FRAME & PORTRAIT: Thinking Through TransCultural Adoption

5 May 2012

dedicated to Daniel ibn Zayd

This (necessarily incomplete) essay is about transcultural adoption. It starts (perhaps unwisely) with a chaotic sketch that frames the issue as I understand it so far—or attempts to frame it, ranging over numerous topics. It then gets down to some of the ins and outs of exploring (at the very least as a provocation to myself) the effects of looking at my own history in such terms. The essay is not meant to be (in either part) only autobiographical, but to the extent that it is not, I’m not trying to speak for everyone or even anyone’s specific experience. It’s unimaginable that I’ve not said something that couldn’t be taken as a hurtful or offensive generalization—my point is never to belittle. If there is anyone I’m being “harsh” toward, it’s the speaker I witnessed and who occasioned a jumping off point for this essay. But even there, I’m talking about what he “said” (even more, what I “heard”), and not him.

It’s not my intention that you should “skip over” the first part (the FRAME) and go straight to the second (the PORTRAIT) but not only can I not stop you, that might be where your interest lies. Although the framing may seem to wander, behind, beneath, and between it all is the question, “What is a transcultural adoption” (embedded in a large context of the problem of adoption generally)—in my current, perpetually, limited understanding—it’ here where I’m most likely to leave something out, overgeneralize someone’s specific experience, &c, which is not my intention. There’s that saying, “sutor, ne ultra crepidam” (which—never mind the literal translation, “cobbler, not above the sandal”—is a colloquialism for “don’t speak beyond your expertise”),[1] there’s no guarantee that simply being a cobbler makes one more valid as a spokesperson for shoes. I would like to say in advance, however, that

I’m grateful to Daniel ibn Zayd for inspiring me to think about this all—and to offer the following. Dialogue is requested and necessary.

FRAME

Somewhat recently, a Black psychiatrist cum guest speaker remarked, to the effect, that homosexuality did not exist in Africa until after the arrival of White pholk. Although obviously a formally trained, ostensibly secular speaker, he had the pulpit swagger that Black ministers are justly famed for and played it up—meeting from the audience with calls of “preach it, brother” and the like. In the talk back afterward, one audience member remarked, with obvious admiration and amazement, “You’ve been here only two hours and you’ve already called out the whole community.” It wasn’t much of a feat since, on the one hand, the speaker had resorted to such generously broad platitudes that they not only applied here, but likely anywhere and at any time. Moreover, the speaker was careful to lambaste the community from all three sides: with education, for instance, the problem at one point was the parents (in particular that mothers weren’t acting like mothers should and fathers weren’t acting like fathers should, if they were even around); at another point, the problem was the students (leaving none of the “the trouble with kids today” platitudes behind); and then again, later still, the problem was the entire education ethos generally and the local school administration specifically, which was teaching diversity, giving ribbons to every child who competes regardless of performance—or, to sum it all up in a word, not doing education like it was done in his mother’s day. And while I appreciated his lively critique (implicit and explicit) of US culture, and while I’m never displeased to see US conceitedness taken down as many pegs as possible in a public setting, there were also some gaps in his “logic” that the crowd seemed willing to paper over with shouts of “you tell it.”

I bring this up to help contextualize what remarks the speaker made about transcultural adoption (though he didn’t address it in those terms).

For one, he could only lament practice of rich White pholks “rescuing” poor Black babies (for a price) from Ethiopia, Nigeria, or (indiscriminately) anywhere else they might be found around the world. This proved one of those tricky points when listening to this speaker. On this basic point, he’s on point to question how most people (and most coverage in the media) tend to shout high to the heavens in unconstrained jubilation over such largesse by First World aristocrats. Everything involved in the practice of transcultural adoption has nothing of the luster with which it is treated—as when Brangelina or Madonna adopt a child (let’s be specific, an infant) from Africa.

It’s unnecessary to go in exhaustive detail into the specifics of this. By one description, we can say this is generous people giving a geopolitically at-risk child a life she is never likely to have; by another, we can say people are visiting the pound to find kittens they want. Under both descriptions, the brokers who traffic in human beings get their cut either way.

Let’s not have trivialities either about those poster-children who thrive in their new circumstance. Victor Frankl made the best of a bad situation too; does that mean we should consign everyone to camps? The point rather is the grotesque but still almost completely invisible conceit that the successful life here can only be, by the self-fulfilling prophecy of definition, better than whatever life would have been lived in the child’s original setting. But let’s turn that around also—if I am a girl adopted from a culture that practices clitoridectomy, who shall I thank for “rescuing” me from that only to subject me to the “spiritual aridity” (the phrase is Solzhenitsyn’s) of the United States; ignore completely that I’m more likely to be raped, shot, or imprisoned here. Regardless whether there or here turns out to be compellingly easier to imagine as “better,” in any case the brokers who traffic in human beings got their cut and are indifferent beyond that (unless, as an adoptee, I somehow manage to raise a warranty issue)[2].

Let it be that a child is removed from arguably a worst-case scenario there only to be placed in a best-case scenario here[3]. This in no way guarantees that the child remains forever immune to a sense of being robbed of whatever life they could have/would have/should have had. The point even is not that the child will or might feel this way; it is, rather, this is the possibility we actively create in a child’s life by (transcultural) adoption. It will not matter that the child must look at the horror they escaped from a standpoint of advantage and privilege they’d likely not ever have had, in all likelihood, had they been left where they come from—whatever possibilities of life, whatever losses, whatever loves, whatever self-understanding or change for social good (whatever art) will stand in a kind of possible refutation of the life currently being led. It becomes easy to see how practically the only ethical thing to do in such a situation is to lie to children that they were adopted and hope for the best that they never find out. That is, such a move is necessary to hide the essential assault or affront that adults of the world have practiced upon a child by creating (and then denying) whatever potential lives a person might have had there instead of here.[4]

Returning to the guest speaker’s remarks, he cited as a particularly obvious flaw of transcultural adoption by talking about the Black boys he saw in therapy who were confused because they were (a) being raised by gay men or (b) were confused by diversity education about homosexuality in (predominantly middle class, White) schools. It may have been around here that he offered the observation that homosexuality was a post-White phenomenon in Africa. Sitting in the audience, I could see and hear that at least 90 percent of his audience didn’t overtly resist his assertion. I did see two (young, White college) women leave shortly after; and I received a report from one of the speaker’s hosts that a woman left in disgust over this assertion.

One can hardly hope to split all the hairs finely enough here.

Simply to raise the question of “discrimination against homosexuals”—to note that approximately 70 percent of African nations criminalize male homosexuality[5] even in three countries to the imposition of the death penalty—opens one to charges of using White historical notions of human rights to critique historically African notions of human rights. It might be argued that such repercussions against homosexuality are a direct result of foreign colonialism itself.[6] Add to this the complicated question of any religious exacerbation of already existing heterocentric biases or vice versa (whether framed in foreign or native terms; the analysis will differ importantly in both cases), which then segues into the proud flag-waving of opposition to Western imperialism in general (i.e., as when African nations justly criticize US adventurism in places like the Congo or South Africa, where foreign aid is in part contingent upon accepting—or at least putting on a show of appearing to accept—White definitions of human rights). And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Africa is not a monolithic entity, and confrontations of values will change character as those confronting each other changes in the domains of culture (or religion or politics specifically). An especially entangled instance of this occurs when it is a (Black) western scholar using (a construction of a hypothetical Africa) as a basis for critiquing dominant white values. There are also internal and external objections to excessive and insufficient religiosity or culture from within and without both sides. And there is also, ignoring all of this rhetoric, the actually real lived experiences of actually real living homosexuals in each of these circumstances.

