Code-switching – the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations. www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch
Anyone who enters the adoption community or has gone through the adoption process quickly learns that our constellation has words all unto ourselves. To hear an adoptee talk about her mother, we automatically know she is talking about her adoptive mother, no distinction needs to be made among us. What’s interesting is that those who go through the adoption process are taught that a birthmother made an “adoption plan” while we adoptees say, “when she gave me up for adoption.” We learned that adoptive parents don’t like using the word “abandoned” so they are encouraged to tell their child, “you were put in a place to be found.” We, adoptees know, we were abandoned and if not abandoned, we opt for alternate words to describe the severing of our connection to our family of origin. There are so many ways that we have made “nice” with the concept of adoption so that those who benefit from it feel nice too. What I think we have managed to do is code switch.
To be equitable, I do notice the adoptee community writing/speaking in code as well to describe how passionately angry they feel about adoption. There are those of us who use “trafficking” and “kidnapping” in interesting ways to describe their adoption narrative. While I do not disparage one’s own interpretation of their own story, I find these words speak the code of the adopted in a different way than I do. Code? Accurate? Truth? My verdict is unclear. The effect is clear.
As more adoptees come forward saying not so nice things about adoption, it sort of feels like we are at a critical state of new understandings. I am gratified that there are adoptive parents who are beginning the struggle to understand that adoption is complicated, sometimes amazing, alternatively painful and at its best, transformative. The idea that we are “transforming” the discussion of race, identity and adoption has been at the core of many adult adoptee organizations starting way back in 1996!
Transforming is taking a lot longer than I anticipated from when I was an idealistic 20something. One reason may be because the messaging is transforming on both sides. As more adoptees demand a change in the way adoption is conducted, talked about and discussed, there is another side code switching to make adoption sound urgent, necessary and in peril of going extinct. I should clarify….international adoption. Frankly, it’s driving me crazy. Imminently, our legislators are seeking ways to pass the CHIFF legislation and their code is amazingly effective. It makes me wonder what is wrong with my brain that I seem to read their words in a completely different way than what I see. Right now, there are groups in the US who are in near hysterics about the “orphan crisis” in the world, mobilizing people to believe they must adopt, adoption is the only solution.
Every time this happens, I call upon my friends and colleagues who are adopted and it does feel like we are reading another language. We don’t agree universally on every issue, but I appreciate the passionate civility we dialogue. Our code has always been with the intention to have the adopted as the center of our focus. It is clear and trusted. I asked for help and I got it.
Melanie Chung-Sherman, my co-author, lives in a place that I swear speaks a different English at times. Her “Blessings” sign-off at the end of every email causes me to chuckle and I look to her to help me better understand the language religion plays in the adoption world. Living in a more secular, rather less evangelical, area has be me blind to the codeswitch. She agreed to write with me and help clarify from her perspective the code switching that happens in the world of “saving the orphan” movement that I struggle with. So, here is our list of how the code is switching in our heads. I am hoping it drives you equally mad! I am hoping when you read the CHIFF legislation and future media pieces on adoption that you may begin to see the code for yourself.
- child advocates– code for those in support of perpetuating and increasing the number of foreign born children being adopted to White American couples. If you read the list of supporters of the CHIFF legislation, the list of adoptee organizations and organizations internationally recognized as working for preserving children in their country/family of origin is glaringly light.
- children in families first – code for children from third world countries into the homes of privileged, American couples
- growing up in a family is a child’s basic human right – code switch for “growing up in an adoptive family in America”; perpetuation of international adoption
- international adoption as a solution – code for international adoption is THE solution
- best practices – code for ways to primarily advance the process and promotion of international adoption
- orphan – a complex code word steeped in biblical meaning that has been simplified that has categorized and subsequently emotionally petitioned the adoption community into action on behalf of children in need who may or may not be legally available for adoption. It does not diminish the fact that there are children without direct care, but is overly referenced for all children who appear in need and lacking a road to Christian salvation by Western standards. At one time this terminology was antiquated, but was revived at the height of the evangelical adoption movement.
- rescue –to save a child in need by means of international adoption in a Westernized home (“being called to adopt”) and many times not critically considering the long-term implications for that child and first family, alternatives to permanency in-country or the possible reasons and/or methods in which a child was referred for international adoption originally. Taking on the theological salvation narrative and attempting to vertically apply to the child while overlooking the fact that adoption is about permanently building a family, not rescuing someone.
