By Nicole Soojung Callahan
Years ago, two friends sat across from me at their gleaming kitchen table and asked if I thought they should adopt a child.
It might seem like a strange question to ask a fresh college graduate still years away from becoming a parent herself. But, this couple happened to be weighing transracial adoption, and I was the only adopted person and one of very few people of color they knew. We had recently been introduced by mutual friends who thought I could tell them what it was like growing up adopted.
The hopeful parents began by asking if I had ever felt as though my adoptive parents weren’t my “real” parents. No, never. They asked if I had ever been in contact with my birth family. At the time, I hadn’t. They asked if I had ever had any “issues” growing up with white parents.
For the first time, I hesitated. “What sort of issues?”
“Any sort,” said the mother-to-be. “Did you ever mind it? You know — not being white, too?”
I had learned how to talk about adoption at a young age. I thought of myself as an open book. But, in truth, I was out of practice, having spent the past four years at college. When I wasn’t in the presence of my white parents, few people had reason to ask where they had gotten me. And, oddly enough, I couldn’t remember anyone ever asking, point-blank, if I minded having white parents, or not being white myself.
I looked at my new friends’ faces, so full of hope and excitement. In manner and appearance this earnest young couple could not have been less like my mother and father, and yet their good intentions, their devout Catholicism, their obvious longing for a child to love couldn’t help but make me think of my own parents. Already I could tell that they were good, kind people. I knew how much they wanted to adopt, how much they would love their child, how much they wanted everything to finally, beautifully work out.
“No. Not really,” I said.
As I gave a little shrug to emphasize the hey-no-big-deal aspect of my adoption, I was rewarded with twin beams across the table. They were relieved, yet not the least bit surprised. Of course I had been fine. Everything would be fine. That was the answer they had wanted to hear, the answer they fully expected all along.
As I think about it now, I know my lie of omission wasn’t just for them. It was for me, too. At 22, it still felt like a betrayal of myself, of my parents, of my birth parents’ choice to acknowledge the hard parts about being adopted by people who didn’t look like me, and being raised in a place where I never saw any other Koreans.
My parents and I always turned heads when we left the haven of our home. For as long as I could remember, I had been an unofficial spokesperson for adoption, answering people’s questions, telling them what they wanted to hear. Many, I eventually learned, didn’t want an honest account so much as they wanted an interesting, preferably heartwarming story. Plenty of adopted kids might not have felt or cared about or internalized that pressure, that attention, but for whatever reason, I did.
When my new friends, friends who were planning to adopt, asked me what it had been like, I didn’t know how to tell them about the year and a half I’d spent in therapy, starting when I was seven years old. I didn’t want to say that my parents and my teachers had noticed me twirling my hair, the cowlicky black hair that made me so different from everyone else I knew, twisting the strands around and around the first joint of my forefinger so tightly that I couldn’t free them without yanking a few out. I didn’t want to admit that I had done this often enough to leave a tiny bald patch on the left side of my head, thoroughly alarming my poor parents. Even if I had been willing to share all of that, I would have then had to tell them why.
I couldn’t do it.
Sometimes it still sounds so trite, so trivial when I try to explain it now. Almost all the girls in my class had blond hair and blue eyes. I heard chink and Chinee on the playground at least once a week, from second through eighth grades, usually accompanied by pulled-back eyes and taunts in a sing-song, fake-accented voice. Until the age of nine, when we hosted two Japanese exchange students for a single weekend, I never spent any time with anyone who looked anything like me. I always felt anxious, exposed, like everyone was staring at me. If I’d been granted a magic wish, I would have chosen to be white in a heartbeat.
But, while all of this is true, and less than ideal, I suppose, none of it really constitutes an explanation. The truth is, I still don’t fully comprehend why it all conspired to break me, for a little while. I just know that it did.
My mother would say years later that she never knew I had been teased for being Korean, so I must not have told my parents about the education I was receiving in racial slurs at my little parochial school. My teachers had no idea what was going on. It might not have occurred to any of them that kids so young would know, let alone fling such words around. Nor did my parents know how to begin the conversation — no one, from the social worker to the adoption attorney to the judge who finalized my adoption, had ever warned them about raising a child of color in a very white town.
At seven and eight years old, I didn’t have the capacity or the vocabulary to explain what was happening or how I felt; the words were locked inside. I was supposed to be fine, I was supposed to be happy, I was supposed to feel special for having been adopted. There wasn’t room in that picture to explain what was happening at school.
