Transnational Adoptees: Global Biopolitical Orphans or an Activist Community? – Natalie Cherot

The biopolitics of adoption

Culture Machine dedicated its last issue to a discussion of biopolitics. I would like to continue the journal’s recent consideration of biopolitics with an examination of community, with reference to the community of international adoptees from Asia. I will ask whether community can challenge biopolitics and whether public pedagogy can be a part of this enterprise.

Among recent images of international adoptees from Asia is the documentary film Daughter From Danang (2003), which features a story of a Vietnamese adoptee raised in the US, who is reunited with her birth family for the first time in Vietnam. In one of the final scenes of the film, biracial Vietnamese adoptee Heidi Bub breaks into tears after her Vietnamese birth brother asks her for regular monetary remittances for Heidi’s large but poor Vietnamese family. She becomes upset and hastily cuts all contact with her birth family. It is at this precise point that capitalist realities of international adoption encounter familial obligations. The filmmakers emphasize Heidi’s rural upbringing and her cultural ignorance. Heidi represents cultural inadequacies and racial hybridity that construct her as emotionally unstable. She is a young woman who is not capable of forming a healthy relationship with either her adoptive or her birth families. After the film’s release, members of the adoptee community spoke out against the representation of Heidi’s pain as spectacle and entertainment, and against the construction of international adoptees as either maladjusted or wholly assimilated into Anglo-American culture. For the larger activist adoptee community, the film became a point of contention where community members resisted these constructed images of themselves and the discourses of the biopolitics of adoption.

The film addressed the themes of how adoptees cope with their adoption histories in their adult lives, an idea often lacking in the transnational adoption literature. Various discourses frame the lives of adult adoptees and often overshadow the ways in which they create their own life narratives. Transnational adoption literature often examines the intimacies between an adoptive parent and a young child, or focuses on an impersonal political economy, presenting an image of the transnational adoptee as either saved or exploited. For example, war orphans become part of the commemoration project of using personal stories to reconcile public trauma. This becomes especially true for the many adoptees with unknown American GI fathers. Missing from the transnational adoption literature is the description of how adoptees perceive themselves within the structure of international adoption.

An examination of international adoption illuminates the way in which the norms of war, family, nation, and community are profoundly interrelated. At the same time, a look at adoptee activism and community building shows that these strategies can become subversive with respect to the institutional discourse of adoption by providing a space for dissent.

In my three-year study of the Vietnamese adoptee community, I identified a group of claim-makers whom I have labeled ‘community intellectuals’, and who attempt to be a legitimate voice in adoption policy through their unique and contested versions of adoptive truths. These transformative truths operate as public pedagogy. When community members participate as activists, they work within a type of biopolitical hegemony. Through their autobiographical pedagogy, members are able to form claims surrounding what they identify as their adoption truths that at times are at odds with the insitutional power of adoption.

The international adoptee community emerges from a Western biopolitical project of creating and institutionalizing orphanages and global flows of children from the developing world. I extend the theoretical concept of biopolitics to the actions and policies of US-run orphanages in the Third World and international adoption institutions and agencies. Control over life is the centre of biopolitics (Agamben, 1998; Foucault, 1997). Foucault defines biopolitics as a state’s concern with the biological wellbeing of the population, including such issues as disease control, sanitation, and general education (1997). Adoption biopower can be a unifying social force that seeks to transform Third World children into human subjects instilled with Western culture and values. Foucault’s notion of biopolitics enables the understanding of the role that power plays in international adoption institutions. The biopolitics of international adoption manages crisis and trauma, and, at the same time, promotes humanitarianism.

Examining biopolitics as both a theoretical and practical issue entails looking at the negotiated domains where humans are managed. These sites include orphanages, hospitals, welfare states, churches, and markets. Through disciplining, categorizing, and socializing both adoptees and adoptive families, international adoption institutions are collective actors that invoke real power and governance. To more fully flesh out the assertion that international adoption agencies are sites of biopolitical power, I borrow from Joanna Zylinska’s conceptualization of immigration biopolitics to highlight the existence of a hegemony dictating the policies of international adoption and the institutions forming international adoption policy and practice (Zylinska, 2004).

