Things said to or about my adopted daughters… (+ Response)

This photo set is one of the latest pieces of (Chinese) adoptee media to circulate the internet. It’s been widely shared via Facebook, Tumblr, Imgur, and through other news sites. With over 3,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 1,500 comments on the album, people have been shocked by the questions and comments children receive regarding their adoptions and have praised the project as being enlightening, heartbreaking, and beautiful all at the same time. I, however, have some serious problems the the very nature of the project.

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Though I’ve heard nearly every one of these questions/comments, my first reaction was one of immediate discomfort. These whiteboard awareness campaigns have become popular recently, but as I scrolled through these images, I couldn’t help but feel that the mother was exploiting her children for her own creative art project. I don’t believe parents should use their children to make a political statement. I feel particularly queasy about the younger daughter’s presence in the project, wondering if she fully understands the controversial world she’s stepping into and the extremely public nature of the internet.

My next reaction was one of frustration. Many of the comments posted by bystanders were of shock and surprise to the ignorant comments adoptees receive on a regular basis. These statements, however, are nothing new. Adult adoptees have been trying to express this sentiment for a long time to closed ears. With matured faces and fully developed bodies, adult adoptees who describe painful comments targeted towards them as children are told to “let it go” or asked “how long are you going to let the past affect you?” When this adoptive mother stepped in and showed what adult adoptees have been trying to do for years, her words were met with a largely positive reception. And this is why I’m frustrated. I can recall conversations I’ve had with people where my status as an adoptee has led the other person to nitpick and battle with me over words, definitions, ideas. When my mother (a white adoptive parent) has presented similar perspectives to the same person, her ideas have been accepted or rejected with more respect than mine. How long are we going to let the adoption community be centered around prospective and current adoptive parents instead of adoptees?

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Another idea this photo set ignores is the ignorance that can lie within adoptive families or extended family members. Sh*tty Things Adoptive Families Say to Adoptees is a compilation by adoptees of remarks made to them, not by strangers in the grocery store or passersby in the public park, but by their own family members. “If we didn’t adopt you you’d probably be a prostitute or working in the rice fields,” “We already did our charity when we got you,” and “I always wanted an Oriental daughter and I got one,” are some of the quotes submitted as of now. I know the feeling of questioning my place as a “real” [insert family name] in my larger, extended family and the  uncomfortable heaviness in my stomach when occasional degrading comments about Asians or people of color, in general, are stated at some family gathering. While comments from strangers are infuriating, ignorance from family members is saddening on a different level.

In an interview given for Yahoo Shine, Kelley-Wagner said,  “I wanted to turn this into a teachable moment, especially because I don’t want the girls to internalize this negativity.” I strongly feel it is not the duty of marginalized people to constantly educate the dominant class. My lived experience as an adoptee in an adoptive family shouldn’t make every potential incident a “teachable moment.” This puts the responsibility on people of color/adoptees/women/LGBT/low income people etc. to tell people what’s ignorant or offensive instead of holding people responsible for their own insensitive words when, in many cases, it should be pretty obvious that telling someone “You’re lucky you were adopted, otherwise you’d be dead on the street,” is offensive.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 5.53.36 PMAdditionally, Kelly-Wagner claims that she didn’t want the girls to internalize these remarks. I think the way in which this project was carried out could end up doing just that, compounding their hurt and feelings of isolation, instead of being empowering. Many of these whiteboard campaigns’ slogans such as, “I need feminism because…”, “I, too, am Harvard,” or “#IDefyStereotypes,” contain some element of fighting against the status quo. In this case, the girls are just listlessly holding these hate filled or ignorant words in their hands.

While I understand the mother’s intentions, this project would have been a lot less problematic if it was adoptee driven. I hope that this photo set does make onlookers rethink commenting on other people’s families, and I sincerely hope adoptive families/parents realize that they, too, need to be more sensitive to adoptees’ narratives and privacy.