All of this was sloppily mashed together in the speaker’s general implication that African babies subjected to the unnatural vices of White America experience a corruption that requires his psychiatric expertise.

All of this, again, serves to contextualize with some very broad strokes what can be at stake in transcultural adoption. On one description of the speaker’s contentions (about Black boys, from any originating culture, being adopted by gay male parents), one could say that anticolonial rhetoric was employed to paper over an inherited ethnocentrism (if not homophobia[7]) prevalent in many US African-American communities and specifically pronounced in the speaker himself. The best he could manage, as he described his approach to dealing with Black (male) youths who were apparently struggling with their sexual identity, was to acknowledge their need for help on the path “back to” heterosexuality. His calling as a psychiatrist compelled him to foreswear the discourse of the pulpit[8] (at least in the treatment chamber) in favor of a discourse that acknowledged the reality (if not also the affliction) of homosexuality. More interestingly, it might be that the psychiatric discourse actually permits him an alternative to the discourse of the pulpit—that is, it provides him a socially allowable alternative to the pulpit that he otherwise perceives himself as not being allowed to access in public. Whatever the case—and whatever untangled knot of politics, culture, religion, US Afrocentrism, and the like, that I have failed to tease apart enough—this all points to various issues involved in transcultural adoption.

It has to be said that there tends to be some essentialism at work here[9], although it doesn’t have to masquerade under that rubric. The speaker’s contention is that Black boys adopted by gay White males are necessarily always confused. Obviously—as is usually the case with most mental health practitioners—their sense of an issue is necessarily colored by the fact that they encounter only people who have self-selected as having an issue with that issue[10]. One can search (in vain or not) for the root of the discomfort with having gay parents in such an adoptee, the issue here is rather how the guest speaker used the circumstance. For him, it was a question of a natural aversion by the young men he saw (there’s the essentialism) in the face of an imposing, colonizing cultural relativism (that contends it’s okay for two men to be sexual together, to make a family, even to be considered a family, and thus to adopt and raise children).

Were one to be strictly logical, we’d have to insist on intellectual parity—if the child’s world view does not arise out of a social construction then neither does the circumstance of two men making a family together—essentialism gets to prevail on both sides. Or, if we’re not going to go there, then it becomes a question of cultural relativisms colliding—in which case the questions “what are the cultural forces that taught the boy he ‘needed to be’ uncomfortable in a circumstance of having two fathers.” Again, one might try to answer that forever—the guest speaker had already concluded that any Black boy (who’d not been populated by colonializing discourse) would feel that way.

It’s probably obvious that I’m not very sympathetic to such a point of view,[11] but I still suspect that the speaker’s (implicit) orientation helps to understand issues involved in transcultural adoption.  With respect to the experiences the boys report, the guest speaker is treating them as if their identity is essentially determined. For those who are actually queer (those who will eventually come to be comfortably queer-identified once they grow up and get out of the circumstance where being so is made problematic), they may look back on their encounter with this psychiatrist as a period of abuse. The point is that an estrangement may be experienced that is easier to understand in essentialist terms (i.e., that something happened that was inherently alien). The transcultural adoptee may similarly experience such alienation[12].

The messiness of the foregoing points to the difficulty in naming (in a compelling way) what a transcultural adoption consists of. At a minimum, it presupposes two cultures that are distinct enough such that moving from one to the other raises the threat of some kind of estrangement in the adopted child. Such estrangement is not guaranteed—and for those adoptees for whom it is not a problem it is not a problem to them; nevertheless, this doesn’t prove it is not a problem in a more general way and specifically speaks zilch to those for whom it is a problem. This estrangement or alienation, which the circumstance of adoption created, is (on one hand) something people are paid to inflict on others, but arises also and specifically from the fact of the adoption itself[13]. That people are paid for this trafficking is already a most significant problem, but that this issue is not merely personal is another.

In the concrete specificity of any given adoption, the tendency is to judge the efficacy (if not the morality) of the act in terms of the satisfaction of its participants. Certainly, if one makes a narrative of the thing, it’s essentially a necessity to focus on the feelings involved to elicit the participation and sympathy of those consuming the narrative. Opponents of adoption often take (wicked, witty) glee in displaying and twitting as self-pity the ululating histrionics of birth mothers and the wicked stepmother morality of adoptive mothers[14]. But this focus on the people involved misses (in my opinion) the more significant social aspects of transcultural adoptions. It also sets a trap that makes criticizing transcultural adoptions more difficult. By this, I don’t mean the objection that “some adoptions work”—that one woman isn’t raped says nothing about the one who is. Rather, when we focus on the (feelings or reactions of) people involved in an adoption, then the cultural aspect of the adoption falls out.

When the guest speaker framed his uncomfortable Black boys in essentialist terms, he was proposing to keep the cultural portion intact. He was arguing in effect that quite apart from anything the boy might understand personally, there were transpersonal (cultural) parts of his experience that were coming through him as expressions. In the United States, when one is talking about White pholk adopting Black children (from Africa or not), then it is almost impossible to miss that some of the estrangement that arises between parents and child may be explained (if not can only be explained) in terms of the culturally, historically problematic of “race” in the US. The fact that this is not so obvious when it is a question of a queer-identified child being raised by heterosexuals (because the discourse of homosexuality has traces of “it’s a choice” still lingering in it—almost no one believes “race is a choice”) shows how the moment of the cultural can get into an otherwise seemingly personal-only circumstance.

In a culture[15], things with a lot of historical grit or friction are likely well represented (in cultural productions) and so become more or less readily legible. As stated earlier (in a footnote), the history of face-to-face confrontations between men and women makes the categories of “male” and “female” (or “man” and “woman”) readily legible—that is, even if one misreads “what it means to be a man” or “what being a man means what a woman isn’t”—even such misreadings occur with relative ease. Race is similarly legible; this doesn’t mean we can read it well, only that it is easy to read or misread. Religion is another, particularly in the confrontation between Islam and Christianity, particularly as the former has dovetailed with Black liberation. For purposes of this essay, this readiness of legibility (whether we misread the signs or not) is an important factor in how the “transcultural” aspect of an adoption comes to the fore. If culture is “the set of constraints on human behavior in a culture, subject to modification by that culture,” then the more unambiguous (though conflicted) the nature of the constraint, the more sharply “culture” can play a role above and beyond the “merely personal”. Thus Black children adopted by White parents or children from Islamic cultures adopted by Christian parents can have particularly sharp experiences of estrangement[16]. This issue sometimes gets hidden somewhat in the adoption of girls. The general hyperfamiliarity we have with the culture of males and females can make spotting differences difficult—thus the friction that results in a White adoption of a black girl can obliterated the cultural differences of male and female under the seemingly more forefronted issue of race. Conversely, the friction between queer and straight almost wholly disappears because the issue is still not culturally bolded enough as a sign.

In a bare-bones “show me the money” sense, culture amounts not to “how I do things” but “how things are done” (or “how we do things”). Culture frames the range of available things one might do more than determining specifically what one does. Culture proposes the “doable,” which one then acts within. In this respect, one can begin to speak of the “culture of a family” although this then begins to problematize the topic of this essay even more. Nevertheless, a very felt reality for (transcultural) adoptees in general is likely exactly that shift of culture in one family (“how we do things”) as compared to the culture of the family left (if remembered or only imagined).