In my examination of the biopolitics of adoption, I have relied on the case study method. Specifically, I have looked at the Vietnamese adoptee community in the US as an illustrative case of the larger adoption community in that country. These particular adoptees are part of the first wave of international adoptees that began with Korean children during the American/Korean War. Korean and Vietnamese adoptees are highly relevant populations for biopolitical control. By considering the example of these two populations of adoptees, we can explain how international adoption agencies, in conjunction with the US government and armed forces, managed the new populations created by American GIs.

My research examines one of the most dramatic adoption migrations that occurred at the end of the Vietnam War, when American authorities, coupled with other Western adoption institutions, hurried Vietnamese children out of South Vietnam, executing a type of Foucauldian biopolitical project. In 1975, President Ford authorized ‘Operation Babylift’, that is, the removal of nearly three thousand Vietnamese children from Vietnam, who were then placed in American homes across the country. A smaller number of these children were brought to Australia, England, Canada, and France. Clearly, the focus on rescuing Vietnamese children can be read as an attempt to overshadow US losses. By framing the children as legitimately suffering bodies in need of rescue from the Vietcong, Operation Babylift was constructed as a humanitarian effort and not as a forced migration. Children, who the Vietnamese government alleged had been kidnapped by the US, became legitimate US citizens.

The organized group of Vietnamese adoptees born during the war, the Vietnamese adoptee community, claims ownership of Vietnamese adoption history, a right to tell their life stories, and to create spaces in which to tell them. For the purposes of this study, the term ‘Vietnamese adoptee community’ includes only active members who identify themselves as part of the collective. This paper is not meant to describe the relationship of all international adoptees to the biopolitics of adoption, but to begin to articulate an emerging Asian adoptee community whose members have actively created adoptee-only organizations, list-serves, gatherings, and nonprofit institutions.

When members of the adoptee community moved into adulthood and left their adoptive parents’ homes, they created an intentional pedagogy with the intent of influencing the consciousness of adoptees, adoptive parents, and adoption policy and practice. Adoptees teach each other as well as adoptive parents that being an adoptee is a racialized experience. Furthermore, adoptees actively redefine adoption truths so that their definitions of adoption will be as legitimate, if not more so, as those articulated by adoption agencies, social workers, and even adoptive parents. One adoptee writes on the Vietnamese Adoptee Network (VAN) list-serve:

I also would like to make an attempt to connect with current and prospective inter-country adoptive parents to share with them my experience to hopefully help them with their decision-making process and experience. My hope is that they take the initiative to be aware of and understand the complex issues that are involved with inter-country adoptions not just for their sake but first and foremost for the child’s. By not just listening to adoption agencies and experts or other adoptive parents, but ALSO to adult adoptees … I personally believe we are just as valuable, if not more, a resource as any other. (Vietnamese adoptee listserve, 2002)

The Vietnamese adoptee network, as many other adult international adoptee organizations, partially owes its existence to the rise of the Internet. International adoptee pedagogy began in the early 1990s, when Asian adult adoptees created numerous listserves, websites, organizations, and newsletters. These groups include various adult Korean adoptee organizations as well as panethnic Asian organizations. Membership in an adoptee community is primarily one of self-identification.

My interest in merging pedagogical and cultural studies comes out of an ongoing project to theorize regulatory and emancipatory relationships among culture, power, and politics, as expressed through public pedagogy (Giroux, 2000). I used the methods of reflexivity and subject-position by encouraging Vietnamese adoptees to tell the story that they wanted told as well as by seeking guidance from them when framing the research goals. One could tell many stories of this group–of family reunification, war, or migration. Ideological, racial, cultural, and gendered constructions have created various interpretations of Vietnamese adoptees, many of whom are racially mixed, while little has been written about their adult lives. During the interviews, I found out that participants were interested in telling the stories of their collective agency and adult lives. They wanted their childhood traumas contextualized within their history of community building and activism.

One theoretical challenge is to articulate the ways in which adoptees assert agency and simultaneously recognize the structures of international adoption. A large part of the community’s challenge to the biopolitics of adoption comes in the form of pedagogy. Stuart Hall and Henry Giroux engage with Foucault’s conceptualizations of agency in their work. Giroux conceptualizes pedagogy as the production, dissemination, and circulation of ideas emerging from distinctive communities. Public pedagogy refers to ideological and institutional forces whose aim is to produce material and ideological gain. Public pedagogy can be a struggle over identifications crucial to raising broader questions about how collectives produce notions of difference, responsibility, community, and belonging (1996: 4). It is a site of struggle where relations between politics, knowledge, and power are negotiated. Because activism can involve education, pedagogy literature can contribute to theories of agency by analyzing how learning occurs in communities (Freire, 1983). Through developing political and social consciousness, the oppressed become active subjects in the making of their culture and history, as opposed to passively accepting imposed structures (Freire, 1983).