But, to their enormous credit, my mother and father saw that I needed some kind of help. Even if they couldn’t talk to me, they could find someone else who could. So, once and sometimes twice a week for over a year, Dad or Mom drove me to my therapist’s office one town over.
I wish I could remember more of those sessions, because I know that my therapist, a wonderful woman named Charlotte, helped me immensely. While I don’t recall many of our conversations, I do remember painting pictures with her, playing pretend, digging dress-up clothes and plumed hats out of her trunk. I remember the little patchwork quilt she sewed for the Asian baby doll I got for Christmas, and the stray peacock feather she gave me that occupied a place of honor on my bookshelf for years after. I remember when my hair finally grew in, filling in the bald spot, and I could pull it back in a ponytail again. I remember the day Charlotte told me that I was ready to stop seeing her.
“I’m very proud of you, Nicole,” she said, giving me a hug. “I know you’re going to be just fine. I’m not worried about you at all.”
I was, at first, but Charlotte turned out to be right. I still heard unfortunate words at recess. I still hated being Korean. But the sting of shame had lessened a little; Charlotte had taught me to say It’s not my problem, it’s their problem, and almost believe it.
Looking back on it now, I know how fortunate I was to find the help and support I needed at such a young age. Maybe it was easier to cope because I was young, because nothing worse or truly terrible had happened to me, because I always knew that I was loved. Maybe I just needed someone to talk to, someone to acknowledge how difficult the whole thing was, and once that need was met I could begin to heal. But as grateful as I was to Charlotte, I rarely spoke of our sessions to anyone, not even my parents. I feared it would hurt them, and worry them anew, if I seemed to dwell on my adoption or the differences between us.
I also had another reason for keeping quiet, one that had nothing to do with protecting my parents or maintaining the peace — I was desperate to put the necessary distance between me and that adopted chink on the playground. She had fallen apart rather than stand up for herself, and moving on meant that I had to leave her far behind. Even now, if I’m honest, I know that I still blame that girl, more than anyone else, for not being strong enough.
Sitting across from me, one of my new friends asked, “Do you think we should adopt? Do you think we could be good parents to a child who isn’t white?”
Of course I knew I could only give one answer. I also knew that the world hadn’t magically changed for the better since I was a kid, and that my own experiences with racism were unbelievably tame compared to so many others. But I was 22; I was just barely able to call out prejudice when I saw it, when it was obvious, staring me in the face. I was not yet ready to challenge the party line on adoption. What, after all, would have happened to me if I had never been adopted? All my life, people had told me to be thankful for it, and I was. I was.
It had been years since I’d allowed myself to think about the playground insults, the hair-twirling, my sessions with Charlotte. It all seemed like too much to drop on a pair of lovely, well-meaning people who were still trying to talk themselves into transracial adoption. I reminded myself that I had grown up in a particular kind of place — an incredibly white sort of place—a few years before the spike in open adoptions and the celebration of “diversity.” There was no reason to think their child’s experience would be anything like mine.
Were my friends truly prepared to parent a child of color? Probably not, but then, neither was I. I had no idea how I would one day raise a child to understand and then somehow cope with racism. I did believe my friends would be good parents, just as I still wanted to be a good adoptee. I didn’t want to scare them. I didn’t want to be the one to make them question their dreams.
“Adoption is just another way to join a family,” I heard myself say. It was such a relief to utter those familiar words; it was a relief to lay the whole matter to rest. “Love is the most important thing. I know that I was very lucky, and your son or daughter will be, too. Try not to worry. You’ll all be fine.”
They both grinned at me. “Talking with you is so reassuring,” the mom-to-be said with a happy sigh. “I hope our kid grows up to be just like you!”
If another set of white adoptive parents asked me those same questions today — Should we adopt? Could we be good parents? — I still wouldn’t say no. Those answers are so often unknowable. I might say that I no longer think of adoption in terms of good or bad, but realistic and unrealistic. I would explain that my own parents tried very hard to be good parents, and in many ways were good parents, and we did not have a single honest conversation about race until I was in my late twenties and are still dealing with the consequences of that.
I don’t know why it once seemed so important to prop up adoption at all costs, to polish its image and conceal just how much I wrestled with my missing heritage and history. But I suspect at least part of the answer lies in the foundation built up, over long years, by other people’s questions, their biases and expectations. As an adopted child and a person of color, I understood from a young age what I was supposed to be: happy, agreeable, quiet, and grateful. No scars, no holes, no chip on my shoulder. It was easy to meet those expectations, much of the time, once I taught myself to ignore the slurs, once I finally stopped hearing them.