I emphasize this because, experientially, the moment of conflict between how I want to do something and how my (adoptive) parent(s) want me to do something (or will allow me to do something) becomes a critical input point for my sense of estrangement. It can be precisely at that moment that I’m most prone to remember, “Wait, I had another family; in that one, it could be like I want” and variations like this. And I’m not inclined to minimize the severity or impact of this at all. I do, at least for here and now, wish not to dwell primarily on this because (as perhaps something midway between one’s “personal” experience and one’s “transpersonal or cultural ” experience), it has a tendency to collapse into the personal in a way that erases the transpersonal (and therefore transcultural) aspect of transcultural adoption.

When the guest speaker insisted (out of his own homophobia or bigotry) that lack boys must culturally be estranged from (White) gay male parents, he was pointing not only to the biographical discomfort that his client felt but to the cultural world constructed by (imagined by) his client in which the constraints on what he (the client) was allowed to do were different than the constraints in his current milieu[17]. In one respect, this is like having an imaginary friend—and precisely like a world with an imaginary friend, it offers a possibility that the current world (the one one inhabits) does not: the prospect of being with someone like us, with someone who (even if different in important ways) at least does things like us. But unlike an imaginary world or an imaginary friend (as a coping mechanism or escape from alienation within one’s own experience of family or something like it), what a transculture purports is—yes—still another world that—yes—is a place where perhaps what I want to do is not interdicted, but it is also someplace that is not strictly subordinated to whatever I might want to imagine about it.

An estranged Black transcultural adoptee might imagine her home world in idealized (fantasy) terms, but that idealization arises as much in reaction to any ‘real” aspects of her original culture as from what she desires of it (or what she does not desire in her current home world). A Rwandan child might overlook Rwandan history for the sake of an escapist fantasy, but the facts of Rwanda are still things that need to be managed, as it were. They’re unasked for, like anything in culture. A Dagombas boy raised in the United States might be relieved to not have to go through ritual scarification while at the same time resenting never be confronted with having to make such a decision about it. To the extent that culture forces one to confront questions—that is, it frames questions in ways that one might not otherwise choose or not even think to frame at all (“what is your belief in God?”)—it differs from fantasy projections where (in effect) one determines how all of the questions will be asked.

In these terms, it may seem to be easy to construe any birth as a kind of (existential) transcultural adoption. After all, we did not ask to go from (the culture of) non-being to whatever culture of being our parents inhabit; we can elaborate fantasies as coping mechanisms for untenable elements of our childhood, but those gestures do not fully drown out the ultimately unavoidable is-ness of the environment around us. This similitude is simply because transcultural adoptees are children, whether they are here or there, and “have no choice” but to live the experience of childhood wherever they are. The difference is that in the context of one’s adopted family, the adoptee is already the carrier of another culture. Part of the reason stepfathers rape their stepdaughters is, precisely, because they are not their daughters. The otherliness of one’s children, which parents tend to forget, is hard to forget with the transcultural child. When White pholks adopt white babies (or Black pholk adopt Black babies) the otherliness of the child is easier to forget, especially the younger the child is adopted. But at any moment, there is that trump card: parent or child alike an shout, “You’re not really mine!” At that moment, the contingency (and tenuousness), which was actually forever and always immediately present if overlooked, of one’s membership in the family leaps to the fore. But this is an issue of adoption per se. For this essay, the specifically estranged (transcultural) aspect is the focus.

The issue is not, finally, whether parents of one culture are capable of raising children of another[18] , but whether they are even willing to try. If I just want to try to ignore a bunch of the issues raised, then a bare minimum acceptable circumstance might be one where the satisfaction of the adoptive child serves as the litmus test for the validity of the adoption.[19] This is something like the psychiatric approach: it’s not a problem unless someone calls it one (i.e., at the point where the culture of the child, however that has come to be, comes into conflict with the culture of the parent or parents). Because parents have the power, this circumstance of conflict is all in the parents favor and this becomes a major piece of groundwork for eventual and current estrangement in the child. If, for the sake of practicality, I will “stomach” the idea that transcultural adoption can (sometimes) “work,” then it is only in order to focus on the loud and obvious cases of people saying (during or after childhood) that it didn’t.

However, so long as people are financially motivated to track in human beings, and so long as there is a discourse about adoption that frames it in terms other than as human trafficking, then it’s really not feasible, socially useful, or desirable to pretend that “transcultural adoption works”. Some people make a purse out of the sow’s ear of prison; that’s no reason to incarcerate people. Whatever luck or strength of character was at work to make that experience positive (however long it took) is to the credit of the person (and people) who orchestrated that. It’s not an argument for the (re)institutionalization of the act that put them in that circumstance.

There’s a “joke” to the effect that it makes no sense for an adoptee to be in favor of abortion. That there are adoptees who favor abortion should be your first sign that adoption isn’t necessarily the blessing you imagine it to be.

PORTRAIT

One of the most egregious unfairnesses of life is the lottery of birth—except that some live in a culture without hierarchy (and a culture isolated from any hierarchical relationship with the rest of the world), then one’s relative advantage at birth by one’s appearance in the hierarchy becomes the original unfairness—all the worse in more highly stratified societies.[20] And yet we seem to be weirdly possessive of this primary disadvantage. The blind chance that puts us in this place at this time should not be compounded by a second lottery (a rigged one) where a family (or at least a mother) in some kind of condition that makes ceding rather than keeping a child more rational (however painful it proves) act on that (perhaps even terrible choice) to the benefit (once to the broker, then a second time to the recipients) who, in their own circumstances, are pleased to take that child. We all may be equal insofar as we were all dealt some hand from the same deck, but then to turn us into chips in that game becomes a curious if not humiliating indignity.

The phrase “lucky bastard” applies here, although almost no one means “illegitimate heir” for “bastard” anymore.  Some tavern-wench gets knocked up by the King? Lucky bastard. But it’s something other than luck at work when a poor couple’s waif gets whisked off to the palace. There’s more resentment for that “lucky bastard”. Part of this is because the unfairness of our birth is mitigated in a thousand way, but perhaps most of all with a sense that there’s nothing that could be done about it. “I wish you never had me” howled at one’s biological parents is hard to say (much less hear) with a straight face. You’re told family is everything—and however awful it really is, short of suicide, the sense that there’s no alternative is very hard to put down. But not for the adopted child. For us, depending on how we are told about being adopted, the numinous reality of some alternative life they could have (or should have) been leading can take on extraordinarily crushing clarity[21]. Being adopted can feel like being cheated of that essential unfairness that everyone else has as their authentic human inheritance. It’s as if we’re put in the game, only immediately to be told, “Oh, you’re not playing that one. You have to play this game instead.” This doesn’t have to be a wound at all, but it’s not easy to be sufficiently savvy when you’re 4 years old and in a new country to really swing with the changes that way. At any rate, notwithstanding whatever else can be brought to bear in an analysis, adoption (even for those who are adopted immediately at birth) cuts short or abruptly modifies any sense of life as a consequence of one’s birth; it inserts what seems (in retrospect) an artificial kink.