International adoption as a biopolitical institution

I think the adoption agency should do a better job informing and updating the adoptee during an active (birth parent) search. The agency even knew of the address in the United Sates in which my family resettled and did not grant me the information. I’m glad that I had my own contact in Vietnam doing a more aggressive investigation. (Trista Goldberg, in Allen, 2000)

Goldberg finds her family and later creates Operation Reunite, a non-profit organization that helps adoptees search for their birthparents, maneuver through the adoption paperwork difficulties, and communicate with adoption agencies and institutions in Vietnam. The organization also provides emotional support during the search. An integral part of her role in assisting adoptees search for their birth parents is to tell her own story about her reunification. Unlike Heidi Bub, Goldberg provides a service previously unavailable to Vietnamese adoptees. She offers them an alternative to the practices of adoption agencies, namely, a process in which to reunify with birth parents (

The main goal of any adoption agency is to provide potential parents with children; therefore reunification with birth parents falls outside the scope and concern of these institutions. Challenging the discourses of biopolitical adoption can take the form of publicly told stories, including accounts of how adoptees have sued their adoption agencies for access to their records and withholding birth family information, tales of reunification between adoptees and their birth parents, and critiques of not only the institution of international adoption but also of the adoption agencies themselves. Adoption agencies invoke their biopolitical power through discourse management and policymaking. The discourses of expert knowledge, including those created by adoption social workers, often categorize the adoptee stories through the lens of psychological deviance, as unsuccessful assimilation between Asian children and their white parents and community, or as a product of adult confusion. Adoptee autobiographies can thus become discursive moments of resistance against such discourses. At the same time, they can reinforce the stereotype of the conflicted adoptee, thus reinforcing at times racist machinations of international adoption.1 One aspect of the biopolitics of adoption is positioning the adoptee as a commodity that takes on an exchange value. The adoptee as a commodity has specific meanings, such as fulfilling a desire to have children or to show benevolence and charity. Though international adoptees are symbols of Western love and interracial desire, their presence is intertwined with economics. Discourses of war, humanitarianism, and family values become intertwined with factors such as Western bodily and emotional desire for children, the relative poverty of adoptees’ birth countries, and the high economic costs of international adoption for adoptive parents. What remains unknown at the time of the adoption, however, is what the children of this biopolitical system are going to become.

Examining the process of turning Asian babies into Western citizens is a strategy that exposes the construction of adoption biopower. International adoption was once a method in which to exercise sexual power. During the Korean and Vietnam invasions, the US military attempted to manage sex between local women and American GIs through military-regulated prostitution and temporary live-in arrangements. At the same time, children whose fathers who were not GIs were displaced by their parents’ death and moved out of the countryside. Military intervention framed and produced adoptees’ births, but when the wars ceased, the children were constructed as beneficiaries of US humanitarianism, US military, Western churches, and later adoption agencies.

Aiwah Ong invokes Foucault’s biopolitical concept to explain how the modern liberal state uses biopower to invest bodies and populations with properties that make them amenable to various technologies of control to produce healthy and productive subjects (2003: 8). In the processes of subjectification involved in international adoption, the way in which an individual turns herself into a subject of study involves doctors, teachers, social workers, and church professionals.2 When adoptees move from their orphanages to their adoptive homes, they are subject to various government-regulated technologies of public health, social services, adoption agencies, and the legal system, each of which stresses the centrality of Western values. Adoption institutions emphasize private, nuclear families, and often a type of weak multiculturalism that does not significantly change racial hierarchies or economic imperatives, but instead focuses on the privileges of adoptive families (Eng, 2003: 13). Members of the adoptee community, however, question the values and practices of a multiculturalism that encourages adoptees to learn to cook traditional dishes, but does not encourage relationships with the larger Asian refugee community.

Asian orphan bodies became governable through their placement in white, nuclear families. The practice of importing Asian children to the US while exporting African-American children to Europe and Canada suggests that Asian international adoptees are more easily normalized into the imagined community of the white, heterosexual, middle-class nuclear family than black children.3 These stereotypical representations of Asian-Americans as hard working, agreeable, and passive model minorities are an attempt to reconcile Asian adoptee war histories.

