members. This in turn may affect the adoptees’ feelings of belongingness and affiliation with their ethnic group. To better understand the circumstances, given that the ways in which adoptees make sense of the reasons and judge the climate within their countries of origin may affect adopted children’s adjustment, attachment, self-esteem, and identity, an examination of the cultural belief systems, social and political climates, and economic and familial support systems that exist currently and that existed at the time of relinquishment in the adoptees’ birth countries is warranted.

As the statistics reported later in this chapter reflect, China is the leading country of origin of children adopted internationally for the past 6 years. China has also had the distinction of being the most populous country in the world (Central Intelligence Agency, 2006), and that dominance is reflected in the population of Asians in the United States. The 2000 U.S. Census reported that of the 11.9 million Asians residing in the United States, 20%, or 2.7 million, are of Chinese heritage (Barnes & Bennett, 2002). In fact, the largest Asian group in the United States is composed of those ethnically Chinese. As more Chinese children are adopted from China by families who are not ethnically Chinese (the vast majority of the adoptive parents), a greater understanding of the impact of cultural attitudes toward relinquishment and adoption is needed to best inform adoption professionals, train adoption competent therapists, prepare adoptive parents, and treat the adoptees themselves.

This chapter will briefly review the documented historical and contextual perspectives on transracial and international adoption (TIA) for China. From that perspective, the attitudes of Chinese people toward relinquishment of children, adoption domestically and internationally, and transracial adoption will be discussed. Comparisons and contrasts of attitudes in the United States toward these same issues (e.g., relinquishment and adoption placements) will be addressed. Finally, a case study example will be given and discussed.

Current Status of International Adoptions

Since international adoptions were initially practiced following World War I, the processes by which children born abroad were then adopted by American families have changed drastically. With changes in international adoptions as formalized via the Hague Convention, no longer can children simply be “baby lifted” without more stringent legal and personal protections in place. But who is being internationally adopted? How many orphans are there abroad? These questions have frequently been addressed by governmental agencies such as the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA; 2003), who estimated that more than 100 million children in Asia (65 million), Africa (34 million), and Latin America and the Caribbean (8 million) remain orphans and need caregivers. (Note: Orphaned children in Europe are not included in this number.) Clearly, with so many children needing families, some examination of the factors leading to their orphan status and their likelihood of being adopted must be examined.

To understand who is getting adopted by American families, one need only review the U.S. Department of State’s (2006) report on the numbers of immigrant visas issued for orphans born abroad. Recent statistics reflect that in 2005, when 21,968 children were adopted internationally, the highest number of children came from the People’s Republic of China (PRC; 7,906 children), with 36% of all international adoptions. Table 8.1 summarizes the immigrant visas issued by the United States for children born abroad and reflects that in 2005, the majority of orphaned children being adopted to the United States came primarily from Asia (50.8%) and from Eastern Europe (25.4%).

Table 8.1 Immigration Visas Issued to Orphans From the U.S. State Department by Year

Table 8.1 Immigration Visas Issued to Orphans From the U.S. State Department by Year

The number of immigrant visas issued to orphans adopted by Americans indicates that despite the large numbers of international adoptions by American parents and by other countries (e.g., Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands), millions of children still likely need adoptive placements. However, the wide availability of orphaned infants and toddlers in foreign countries and the perceived unlikelihood that foreign birth parents will seek reunions or rescind their decisions, combined with rising infertility rates in the United States, decreased stigma for single parenthood, effective contraception, and legalized abortion have steadily increased the number of transracial adoptions in the United States.

Historical Perspectives

Although a complete history of TIA is beyond the scope of this chapter, the literature contains numerous depictions of both transracial and international adoption’s history (e.g., Lee, 2003; Wilkinson, 1995; Zamostny, O’Brien, Baden, & Wiley, 2003). As Baden and Steward (Chapter 7) and Roorda (Chapter 9) described, the concerns in the 1970s in the United States centered on domestic transracial adoptions. A report of the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW; 1972) and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 (Simon & Alstein, 2000) identified their fears regarding the impact of transracial placements; they predicted difficulties with racial identity and adjustment and expressed concern about the impact of transracial placements on the Black and American Indian communities, referring to the practice as “cultural genocide” (NABSW, 1972).

