The blurred lines of International Adoption



When my husband and I make the choice to pursue International Adoption, we also made a commitment that we would try as best we could to expose our daughters to their birth culture. Culture camps, Chinese and Korean restaurants and musical performances have all come and gone over the intervening years since they came home. These are the activities that are relatively easy to arrange. A week-long trip returning to a birth country can be a different matter.

We had returned to Korea, the birthplace of our oldest daughter, in 2009. The trip was memorable for many reasons; some good, some not so good. Trying to herd 5 children thru the busy Korean subway and returning with the same 5 children as we started with is probably by best/worst memory. The following two pictures sum up the best memories for our kids.


A return trip to China, the birthplace of daughter #2,  has been more difficult to organize as our children became older, went off to college and the business of a girl’s social life. The stars finally aligned last month and we were off to China with our daughter and a close friend,  who is also a Chinese  adoptee. I was reminded of the Korean subway experience all over again when I easily lost track of the girls whenever we were in a crowd of Asians – which was frequently.  They enjoyed the anonymity and I panicked when I couldn’t pick them out of the thousands in Tienanmen Square.

The sights and sounds of China will have to wait for another post, as my most memorable experience from this trip was a book that I read while in China and a second book that was waiting for me when I arrived home.  “The Light Between Oceans” by M. L. Stedman has been on my “to read” list for over a year. It was uncanny how appropriate it was for this trip. The story involves a childless couple who find a child in a boat and decide to claim the child as their own. Two years later, they discover the circumstances surrounding  the child’s abandonment and that the birth mother continues to grieve for a child that she believes is lost. The characters in the story realize that there is no right answer to who should claim this child and justice for one person is another’s tragic loss. If similar circumstances had come to light regarding either of my daughter’s adoptions and I found that their birth families had not relinquished them voluntarily, would I have the principle or justice to allow them to return to their families of birth? At what point in time could I claim that they had lost their birth culture and were now better served by remaining in their adoptive home? Does the privilege and advantage of Western culture they are afforded trump the supposed hardship circumstances of their birth? Just as the characters in the book struggled with these questions, so would I.

Chinese adoptees and their parents have always known that a search for birth family is near impossible, as they are abandoned anonymously due to government restrictions on adoption . The research I did at the time of our daughter’s adoption in 2002 cited the one child policy and need for a son in the family as the primary reason for these abandonments. If a Chinese couple had a daughter first, they were usually allowed to have another child in order to secure a son for their family name. When this second child was a girl, she may have been relinquished by placing her in a public park, train station or at the gates of an orphanage, so that the family could try again for a son. Second daughters were thought to encompass the majority of healthy girls in Chinese orphanages.

This was a different story than the circumstances surrounding Korean adoptions. In Korea, birth outside of marriage is socially unacceptable and the majority of children placed for adoption were by single women who felt that they had no choice in raising their child. Most children were turned over to social service agencies shortly after birth and although the circumstances surrounding the placement may not have always been recorded correctly,  the birth mother had to sign papers relinquishing her parental rights before an adoption could be pursued. Abandoning your child in Korean does not make them eligible for adoption, either domestic or international, and these children spend their life growing up in an orphanage.

What I thought I knew about Chinese adoptions was radically changed when I returned home. I had ordered a copy of “China’s Hidden Children” by Kay Ann Johnson before the trip, intending to read it while in China. I am glad that it arrived when it did as it would have made the trip more difficult from a psychological perspective if I had spent my evenings reading the anguished stories of Chinese families who had not willingly relinquished their children for adoption. It seems that only a minority of families fit the previously cited “second daughter” construct. Couples wanted daughters and often had a second pregnancy after a son to try for a daughter (a second pregnancy is only allowed after a daughter, not a son), either hiding their second child or paying a steep fine. The Chinese government requires each person to be registered with a hukou or household registration system, similar to our social security number. The lack of a hukou is the  limiting factor in the advancement of these children thru the school system and eventually the ability to secure a job. You may be able to hide your child from village family planning authorities for a few years but that child would be unable to enroll in school. Families often hoped to pay large bribes or penalties to lenient officials after the child was born and a few years of age or they hid the child with relatives until the laws periodically became relaxed. When these options didn’t work out was when children were relinquished – either forcefully by being removed by government officials or “abandoned” in public places. These girls were very much wanted – unfortunately they couldn’t be kept.

International adoption was a convenient escape that brought in larger sums of money than domestic adoption. Couples adopting from abroad were required to travel and stay in China for two weeks, adding to the local economy. They also paid higher fees to the orphanage. Orphanages were plentiful and it seems that some children may have been placed in the orphanage “temporarily” by the family until they were able to afford the fine imposed by having a second child. When the family returned with the money saved, the child had been placed into an international adoption.

Those adorable Chinese babies and toddlers are now teens and young adults. Although they may not have had a voice in their origins, they do have a say in their futures and the rest of their story. Knowing what I now know, I would advocate for an attempt at finding my daughter’s birth family and reassuring them that their daughter is loved and thriving in her adopted culture. But this is her story now and her choice. I cannot change the policy of the Chinese government that created the need for adoptive families. Given the current imbalance in male:female ratios and the rapidly aging population demographic in China, the country has repercussions far beyond our family story.

3 thoughts on “The blurred lines of International Adoption

  1. Jim R says:

    A very good post!

    • Thank you. I have spent 2 weeks writing and re-writing this post in my head as the circumstances have disturbed me greatly. Hope that others will be able to learn from this.

  2. lexklein says:

    Very thought-provoking. I admire your willingness to discuss this potential problem with Chinese adoptions even though it brings such angst to you given your own situation.

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