Looking at the case of immigration may provide valuable insights into how adoption agencies functions as sites of biopolitics. Zylinska argues that the biopolitics of immigration is one form through which biopower is performed in Western democracies and through which life is ‘managed’ (2004: 524). Through her work on refugees, Zylinska shows how immigration biopolitics needs to protect the state and distinguish it from what does not appropriately belong to it by establishing a boundary between legitimate and illegitimate members of the community. Thus, we can conclude that the way that immigration institutions use biopower produces international adoptees as legitimate citizens, while other Asian migrants become illegitimate.

Asian children whose parents are presumed dead, or have relinquished them, have more legitimate claim to be located inside American borders than those accompanied by birth parents. The US accepts political refugees into the state, but at the same time classifies economic refugees as ‘illegals’. This becomes problematic for those parents who relinquish children under conditions of poverty. For example, US citizens who wish to adopt unaccompanied Asian minors can use legal immigration channels as long as their birth parents choose not to be in their lives. As a result of immigration biopolitics, children from Asian countries are given special preference over adults.

Contesting assimilation

While acknowledging biopolitical concerns, I recognize the effect of agency, arguing that community as produced within biopolitical institutions can be open to modification by the adoptees themselves. For adoptees, there is a collective effort to both resist and accommodate the categorization of adoption. The political resistance of community intellectuals to the claim that Asian adoptees are assimilated white subjects notably demonstrates this. The conceptualizations of public pedagogy, including mentoring young adoptee children and autobiographical storytelling, enable an articulation of biopolitical agency that challenges the view of adoptee assimilation and abnormality. When community intellectuals publicly claim that adoption is not necessarily assimilative and leading to a loss of racial identity, they invoke social power.

Some members of the Vietnamese adoptee community resist the subjectification involved in adoption by unpacking adoption discourses and challenging expert knowledges. Embedded in adoptee community pedagogy are narratives combating assimilation that become part of the project of creating a unique Vietnamese adoptee identity. Adoptee intellectuals create new discourses, languages, and truths. Community intellectuals articulate their concerns with culture, political questions, and practice. Their roles echo Hall’s conceptions of intellectual practice, the merging of theory and politics, and the role of intellectuals in translating knowledge into cultural practice (Hall, 1992b). Kevin Allen, a Vietnamese adoptee writer and community intellectual, lays out the implications of the assimilation approach to adoption in the 1970s and 80s. He points out that ‘well-meaning’ parents practiced a type of naïve colorblind altruism by underplaying race as a way to combat racism (Allen, 2004). He writes:

They [adoptive parents] were taking a leap of faith that if they disregarded this biological anomaly, then society would realize the error of its ways and accept the children as its own. A force shield would protect the children by virtue of their living under the wings of Caucasian parents, so the reasoning of historical privilege went, and the children would command the same respect and build the same self-esteem as their elders. (Allen 2004)

The adoptee community forces adoption institutions to rethink the assumption of a clean emotional and bodily break from Vietnam and facile absorption into the US culture. Those who left Vietnam as young children had fragmented memories of the Vietnamese landscape, food, their orphanages, and family. Often they unwillingly remembered Vietnam through their bodies and in their dreams. Certain smells could produce moving reactions to seemingly unrecalled pasts. They also barred the emotional connection to Vietnam as inscribed in their bodies. Vietnam was marked in the colors of their eyes, skin, and hair, creating a disconnect between an idealized white racial identity and an Asian phenotype. Complete assimilation was not compatible with racial phenotype and birthland memories.

The primary mechanism adoption agencies use to manage adoptive families is the post-adoption counseling process, including adoptive families’ participation in post-adoption gatherings. Professional studies of international adoptees claim that adoptees must have adequate levels of Western assimilation, health, limited birthland cultural exposure, while at the same time they often encourage only limited folkloric cultural exposure and superficial connections to birth countries and Asian diasporic communities (Aganost, 2000). Since the early 1990s, some adoption agencies have responded to adoptees’ activist agendas, along with the broader multicultural movement, to reform adoption practice away from Anglo cultural conformity to a policy incorporating post-adoption cultural learning for parents and adoptive children. The move included a type of negotiated weak multicultural policy that fails to deal with global inequalities that make children from poor countries available to people in the Western world.

