Just this morning, my parents and I were at a community gathering. We sat down at a circular table, and not long after, an older gentleman joined us. He was a very friendly man who clearly had a good heart, but I was reminded once again how even the best intentioned of people don’t understand the power of language in adoption rhetoric.
I had never met this man before, but my parents seemed to know him from somewhere. We chatted lightly about family travels and school (he had gone to a college near mine). Through conversation, he discovered that I had an interest in acquiring fluency in Mandarin, and so he began talking about some Chinese students he and his wife had hosted. When it became more obvious that I was adopted, his glance glazed over my head and towards my parents’. He then asked, “Was she a baby when she came to the States?”
Umm… hi, excuse me sir! I haven’t left the table; I’m still here. As an adoptee, my story along with the stories of other adoptees have for too long been narrated by adoption agencies, adoptive parents, and the media. I am a fully, functioning adult, capable of telling him on my own that I wasn’t a baby when I was adopted. Why did he so nonchalantly ask this question to my parents instead of me, the adoptee and the person sitting next to him? I don’t think that people outside of the adoption community realize how often adoptee voices are silenced. I feel that this is my story, and it should be my right to determine how much information I disclose to strangers about it. I have been gifted with a voice, and I can speak on my own behalf.
As frustrating as him asking for a voiceover on my narrative was, his response to my mother was even more startling. After my mother told him that I was three years old when I came to the United States, he replied, “Well, you certainly got a keeper.” While this “compliment” directed towards me was supposed to be, I guess, validating, it is actually dismissive of my inherent value in my family. How did I prove that I was worthy of keeping? Did our fifteen minute conversation convince him that I was smart enough? Am I nice enough? Do I look pretty enough? Did I seem to have enough potential for success? Whether or not I possess any of those traits, didn’t my adoption signify that my parents were “keeping” me forever?
This is a sentiment often said by family members to a new fiance – “Oh, you’ve done well. He’s a keeper!” But in marriage or searching for a partner, both parties have agency in choosing to be with each other or in choosing to separate and divorce. Adoption is a completely different context. The child has no choice in whether or not they are adopted or by which family they are adopted. And though adoptive parents make the decision to adopt, in most situations internationally, parents don’t get a choice in whom they adopt, unless they participate in unscrupulous practices such as child rehoming. Biological parents don’t know what health conditions, learning disabilities, or demeanor their child will have and are expected to love and keep them regardless. Likewise, adoptive parents are supposed be equally accepting of the challenges presented with whichever child comes their way. No one would say to parents of a biological child, “you got a keeper” because it implies that they could dispose of the child at will.
What does this suggest about adoption that someone could say that my parents “got a keeper?” Who are the adopted children deemed the “not-keepers?” Simply because adoption is an alternative method of family creation, this should not be justification for adoptees having to prove themselves worthy of keeping. We should all be keepers.