It was certainly much easier to fall in line than to open up and show everyone — regardless of how well I knew them, how much or how little I trusted them — my greatest fears, my deepest questions, the biggest and most vulnerable gap in my armor. If I shared that I’d been called a gook for years, wouldn’t other people then see me that way? If I admitted that I was a victim long ago, isn’t that how they would always think of me? If I came out and said that I was still angry sometimes, that I grieved the parts of myself that adoption had erased and rewritten, the things no amount of love could ever fully compensate for, would that be the excuse they needed to pull away?
I know more than a few adoptive parents who are trying their best to meet the challenges of transracial adoption with open-mindedness and humility. I would never call them heroes, as some do—that’s even worse than saying they are “generous” for adopting — but I do admire them. They think, they listen, they want to learn. Solidarity is not automatic, but these parents show me that it is possible in many adoptive families. Yet some of the stories I hear about transracially adopted children are all too wrenchingly familiar.
His new teacher told him, “Your name and your face don’t match!”
She came home crying because a boy at school said that Chinese people eat dogs and sleep in the dirt.
He asked me why God didn’t just make him white, like us.
She asks me if every Black woman we see is her mom.
Something happened in my mid-twenties when I realized that I was still hearing anecdotes like this. It made me furious; it flipped a switch inside of me. Maybe I had changed, maybe adoption had even changed, but a lot of people had apparently learned nothing, and too many adopted kids had no one to guide them through the trenches.
I still believe that all children need and deserve loving families. I still believe adoption can be a good and rewarding option for children with no other recourse to stable, nurturing family-based care. But these days I’m far more willing to call attention to the challenges of raising children of color in a fundamentally racist society. I tell prospective adoptive parents to take a good, hard look at their social circles, their neighborhoods, their churches, their communities and think about how those places and spaces will look and feel to their child. I ask them what they’ll say when their kids hear slurs and taunts from bullies, and how they will answer tough questions about the persistence of racism and a playing field that is far from level. I recommend books and blogs by adoptees that don’t mince words about the fact that love has never actually been enough for anyone. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers; these are things I fret over all the time, too, raising two multiracial kids myself. I’m well aware that it’s not easy, and that my girls have inherited a messy and ambiguous legacy from me, their mother who is not white but has never been a “real” Korean.
While I strive for empathy, I don’t try particularly hard to be comforting anymore. I worry more about adopted kids than I do about their parents’ feelings. I can be blunt. When a white adoptive dad mentioned that he just doesn’t think race is on his son’s “radar” (“I don’t think he even notices it, frankly”), I told him about my three-year-old daughter’s strong preference for Asian women. She knows the other Asian women aren’t me; she also knows they are like me in some way. Her big sister was noticing and commenting on racial differences at an even younger age. “Race is on your son’s radar,” I promised him. “Even if you think it’s not an issue for you, it will be for him.”
Some adoptive parents, I’ve found, are genuinely eager to talk about all of this. They understand that their good hearts and good intentions cannot safeguard their children against prejudice, loss of culture, or the harm that can be inflicted by meaningless “colorblindness” masquerading as tolerance. But I know that others no longer find me reassuring, and are probably actively hoping their kids don’t end up like me. A few have suggested that I haven’t gotten over my childhood issues. Some have even insisted, with perfectly straight faces, that transracial adoption, along with interracial marriage and mixed families, are “cures” for racism.
While I think most people would agree that adoption should be about the child and not the parents, the way the discussion is framed often puts the focus on the latter: the hoops they have to jump through (which too many people view as outrageous and unfair); the disappointments they have to endure (from birth parents who change their minds to “ungrateful” adult adoptees who question the system); and, of course, the enormous sums they must pay to adopt infants here in the U.S. or children of any age from abroad (please visit our adoption fundraising page!). In a way, it makes sense that theirs is still the dominant narrative — it is the most accessible, the least challenging. It’s easy to comprehend someone’s longing for a child in the here and now; it’s far more difficult to consider that child’s perspective, especially if it should change in the future, and question what might be missing at first from a white parent’s toolkit. But making a few people uncomfortable with frank talk about race and adoption is a small price to pay for the conversation itself. We need this dialogue, one that recognizes adoption not as the culmination of someone’s wish to become a parent, but rather the beginning of an adopted person’s individual journey — a journey that will be hard at times, joyful at others, and will hopefully lead to understanding and wholeness.