With respect to international/intercountry adoption, criticisms have referred to this practice as the “ultimate expression of American Imperialism” (Ryan, 1983, p. 51) and a “new form of colonialism” (Tizard, 1991, p. 746). For more than 50 years, children have been placed both internationally and transracially in the United States, starting with the relinquishment of Korean children during and following the Korean War (Kim, 1978; Wilkinson, 1995). Within the past 30 years, even more countries have placed children in the United States. In fact, many of the children currently available for international adoption were not orphaned through wars or disasters but were relinquished due to poverty, social ostracism (e.g., biracial children), or population control mandates (Bartholet, 1993; Wilkinson, 1995). A more detailed history of Korean adoption, by McGinnis, can be found in Chapter 11.

Federal legislation, the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), was implemented in 1994 and further refined in 1996 through the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA), to attenuate the controversy around transracial placements and to provide guidelines for federally funded adoption agencies. With the goal of protecting children and parents around the world and preventing child trafficking and abuse, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was introduced at the United Nations in 1993 and has since been ratified by 67 countries (Hague Conference on Private International Law, 2005). Only three countries that are member states of the Hague Conference (the United States, the Russian Federation, and Ireland) have yet to ratify the Hague Convention and thereby make the conditions of the Convention legally binding. In the United States, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 was passed as a measure to ratify the Hague Convention, but as of November 2005, formal processes to fully ratify the Convention were designed but not yet enacted (U.S. Department of State, 2006).

Despite new policies that permit and support both international adoption and transracial adoption (which, by definition, can also be international), these placements continue to foster controversy politically, socially, and psychologically. To better understand the dynamics that occur in TIAs, the influence that culture has on attitudes toward adoption and the practice of adoption can begin to help clarify the questions, create bridges for understanding and serving these individuals and their families, and demystify the issues surrounding TIA.

Some primary areas to consider when assessing individual, community, and social attitudes toward TIA include (1) the stigma associated with adoption for both domestic and international adoptions; (2) the stigma associated with single parenthood, relinquishment, and gender of the child; and (3) the social, political, and economic contexts in which children are relinquished, abandoned, and orphaned.

Current Perspectives: Relinquishment Abroad

The policies that have shaped the status of adoption abroad have resulted from a wide array of events, including international conflicts, civil wars, AIDS epidemics, population control, social constraints, and of course, poverty. These events encompass social, political, and economic factors that have clearly had a far-reaching impact on adoption practice and mechanisms as well as on attitudes toward adoption. The perspectives that nations, governments, society, and people form about adoption domestically and internationally have power far beyond the adoption agency. Within the adoption constellation, birth parents, adoptive parents, and adopted persons are often exposed to those messages (e.g., adoption is a “second best” way to form a family, China does not value females) so that they may in turn be influenced by them and possibly even internalize them before ever exposing them to scrutiny. Additional perspectives on TIA can be found by examining the social structure of various countries. Social structures within countries have direct effects on the family unit, and these structures are often influenced by attitudes and beliefs that encompass national pride (e.g., racial and ethnic homogeneity), cultural values (e.g., Confucian ideals and teachings), and religion (e.g., Christianity). Thus, social norms as evidenced by family structure, family rules, and cultural values provide insight into cultural perspectives on adoption in adoptees’ countries of origin. To gain awareness of a multifaceted perspective, the countries from which children were adopted and the countries to which they were adopted can serve as foundations for this exploration. In this chapter, the social structure and norms in China as well as those in the United States may provide substantial insight into some of the challenges and successes that Chinese adoptees in the United States may encounter.

Relinquishment, abandonment, and deaths of caregivers are the three primary means by which children both in the United States and abroad become orphaned and available for adoption. Various political, social, and economic factors have been cited as leading to the availability of these children (Rojewski, Shapiro, & Shapiro, 2000). Interestingly, when making attributions for relinquishment domestically (i.e., children born to American people and relinquished in the United States), individuals may cite teen pregnancies, poverty, religion, drug dependence, or the challenges of single parenting as reasons. However, when making attributions for relinquishment in international adoption, individuals may tend to assume homogeneity in both the foreign people and in the explanations given for relinquishment—that is, they may cite a single reason or two to explain decisions to relinquish rather than examine the complexity of adoption in other countries and cultures. Adoption researchers and policymakers worked to educate the public to be aware of the plight of families in the nations that provide the most frequent source of adoptable children internationally—China (the PRC) and Russia. The reasons for the availability may be simply stated as “the one-child policy” in China (Johnson, 2004) or the political and economic unrest and the resultant poverty found in Russia (Homestudies and Adoption Placement Services [HAPS], n.d.). Regardless of the simplicity with which these reasons are cited, the impact of these and other more complex and variable reasons found for relinquishment is likely to be significant in the transracially and internationally adopted child, adolescent, or adult.