I feel like I should state some of the details of my circumstance at this point. By rumor, I am White, the child of a good Catholic couple who simply couldn’t afford to raise a child in 1966. Not a very likely cover story, but it can do. I was adopted by a Hispanic professional (himself a blending of two worlds in a full-blooded Apache mother and a first-generation Spaniard) married to a Caucasian woman (trained as a teacher; retired to be a housewife). I was adopted immediately upon birth, that is five days after being born. My parents told me very early on that I was adopted. This was just a something to me. I grew up experiencing these people as my definitive parents. I never had the opportunity or the occasion to really dwell on the fact that my other parents (my theoretically “real” parents) were out there. They were non-entities to me, and largely still are. I also do not believe my parents treated me as adopted; my sister, who is also adopted, disagrees; I don’t know the opinion of my parents’ biological son, who came along approximately a year after my sister was adopted.

My father’s attitude toward his cultural heritage seems a bit conflicted to me. He told me stories of how, as a boy, he was picked on by other Hispanic kids where he grew up because he was mestizo. He was the youngest of six, doted on by his mother, picked on a lot by his immediately eldest sister (who had no one but her little brother to look down upon in the family). He did poorly in school, went into the military like the other brothers in his family, managed to not get killed in the process and—in my opinion—made the decision that he was going to “be someone”. And he became a dentist, still to this day making sure when he introduces himself to put “Doctor” before his name. On the occasions when I’ve asked him what kind of discrimination he faced growing up—he may have only told me about his childhood encounters because there is a scar from one attack still visible on the back of his hand—he only semi-offered a handful of stories. The temptation is to say that he “decided to be White” (i.e., middle class) and kept his head down till he got there. I wouldn’t begrudge him all that hard work for the world.

But this gave him a strange relationship, I suspect, to both his own family (whom we only sporadically visited) and to whatever Hispanic culture he’d grown up with. Specifically, though he is fluently bilingual, we (none of us three kids) grew up knowing any Spanish[22]. Raised Catholic, he married a Methodist, and they split the difference—both becoming Episcopalians. It is the case that his own family growing up was probably not stereotypically Mexican; it may even be that his own father held himself aloof from such things (the Spanish “superiority” over Mesoamerican nationals) while his mother had actually grown up on an Apache reservation.

So, by description, I see that I (as also my sister, but I’m just speaking for myself at this point) am in a strange circumstance with respect to transcultural adoption. It’s a messy slop to try to put it this way, but there is some justice in saying I was a White child adopted by a mixed Hispanic/White couple. The fulcrum point of transcultural adoption critiques is the fundamental mismatch of identity that can come into play “when worlds collide”. Insofar as race is already a terrible muddle, it’s appropriate that my situation should confront me with much a muddle. For all that my father wanted to distinguish himself from his father (as best as I can tell), there remained an unshakable affinity that he (my father) could not deny, however much he tried.[23] With me, my identity opposition to my father was compulsive and far-reaching. For any premise X he offered, I was for anti-X. The question at this juncture is: what is the relationship between that out-of-syncness that I had with my father vis-à-vis race (and my father’s own complicated relationship with his own racial/cultural heritage).

In a recent conversation with him, he told me he was raised in a technically bilingual household. I say technically because his father—who was ostracized from his large and generally well-to-do family for marrying a Native American—stressed repeatedly that he and his family were “Americans” and should therefore speak English, but his mother refused to. She referred to English as the “dog’s language”.

So we can see in this an appropriately confuddled mess. While my father’s Spanish father loudly claimed being and American and stressed speaking English, the very fact of his “Mexican” last name was, for Whites in the area, enough to justify their bigotry against him. My father reports how his father worked for some 49 years, earning at most $3.70 per hour and (quoting my father) “people told him but for his last name, he’d’ve owned the company he worked for.” Meanwhile, my father grew up in a bilingual household where his mother, probably without bringing it up much, was essential opposed to her husband’s claims. All of this in a context of a mixed marriage that resulted in my father’s father being shunned.

Out of this poverty—my father said he regretted having to use the word “meager” to describe their existence—he set out to make something for himself. And when I asked (again) about discrimination he faced, there was very little he would offer by way of experience.  He’d sought to get work at one point, and reported that his last name certainly made that impossible for him. He described how, after leaving high school at 16, he tried to support himself and couldn’t, ultimately going into the Air Force. Even as a professional in the early 1960s in a hick town in Washington state, his sheer skill made him gradually successful. His degree and money bought him a place in society’s elite.

This is where my description can begin to sound exceptionally ungrateful and snide. I also think this is why it is essential not to reduce the issue of transcultural adoption to the people involved. The whole point of being an “actor within cultural forces” is precisely in affectively being “onboard” with it. My parents had established a successful beach-head, but that essential element of the boomer generation was missing: children. For him, the American dream had (so far) been more generous than for his own father[24], except where children were concerned. They adopted, and that’s how it was going to have been[25].

I don’t feel creative enough in my wording to exactly capture the sense of the dilemma here. We live in a world where it is easy to regret the circumstance wherein someone is raped while simultaneously blaming the rapist (rather than regretting the circumstances that made him commit a rape). In denying any culpability on the part of the victim, we deny equally any exculpability on the part of the perpetrator; in affirming the innocence of the victim, we insist on the guilt of the perpetrator.  We shift attention to the environment of the victim and personalize the victimizer[26]. I pick the example of rape because it is very easy to have no notion of recasting our understanding of the act in the kind of social terms we grant automatically to victims. But it seems like one should be able to imagine: if it is a terrible circumstance that a child should ever be in a position of being bought, then isn’t it equally terrible that someone should be brought to the condition of buying a child? The only legitimately scurrilous person in such a circumstance seems to be the one doing the brokering.

There are likely enough biographical details in the foregoing . I was a White child raised by a “White” couple. A critique of adoption in general (largely because most adoptions are of literally qualified middle class people) is that children of natively non-middle-class backgrounds are then expected to conform to those middle class values, quite apart from anything they already know. For children adopted more or less at birth, it would seem that the “conformation to White/middle-class values” would not be a problem, except that culture already assumes that people who are non-White cannot be carries of (White) middle-class values. Even someone “normally acculturated” (whatever that means) may at any time hear the remark, “Oh, you’re not like other …” Blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, etc.

How readily the “otherness to one’s culture” comes into play depends upon the visibility of that otherness. A Black child can hardly hide it. For me, I could pass as non-queer but my Hispanic last name would give me away at the point of its divulgence or being learned. More than this, even though I was a White child, I was raised in a “White” household. Perhaps the most immediate effect of this was that I was raised to be utterly oblivious to any racism about my “Hispanic” heritage.[27]

I want to pause. One could fancifully construct a continuum from ultralegitimate transcultural adoptions down to ones that seem barely applicable if not downright suspicious—the history of the politics of “purity” has its own share of this.[28] I’m not interested in staking any kind of claim to the pinnacle of whatever abstract noun we could assign to the experience of transcultural adoptees. Rather, I found it bizarre to realize that someone else (not necessarily me) might construe my own experience in such terms. What then results is the attempt to look at my life through that lens.

And the effect is to change certain accents that I have always interpreted my life through. I cannot say that from the start of my life I was estranged from my father; it began, rather, when I was seven. The circumstances are merely biographical, but from that time began an opposition to all that my father stood for that can readily be subsumed under the heading of “culture”. It is no exaggeration to say that the only person in my family growing up who seemed to resemble me was my sister, who was also adopted.  Culturally, I was completely alienated from my father’s version of “White”. Dispositionally, his “fiery Hispanic nature” (which, no doubt borrowing from his father, did not have to be jettisoned in the process of being an “American”) was equally alien to my own. I’ve always chalked up my sense of feeling isolated simply to being isolated; in light of transcultural adoptions, I can say that the isolation may have been a result of being “transplanted” into a non-native setting. Certainly, as I grew older the non-identity I felt with my family (as a young queer man) further intensified my alienation; my increasing atheism is more difficult to separate (if it can be) from my family’s middle-class Christianity[29].

