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"Being Biological" or "like Them"
The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (1993), like domestic adoption laws in many Euro-American nations, is premised on an exclusivist concept that Duncan (1993) describes as the "clean-break model" of adoptive kinship. The exclusivist approach underpins what are known as plenary or "strong" adoptions that involve "the complete integration of the child into the adoptive family and the severance of ties with the biological family" (1993:51; Hollinger 1993). The erasure of biogenetic kinship and the construction of an adoptive family in its place produces what Modell (1994) has termed "as if" (biogenetic) families. In the United States the adoptive family is secured in its as-if status by a policy of secrecy, including such devices as "sealing" hospital records of the birth mother's delivery of her child and the original registration of the child's birth, and amending the child's birth certificate so that the adoptive mother is recorded as the birth mother.
In Sweden, transnational adoption both contributed to and provided a potential for intervention into growing racial tensions surrounding immigrant populations in the 1970s and 80s. These tensions developed as the post-war economic boom came to a close in the late 1960s in Western Europe, and programs for bringing in foreign workers were terminated, concluding what has been termed Sweden's "gradual" transition to becoming a multi-ethnic, multicultural, nation. In the following three decades, refugees from Allende's Chile, Kurdish nationalists, Somalis and Bosnians, replaced so-called "economic" migrants from the Middle East, generating "the 'sudden' phase of the emergence of multiethnic Sweden." As increasing numbers of refugees from non-European nations sought asylum in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, creating what one observer has described as "a media-induced moral panic," with images of Sweden as threatened by an "'invasion' or 'uncontrolled flood' of refugees," the adoptee came to embody Sweden's vision (and its success) as a multicultural nation.
The figure of the adoptee in 1970s and 1980s Sweden was imagined as radically different from "the Swedish" on the outside, but as helsvensk (completely Swedish) on the inside because of the capacities of his or her Swedish parents. In a series of articles in the journal published by Adoption Centre, Sweden's major adoption organization, in the 1970s and 1980s, "the adopted child," who was imagined as coming from a "wildly different" [Ethiopian, Korean, Indian] culture to "perhaps the first family the child has ever had," was contrasted to "the immigrant child," whose difference was secured by the child's "family situation and home life," a life that was presumed to remain unchanged when the family moved to Sweden (Kats 1975:124).
The assumption that the adopted child could be transformed into a child who was "completely Swedish" (Andersson 1991:2) was unsettled as the first generation of adoptees began to mature. Adopted adults describe their experiences of racism in school and their dawning perception that they were "different" and might be mistaken for immigrants. For example, Sara Nordin, who was adopted from Ethiopia in 1969, explained this transition:
My thoughts about that kind of thing began when I was about 14 or 15, because there were lots of race problems in school. It was also a school with lots of immigrants. So there was a lot--the police were there, there was lots of fighting. So then I got into a strange situation, because I became almost an immigrant although I felt myself to be very Swedish (jättesvensk). And the immigrants thought I was like them. And my Swedish friends thought I was like them. And I couldn't really decide myself where I belonged. And I thought that was really hard, because then people ganged up on me a lot. When I was little, people could be punished. But in high school it became more serious.… And then I began to think about all of this, but they were pretty depressing thoughts. It wasn't fun.
The very debate about this "problem"--the identity of "the adoptee" and his or her belonging in the adoptive nation--made clear certain prevailing assumptions about the (adopted) child and his or her recalcitrant "nature." These concerns recall Marilyn Strathern's (1988:104) discussion of the logic of Euro-American conceptions of identity, in which persons are assumed to possess "properties" that "belong" to them in a definitional sense and constitute the possessor "as a unitary social entity." Persons "are what they 'have' or 'do.' Any interference with this one-to-one relationship is regarded as the intrusion of an 'other.'" Just as the individual is assumed to be the owner of his or her own person, so too is society conceptualized as "owning" the properties (persons) that intrinsically constitute it. The transfer of a child from one "owner" to another (from one family or nation to another) unsettles this relationship of product to producer--of a nation to "its" citizens, a parent to "its" child, or a person to his or her "nature." In commodity thinking, separation from this ground of belonging cannot help but produce an alienated subject, one inevitably pulled "back" to where it really belongs.
