An International Adoptee Bill of Social Rights

Recently, my daughter, her sprained ankle, and I sat and listened as the emergency room doctor told us all about how Haitians had ruined Haiti. Since he was at the time in possession of my daughter’s swollen, tenuous ankle, we were, of course, a captive audience. Once her ankle was safely wrapped and out of his hands, however, I gave him a good schooling and we left — one of us storming, the other hobbling.

His special monologue was due to my daughter’s answer to his inquiry as to where she was born. “Haiti,” she said, and then all hell broke loose.

This wasn’t our first rodeo, though. Usually, a smiling stranger asks where they are from, my kids politely respond, and then we hear all about how Haitians are going to hell because of “voodoo”. We hear how sad it was that Haitians did not have what it takes to prevent the earthquake (true story), how they caused the earthquake (because of all the “voodoo”), and how poorly they’ve done cleaning up after the earthquake (heard this more times than I can count). “But thank God for that nice Sean Penn,” they tell us. We’ve even been told that Haitians invented AIDS and that they eat dying babies (that was once said in front on my then four and three year old children).

One person had the gall to correct my daughter on her pronunciation of “Caribbean” and dismissed her when she reminded the lady that she was indeed born in the Caribbean and has been saying the word accurately and with the proper accent for years.

Imagine vacationing in England, chatting up a local, and having them tell your toddler some huge lie about your country, something either completely made up or based upon a tiny aspect of culture taken entirely out of context — that Americans bathe in diced puppies to smooth wrinkles, perhaps, or that men in capes and top hats routinely cut women in half to increase their virility.

That’s about the level of accuracy most people have when telling my Haitian kids what they think they know about Haiti.

Now, I suspect that most foreigners receive this sort of treatment while in the U.S. (we are not known for our tact), but I find it particularly heinous behavior when directed at a child who landed in the U.S. through adoption.

The fact is that the child you are insulting most likely did not choose to leave their country. There is also a strong possibility that they feel anywhere from sad to traumatized by the losses and transitions brought about by international adoption (no matter how much their parents might love them and they might love their parents). Hopefully, they have parents who are aware enough to spend a great deal of time and resources helping their child feel good about their country of origin, culture, and race. If that’s the case,  you just blew a little hole through it all — and those little holes can eventually become one big, gaping, painful hole. If their parents are not sensitive to their struggles, you just instantly deepened their trauma.

Unfortunately, my kids and I have collided with too many adoptive parents and their extended family members who speak as disrespectfully of their child’s home country as the ER doctor spoke of Haiti. With that, I offer a list of important facts about an adoptee’s relationship with their home country — for us adoptive parents, opinionated relatives, talkative service providers, and nosy strangers alike.

  • Internationally adopted people are likely to know more about their country than you do — even if you did pass their country on a cruise ship once. Even if you once read a review of a book about their country written by a white guy from Boston. Even if you once took a class about or visited their country for a week. And even, I daresay, if they left their country as infants. Most international adoptees are hungry for knowledge about their country of origin. If their parents are aware, they’ve been talking about and exploring their home country from a very early age. Some international adoptees lived many years in their country before leaving. The culture and landscape are a part of who they are. If you happen to meet the one of the few international adoptees who doesn’t much care about their home country, your insensitive gleanings are still not going to be helpful. They might care someday and don’t need your opinions clouding their impression.
  • Internationally adopted people are under no obligation to educate you about adoption or their home country. See, if you start spouting ignorance or rumors and the like, a person is naturally going to want to defend their home country. So don’t spout ignorance and rumors. The rule is this — if you are talking about a place where the other person has lived and you have not, you have to listen. Alternatively, the adopted person can say absolutely nothing — walk away even — and that’s just fine. Their relationship to their own country is really none of your business.
  • Internationally adopted people are under no obligation to listen to you disparage their home country. International adoption is complicated. Many people adopted outside of their countries feel concomitantly an affinity for their new home and a longing for their birth place. These competing feelings can last a lifetime. Many adoptees spend their childhoods fantasizing about returning home. Many miss the culture they lost, even if they were adopted at too young an age to remember it. Nowadays, there are adoptees who remain in touch with their families of origins, adoptees who travel to their birth places and re-establish important connections, and even adoptees who return to their homes to live. You know how if your best friend or daughter or whomever breaks up with their significant other you are not supposed to speak pooorly of them just in case they get back together? Consider that the rule for adoptees who were adopted internationally as well.
  • Internationally adopted people have the absolute right to identify or not identify with their birth countries to the extent they wish.* Children adopted internationally did not choose to leave their birth countries. They are not like your disgruntled little brother who couldn’t wait to move away from your small town. They are often trying to discern who they are and how they fit into their birth culture. They are trying things out. Some things stick. Others don’t. So if your Korean friend doesn’t like KimChi, that’s okay. Stop forcing it on him. If your Indian friend wants to explore Hinduism, that’s okay too. Stop using his white parents as an excuse to talk him out of it. And please stop reminding him that he grew up in a non-Korean/non-Indian family. He knows. But he also knows that he has another family in his birth country and he might want to feel a connection there, learn enough of the language to return, and even pray like his ancestors pray. Be cool with it. You might not agree with it, but you can be understanding.
  • Internationally adopted people have the right to feel sad or angry or resentful about having been adopted outside of their country. It is neither a rejection of you nor your country. Honestly, it’s not really even about you. You might be the best parent/friend/aunt/sibling ever, but she still might wish she had more consistent and permanent ties to her family and culture of origin. She might even wish she could be back in what you consider a poor environment for a child — perhaps even that she was never adopted. I cannot stress enough how little this has to do with how much her adoptive family loves her or how well they treat her. It is about her losses and her needs. The best way for you to walk with her through it is to let her feel those feelings and help her explore ways to heal — which might include searching for her family or traveling to her country.
  • Internationally adopted people have the right to reach out to other people from their culture or not reach out to people from their culture. When he joins the South American Students club, it is not a rejection of your friendship. It is a sign that he is ready to meet more people from his birth country. If he asks you to stop setting him up with that one other person you know from his country, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t need you. It just means he might not want to date that one other person you know from his country. Don’t take it personally.