It might be the case that, in another child (a parent’s biological child), the kind of rebellion I exhibited (not openly) might be filed under the category of usual developmental resistance to one’s parent, but the presence of having been adopted (as a fact) makes that suspect. When I encountered for the first time Keirsey and Bates reformulation of Myers-Briggs’ reformulation of Jungian personality archetypes, it was a true bolt out of the blue. The fact that my experience of estrangement (particularly from my parents) could be rationalized on the basis of a (genetic) difference in personality type was sufficiently broad and deep in its implications to explain my sense of estrangement. In other words, if you told me then (or now) that the differences with my father were simply a difference of opinion, I would have to disagree; it seems to go much further and much further back than a mere difference of opinion. That there might be more people “out there” more like me simply by virtue of a blood-relation has an air of plausibility.

This sense of estrangement is all the more telling given that I was adopted from birth. Without any clues from my own experience (except being told I was adopted, and being told that at such an early age I don’t remember when it was), without any information from a past, I came to an understanding of my father’s culture as wholly antithetical to me; so much so that I would not have been surprised to find out one day that I was an alien from space.

One could ask what sort of difference it makes to be adopted by “White” pholks as opposed to White pholks, but that would require its own whole apparatus in itself; this only starts to point at some of it. Either way,  the non-White child or a White child (confronting “White” culture) can feel alienated, estranged—all the more so when the dominant culture (and the culture of parents) puts the speaking voice of the child’s culture at a low premium (to say nothing of the fact that articulation may not have full developed yet). Concretely, what the various consequences and effects of being an apparently White child with a Hispanic last name[30] might entail in a context of (transcultural) adoption. This most frequently overtly manifested (that is, I easily noticed it) as the joshing question, “How’d a white kid like you get a Hispanic last name?” but now there is the nebulous possibility that my last name may have caused my work applications to be discarded without looking at them, &c. My complete inattention to this possibility is certainly a consequence of my father’s willful or pragmatic disregard to antihispanic bias both generally or directed at him. Without claiming to cover every case, it would seem that Black parents (with their own complicated history of relationship to “race”) who taught their children nothing about how to identify and negotiate through the rockier racial terrain in this country might be accused of doing their children an at best kind of left-handed favor, or at worst neglecting, this issue. To say, “So at this point, I’m singularly unequipped even to recognize such treatment by others,” is odd enough that it’s almost embarrassing to write, as much because it might not be true as that it might be.

When I say I was a White child raised by “White” parents, I want to be clear that this is not one of those reverse racist efforts to accrue social cache through the historical suffering of others. I say I’m white because I was told I’m White[31]. I also appear White, so I function as White (or perhaps “White”) so far as culture is concerned. This grants me the usual privileges and so forth. In general, the quotation marks here are indicating that economic class (the middle class and above) that historically has been occupied by Whites in this country but to which anyone with enough money and assimilation can be included (like my father was), though the extent of one’s inclusion may still be further limited according to what “race” you are taken to be and how extensive your assimilation is deemed. &c. It’s a truism that race and class are often treated synonymously in this country and that doesn’t help matters at all; I may have been born White (and benefited at times from being treated as “White”) but I rejected my father’s “White” culture. To this day, I would still not claim I’m “White”.

Supposedly my muttage is Welsh, Irish, and German—a pleasant enough neighborhood project. Shall we call it an accident that none of my linguistic interests have ever veered toward Romance languages [32](much less Spanish)? Did I study German in high school because (I’m told) I’m partly German? From a very early age, I have felt that I belong in and to Russia—clearly, it functioned as my fantasyland, but with some very real (i.e., actual) elements. When I was 7, after I began hating my father and all he stood for, I wanted to “defect” to Russia. My early avowal of Communism certainly arose in reaction to my father’s smug avowal of Capitalism but, perhaps for want of economic specifics, my commitment to communism took the form of a commitment to Russia (as the land of Communism)[33]. It would not be inaccurate to say that I (believed I) felt Russian. But I have also long been obscure proud of being Welsh; I’ll even read Dylan Thomas (that ultraexploited poet-hero from “my” homeland) though he’s by no means my favorite poet—the culturally complicated history of Wales being as much of a muddle as my own cultural heritage. And I also felt an obscure kinship with the region where I grew up, which has been credited with being an ecotopia. Complete the trifecta of alienation with my complete disaffection for all varieties of so-called Abrahamic religions, preferring instead the lucidity of the Bhagavad-Gita’s bhakti yoga or the Siva-Sutras’ jñana yoga, and there you are.

This all may ultimately eventuate from the essential difference of being non-heterosexual—when I was growing up, ready access or visibility to the existing forms of queerness that were out in the world were not a part of my life. I felt distinctly Other, and so only had my parents as a model of what not to be. And by age 7, this Otherness was going to be total—I was not cherry-picking (in a meaningful way) through the cultural modes my parents offered or imposed on me. Even in places where we seemed to agree—my parents and I alike would have agreed on the importance of education—we still disagreed: my father believed education was to gain a skill, I believed it was to increase knowledge that would then be applied to some skill. For me, playing golf entailed deciphering the mystery of making the ball do what I want; for my father, it seemed an often frustrating, though perhaps socially necessary, variety of (early social) networking. Similarly, where I loved tennis as much for the physical doing of it as the mystery of its physics (such that winning was of distinctly secondary importance), winning was certainly a value my father more believed in.

One could go on forever with these kinds of comparisons. And one could file under the heading of “class” many of the values I rejected from my father but if I was technically the same class as him (by virtue of living under his roof), that could not have provided an answer to my sense of estrangement from him. And if he’d been –non-Hispanic, I might have translated my estrangement in strictly personal terms. But I’m adopted and he is Hispanic, and so my estrangement could take on cultural or racial valences such that Wales feels like a home land, so that Russia seems like my true home, &c.

Even if someone wants to say that my sense of alienation and estrangement doesn’t “deserve” to go under the heading of “real” transcultural adoptions, the view that I obtain as an adoptee general (transcultural or not) sheds light on and makes sense of elements of my life that otherwise suffer from seeming “merely personal”. In this respect, the provocation of thinking through one’s own adoption in transcultural terms (when it seems appropriate to do so) provides the justification for this essay.


[1] Let’s ignore also for now the problematic discourse of the expert and all that that entails.

[2] This issue is not only about transcultural adoption or adoption generally. It is, rather, how babies are discoursed in US culture. If one can call Madonna a shameless showboat for publicizing her intercontinental adoptions, she’s merely repeating the same gesture made by hundreds of thousands of women (and their families) around the world every year. It is still important to point out that the United States is the adoption capital of the world. Ironically, this makes it a place where adoption had some of the strongest stigma against and thus overcame it (in a way) as well. Such social consequences are a product of a rampant need to adopt—that is, for Baby Boomers especially to “cash in” on the baby boom. To not be left behind. To keep up with the Joneses. This is not to say there were not affective commitments behind such compulsive adopting; on the contrary, only with affective commitments could there ever be such compulsivity. But affects for what becomes the crucial question? Certainly not to raise and nurture a child—a dreadful doxa brutally mocked by child abuse and rape statistics in this country. But this is an enormous issue that can hardly be dealt with in a footnote. For now, it’s enough to note that he discourse that now exists around adoption is such that contesting it seems ipso facto cranky.