27 responses to “Things said to or about my adopted daughters… (+ Response)

  1. I have to say I hate the project, and I am not even an adoptee. I hate how she speaks for the girls. But if that’s not enough, she uses them, so it looks like it’s their project. That’s a real turn off. But to me the worst thing about this project is that some of these questions are legitimate, although it is of course rude and cruel to direct them at the girls. The adoptive mother, by categorizing these questions as “ignorant”, reveals herself as a type of adoptive parent who believes in the “as if” adoption. I consider this type of adoption as benefitting ONLY the adoptive parent. I don’t believe there isn’t much good about international adoption either, but let’s say that these girls really didn’t have any families and no one wanted to adopt them within their countries. Still it is important to preserve their original identity and culture. One transracial adoptee warns: ” don’t let your kid be your FIRST Black friend.” Another one tells a story how the “white card” she was holding while a child accompanied by her parents slowly disappeared as she was gaining independence, and that as a grown up she was perceived as a regular Asian American with a set of prejudices which come with it, a role for which her white parents did not and could have not prepared her. To sum up, more than the project itself I object to the “as if” adoption style apparently chosen by this adoptive mother. In fact I wish all stranger adoptions were substituted by guardianship to help preserve the truth of the child’s origin and the real relationships within the family unit. If a person can not love someone else’s child without making this child “theirs” on paper, than perhaps this person is not qualified for the job in the best interest of the child.


    • Chad’s interview with NPR was great, and I definitely agree with your stance on family preservation being the most beneficial to the child, but I’m having trouble finding questions/comments that are “legitimate.” There are so many harmful stereotypes, microaggressions, and insults displayed here.


  2. I’m sincerely sorry that you feel this adoptive mom’s voice carries more weight than the adult adoptees that have tried to speak out in the case of rude or inappropriate comments. I love to hear from adult adoptees when it comes to their perspectives growing up and I know for my “adoptive parent” friends and myself, your voice is very valuable.
    Yet, I can’t help but disagree with you here. My girls hear many of these types of comments from strangers and at 8 and 10 it is beginning to bother them. A lot. Like it or not (definitely “not” in my case), we are put on the front lines to educate the public. If I’m honest I don’t think of them as “teachable moments”, but more as an annoyance. But at my girls’ ages it’s my responsibility to emulate kind answers and answer for them, but they do need to know how to respond to these questions on their own some day soon. Unfortunately there are too many people that don’t know these comments are offensive and they probably never will unless it’s spoken to in a very public manner. This mother spoke in a very powerful, public manner.
    Let’s not forget this mother hasn’t exposed her daughter to this, the ignorant public has. I’m guessing this has bothered her daughters for some time. How could it not? I hate that they are standing there holding these words, but that responsibility isn’t on the mother, it is on our culture. Speaking out so publicly and powerfully may have been very therapeutic to her daughters. They had to know there would be criticism, but they are finally being HEARD. Isn’t that what you and all adoptees desire? I would hope that you could stand behind them and support your fellow adoptees in being so vocal and being heard, no matter if it was directed by the mother or not.
    I also don’t believe that this project ignores the rude comments said by families and extended family. It just isn’t speaking specifically to what group is saying them, just that they are inappropriate for anyone to say them…including families. I’m saddened for children who grow up in homes where families say such things. Thankfully I think this new generation of adoptive families are perhaps a little more sensitive. I know in my extended group of adoptive families we strive to be sensitive to our children’s histories, cultures, and feelings.


    • You love to hear from adult adoptees, but you completely disregard the entire point of the blog post? Also, what’s up with you saying you know what these young adoptees want and then playing the passive aggressive “Isn’t that what you and all adoptees desire”? Seriously, I’ve seen microaggression, but you just upped the ante.

      If you truly love to listen to adoptees, you’re so not showing it. You clearly are the very type of adoptive parent the blog post openly critiques.


      • Wow, Kevin. You’ll never be mistaken for passive aggressive…at least not on the internet. I don’t have to agree with her logic and her opinion of others to hear her voice, do I? That was my point in my comment…her logic is flawed. My comment, “isn’t that what you and all adoptees want, is to be heard?” was simply echoing the frustration she stated when she said “Adult adoptees have been trying to express this sentiment for a long time to closed ears. When an adoptive mother stepped in and showed what adult adoptees have been trying to do for years, her words were met with a largely positive response.” I didn’t see the original blog w/the girls holding the signs as the mother’s voice as much as the daughters’ voices saying, “enough”. So, Like I said earlier, I can completely sympathize with the blogger, that she feels like she isn’t being heard, but that isn’t the fault of this adoptive mom. That, again, is the ignorance of our society on adoption, something I feel this mother and girls were only trying to help with. I feel like we’re all trying to get the same result, so I’m curious why there’s such criticism of these girls’ and mother’s tactics?
        And then she goes on to say that this mother is ignoring that these rude comments also come from family and extended family? How is she ignoring that fact? Her logic doesn’t work for me and instated why in my previous comment.
        I just didn’t find her criticism logical…that doesn’t make me passive aggressive.