- resources can be reallocated to achieve more timely, effective, nurturing, and permanent familial solutions for children living without families–code for taking existing federal funds already benchmarked to promote family permanency in-country and reallocating them to ensure international adoption policy, practice, and placement is securely funded.
- shall lead the development and implementation of policies that will ensure the timely provision of appropriate, protective, and permanent family care for children living without families – policy codeswitch that will engender the least restrictive, fastest, and Western-centric measures to ensure international adoptive placement while deconstructing and maneuvering around current international and federal accountability standards in an effort to boost numbers of adoptions.
And for the ultimate codeswitch, when we read that a piece of legislation is in keeping with the core American belief that families are the best protection for children, this really means, regardless of global cultural considerations, which include the impact of poverty, gender and social class bias, diverse social norms, as well as a country’s sovereignty, Americans still know what is best. Thus, it is only in an American family that a child can truly flourish.
Codeswitch, part II, A vs. A
I have been planning a vacation to California with my Korean family, Sun-Ohk and Won-Chan. They have decided to come to the mainland of the USA for the first time. We have agreed to meet them there. One hiccup, they neither speak nor read English. So I have taken on the herculean task of creating a fun filled week for two families. I am a terrible vacation planner. My brain does not work with any amount of glee looking at hotels, air flights, activities, car rentals etc. I had to get a friend to walk me through it and seeing the sheer joy she had in helping me, I know I did not miss a calling of any sort.
Itinerary complete and sent to Korea, the first question back is, “can we go to Las Vegas?” I had to laugh as all I could respond in baby Hangul was – “9 hours driving, too far, USA is very big. Sorry.” Lots of apologetic emoticons later, we are sticking to my plan, thank you very much!
I write this all to say that perspective is everything. If you come from a country that can take one afternoon to travel from one end to the other, a trip to another state should not be so bad. Right? So, if you are adopted into a family where you felt understood, saved, happy, full of love and resources, it stands to reason, you might have a very different perspective than from an adoptee who felt isolated, misunderstood, kidnapped or abandoned. I often find that being adopted is never enough of a unifier for our community to stand firm in solidarity. Even the idea of “giving voice to the adoptee” is not “giving A voice to the adoptee.” Unfortunately, so much of where we grew up, how we grew up, events that triggered our epigenes along with time, place and age of adoption can challenge us to realize that we cannot always stand with our brothers and sisters in adoption.
Since working on the “codeswitch, part I” piece, I have learned of a couple of adoptee run organizations who have come out in support of the CHIFF legislation being pushed through Congress, and my gut reaction was not pretty. I called people up to find out, in earnest, how they came to this decision. In my almost panic, I had feelings of betrayal, shock, disappointment. And then, I hit pause. Who the hell am I to judge? To me, there are certain issues that are no brainers and I really was thinking that the company I kept in this crazy mixed up world of adoptees was on my side. And if they weren’t, they had enough respect for our common sense of humanity that we could talk about it. I am not prone to public hyperbole when it comes to speaking in support or against issues or perspectives. I like doing it in person, one on one. Adding the human factor makes things easier to come to some understanding.
In coming to a very different decision about how they feel about a piece of legislation, I fear the chance for dialogue is over. Instead, it has now become adoptee vs. adoptee. Now there is no room to talk about the issues and how to change them.
It is amazing how adoptees are used in a pawn-like manner. Adoptive parent groups, adoption trade organizations will come out in favor or against something, but the minute an adoptee or adoptee organization comes out in favor, radio silence for the other groups. An adoptee run group supports something and now no holds barred, it’s a go.
I wish we adoptees knew our power. We keep demanding a seat at the table, but the reality is our table is set but the only ones with dance cards are the ones in support of international adoption continuing status quo. Whenever one person stands up in support of adoption, they get lots of air play. If there are adoptees who come against it, they are looked at as rogue, dissenting, angry and not given time unless they create it themselves via facebook or change.org. With great power comes great responsibility.
So, here’s the rub. I am so glad that groups of adoptees are getting acknowledged. I am proud of their hard work in empowering themselves and others. I just wish we could play a little nicer WITH each other. No one is being asked to be THE voice for adoptees, but the responsibility for those of us who do get the odd chance to be heard, I wish we could accept that we have the power to influence more complexity and diversity into the adoption discussion. This rarely gets played out in public. It would be nice to be the three dimensional people we are and help the public see we can disagree and change the course of how international adoptions are conducted and perceived all at once.