In a small (but, anecdotal evidence suggests, steadily increasing) number of cases, integration of the birth mother into the adoptive family may move beyond coming to terms with her existential reality for the adopted child, to meeting her (and possibly other members of the adopted child's birth family), and potentially to an ongoing relationship with legally non-existent "kin," who may include siblings, cousins, and grandparents in addition to birth parents. In some cases, these meetings have evolved into more regular visits, typically by the adopted adult to spend time with his or her birth family, but visits may take place in the other direction, as well.
The contrast here between the categories "related by blood" and "being biological" or "family," on the one hand, and "not related by blood" but "like them," on the other, with the ambiguous meanings of "likeness" as "adopted or abandoned, it's no big thing there" or "likeness" as physiognomy/color/ neger, suggest the plasticity and potency of "blood" and its capacity for reproducing biological kinship while at the same time encapsulating other meanings. As in the stories of Katarina and Birgitta with which I began, biogenetic kinship is both realized and complicated through what begins as a search for or "return" to origins.
When I think about "black" I think that I have more in common with people from Colombia. And then I think that there are different kinds of black, with different status. I think about black Americans, for example. They are cool, they are Americans. There are many whites that look up to them, young people, for example, Turkish young people. But if one is from Gambia, for example, it isn't nearly so cool. If you are from the West Indies, it can also be pretty cool. You might have dreadlocks. There is a scale distinguishing different kinds of black. But at the same time, I feel that I have quite a lot in common with all blacks.
Here, an organization that developed on the basis of each member's national identification as "coming from" Ethiopia, became a vehicle for establishing kinship with others who identify as "black" in Sweden. At the same time, as a third member of the organization, Mikael Järnlo, told me after one of their monthly meetings, the commonality of each member's birth in Ethiopia and sense of kinship with other blacks in Sweden is complicated by regional differences of "Swedishness"--by the fact that he, for example, is easily identified by his accent as coming from Skåne in southern Sweden, while others come from Stockholm, or further north.
Other Ethiopian-born adopted adults express differing opinions about what is, in effect, a practice similar to the remittances sent from home-town associations of immigrants in the United States to a number of countries, especially in Latin America, where remittances contribute significantly to the local economy. One member of AEF who I have interviewed several times over the past seven years, and who has made regular trips back to visit her large extended family there, is comfortable making occasional contributions when a particular project (replacing a roof, for example) seems to require it. But this woman described another member of AEF as having become "a kind of bank" in her relation to her birth family.
The links established by Swedish/Ethiopian adoptees with one another and with siblings in Ethiopia of adults, like themselves, who were adopted abroad, is one of the ways that idiomatic kinship (as blodsband in Sweden or as national belonging in Ethiopia) is both affirmed and transformed in transnational adoption. Perhaps the most ambitious effort of this kind can be found among Korean-born adopted adults, whose active engagement on the internet and in large transnational "Gatherings" in Washington, D.C. and Seoul have linked adoptees from Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, into a powerful global movement that is raising questions about the nature of kinship, biological ties, and national belonging (E. Kim 2005). This global movement developed in opposition to a foreign adoption program formalized by South Korea in 1961, but begun in the mid-1950s, that led to the placement of more than 200,000 Korean-born children in Euro-American families over the next half century. In 1998, President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea acknowledged the program and apologized to Korean-born adoptees for their de facto exile. At a reception ceremony at the Blue House for adult adoptees from several nations, the President described Korea as their "homeland" and encouraged them to "nurture your cultural roots," because "globalization is the trend of the times" (Kim 1999:16).
The refiguring of kinship in the space of transnational adoption involves work of creating relatedness at various levels: constituting the relationship of parent to child, constituting "kinship" among adoptees from a particular sending nation who are living in a particular receiving nation, building links between adoptees who are classified as "black" in predominantly "white" adopting nations, and reconstituting links between legally orphaned adults and legally non-existent siblings who were left behind, as well as the more encompassing transnational projects created by adopted Koreans. This refiguring reaches back to rework the past and reaches forward to construct the future, as well as stretching "across" the national borders that transnational adoption has both secured and unsettled over the past half century. Refiguring both incorporates familiar dichotomies of Euro-American idiomatic kinship ("nature" versus "nurture"; "blood" versus "law"; "biogenetic" versus "adoptive" families) and reworks them in ways that have the potential to create new forms of consciousness as well as to transform everyday practices of relatedness.
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