    • Cindy,
      It’s great you realize that for some things, part of the adoptive parents’ responsibility is protecting the children they adopt, and that our culture also bears some responsibility on the ill-treatment that many adopted people have to face. So, with that in mind, let me ask you what you are doing to protect the children you adopted and help change society to protect others like them:

      1) Are you out there trying to correct the laws that have legally discriminated against adopted adults for decades (in some states, almost 100 years)? Adopted adults are the ONLY US-born adults who are never allowed to have true basic information about their own birth in the form of their original birth certificate (OBC). For the rest of their lives. This discrimination is specific and unique to adopted adults (non-adopted, former foster children don’t lose access to their OBC). Are you aware of these sealed record laws? Do you even care?

      2) If your adopted children are from another country, have you and your family lived in that country or those countries so that your children can build memories/experiences within their country of origin and know their own culture? I don’t know if they are of the same race as you, but if so, did it ever occur to you that they might not have gotten such comments had they remained closer to their original family and people? And that their original family might be better equipped to deal with the “othering” that your children have to endure?

      3) Have you met your children’s first parents/first families? If it was arranged to be an open adoption, have you kept the adoption open? Have you contacted your representatives and adoption agencies to encourage legally-binding open adoption contracts, so that the first families aren’t at the mercy of adoptive parents like you?

      4) Do you know for a FACT, with clear evidence, that the children you adopted weren’t stolen from their first families, or that their original parents weren’t coerced or forced into giving up their children so that you could experience parenthood?

      5) If the answer to #4 is “No”, then do you care? What are you doing to get to the truth about the children you adopted?

      6) What steps did you take to ENSURE that the children you adopted weren’t stolen, trafficked, or their parents were victims of coercion, force, or financial bribing?

      7) Do you know the truth about why your children were available for adoption? And did you spend as much time and effort concerned with their truth as you did in adopting them?

      8) How much did it cost to adopt your children? Did you receive financial support from the government (adoption tax credit/special needs, government subsidies), friends, family, or church for their adoption by you? Are you aware that many parents struggle financially to KEEP their children, but are told that raising children is too expensive, so they should let their child be raised by someone who will likely get government subsidies that would help pay for the adoption?

      Yes, some of my questions are directed at you, the adoptive parent, and not at society. Why? Perhaps because YOU chose to take on the responsibility of permanently removing a child from his/her origins and raising him/her under these circumstances, away from his/her original people, family, and perhaps culture, language, nation. Your choices and voice contribute to a society that pays money to extract children and abandon their parents. That is what YOU chose.

      And now YOU choose to spend your advocacy time, NOT on supporting adopted people and their voices or their rights, but to defend the systems that exploit adopted children and silence adopted adults, while ignoring your VERY active and voluntary role in creating adopted people and the culture that suppresses them politically, legally, medically, socially, culturally and ancestrally.

      And yes, as you demonstrated along with the adoptive parent of these girls, adopted children can be exploited and silenced by “ever-so-wise” adoptive parents.

      But, hey, it’s all good. You get to experience parenthood. They get to be exploited, silenced, and uprooted from their roots. Their first families get to experience loss and be dis-empowered.

      Maybe, for the sake of the children, you should support family and cultural preservation. And help change society to protect children, their families, and their roots.

      Welcome to adoption, Cindy!


    • CindyUnfortunately there are too many people that don’t know these comments are offensive and they probably never will unless it’s spoken to in a very public manner. This mother spoke in a very powerful, public manner.

      I agree. It may be that the message will not get out much beyond the adoption community, but if it stops even a few unthinking people making such remarks to an adopted child, then I’d say that it’s a success. If it gives even a few adoptive parents more awareness of what their children experience, then I’d say it’s a success.

      CindyThankfully I think this new generation of adoptive families are perhaps a little more sensitive.

      I think that this is true, simply because a generation or two of people have experience with international adoption and many of them have published various memoirs, documentaries, works of fiction, and scholarly works that give the new generation of adoptive parents and children a better understanding of the problems and potential solutions.

      The plain fact is that there’s no handbook for all of this, no procedures manual that says, “If you adopt a child from Country X, follow the program below to ensure that he / she grows to be a happy, well-adjusted adult with no baggage from the adoption.” (How I wish that there WERE such a manual!)