The explanations that are “used,” “found,” or even “given” for relinquishment abroad basically constitute the frame through which researchers, practitioners, adoption triad members, and society view the culture of a given country. Thus if China has been “framed” as abandoning female infants in favor of male infants due to a one-child policy, the influence of that perception on how families and children adopted from China relate to China is likely to be substantial. But what will that influence be? In essence, answers to a series of questions such as the following will likely assist in assessing this influence: (1) How do people in the United States view international adoption and international adoptees? (2) How do individuals in China view international adoption and international adoptees? (3) How do Americans and people in other countries view international versus domestic adoption? (4) How are international adoptees affected by these views?

To begin to answer these questions, this chapter will focus on the policies, economics, social structure, and international adoption from the PRC. As the leading source of children adopted internationally to the United States, China represents this dilemma well. Chinese children adopted transracially by White American parents represent the largest portion of these international adoptions, thus making them transracial and international adoptees.

The Case of Chinese Adoptions: The People’s Republic of China

Given the 50-plus years of international adoptions from South Korea to the United States, examinations of Chinese adoptions typically draw on the history of South Korean adoptions, the experiences of and outcomes for adult Korean adoptees, and the social and political climate surrounding these adoptions.

Relinquishment in South Korea

Comparisons made between international adoptions from Korea and China are complex, given the differing circumstances surrounding relinquishment (e.g., reasons given for relinquishment, adoption plans, abandonment, governmental policies regarding relinquishment). For example, a South Korean birth mother who was living in an unwed mothers’ home was encouraged to write the letter below to her unborn child by the social workers in the home.

Seoul, South Korea

My baby, what can I say to you…. I fear that you will not believe what I have to say. I do hope that you will believe me when I say that I love you, my daughter. I know that no matter what I say I cannot be forgiven, but I hope that you will come to understand me a little.

My baby, when you grow up you may ask why your mother gave you up for adoption abroad. You may think that if you had grown up in Korea and had been adopted by a Korean family, you would not have gone through so much hardship. However, when I was faced with the decision of giving you up for adoption I believed that you would be better off in a country where you would be given an equal chance.

The reason I did not give you up for domestic adoption was that children adopted in Korea, even if they are not born out of wedlock, are discriminated against and looked down upon. Even if your adoptive parents tried to keep the fact of your adoption a secret, eventually it would be revealed. When I considered how you would be shocked when you found out too late that you had been adopted, I had to decide that it would be best for you to be adopted abroad.

My baby, if you understand me a little, I hope that you will realize that I want you to love your adoptive parents. Even though I am your biological mother, I could not provide you with the loving environment that you need. I admit that I was irresponsible. Your adoptive parents, even though they are not your biological parents, will care for you with all the love and attention they can give … I will never forget you but I will always pray for you. My love for you will continually grow.

I love you.

From your loving mother (Dorow, 1999, pp. 44-45; reprinted by permission of Yeong & Yeong Book Company.)

When reading this letter, it is important to remember that birth mothers in China do not relinquish their children while living with other women making similar decisions or while under the care of a social worker. In fact, most of the circumstances surrounding the relinquishment of children differ between South Korean birth mothers and Chinese birth mothers (in the PRC). However, as McGinnis described, some similarities can be found if the history of adoption (30 to 50 years ago) in Korea is considered. Despite those similarities, adoption from South Korea within the past 25 years has been quite different. Another letter contains the following paragraph.

I reproached myself for being so bad, and cried with my heart aching and tearing apart. I thought about raising you by myself, but it would be hard, especially in Korea where the Confucian ideas are deeply rooted in society. So I decided to send you to good parents who could make you happy. I was in agony and despair, but now I have decided to live just praying for you. (Dorow, 1999, pp. 19-20)

These letters reflect the cultural climate that exists in Korea and other countries where single parenthood and birth by an unwed mother is socially unacceptable. Other letters reflect the desire for reunions with their relinquished children (“Even though I wish to meet you someday, it is up to you” [Dorow, 1999, p. 38]) and demonstrate that such reunions may be possible despite popular belief that birth parents in these countries will not seek such reunions. One area not fully elucidated in the research on international adoption includes the need for understanding the cultural, political, and social reasons for relinquishing children in countries outside the United States as well as the psychological impact of those reasons on birth parents. For example, on a visit to South Korea, the author visited Ae Ran Won, a home in Seoul for unwed birth mothers who were relinquishing their children for adoption both internationally and domestically. The birth mothers expressed deep regret, sorrow, and shame for their decision but felt they had few options for their survival. Given the social stigma, poverty, social structure of Korean society, and lack of social support, the women felt that they had no choice but to relinquish their child. Without the father of the child to affirm paternity and thereby enable the child to be legally registered, the child would have no status in Korean society and could not legally attend Korean schools or have a future free from poverty. Furthermore, unwed, Korean single mothers would face severe moral stigma and social disenfranchisement as a result of their status (Kim & Davis, 2003).