[3] Let us leave aside the problem of determining how we might ever arrive at such a determination.

[4] Let’s not be stupid about this. The issue is not whether a child grows up happy in the new circumstance and is grateful for it compared to whatever she imagines life would have been in the original place. This would be like excusing rape because a rape survivor was able to make the best of the bad situation and grow from it. Nor does it necessarily point to the child who has a miserable experience here and can only long (imaginatively) for the life that could have been had over there. This is just the negative of the first example, except that (because the child is being “ungrateful”) it is (a) easier to see that an affront has been done to the child and (b) the child will need to be dealt with more harshly because she is pulling back the tapestry hiding that original affront from criticism.

[5] I want to mention in passing that Vietnam, alone among countries of the world I believe, has never had laws against homosexuality.

[6] The problem was introduced by foreigners and so foreigner’s solutions are applied to that problem.

[7] In my experience, much of what was politically called homophobia more rightly should be called either ethnocentrism, when it is essentially innocent of malice, or bigotry outright, when it is not innocent of malice. Insofar as homophobia involves the affect of fear, it needs both an object and a subject to be fearful. To accuse a community of homophobia, then, becomes too abstract—rather, a bigot might terrorize a community to induce homophobia in its members, and that fear can take many forms—fear that one’s children will be “turned gay” is a classic, the other being fear that one is gay (or will be turned gay). The particularly personal character of the latter explains why one so often encounters homophobia most obviously in people who eventually come out of the closet—the fear was quite legitimate at the time. But socially, the xenophobia of homosexual infection in a community most palpably leads to violence, as the Black communities of the US know too well from their history of White violence directed toward them. And I’m well aware of the “indelicacy” of pointing this out. For a (gay) White person to say this is not without its ironies or challenges, but the Black community shows its own mixed opinion on this in the fact of counterbalancing a historically attested bigotry against homosexuality (reported by countless LGBT African-Americans) with a majority consensus on LGBT rights. I find my solidarity there, even if my remarks seem divisive.

[8] Indeed, the discourse of the pulpit is not, forever and always, filled only with diatribes against homosexuality even in religious settings violently opposed to the stuff. I’m not suggesting otherwise. In general, the pulpit doesn’t bother with homosexuality often, but when it does, the message is overtly negative or patronizingly “positive”—either that congregation members are encouraged to pray away the gay (literally or figuratively) or to arrive at a theology (“love the sinner hate the sin”) where a person can be accepted as gay in a congregation so long as they don’t actually indulge in their proclivities, &c. None of this yet deserves to be called a positive message, and it is in that sense that the discourse of the pulpit is almost overwhelmingly negative and never toward a message of acceptance (or even embracing tolerance). These remarks will sound directed most at Christian contexts, but (US Black) Islamic settings have their own discourse of the pulpit as well.

[9] Essentialism being one of the great intellectual no-nos of our time, so that even Gayatri Spivak herself must resort to a construction like “strategic essentialism” in order to carry on her analysis of how to proceed with liberatory projects, it’s necessary to remember here that some of the tortured locutions we’re forced to resort to (under the banner of that interdicted word essentialism) amounts to a kind of intellectual wink-wink. That makes it sound like a game. Far from it. Lives are at stake, but discourse has been arranged so that certain resorts (certain routes) seem closed, so that the Gordian knot we are trapped by becomes insoluble, even if one takes a sword to it. However, liberation and social justice is more important than conforming to doxa or merely allowing critics to dismiss one on the grounds of violating doxa.

[10] For minors, this is not always true. An adult (a parent, a teacher, a religious figure, a psychiatrist) may have made some sort of determination that a child is “ill” in some way, and the child may then have gone along with or resisted that pathologizing gesture. It is worth noting at this point that in a study of adoptees raised by lesbians, there was a 9% incidence of physical abuse as compared to 26% in heterosexual families, a 0% sexual abuse rate (compared to 8% in heterosexual families), and that 3% of the children so raised eventually identified as gay. Doubtless the hegemonic discourse around family in the United States will tend to be self-congratulatory, even holding out idealizations of family in those places where family has disintegrated. This study suggests that such idealization and promotion may be unwarranted.

[11] I have a suspicion that for queer pholk the dominant antiëseentialism rampant in intellectual circles must be somewhat suspect. In whatever abstract sense it seems just (or desirable) to insist that we are all socially constructed, this can’t sit well for a group that is, from the beginning, marginalized, often unrepresented, and so forth. If it is a social construct, who did the constructing, because the experience of participation in that process must often be (on the one hand) at the first wholly nonparticipatory and (later, during a political phase of one’s sexual identification) far more deliberately crafted (or chosen) than for heterosexuals (who may never confront the question at all). Meanwhile, whereas the notion of cultural gender roles provides a plausible point of departure for insisting that people are expected to act a certain way, this is far less convincing for queer pholk. Men and women, since time immemorial, have had to face one another and work out the question, “How should we act vis-à-vis one another.” Hence, cultural gender roles have accreted a massive, discourse-wide penetration that makes it not so difficult to pick out a sense of “how I should act” from cultural signifiers, signs, and symbols. This is nowhere the case for queerism. Whereas one can continuously and easily read signs of what a man is and is not from cultural depictions of men (it’s absolutely non-essential that one correctly reads any such image; whatever reading or misreading one makes of a cultural image of a man, as distinct from and distinguished from a woman, the sign can still be said to function in those terms), it is not at all so obvious from depictions of heterosexuality how one should not act to avoid being queer, as it were. This might seem unconvincing—doesn’t a heterosexual image show, for instance, a man kissing a woman—therefore men shouldn’t kiss men. And for those who have trolled for sex amongst married men, it is almost invariably the case that they want no smooching—suck the dick and go away. Simply the fact that married men (on various rational grounds) might solicit sex from gay men—the social’s other premier cocksuckers—exactly points to how heterosexuality is vague vis-à-vis how not to be queer. I suggest that this vagueness is because—unlike the millennia-old tête-à-tête between men and women, there is no such parallel between queer and not-queer. What there has been has been mostly kept out of sight as a kind of shameful secret, so that boys and girls who find themselves with homosexual inclinations have essentially no resources in cultural discourse to take a clue about how to act or not act, about what’s queer or not queer, &c. For boys, not getting buttfucked is probably a clear “don’t do that”; for girls, even the act of cunnilingus doesn’t have or provide an absolute guarantee that one has “crossed the line”—the acculturated images of male fantasies in re female pseudo-homosexuality no doubt contributes to this. And all of this is to say that for queer-identified people, the notion of their identity merely as a social construct may feel radically incorrect. If it is a construct, it seems to have been one that they not only took no part in, but that it also occurred and was completed long before they even have a chance to realize it was happening.

[12] It seems lame to say “may” here. The issue is not that it “will” but rather that “some will” and those that don’t—call them lucky, if that’s the best word—do not therefore provide a justification for the actions of those people (adults) who participated in the creation of the very circumstances that those who “were” or “are” alienated by their circumstances were alienated.