      We in the adoption community – parents, children, social workers, extended family and friends – are very much still groping in the dark. We confront questions about race, culture, child psychology, what it means to be a family, etc. that really haven’t been explored – much less answered – in any methodical, scholarly fashion. For example, we parents are to “honor the child’s birth culture”… as though the culture of a given country is some discreet thing that can be given or taught to a child in the way that we give him a toy or teach him the multiplication tables. But wait! The culture the child will live in is the “American culture”. Are we not (in a manner of speaking) trying to teach the kids to eat with chopsticks only to have them live in a world where everybody else eats with a fork? And how can a parent from one culture possibly teach a child what it’s REALLY like to live in another culture? Again, it’s not something that can be gift-wrapped and handed over to the child as “Culture, foreign, one each complete”.*

      I don’t know the answer. I’ve seen and read enough to know that some adoptees greatly appreciate their parents’ efforts to honor their birth culture, while others resent it because it reinforces their feelings of being different from everybody else.

      We do the best that we can.


  3. Wow, Kym, lots of anger and insinuations. You know absolutely NOTHING about me or my adoptions and I hesitated even taking this minute to reply to the hate you just spewed for all adoptive parents, but I just needed to say this…NO child would be better off being raised in an orphanage. I realize that some adoptions consist of known, living birth parents…many do not, including mine. I don’t care if YOU feel they would benefit from their original culture, in an orphanage, rather than in a loving family. It’s simply and completely NOT true. To assert that it’s MY fault that my children get comments because I took them from the comforts of an institution (sarcasm) is absolutely ridiculous. Maybe instead of spending your time directing hateful comments towards adoptive families, you should spend your time educating yourself on adoptions in all countries. Most of your points do not apply to my girls’ adoptions. And maybe spend some of your advocacy time living in an orphanage. I have been able to send my daughter to China the last five summers to work with orphans in an orphanage, to help them get the medical care and love they so desperately need. Do you know what the lack of care, love, and physical touch actually does to a child? The brain damage and chemical changes that happen when a child isn’t cared for in a loving FAMILY? Maybe you should spend YOUR advocacy time in an orphanage and researching the affects on institutionalized children and then tell me that taking children out of those conditions is wrong. That it’s better for them to be there, surrounded by their culture…even if that culture as a whole does not value them. In SOME countries because of laws, there is no record of birth family or any chance of ever being reunited with birth family. I understand the complexities and corruption involved in many adoptions. There is no perfect answer, but for governments to do a better job. But please, don’t vilify adoptive parents for trying to give a child a life.


  4. Oh, and one more thing, Kym. Maybe you haven’t been informed on what happens to many of these kids when they age out of the orphanage…especially those with special needs. Many are “welcomed” into their original country as homeless and/or slaves/prostitutes. Perhaps this is the “closeness” to ones original culture you value so highly?


  5. Cindy,
    Perhaps I should have followed the example of Kevin, because he is absolutely right. But there was just so much wrong with what you wrote. And I apologize to Red Thread Broken for my part in turning her page into a fight. But, I can’t resist – sorry Red Thread Broken.

    Rather than answer my questions to indicate that you are a well-informed, compassionate, respectful AP, who IS conscientious of the power and entitlement in the adoptions, and who WANTS to protect the rights and voice of adopted people, you showed perfectly that you LOVE to take control and ENSURE that everyone knows that YOU are the expert, while doing (as far as I can tell, since you didn’t answer) nothing or very little to actually protect vulnerable children and their families. Despite what you think, I don’t hate all AP’s, I just have a distaste for ones who come onto other people’s blogs or tell other people that your opinion is superior to theirs and that you know more about adoption than adult adoptees who have lived their own experience and know and collaborate with many others who have also lived their own experiences as adopted people. It’s not my fault you chose to adopt and believed that would get you a card of authority on adoption.

    Also, I didn’t ask you if there were “known, living parents” of your children, I asked if you KNEW your children had no living parents when you adopted. What do you KNOW for a fact? Unless you KNOW for a fact, you don’t know what truthfully, they were taken away or “saved” from.

    And in regards to working at an orphanage, not all orphanages are up to snuff.

    And in India (as well as other countries), parents have left their children in “orphanages”, visiting them regularly, saying when they’ll be back, until one day… their child is shipped to the US or overseas for adoption.

    During the height of Romanian adoptions (10,000 in 1991 alone) before they shut down intercountry adoptions due to corruption, the institutions had many children, but most of the adopted children came from biological families, because PAPs wanted “healthier” children.

    And have you heard of the “baby factories” in Nigeria?

    In Korea, relatives or partners of the parents have secretly dropped their niece/nephew/grandchild or partner’s child at orphanages, never telling the child’s parent and making up a story to the orphanage or lying about how they were related to the child.