Relinquishment in China

Political, social, and economic reasons affecting the relinquishment or abandonment of infants in China should also be further understood. Johnson, Banghan, and Liyao (1998) detailed the misunderstandings in China’s infamous one-child policy and explained the gender bias toward female abandonment as follows:

Sons are necessary to continue the patrilineal family line and all that this stands for in the family-centered culture and religious life of rural China. Most importantly, sons are permanent members of their father’s family and are still the major source of support for elderly parents in old age since rural China, outside of a few wealthy suburban areas, lacks a social security system. Daughters “marry away” and join their husband’s family, where they are obligated to support his parents. The main problem with daughters is that they “belong to other people.” (p. 475)

Johnson et al. (1998) also described the double bind that birth parents face if they have a child that forces them over their quota of one in urban areas and two in rural areas (if the first is a girl). Voluntary relinquishment of a child is illegal and does not exist. Abandonment of children carries with it stiff financial penalties, if one is caught, that are similar to fines imposed by the Chinese government for “overquota” children (approximately a year’s income), in addition to mandatory sterilization for the mothers. Thus, families already struggling to survive must choose between even more severe poverty to keep the child and risking abandonment without being caught.

Chang (2003) described the origins of the infamous “one-child policy” as tied to Mao Zedong’s (aka Tse-tung) belief that birth control was a form of genocide and the Deng administration’s creation of that policy to control the exploding population in China. In exchange for adherence to the policy, families received better government benefits, whereas violation of the policy resulted in heavy fines. The long social history of Chinese women as childbearers, whose worth was measured on their ability to produce sons and care for their families (Lee, 1997), was difficult to change with governmental policies, so Chinese couples resorted to hiding daughters with relatives, abandonment, and even infanticide (Chang, 2003). When abandonment was chosen, couples often cited the pressure from the government and their hopes to recover their daughters at some point (Johnson, 2004). For example, one couple wrote,

This baby girl was born on 1992 at 5:30 A.M. and is now 100 days old…. She is in good health and has never suffered any illness. Because of the current political situation and heavy pressures that are too difficult to explain, we, who were her parents for these first days, cannot continue taking care of her. We can only hope that in this world there is a kind-hearted person who will care for her. Thank you.

In regret and shame, your father and mother. (Johnson, 2004, p. 75)

In essence, due to the illegality of relinquishing children for adoption, the social, cultural, and familial pressure to produce a male heir, and government birth-planning policies, the abandonment of infant girls was described by Johnson (2004) as reflecting a continuum of care in adoption planning. That is, many instances of female infant abandonment might be appropriately viewed as ranging from abandonment while hoping for the best to carefully developing what might be considered an alternative adoption plan. The Chinese couples that Johnson and her colleagues interviewed reported choosing crowded areas where the children would be likely to be found, doorsteps of families who were childless or had only sons, or other towns or places where they could see their children found yet stay anonymous and undetected.

Although a continuum certainly exists among the forethought and planning that went into the relinquishment, the choices made by birth parents in China who willfully violated birth-planning policies and abandoned their children must be examined as it affects Chinese adoptees and their families. The reality of relinquishment in China and the culture of abandonment are likely to become very powerful elements of Chinese adoptees’ conceptions of their adoptions.

Attitudes toward Domestic versus International Adoption in China

Orphaned children in China have historically been cared for in orphanages and have, throughout China’s history, been adopted domestically. Although Confucian principles may be interpreted as emphasizing bloodlines and adoption only within those bounds, Johnson (2004) reported that many strains of Confucianism allow and support adoption across bloodlines as well as preferences for adopting nonrelatives due to the perceived permanency and lack of interference from birth families. In fact, Johnson’s (2004) research in China and the Chinese governmental policies regulating domestic adoptions revealed that Chinese citizens do adopt children domestically. Johnson reported that most of the orphaned children who were formally adopted throughout the past 50 years were adopted by childless couples, often peasants from the countryside. Johnson described the cultural expectation and the resultant pressure from society that married couples have children (whether by birth or adoption) as being of vital importance and as an obligation in the culture. Foundlings, as abandoned infants are often called, who were placed on the doorsteps of specific families that relinquishing parents believed were in the position to adopt, were often adopted either formally or informally by the families who “found” the children, at a rate of about 23% (86 of 370 cases of females) (Johnson, 2004). In fact, many of the families who adopted foundlings were considered “chaoboa,” or overquota adopters, and they defy the common stereotype that only international adopters want these “lost daughters of China” (Johnson, 2004, p. 159).

