Monday, May 17, 2004


happier times

Sharon and I recently took a trip up to Napa to join some out-of-town friends who were winery-hopping. At one location, I noticed a young Asian girl prancing about, she was probably six or seven, and looked a little out of place with all the adult, wanna-be someliers, savoring the bouquet of their Merlots and Chardonnays. I heard a voice in back of me calling to this child and I turned and there stood an older white woman - at least in her 40s - joined by another white woman of the same age. The girl chirped, "Mommy Susan, are we done yet?" and I silently assessed what was obvious: lesbian couple, Asian (probably Chinese) adoptee. Ah, America.

The adoption of Asian babies by white couples is both simple yet anything but. As an economic equation, the phenom is simple: there is a demand by white couples (queer or otherwise) for children and there is a supply available in Asia especially China now, formerly Korea and South-East Asia. The explanation (read: justification) for this kind of transnational/transracial adoption is so widely circulated that it might as well be a bumper sticker: we're giving these children a better life. From a material point of view, there's no real debate here. Considering that my grandmother almost gave away my mom because she already had two daughters, I fully recognize that girls are not welcomed or treasured within certain Asian societies and that a life in the United States, almost regardless of class status, will likely be a vast improvement in terms of education and health care compared to what they would have faced as orphans in China (note: this gap is shrinking on both ends. Being a child in tonier parts of Shanghai is likely a vast improvement over living in more toxic parts of Richmond, CA).

What is troubling though is how easily this logic (adoption = better life for neglected children!) becomes perverted into not-so-subtle culture and political tussles. For one thing, I cannot stand how glib some attitudes are around transracial adoption, as if the transracial aspect of the arrangement is immaterial. Sure, maybe on Different Strokes but outside the Drummond household, being a child of color raised by white parents is not likely going to come issue-free, especially not in a society and culture as racially charged as America. Mind you - I am not saying that transracial/national adoption is bad. I am only suggesting that to assume that such adoptions are inherently good and above concern is both arrogant and ignorant.

This brings us to the case of the Hes and the Bakers. Their debacle has been on-going for several months and I credit Angry Asian with helping to provide as much information as possible. If you need a basic primer, this recent NY Times story should bring you up to speed.

I don't know all the facts in the case. I don't know who signed what. What I do know is that this case is likely going to explode into far wider attention and controversy in the weeks to come, possibly attaining the level of scrunity that landmark adoption cases in the 1980s engendered. What we have here is the not a baby left abandoned by dead or disinterested parents. Anna-Mae, the four-year old at the center of this storm, grew up with her birth parents in constant attendence. There is no factual evidence that supports the claim that her arrangement with her foster parents was anything other than temporary. However, the grandest of all adoption trump cards is being played here: the Bakers claim that Anna-Mae will have a better and safer home being with them rather than her birth family.

There are compelling reasons why parents should lose a child. Sexual or physical abuse for example. Rampant drug or alcohol use for another. Incontrovertible neglect. Etc. Being below the class means of another family though sets a tremendously dangerous precedent and the very value system such a decision is premised on is damnable. If the worth of parenthood was determined on the basis of class resources alone, this country might as well slide back into the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Certainly, there's probably no shortage of people today who think the poor should be sterilized and while this adoption case isn't that extreme, its basic decision seems premised on a similar logic. It is remarkable that for a country and political system that crows all the time about "family values," should deny a pair of birth parents custody of their daughter because her adopted parents can provide a materially better life. For one, this seems to blow a hole wide open in the 14th Amendment, promising equal protection under the law, not to mention repudiation of the basis tenent that "we are all created equal."

This has, of course, happened before. There is a long and reprehensible history of Native American children being forcibly removed from their parents under the auspices of "their welfare". The transracial adoption of Black children by white parents has set off similar alarms. But up until now, the adoption of Asian children has largely gotten kid-glove treatment because few could really argue that these boys and girls would have been better off in Asia. The Hes and Bakers change the rules of the debate however by taking their tussle to our shores, self-contained within the legal and political space of America. What separates them is class, race and citizenship and in all areas, the Hes are at a distinct disadvantage. The fact that the Hes are in a precarious position as aliens awaiting deportation is salt in the wound - it not only makes their situation that much more difficult to negotiate, but it was been perverted to weaken their case in trying to reclaim their daughter.

The last thing I'll say on this is that if the Bakers prevail - and as this case drags out further, their chances improve - I cannot imagine how they will explain this history to their daughter when she is old enough to consider the ramifications of all this. I do not envy a father or mother who will be forced to explain to their daughter that they "kept" her from returning to birth parents who wanted her; that Anna-Mae has a full-sister, three years her junior, who grew up in a separate household; that what separated two pairs of loving parents was the square footage of their respective homes and tax bracket they fell into. Anna-Mae will already grow up in a complex environment where identity, race and ethnicity are sure to be difficult to negotiate, but on top of that, she has to grow up wondering whether or not her parents, however well-intentioned, destroyed another family in order to complete their own.