Adoptee community intellectuals actively resist claims that they have been assimilated into white US culture. Members of the adoptee community are beginning to articulate how they can influence the adoption field of study made up of sociologists, social workers, and mental health professionals, thereby inserting themselves into the process of forming new adoption truths.

As part of their tactics to dismantle assimilation ideologies, community members actively construct their own narratives on the war in Vietnam as well as what they see as the racial, classed, and gendered forces that shaped their experiences with migration. One of the unique features of the Vietnamese adoptee community is its politicization of adoptee discourses. According to Lisa Lowe, disidentification alienations can become oppositional forms and a way in which to explore alternative political and cultural subjectivities (Lowe, 1996: 103-4). Disidentification is a mechanism by which some community members actively resist assimilation ideologies and biopolitics. It is in the moments of disidentification with both assimilative adoption narratives and exclusive membership in white nuclear communities that a politically self-conscious discourse emerges. As many articulate a lack of legitimate membership in white communities, they simultaneously express desires to be closer to Asian diasporic communities and form a unique adoptee community.

Community building and identity

”The very first time you meet someone from VAN (Vietnamese Adoptee Network), you feel like you are meeting a brother or sister.”4

Pedagogy and activism arise as a result of creating a collective idenity and a community consciousness. Developing out of a diasporic consciousness and a common history, international adoptees create an imagined community (Anderson, 1991). International adoptees create spaces in which they narrate their life stories, disidentify with exclusive membership in white communities, and forward hybrid identities.5 The self-identifying community’s face-to-face and Internet pedagogical storytelling allow for the emergence of an alternative collective history, and an expression of agency separate from adoption agencies, orphanage workers, and adoptive parents. Global flows of communication, including list serves, instant messaging, and multiple user chat rooms, h, in ave facilitated international adoptees’ ability to imagine themselves as part of a transnational community of adoptees and as connected with larger Asian diasporic communities. Indigo Williams Willing, an adoptee community intellectual, writes that the adoptees create virtual communities that support ‘solidarity, collectivity, and association’ (2002: 6). Face-to-face and online interactions develop an autobiographical storytelling culture and a desire for alternative historical imaginings.

Imagining international adoptees as a community simply through communication, as Benedict Anderson conceives, glosses over shared trauma that they experience because of the displacement from their birth countries (Eng, 203: 33). The struggle over adoption truths becomes an exercise in learning and teaching about life, death, and family. In this sense, remembering trauma becomes a part of public pedagogy (Hall, 1992a; Giroux, 2000). The creation of collective memory and struggle over meaning are seen as interrelated.

A significant feature of the community’s activism involves developing a unique collective identity; therefore studying racial identity creation becomes imperative in understanding activism. Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the fundamental task of racial movements is to form new identities and meanings (1994: 90). One can see a new form of identification beginning with Asian adoptee mobilization in the 1990s. Borrowing from Stuart Hall, one can see how identities are historically constructed rather than fixed and essentialized. The Asian adoptee identity becomes not only about what is, but also incorporates the evolving imagination of what is possible (Hall, 1990).6 Examining the formation of racial identity can shed light on the process of adoptees’ collective identities becoming partially chosen through mobilization.

As young children, many adoptees experienced their racial identity as white. Although they saw an individual with Asian features looking back at them in the mirror, they had little context or space in which to sustain an Asian racial or ethnic identity. Some began to find alternative spaces in which to assert an Asian identity as they grew into their early teens and twenties. What was missing was a conscious organized collective identity among the adoptees.7 Bree Brown writes of her experience of meeting other Vietnamese adoptees for the first time in her 20s:

Meeting other adoptees for me was like living in a house all my life and never going into one of the rooms. The door was always shut — I knew what was in there, but never opened it, or if I did, I never fully entered the room. Now the room is filled with friends and love. (Bree Brown, Vietnamese adoptee, 2004)

Through community building, members develop alternatives to the orphan identity. The adoption gaze categorizes Asian children as malnourished orphans, susceptible to diseases, and requiring medicalization. International adoption institutions discipline and categorize children’s bodies in a Foucauldian sense. The concept of biopolitics explains how adoption agencies mark and categorize children’s bodily attributes, making them either ‘healthy’ or ‘hard to adopt’, producing a type of bodily dividing practice. Children whose parentage is not known, or whose living parents have relinquished them, become orphans. Yet the governmental designation of orphanis contrary to a common understanding of an orphan as one whose parents are dead.