[13] I hear voices again raising the objection, “Not all children hate being adopted.” And again, that’s not the point. But whether some do or some don’t, the situation could never arise were adoption not a (valorized) practice. So any “wound” or “sting” or “trauma” experienced by transcultural adoptees, whether real or imagined, is a direct consequence of those who (financially) benefitted from adoption. As legalized human trafficking, you do not get to pretend there are no consequences to that. But it can also be said, even for those who appear to “adapt” to the circumstances of their adoption without a problem, that does not erase the fact that the moment of adoption, as a historical biographical fact of the person’s life that cannot be ignored, is inserted into the person’s life. To be sure, this is the quality of all experience in a person’s life—everything can be said to “impose itself,” to “intrude” into our lives (more or less unbidden) and to then in effect “force us” to deal with that fact (or to take nepenthe to erase all memories of it). Less abstractly, every decision of our parents has this quality, and there’s no end of self-congratulation on the part of adults (the voices of children on this point are essentially not represented anywhere—except in those myths that blame previous generations for the loss of a Golden Age, &c, but those are the stories of adult children writing back over their past); the discourse of adoption is overflowing with pathetic cries of birth mothers and adoptive mothers alike; I’m not going to be so cruel as to spit on their pathetic figures. Life can be full of agonizing moments, unbearable decisions that parents have to make about the welfare (or not) of the creatures they chose(or didn’t) to bring into the world. The revenge of life, precisely and often, consists in children repeating with their own children the very crimes and atrocities they hated so much in their own parents. Such irony! But in the class of decisions parents make about the welfare (or not) of their children, the nexus of adoption has a particularly sharp significance. It is the only decision where the child either enters or exits the ambit of a parent. Anterior to me saying, “Yes, take him” or you saying, “Okay, I’ll take him” no parental decision resembles that one. Here, it is not merely some piece of egregious stupidity on your part that you decided I should take golf lessons rather than tennis lessons (“I have played the sport less followed, and it has made all the difference”), that you never encouraged me to get a higher education, that you decided it’d be a good idea to beat me with a belt or shove your penis in my hairless vagina—it is, rather, that you made a decision to become the one who makes decisions for me (as your child)—or you made the decision to stop making decisions for me. Children who are not adopted might imagine abstract “other parents” they might have, but for the adopted child, such other parents are a reality (even if they are already dead). In this respect, the orphan is a bit like the adopted child, except most orphans are “relieved” (if you will) of the tortured “what if” because the death of their parents was the death of that “what if”. In this respect, foster children have an obvious similarity, though here the sheer multitude of possible other families (having lived through many of them) may or may not drive up or down the (looming) presence of alternative families to the one currently inhabited. None of this is meant to belittle the experience of orphans, nonadoptees, or foster children of course, but rather to paint more clearly the ambit in which the adoptee moves. She is the child with an entire unlived other life not lived—whatever her relationship to that other life might be. But what matters is that she was trafficked in the first place and didn’t ask to have added to her arsenal of (perpetual complaints of children against the adults who try to raise them): “What ever made you think you could decide to become who decides from me” (or “Whatever made you think you could decide to stop being the one who decides for me).

[14] Fathers seem to be bit players in all of this, belying (if for good reason) a kind of assent to the dominant notion of what a family (or at least a mother) is supposed to look like.

[15] A problem here arises in the objection that there is no such thing as culture, but rather culture manifests only through people doing things. This is an oversimplification and one that may politically be related to conservative insistences on race-blindness. Whatever we do can be called an expression of culture; it is a consequence of the constraints on our behavior that are culture. What those constraints are an only be (externally) described in statistical terms, but the insistence here is not that “culture is real”. What is real is the operation of the constraint upon individuals, which constraints arise from the dialogue of lived-experience with other people around us and cultural representations we encounter. At root, we do not experience the constraint of culture as something we ourselves put in place or constructed—this may be making a victim of ourselves to our own thinking, but whatever change we offer to any idea of what those constraints might be, we still experience those constraints as external. What culture consists of is, of course, ever in dialogue (“men don’t kiss men in public” … or, now they do, or in this place or at this time they do, etc.), but certain tenets of culture are less negotiable than others. LGBT rights may have come a long way, but the simply acknowledgment involved in marriage equality is proving heavily entrenched.

[16] To be precise, the impact of estrangement increases with the vividness of one’s “other life”—the life not led due to the adoption. It doesn’t matter how realistic this other life is, whether it is informed by actual (remembered) autobiographical detail—because the child was adopted after knowing his or her original culture—or by representations of that culture provided by others (films, books) or imagination.

[17] That’s, at least, my most generous reading of his remark. One could say he was simply insisting that Black boys (in some sort of genetic sense) are naturally averse to faggots. The word “naturally” is a clue we’re in the domain of essentialism, but it’s undesirable to go there (even if the speaker couldn’t help himself) because it was large doses of essentialism that enslaved his ancestors in the first place. One can even discern in his overt distastes for homosexuals a reprisal of that kind of apotropaic ego buoying that the Southern poor would do regarding their own claimed “superiority” to slaves. Shit rolls downhill.

[18] The guest speaker was pretty unambiguous: Black babies should be raised by Black pholk. To me, there are some seriously disturbing assumptions built into this, which have nothing to do with the capacity of White pholk to raise Black babies—never mind that it seems most people aren’t very good at it generally.  I think, in the United States at the very least, the sentimentalization of babies makes the prospects for any parent (who has been sufficiently acculturated in teat sentimentalization) dim; I’d even say it disqualifies their ability to be a good parents. In reply to those who are now defending parents with the old saw, “They tried their best,” I offer you Winston Churchill: “Sometimes it is not enough to do your best. Rather, one must do what needs to be done.” The flip side is I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea for queer-identified kids to be raised by queer-identified parents. At a minimum, the findings of the study on lesbian parenting may suggest, more bluntly, that we should all simply be raised by lesbians.

[19] It becomes then in part of question of, “When do we ask?”

[20] Merely to fall out of the womb of, say, Melinda Gates or Nefertiti, seems the more authentic form of undeserved grace than any religious claims made in the wake of original sin. But no, material comfort is not the only relevant factor involved in the lottery of birth. Simply to be born into the structure of Power that has more access to the resources of Power, as opposed to those who are not from birth allowed access to Power, is the point. Even in cultures where Power is more decentralized, there are still structures to which some are (more or less easily) allowed access while others are not, &c. By definition, “having access to a structure of Power” can be as simple as “satisfactorily and adequately meeting the desired quality of one’s life, however that may be understood”.  If one aspires to work and live and laugh and love, it’s as possible to do that (in principle at least) in the least centralized cultures of Power or even under a ultrarepressive dictator. It will not be so easy if you are a homosexual born into Mauritania or a country beleaguered by war like Afghanistan—in general, for anyone whose desires fall outside of the available structures of desire fulfillment. One can imagine a woman who finds the alternatives in Saudi Arabia insufficient for the life she desires to live, or the Yąnomamö woman (or woman of Papua New Guinea) who does not wish to be terrorized by male violence on a daily basis, &c. In particular, for Yąnomamö women, while men can engage in homosexual activity (under a general social rule of discretion and refusing to discuss it), women are not permitted to engage in any sexuality except with their partner, such that both lesbianism and masturbation can result in up to even fatal injuries.

[21] This applies more and more pertinently the younger and younger one was adopted. For older children, obviously, the world and life they are taken away from to be transplanted in another is not just a numinous other—it is a doubled other, partially real, with endlessly branching what ifs, all of which seem more possible, more impossible, more wonderful and terrible than other possible lives.