Interestingly, adoption has yet to be fully destigmatized in Chinese society. Many adoptive families hide the adoption status from their children, and for many years couples with children were routinely banned from adopting because politicians feared that adopted children would be treated differently and with less privilege than their nonadopted siblings (Johnson, 2004). Despite the stigma, however, Johnson (2004) reported that “contemporary adoptive parents routinely insist that adopted children have the same status as birth children and are raised and treated ‘as if born to’ the parents” (p. 141). The support for and practice of domestic adoption within China reinforces the contention that domestic adoption can and would be practiced widely in China, given the legal statutes allowing these adoptions. However, the one-child policy continues to limit this practice.

A major factor that depicts the attitudes of Chinese people toward adoption, however, has frequently been tied to gender and the place of males and females in the strict patrilineal society of China. In China, bloodlines follow the males and sons care for parents in their old age. Thus, in an orphanage in Wuhan, Johnson (2004) reported that very few male children were relinquished and those that were, either healthy or with disabilities, were typically adopted immediately. Female infants, on the other hand, accounted for almost all the orphaned children. Despite the documented disparities in the number of abandoned male versus female children, for many years prior to the more strictly enforced population control policies, many orphaned female infants were adopted. Females were often adopted because of the scarcity of infant boys available for adoption.

The patrilineal society that seems to support and sustain the preference for males over females has led to great confusion as well as problematic assumptions about the character of the Chinese people and the values in Chinese culture. Families have asked, “How could they abandon those children?” Children have asked, “Don’t they like girls?” The assumptions have oversimplified the availability of children in China as being related only to the one-child policy and to the character of a nation of people who seem to devalue females. Yet little, if any, attention was given to the growing segment of the Chinese adoptive parents who adopted foundlings or abandoned children domestically within China. These families have routinely been overlooked, and international adopters have been characterized as the primary means for reducing the number of orphans in China (Johnson, 2004).

With all the attention focused on the abandonment of children and the limitations surrounding the domestic adoptions of these orphans, the literature has yet to examine the attitudes that Chinese citizens and Chinese Americans have toward the international adoptions of these Chinese children. Anecdotal evidence from families seen in therapy or in adoption workshops by the author paints a picture in which Chinese people in the United States refer to the adopted Chinese girls as “lucky” and thank the adoptive parents for raising them. In essence, families have reported reactions that suggest Chinese people in the United States may view these children as Chinese citizens in the care of these American adoptive families, who must ensure that they preserve their ties to the Chinese culture and community. Furthermore, no evidence of international adoption of children from foreign nations to China (the PRC) was located, so Chinese citizens’ attitudes toward the adoption of non-Chinese children to Chinese families could not be explored. Clearly, research on the attitudes of the Chinese community both within the PRC and in the United States deserves more systematic attention and understanding to fully account for their impact on adoptees’ conceptions of their adoption history and experiences.

Attitudes toward Domestic versus International Adoption in the United States

The history of adoption in the United States, as noted above, is complex. Domestic adoption has been practiced in the United States both formally and informally throughout its history. From the orphan trains to expensive private adoptions, American couples have historically turned to adoption for various reasons (e.g., infertility, the desire to parent, altruism for orphaned children). However, as fewer healthy, White infants became available for adoption due to lowered voluntary relinquishment rates (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2005) but more infertile White couples sought children, domestic and international transracial adoptions became alternative solutions (Zamostny, O’Brien, et al., 2003).

In the United States, domestic transracial adoptions have been controversial and complex. With respect to transracial adoption, the heterogeneity within the American population, the long history of controversy regarding transracial adoption within the United States, and the racial and ethnic composition of the children available for adoption all play vital roles in shaping the attitudes toward domestic transracial adoption. As the data from the U.S. Census of 2000 (Grieco & Cassidy, 2001) reflect, in 2000 the United States was composed of approximately 281,421,906 individuals. As shown in Table 8.2, 75.1% described themselves as White (69.1% as White, non-Hispanic and 12.5% as primarily White and Hispanic), 12.3% as Black or African American, 0.9% as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 3.6% as Asian, 0.1% as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 5.5% as from some other race, and 2.4% as having two or more races. Interestingly, although White non-Hispanics dominate the population in the United States, the racial composition of the children available for domestic adoption via public agencies depicts very different proportions.

