Adoption and Identity

The genesis of this post came from a long article in The New York Times that I read today on International Adoptions: Returning to South Korea. It’s about adoptions from Korea in particular, which is the source of the “largest adoption exodus from one country in history: over the past six decades, at least 200,000 Korean children — roughly the population of Des Moines — have been adopted into families in more than 15 countries, with a vast majority living in the United States.”  And, more broadly, it discusses some of the unsettling complexities that are involved with wealthy white families from the Global North “buying” brown-skinned babies from the Global South–not to put too fine a point on it. I was really conflicted reading the article, because, as most of you know, I’m adopted, and I’ve written frequently about the blessing of adoption, and how I think adoption is an amazing paradigm for talking about what really constitutes “family”. [In short, love, not blood.] It’s a metaphor the Christian church relies upon heavily–which I love–and I think is very, very powerful testament to the creative, transformative power of love in general. 

However, you have to be completely and willfully ignorant not to see some of the inherent problems with international adoptions in particular: the challenges of racism, the reality of economic exploitation, and the support of systems that perpetuate discrimination against vulnerable women. It’s hard not to wonder what would happen if the money that is funneled into international adoptions were instead funneled into better funding for single mothers.[But, on the other hand, who is going to give that money? Certainly not individual would-be parents.]  At the same time, however, we all know that one picture of one poor child in one squalid orphanage trumps these broader philosophical/ethical questions every time.  Who really is to say what’s best–and what’s best for whom?

So, at the same time I was reading this article, I was doing some research on indigenous religions, which are at the far end of the spectrum of “birth identity,” if you will. In many indigenous communities, there really is no individual identity as such, the way we think of it in the West. Instead, you are deeply, profoundly, ontologically related both to the land where you are born and the ancestors in whose family you are nested. [This is why, of course, Native American communities in the United States today have strict policies around the adoption of Native American children into non-Native families–in many cases prohibiting it altogether:  see the Indian Child Welfare Act for more information]. You are who you are only in the larger context of who your parents are, and the place you call home.

I was reading about the Ohafia community in Africa [Nigeria, to be exact], and there was one particular ritual that really struck me:  the rite of blessing of a newborn baby.  [The article I was reading is titled “Rethinking Ancestors in Africa,” by John C. McCall.] As McCall describes it, the eldest daughter of the paternal group [the Ohafia are patrilocal, which means that wives move in with their husband’s parents] rubs the newborn with chalk, says a blessing and places the child on the ground of the ezi ra alị, the shrine located near the patriarch’s house where all newborn children are brought to be blessed and officially “located” in the family. Once this happens, the umbilical cord of the baby is buried beneath the shrine.

This ritual occurs with all babies born into the family; and there are dire consequences if it does not occur. “Simple as it is, this rite embodies a fundamental relationship between individual, family and land which is the crux of personhood in Ohafia. To question whether someone was ever placed on ezi ra alị is among the gravest of insults. Such a remark suggests that the person has no home, no family—that they are in, in effect, not a person at all.”

If you read the Times article, you will see that the above description fits well how some of the adoptees feel:  like they have no home, no place, and that they don’t belong anywhere.  Regardless of how strongly I believe in the bonds of love to create family, it’s impossible not to recognize the compelling claim “place” makes on a person and her sense of identity.  

At the end of the article, the author quotes one such adoptee. She writes in her memoir, The Language of Blood: “How can I weigh the loss of my language and culture against the freedom that America has to offer, the opportunity to have the same rights as a man? How can a person exiled as a child, without a choice, possibly fathom how he would have ‘turned out’ had he stayed in Korea? How many educational opportunities must I mark on my tally sheet before I can say it was worth losing my mother? How can an adoptee weigh her terrible loss against the burden of gratitude she feels she has for her adoptive country and parents?”

I don’t know how to answer these questions, but they do remind me how complicated personal identity really is; and how we fool ourselves if we think we can simply create it with money and willpower, regardless of gender, sexual, ethnic, geographic and familial realities.  

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