[22] Nonetheless, we picked up something of a polyglot bug. My sister is fluent in some 7 languages, my brother in at least two (including ASL), and I have an inveterate fascination with foreign languages, but not usually enough patience to actually learn to master them. German was the language of choice for my brother and me in high school; my sister chose Spanish.

[23] From things he’s said, it seems more like he took pride in being “better” than his other brothers—a “youngest boy makes best” family narrative.

[24] By this, I mean that the decades of hard work my father’s father did never yielded the same level of success as my father’s own hard work.  This was largely a matter of what each chose for career—my father obtained a college education, my grandfather had a 7th grade education, but the times for my father—i.e., no longer the Depression—perhaps afforded a person of a Hispanic background more opportunity than his father had sensed in his day. The point, in any case, is to not to minimize the amount of hard work either did.

[25] Part of the difficulty here, besides the emotional aspect of passing judgment over my entire life, precisely involves separating the biographical from the cultural here. I’ve already stressed why such a distinction is needed. It can’t be useful or helpful to say that my parents resorting to adoption was wrong—the culture they lived in said exactly the opposite and gave them no reason (and perhaps not even an alternative) to moving forward as they did. I don’t want to frame this as, “They thought it was for the best at the time,” although that even would be the kind of language they might use—as parents will often say when they are confronted years later by their children for errors of omission or commission during childhood. That they “thought it was the best at the time” raises the possibility that something else could have occurred—and within the realm of what was possible, something else could have: they could have opted not to have children, they could have waited and continued to try making their own child, etc. Rather, I would sooner note that the very field of possibilities available to them (then as still now to the rest of us) are already framed in such a way that alternatives are needed. If I’m going to  insist that being adopted by my parents as tragic, evil, wrong, or bad, then I am going to equally insist that it was tragic, evil, wrong, or bad that culture was of a sort that eventually arrived at a structure where adoption, as we have it, is necessary. If no one should have to suffer or experience adoption—if we assert that no one should be an adoptee—then social forces should not be of the sort that anyone would suffer or experience adopting either—that is, no one should be an adopter.

[26] The Greek sense of a tragic circumstance involves hamartia—a transgression committed in ignorance for which, nevertheless, the one who committed the transgressions must necessarily be punished. A parody of my position here would be to claim I am excusing rape; rather, the notion of hamartia allows one to see—quite apart from whatever complicated relationship a perpetrator might have to himself after having committed a crime—the social forces at work that made the person do what they did. In other words, it is pure laziness to imagine that crime—rather, those acts that are called crimes—happens simply because “someone does it”. The so-called justice system may not have the time, inclination, or intelligence to ferret out the real reasons, so that simply saying, “I don’t care why you did it, you’re going to pay” becomes a mere expedient.

[27] In the immediate vicinity where I grew up (and at the time), the visible presence of Hispanic people seemed to be effectively nil. My father reports that, moving into a rural area as he first did to start his professional life, there were no other Hispanics around. Given that this was rural farmland, this seems unlikely. Even as late as 2001, I was grocery shopping 35 miles north of where my father had worked for nearly 40 years. In one part of the grocery store, it was as if I’d stumbled into a mini-Guadalajara. The presence of many Spanish-labeled products was striking to me because the visibility of the people who presumably would buy such products was not pronounced. This may have as much to do with my assumptions about what Hispanic people would necessarily look like, but it’s not likely that my father would necessarily be any better equipped for such observations 40 years earlier in a rural setting.

[28] E.g., People with some minimum of Native American ancestry claiming an equal share of historical suffering, blood-feuds over sufficient victimization from the Holocaust, and even degree of suffering from 9/11, &c. Since suffering can’t be quantified, such argument show they are about visibility, acceptance, or power rather than whatever is at stake. This, however, without ignoring that where visibility, acceptance, or power are at stake there may always be those who would take on the regalia in order to gain access to those goods.

[29] My father remarked that as children, in part because this is how his own father made sure it played out, his family “did not associate” with Mexicans in the area—and there were many. My father noted how “everyone they knew” was White, and I asked if his father didn’t play a major role in making sure that was the case, and my father felt it was. Consequently, it is no surprise—though also no doubt with the father’s blessing at least—that all of dad’s siblings married Anglos, as did my father. It’s certainly interesting that my father’s father, who was shunned by his own family for “marrying outside of his race,” created an ethos where all of his own children (were encouraged to) “marry outside of their race.

[30] It will be largely of no matter that I arguably look little different than any number of Spanish people (as opposed to a stereotypical sense of a “Mexican” person). Even in my father’s immediate family, the range of distinguishably “Spaniard” and “Indian” heritages were distributed (and mixed) through the six children.

[31] One could say “Caucasian” but that actually muddles the issue by pretending that there’s any such clear designation between “races”. Cavalli-Sforza, a research who has spent amongst the greatest amount of time trying to characterize the genetic make-up of human beings, has declared that categorizing people by “race” is a “futile” endeavor. People interested in using race to claim some races are inferior (e.g., Richard Lynn) have specifically accused Cavalli-Sforza of cowardice, saying that his findings show an unambiguous fact that he is disingenuously playing down or misrepresenting. Whatever the genetic case of Black and White, their social character trumps any such. When Sartre famously answers the question, “What is a Jew?” with the answer, “A Jew is whatever society says it is”; or when Herbert Brün claims, “Things are what’s said about them in the social world” these are true to a point. Merely to say a social thing is not enough. Brün would say it takes believers also, which already begins to undermine his initial claim—or at least doesn’t explain why he didn’t mention believers when he made his initial claim. But believers are not necessary. One’s self-interests can be represented by a social defining. I don’t have to believe “the American dream works” to reap benefits from it. Many people do things for money—that is, they go along with whatever official discourse it is that is running a venture—without taking that discourse to heart. So whatever White or Black or race in general means in this country, what dominates is what is said about it in a context of the interests that are served by that saying.

[32] Officially, I’ve studied German, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian, and only lately have I been coming more to appreciate French, Italian, &c.

[33] Even so, my fascination with Russia expressed itself in nonreactionary ways as well. Hearing “Pictures at an Exhibition” (on piano, live) changed my whole conception of what music could be and set me on a course of discovering Russian music that continues to this day—because Russian music “speaks” to me as much other classical music does not. Similarly, when I read Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground for the first time, it was also life-changing and put Russian literature, which consistently has spoken to me better than all others, before me. &c.

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4 Responses to “FRAME & PORTRAIT: Thinking Through TransCultural Adoption”

  1. […] Leopard has written a thought-provoking treatise on transcultural adoption, asking for a discussion on this subject. I agree with much of what was […]

  2. SL:

    Really interesting read; thanks for this. At one point I pasted a reply in here, but then took it back and started working it up into, well, something else, that is kind of long and perhaps a bit rambling but is I think more of a meshing with what you said than a retort or a rebuttal, coming at things from a different physical but also theoretical and practical perspective.

    http://tinyurl.com/frame-portrait

    Peace,

    Daniel

    • Snow Leopard said

      Hi Daniel:

      Thanks for keeping the dialogue going. Lots of good stuff to chew on and sift out, and some helpfully troubling things too. I wrote my own rambling prose-implosion response to what you wrote, but it’s still “in process” … meanwhile, I really appreciate you keeping things pingponging.

      Peace II,

      Snow Leopard

  3. […] postscript to the previous post is based on a dialogue with Snow Leopard, who had written a thought-provoking treatise on transcultural adoption, asking for a discussion on this subject. I agree with much of what was […]

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