I have culled these rights of internationally adopted people from years of watching how my own children respond to the battery of questions, comments, and opinions they receive from just about everybody. I write them as an adoptive parent so that those of us in the “adopting/supporter/stranger” segment of the adoption constellation might better consider how to treat people who were adopted internationally. I am sure adult adoptees can add to it more fully than me and welcome any who wish to do so to write your additions in the comments (and I will edit them into the post).


Here is a graphic for you visual learners (click on it to see it clearly):



*Thanks to Mark Hagland, co-founder of the Transracial Adoption Facebook group, for his helpful suggestions.

6 Responses to An International Adoptee Bill of Social Rights

  1. I am a parent to an internationally adopted child, as well as an international adoption social worker. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while!

    • Angela, thank you so much. I feel such a sense of relief when I hear from international adoption social workers who march along these lines. We did not have that and it leaves us with many unanswered questions. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Wow. Kudos to you for recognising your daughter’s trauma, identity and social rights! This is so spot on. As an intercountry adopted adult (Ireland), I wish more adoptive parents were as educated and in tune with the lifelong issues we face as ICAs. While your post just triggered a third grade memory of my teacher telling me to “wipe your mouth, you look like a dirty Irish oprhan,” it was a good triggering: you just validated that I was not, in fact, a dirty Irish orphan. Of course, I might have been tempted to break that ER doc’s own ankle 😉 Well done!

    • Thanks for responding, Mari — and OMG! What a horrible thing your teacher said. Your story highlights how we just don’t even know if someone might be adopted internationally. There are many many children adopted into the US from countries with large populations of white people who are the same color as their adoptive family. It’s not okay to disparage their countries/race/culture either. Maybe we Americans need to just keep our mouths a bit more shut when it comes to our opinions about other countries.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I can identify with every point. As a Chinese adoptee having grown up in a largely white community, I feel like most of my life I have been trying to accommodate to other people’s responses, whether negative or positive, to China and its culture and language. As if I have to affirm them in their questions and experiences and listen to their stories and be “educated” by their knowledge of China as I am told that China doesn’t like girls and how fortunate I am that I was raised in America rather than a Communist country or being compared to countless other adoption stories (because practically everyone knows someone who adopted a cute Chinese baby, I mean why wouldn’t you? Isn’t that why people adopt from China, cause they are cute?) and how those children turned out and whether they went back or not, and I feel like I have to stand there and smile and help them process this stuff. It gets exhausting! There’s never room or space for me to simply express how I feel about it. And I find within myself a conflict of love and hate for China, embarrassed by the negative aspects of China and then defensive when other people criticize it, but also an innate desire to want to understand and to be accepted and considered “Chinese.” But I find so often that the responses to China are so polar opposite that I can’t take a middle ground stance, I either have to be all in or I need to reject it all. But all I want people to understand is that it’s more complicated than when you try to boil it down to a single event or a single fact regarding Chinese culture or history. And maybe it’s okay that I can feel ambivalent about it, I can feel positive about it, and I can also criticize it.
    I feel that you understand this and are trying to encourage other people to understand it also. I think maybe you are a little harsh at times, but I can understand why, I think. People want to say something that is related, especially if adoption is so obvious the reason why a child of color is with a white adult. And often people speak without thinking of the implications of how they paint a country in a certain light, but they want to add to the conversation and maybe even show they are cultured and know about different countries and have opinions about current events. But that by no means justifies what they might say, positive or negative.
    All in all, I so appreciate your points, especially coming as an adoptive parent. I love my family, but I wish they could also understand this.

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