Table 8.2 Race/Ethnicity Reported on U.S. Census of 2000 and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System for Fiscal Year (FY) 2003

Table 8.2 Race/Ethnicity Reported on U.S. Census of 2000 and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System for Fiscal Year (FY) 2003

As of September 30, 2004, 119,000 children were in foster care and were waiting to be adopted (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). Of those children, 37% were White and non-Hispanic, 14% were Hispanic, 40% were Black and non-Hispanic, 2% were American Indian and non-Hispanic, 0% were Asian and non-Hispanic, 0% were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and non-Hispanic, 4% were unknown or unable to determine, and 3% were described as having two or more races that were non-Hispanic. These figures reflect that children of color were disproportionately available for adoption as compared with their proportions within the U.S. population. However, the White children who were adopted during that same fiscal year were again somewhat disproportionately placed into adoptive homes. That is, although fewer White children than Black children were available for placement in 2003, more (47.79% of those available) were placed into adoptive homes than were Black children (only 34.79% of those available). This observation, in combination with reports of Black and biracial children being adopted in increasingly large numbers to Canada and to European countries, raises questions regarding the attitudes of American couples to domestic transracial adoptions. Although legislation has cleared transracial placements of children of color with White families, the data presented above paint a very different picture that suggests a need for more exploration regarding preferences for children available through foster care. Attitudes toward domestic transracial adoption have shown support for the practice of transracial adoption (Whatley, Jahangardi, Ross, & Knox, 2003), yet the prevalence of international adoptions in the face of so many waiting children in the United States urges a greater understanding of these dynamics. Perhaps the complicated family histories, the remnants of the cautions against adopting biracial and African American children (i.e., warnings from the NABSW), racial preferences and cultural biases, fears regarding permanency of placements, altruistic attitudes toward other countries, or the desire for infants might begin to explain some of these observations.

With respect to international adoption, Americans have been adopting internationally since after World War I. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of children born abroad have been adopted to the United States by American couples seeking children. In fact, the CWLA (2003) estimated that within the past 30 years, more than 250,000 foreign-born children had been adopted to the United States by American parents. However, the circumstances under which these children were internationally adopted varied based on the social and political climate of the time. Social and moral constraints on unwed mothers and single parents in the United States have lessened in the past 50 years, birthrates in the United States have decreased, and the rates of infertility have increased (Chang, 2003; Zamostny, O’Brien, et al., 2003), and these changes have led to an increased interest in international adoption. Furthermore, adoptee and birth-parent activism that challenged closed birth records and adoption secrecy and that normalized birth-parent searches led to greater openness in adoption (Zamostny, O’Brien, et al., 2003). A few highly publicized cases of adoptions where birth parents challenged the final relinquishment or changed their minds also contributed to the interest in international adoptions, which have often been referred to as more permanent adoptions where birth families were not likely to contest the adoption. Interestingly, out of 79 adoptive parents who responded to a survey by Rojewski (2005) and had adopted children from China, 12 parents chose China as the country from which they would adopt due to concerns about U.S. adoption laws, and an additional 9 parents chose China due to the assurance that there would be no potential parental claims on the child in the future.

Despite the long history of both domestic and international adoption in the United States, the stigma of adoption (March, 1995; Miall, 1987; Zamostny, Wiley, O’Brien, Lee, & Baden, 2003) has been an ongoing challenge for adoptive families and adopted persons. Attitudes toward adoption frequently reflect the stigma that may be both American and universal. For example, Miall (1987) reported that 71 involuntarily childless women shared their beliefs regarding societal perceptions of adoption as indicating that biological ties are vital for love and bonding, bonding and love via adoption is “second best,” adopted children are “second rate” due to their unknown biological history, and adoptive parents are not viewed as “real parents” to their adopted children. Clearly, although there is greater awareness of the stigma surrounding adoption, it is yet to be eliminated.

Comparisons and Contrasts in History and Attitudes: China and the United States

As noted above, domestic adoption in China differs in the visibility of the adoptions and, clearly, the regulations that exist on adopting domestically. In both cases, families who would like to adopt domestically have difficulties, but the difficulties in the United States tend to be more related to availability of infants, especially White infants, and the concerns about permanency or problems when adopting domestically. Chinese families struggle due to governmental policies that bind families interested in domestic adoption based on population control policies (Johnson, 2004). Both countries struggle with issues of stigma, and both countries have past histories where adoption was seen as not serving the “best interests” of the children being adopted. Other differences have been rooted in social issues such as poverty and economic power. The relative wealth and prosperity of the American people as a whole in comparison with the Chinese families both relinquishing and adopting is a striking contrast. In 2005, the average per capita income for Americans was $41,800, whereas for Chinese from the PRC it was $6,200 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2006). Families in the United States have no restrictions on the number of children they can parent, and they have demonstrated their ability to financially support international adoption placements. In contrast, Chinese families who would parent more children have governmental restrictions that limit their family size and economics that limit their ability to adopt internationally.