With participation in the community, most members have replaced orphan with the more politically engaging adoptee identity. The latter is a term embedded with implicit agency, extricating itself from the passive suffering orphan body, which has been saved by humanitarianism but has no collective voice. Some members insist on using the term ‘abductee’ to communicate an identity of one who had no choice in leaving his or her homeland, and becomes a type of forced exile and a stolen child (Cho, 2003). Promoting these adoptee and abductee identities is a type of pedagogical activism where adoptees teach each other new identities through which to form an alternative adoption practice. Employing the concept of community discourses enables us to see adoptee narratives as continuously negotiated and as part of an emerging political consciousness.

The power, agency, and pedagogy of the adoptee community

Foucault’s notion of power can be read as leaving little room for oppositional agency. There have been a number of critiques of his definition of power, and of the problematic implications it has for agency. However, this does not mean that power results from the choice or decision of an individual subject. Foucault argues that where ‘there is power, there is resistance’, although he has been criticized for inadequately explaining how power is enforced or resisted (1978: 95). His focus is more on pervasive discourses than on the actions of individuals (Sewell, 1992: 117). In the case of international adoption, I agree with the notion that Foucault’s definition of power opens up the possibility for agency, however ambiguously defined.

In Foucault’s concept of governmentality, individuals play a role in their own self-governance, producing reality through ‘rituals of truth’, which a subject can partially conform to, or resist.8 Specific professional knowledge as well as the construction of experts, institutions, and disciplines, creates the governmentality of adoption. In international adoption, social work and psychology form expert discourses to command the power of governmentality. Collaborating institutional bodies and schools of adoption thought and practices co-produce rules, terminology, and general discourse. Taken all together, these ultimately form the adoption truths that many of the participants in my study struggle against.

With the help of Foucaudian biopolitics, we can trace institutional power by following the ways in which adoptees negotiate their insider/outsider status within their community, and by looking at some of the ways in which larger international agencies attempt to create adoption truths. Social workers and academics largely establish their truths through conducting studies on adoptee children. The adoptee community members, however, acting as their own ethnographers, have uncovered different truths, which are informed by their experiences within the adult adoptee community. New community rules revolve around the legitimate right for adoptees to form truths from what they claim are empathetic experiences rather than professional knowledge. The adoptees’ insertion of themselves into the study of their community creates an emerging category of adoptee expertise.

The intellectuals of the adoptee community, who are conscious of their representational strategies, become their own expert practitioners and autoethnographers. heir autoethnographic endeavors turn inward for a story of self, and use that as a vantage point for interpreting culture and history (Neumann, 1996: 173). Fielding questions from other community members and weaving various Vietnamese adoptee stories into interpretive narratives can be a mechanism for public pedagogy.

The politics of recognition forms an essential part of autoethnography, a part of the fundamental public pedagogy of adoptees. The recognition of identities entails a measure of social acceptance for an individual’s manner of self-awareness (Honneth, 1992: 191). Conceptualizing Asian children as those who were saved hides numerous complexities, both of how adoptees left Asia and how they make sense of their lives. The adoptees’ community uses the politics of recognition to dismantle its victim status and add a more positive interpretation of adoptees’ relationships to adoption history and diasporic communities.

However, Foucault’s politics of truth entails that the governing representations of bodies not only operate at the level of consciousness, but they must also be implicitly political (1980: 133).The pedagogy of adoption attempts to influence consciousness, but it is the realm of adoption practice that turns pedagogy into a regime of truth. The adoption community creates an anti-assimilation truth that requires adoptive parents and adoptive institutions to acknowledge that adoptees have the right to keep ties to their respective homelands, and insist on being not just culturally but also racially different from their parents.

Much of the pedagogical work within the adoptee community involves attempting to locate learners and to find out in what ways adoption politics disciplines them through a normalizing gaze (Foucault, 1979). Some community intellectuals attempt to find a critical mass with which to challenge expert knowledge by using empathetic experiences rather than social work education and policy. They wish to contend with this expert adoption knowledge (i.e. that of adoption agencies and social workers) that creates adoption governmentality without the voice of the adoptees themselves. They encourage adoptees to have a voice in the social policy towards adoption, as a way to decenter the authority of adoption agencies.