    And Holt Korea, the agency that sent Hyunsu to the US just 4 months before he was found dead or murdered, was just rated with “F” ratings by the Korean government. In each of the following categories of Finance and Organization; Human resources/Volunteer management; Programs and Services; Child rights; Community relations, Holt received the worst grades possible. However, in the area that you and other PAPs or APs would see (Facilities), Holt received an “A”.

    And in countries that don’t want to send their vulnerable children to the US, why should we force or blackmail them to sell us their children?

    Now, philosophically, Cindy,
    1) If PAPs are told lies so that they’ll feel comfortable with adopting internationally, should the child be sent to another country for adoption? Is this permanent, life-changing event the best for that child when the decision was hinged on lies?

    2) If laws state that adopted people should be denied their human right to factual information about their origins and their identity for the rest of their lives, is legal adoption helping adopted people?


  6. Your article is what I have been looking for a long time. It contains lots of useful information that I need. Thanks so much, and I hope you will keep posting.


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  8. I attended two ladies functions at two different churches recently and at both the subject of adoption came up. One was called “Story Rope” where you combine art and sharing your own personal story. After braving both functions and sharing my personal story as an adoptee and having to search out my identity, and the pain that went along with that, I got met with comments that made me feel as if I had not even existed or shared anything of value. One lady said, “Oh adoption is just wonderful. For women who can’t have their own children, and women who can’t ‘care’ for their children, it just seems to ‘work out’.” Another lady said, “My son and I couldn’t be more alike if I had given birth to him. It is just perfect.” People don’t want to hear adoptees. That is why so many of us remain silent and in pain.


  9. I am a Chinese adoptee and grew up hearing these things and more. It was very painful to hear and deal with. To the person upthread who posted that they are legitimate questions and why are they a problem, well because they are intrusive and rude. It’s rude to randomly walk up to a someone just because they or their family looks different and just expect them to explain themselves to you. Then again, that person also said she was not an adoptee, so I wouldn’t expect her to understand what it’s like being someone like me.

    It’s like looking at a parent with a special needs kid and going, “What’s wrong with him? Is he gonna die?” Sometimes in the middle of the freaking grocery store line! It’s intrusive, none of your business and they don’t owe you anything just to satisfy your own curiosity. Some families will be open to discussing their children’s adoption stories. Some won’t. Personally, I value my privacy and if I don’t want to discuss my adoption status with a random stranger, that’s my right. Hell, if I don’t want to discuss it with an acquaintance or friend that’s still my right.

    Constantly being told you are lucky and that your parents saved you, implying that they are saints also implies you’re some type of charity case. Which is also hurtful. I am incredibly grateful to my parents and live in a great country now. I recognize that I’ve got it good compared to many children. But don’t act like I should be forever in debt to my parents for what they did.

    And we are not so lucky in the first place. We gained much but first we lost everything, our birth families, our birth country, our birth culture. Many of our stories began with loss. Many lost their personal history as well, including valuable medical history. And the chances of recovering that, to be able to know your own origins and story, is likely slim to none. Not so lucky sounding now, huh?

    It sucks constantly being reminded that you are different. Everywhere you go. School, the grocery store, church…

    This is not to mention the ridiculous comments people have said or the way they have referred to Asian people, like China dolls. Plenty of microaggressions at play. To exocitize us is so wrong…I’m not some exotic zoo animal to point at and ask questions about. I am a person. To say a kid is exotic places them as an outsider of the group, “not one of us”, which can really hurt if you’re a kid that just wants to fit in and be accepted..

    I am not against adoption. Adoption can be beautiful and help so many people. But I can’t stand it when people act like it’s full of rainbows and happiness and everything good ever, without acknowledging the painful parts for those involved, whether they be adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, birth families. It is not all rainbows and sunshine.

    Quite frankly, those questions and comments ARE ignorant and insensitive. And if nobody calls them on their ignorance, they’ll never know. I thank you for this post and this blog on educating people.


  10. I saw this on another blog and thought it was a brilliantly pointed way to remind people that behind each adoption story is a beautiful life, and that children are not a commodity. Some people really just don’t know what to say, especially if they have little to no experience with adoption. We have tried to inject a little humor into the situation to educate others in a way that is non-threatening but hopefully eye-opening.


    • Hi Michelle, I don’t think you actually read my article. This was a critique of Kelly-Wagner’s exploitation of her daughters in this approach. I hope as a new adoptive parent you will work to read and understand the adoptee perspective. -RTB


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