As is widely reported in the media and in popular culture, China has found itself in a position where gender preferences have led to a much skewed distribution of orphaned girls versus boys with far greater numbers of orphaned girls. The centuries-old tradition of needing male heirs for security and bloodlines can be found, to varying degrees, in both the United States and China. Both societies typically follow a patriarchal line for families; however, the greater degree of poverty in China in conjunction with mandates on family size may have complicated this similarity so that differences between the two countries have developed and emphasized the gender preference. That is, children abandoned and orphaned in China may not be as readily adopted domestically due to stringent regulations on family size even through adoption (Johnson, 2004), and more children are abandoned and orphaned due to those same regulations on family size. Although no clear formula can be derived from the circumstances that account for the values, laws, and social structure, it is clear that the United States and China have as many similarities as they have differences. However, the negative conceptualization of the attitudes, values, and practices of each country may fail to acknowledge these similarities. In fact, the negative stereotypes of the Chinese character that exist in the United States today (Chang, 2003) are likely to affect the manner in which Chinese adoptees conceptualize themselves and their identities and how they incorporate their understanding of their history into their lives.

Clinical Implications: Attitudes, Perceptions, Motivations, and Their Impact on Adoptees

Given all the complexities involved in TIAs and the subsequent attitudes that exist in China and the United States, Chinese adoptees are likely to be affected by (1) the perceptions they have about the status of adoption both in their country of origin and in the country to which they were adopted, (2) the way adoptees relate to their birth culture and their adopted culture, (3) the information they receive about their adoptions (e.g., demographics), and (4) their assessment of the information they receive. As argued above, the perceptions that Chinese adoptees have about Chinese and American attitudes both toward adoption and toward them as adoptees may have a substantial impact on this assessment.

The information that Chinese adoptees receive about their adoption includes, but is not limited to, the following: (1) why they were relinquished (e.g., unwed mother, birth-planning policies, death of family members), (2) when they were relinquished (e.g., age and date if known, immediately after birth or following some extended period of time), (3) how they were relinquished (e.g., “abandoned” or “placed where he or she would be found”), (4) where they were relinquished (e.g., train station, hospital, street), (5) where they lived and with whom after they were relinquished (e.g., orphanage, foster care, Ahma or caregiver in China), (6) who relinquished them (e.g., married couple, single woman, other descriptors of birth families), (7) why they were adopted (e.g., adoptive parents were infertile, wanted to help needy children, wanted to become parents), (8) when they were adopted into the family (e.g., the date often called their Gotcha Day, Adoption Day, Family Day, or Special Day), (9) who chose to adopt them (e.g., mom wanted to adopt, dad was cautious); (10) what they were named prior to adoption (e.g., their given Chinese names), (11) what place they fill in their adoptive families (e.g., only adoptee, older sister), and (12) what physical, social, and/or emotional characteristics described them as infants and made them both able to be relinquished and able to be adopted. In addition to this information, Chinese adoptees may seek and receive information about Chinese culture and may apply that information to fill in gaps in their understanding or even to replace information that they may doubt or question. Thus, the content of adoptees’ stories as well as the manner in which the stories are told may powerfully affect Chinese adoptees’ self-concept, identity, self-esteem, and connection to their country and culture of origin. The effective clinical treatment of Chinese adoptees necessitates the consideration of the various facets of information that a Chinese adoptee may receive about his or her adoption.

As the case study above illustrates, adoptees’ perceptions and beliefs about their adoptions may significantly affect their adjustment. Those perceptions and beliefs are affected by what adoptees know about their adoptions as well as the cultural context from which they came (China) and into which they were adopted (middle-class American). Although this case is just one example of how their perceptions can affect the way adoptees process their experiences, it reflects the complexity that clinicians who work with adoptees must be prepared to examine.

Case Study

Presenting Issues: Lily, a 12-year-old girl adopted from China by Caucasian American parents, had been asking questions about her adoption and was expressing anger, social withdrawal, and discomfort with her appearance. Lily was resisting attending school and was complaining of hating her “slanty” eyes. Lily’s mother contacted the agency that they used to adopt for a referral.