For Henry Giroux, public pedagogy is a way for communities to exercise ideological and institutional power (2000: 74). To accomplish public pedagogy, adoptees form activist narrative discourses and racial projects, where racial projects are a type of activism, an ‘interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines’ (Omi and Winant, 1994: 56). This concept assists in the exploration of the activism Vietnamese adoptees, as one of their endeavors is to insist on the racialized understanding of adoptive families. Racial projects define new adoption truths. These truths are not essentialized, but are rather a product of collective efforts.

Interpreting racial dynamics through the mobilization of pedagogy becomes part of the community’s activist engagement. Activism consists of participation in panels and list serves through which to educate and mentor adoptive parents and children, creating Vietnamese adoptee organizations, activist biographies and collective identities, and employment and volunteer work in adoption agencies. These activities function as racial projects in that their intention is to remedy the racial inequalities of adoption by educating adoptive families and adoption agencies. They also forward articulations of a hybrid identity, one that is not specifically Vietnamese or American.

Pedagogical hybridity

As a Vietnamese adoptee, I always searched for a sense of legitimacy, a sense of purpose, and somewhere to place myself comfortably in the spectrum of identity. I always belonged to myriad worlds – my estranged birthplace, the Middle Eastern countries in which I spent my youth, the activist communities I’ve clung to, etc. Eventually, I came to refer to myself as ‘misplaced baggage’ – something lost in transit. (Anh Dao Kolbe, Vietnamese adoptee, 2005)

Kolbe replaces the idea of an assimilated adoptee with one that is influenced by shifting geography and political engagement. Borrowing from Asian-American cultural theorists, I refer to hybridity as the formation of cultural objects and prejudices by the histories of uneven power relationships (Eng, 2003; Lowe, 1996). It must be acknowledged, for example, that the adoption of Asians into white American families is the consequence of the United States’ imperialist wars in Asia. Hybridity does not suggest the assimilation of Asian adoptees into the dominant culture, but signals the evolutionary history of survival within unequal power relations. Migration without an adoptee agency but rather through a system of racial hierarchy is what forms Asian adoptees’ hybridity. Community intellectuals, including Indigo Williams Willing, Bert Ballard, Kevin Allen, and Anh Dao Kolbe, rearticulate hybridity into an a form of oppositional resistance. Therefore, hybridity is not a free movement between an array of chosen identities. It is an uneven process where some adoptees articulate the political violence of the US, racial hierarchies, and capitalist imperatives as shaping the biopolitics of adoption.

Indigo Williams Willing’s writings identify the history of Vietnamese adoptees as being entangled with that of the Vietnamese diaspora. This involvement becomes a project of the community politics of recognition where it gains power by building alliances with the larger diaspora. Although the community acknowledges its differences from the refugee community, it uses a type of strategic essentialism as temporary solidarity for the purpose of collective action.9 Williams Willing acknowledges that this relationship with the diaspora is evolving, although many in the larger Asian diasporic community do not accept the adoptees as part of their community. On the other hand, adoptees have been successful in creating ties with some Asian community groups, particularly those with Western born second-generation members, whose relationship to their homelands is also ambiguous and uncertain.10

The biopolitics of adoption rarely involves a program in which adoptees can create links with other communities of color. Although social workers involved in adoption are socializing agents, the adoptees are not normalized in quite the way that was intended. Post-adoption programs provide adoptees with opportunities to connect with the Asian diaspora, but they do so in limited ways. Lately, the adoptee community has been challenging biopolitical exclusion by independently creating an alliance with diasporic and refugee communities. In some ways, the strategic essentialism of Asian adoptees, to invoke Gayatri Spivak’s term, mimics the larger project to create an Asian-American identity from geographically and linguistically diverse groups (Lowe, 2003: 82). This seemingly essentialist relationship to the diaspora becomes a self-conscious construction. Although members are aware of their differences from the larger diasporic community, they are still willing to align themselves for the purpose of claiming a type of Vietnamese identity.

Similarly to the creation of Asian America, the grouping of the adoptee community is neither a natural nor a static category. It is a socially constructed collective produced for emotional and political motivations. It mimics Spivak’s conception of being partially organized around racial and ethnic signifiers. Lowe argues that this operates in the continuous creation of Asian America. The Asian adoptee community is simultaneously a subset of, and separate from, the larger Asian-American community. Community members disrupt the truth discourses that displace Asian adoptees from the center of Asian America.