Preadoptive Background: Lily was born in the Anhui Province in China and was abandoned outside of a hospital when she was 3 days old. A note was pinned to her shirt that gave her birth date as November 4, 1993. The orphanage director named her Mei Lin, and she was raised by orphanage care workers and “grandmas” (nonrelated, retired care workers). Mei Lin was placed with her adoptive parents, John and Anne O’Neill, when she was 11 months old. Mei Lin was small for her age and malnourished but otherwise healthy. The O’Neills returned with Mei Lin to their home in a suburb of New York City and renamed her Lily.

Adoptive Background: John O’Neill, a 49-year-old White American man of Irish and British descent, and Anne O’Neill, a 47-year-old White American woman of English, Welsh, and Irish descent, were married for 5 years when they adopted Lily. John is a lawyer and Anne is a writer. They have no other children, and both were previously married and divorced. They received treatments for infertility and decided to adopt from China when conception seemed unlikely. Growing up, Lily had playgroups with both adopted (many Chinese adopted) and nonadopted children (primarily White, middle-class children). Lily knew many families like hers.

Treatment Issues: After developing rapport and trust with Lily, the therapist’s questions about Lily’s classes at school revealed that her teacher in social studies had just covered a unit on China and the culture. The teacher described birth-planning policies as a means for decreasing the population in China and taught them about Confucius and the importance of male heirs and filial piety. When Lily went home, she searched the Internet and read more about adoption from China. Lily had always known that most of the other adoptees from China were girls, but the explanations she had received tended to be unclear. As Lily read more and remembered conversations she had heard, she recalled hearing that in China, girls were “just thrown away.” She struggled with her competing feelings: Chinese people are “heartless” and “cruel,” yet she herself was Chinese and did not believe that about herself. Lily also thought that Chinese men and boys must be “mean” because she had met very few and she deduced that they must not like girls because they only wanted boys in their families. She did not like the preference that seemed to exist for boys. The therapist began discussing Lily’s perceptions of her birth country, and Lily was able to articulate her until then unspoken fear of Chinese people. Through the psychoeducational use of books and films, Lily began to develop a more realistic and factual understanding of Chinese culture. As therapy progressed, Lily began to discuss her worries about her birth family, their poverty, and whether they thought about her. She was just beginning to process some emotions about her adoption but was more focused on correcting some of the negative stereotypes about Chinese people and about her birth parents that she had grown up hearing. Lily became interested in learning more about Chinese culture, but she wanted to know what people believed and valued instead of just about clothes, food, dances, and celebrations. The therapist worked with the family to introduce them to opportunities where they could meet some Chinese American people (families including adults and teens) and begin to replace stereotypes about China with real information. The therapist explored Lily’s negative perceptions about her appearance and helped her and her parents to understand how she had internalized negative judgments and stereotypes about China and Chinese people. Using this multicultural model for increasing awareness and self-acceptance enabled Lily and her parents to become aware of the oppression and racism that Lily had experienced. Lily’s parents participated in an awareness workshop on White Racial Awareness and became invested in finding Chinese American mentors for Lily who could help support her and guide her to more effectively cope with discrimination, develop more positive models of Chinese people and culture, and increase her self-esteem and pride in being Chinese American.

Research and Future Implications

This chapter reflects the need for increased study of the cultural context into which international transracial adoptees are adopted. The cultural context discussed in this chapter is based on Chinese adoptions, but no empirical validation of these observations about society and about clinical practice has been done. To prepare adoption workers, agency professionals, mental health workers, and families to assist Chinese adoptees in their adjustment and negotiation of their cultural and racial identities, more work in this area should be conducted. Qualitative research with Chinese adoptees using the Cultural-Racial Identity Model (Baden & Steward, 2000) may help clarify their experiences and help contextualize their integration of American and Chinese cultures, attitudes toward adoption, and racial identification.

Other gaps in our understanding of international adoption include the cultural contexts that exist within other leading countries from which children have been internationally adopted. For example, as Table 8.1 shows, the Russia Federation, Guatemala, South Korea, and Kazakhstan all have histories and attitudes toward adoption that have not been sufficiently explored. The international adoptees from these countries will seek and need assistance in clarifying and contextualizing their adoptions, so research in these areas is vital.

Reflection Questions

  1. What might Chinese adoptees internalize about Chinese people and culture? How could that affect them?
  2. How does knowing about adoption attitudes in the United States and in China affect the Chinese adoptees?
  3. Why might Chinese children or teens develop negative perceptions of their birth culture and ethnic group?