This is not to say that members of this community are not on some level ambivalent about racial minority identities and static conceptions of citizenship. Another Vietnamese adoptee, Chris, says in an interview:

Even if I don’t fully understand my own Vietnamese heritage, I do understand and have lived the feeling of hate, racism and prejudice. Unfortunately, this is a universal experience that all Asian Americans have felt in one way, shape or form. Because of the tendency of others to categorize us into one group, I identify strongly with Asian Americans, because I am one. Now, how do we define ‘American’? (Allen, 2004)

The intellectuals of the adoptee community attempt to resist essentialism, especially in relation to the power hierarchies between adoptees and the biopolitics of adoption. They do not suggest, however, doing away with the notion of an adoptee identity that has emerged from the gains of mobilization since the 1990s. The Vietnamese Adoptee Network vice-president writes:

VAN (Vietnamese Adoptee Network) was created to support the Vietnamese Adoptee community; this is a noble and needed effort. But in order to do so, we need to realize that we are part of a larger community and experience as well. We are a part of the Vietnamese-American community, and our stories are vital to shaping that community. We need to tell them in our way; but we also need to hear how others see us. In the end, we need to seek the common ground we all share so we can proudly stand up as Vietnamese Americans, adopted or otherwise. (Bert Ballard, 2005)

Barbara Yngvesson and Maureen Mahoney (2000) examine identity narratives of adult adoptees who engagein struggles for the cultural meaning of hybridity and authenticity. The path toward a non-assimilative hybridity is a result of community negotiation. Some members reformulate their life stories to emphasize new experiences that come with exploring their adoption histories and return trips to their birth countries. Publicly highlighting selected life events allows the community to move beyond understandings of identity as fixed, toward a more nuanced approach that encompasses the fluidity of identity that develops with membership in a community. In this sense, it allows flexibility in understanding not only one’s identity, but also the narratives that form this identity.

Discussion: storytelling and autobiographical pedagogy

Autobiographical pedagogy offers an opportunity to consider the entire process of the relationship between adoptee agency, truth telling, and biopolitics. Narrative pedagogical storytelling provides community members with an opportunity to impose order on otherwise disconnected stories of adoptees, and to create continuity between an imagined community’s past, present, and future. Those who tell and publish have the power to commemorate adoptees’ history, become contenders in framing larger international adoption debates, and have the potential to form expert knowledge.

Telling life stories becomes part of the adoptee community’s pedagogy focused on appropriating their own histories. James Jasper (1997) argues that these types of autobiographies are not straightforward descriptions of the past. They are assertions of present allegiances and identities, a practice to support emotional and political lives with ‘important basic values’ (1997: 8). Autobiographical stories can be a form of activism because they tap into moral understandings of the world. Activist and narrative examinations can become part of an interpretive process integrating past, present, and future events. Through narratives, the adoptee community disidentifies with the biopolitics of adoption and creates alternative adoption truths, thus becoming part of an intellectual community, merging theory and cultural practice.

Associated with notions of narratives as public pedagogy is the idea that narratives identify the problems, traumas, and emotional loss which arise from international adoption. The cultural construction of trauma begins with claims about the shape of social reality, its causes, and the responsibilities for action (Alexander, 2004). The adoptee community engages in a struggle to define the meaning of the dramatic events of the adoptees’ exodus from their birthlands. This involves identifying the pain as well as ‘the nature of the victim and the attribution of responsibility’ (Alexander, 2004: 11). Both adoptees and adoption institutions attempt to connect the disruption, war, and a mass exodus of babies and children, and claim rightful ownership of this history. Reconstructing memories functions as a form of cultural struggle and practice.

Autobiographical storytelling can refute the perception of international adoptees as wholly assimilated, making pedagogy a type of racial project. At the same time, it can become part of the endeavor to create a unique adoptee identity by producing the culture of a shared movement, collective memories, and a sense of community. Without the autobiographical narratives, there would be no collective identity providing the unity necessary for activism, education, or for influencing policy.


One of the explicit projects of the adoptee community is an attempt to reinterpret the past as a means towards reconciling present and future community needs. For the community, recreating a past involves resisting the Daughter From Danang’s binary of ‘assimilated American country girl adoptee versus her poor Vietnamese birth family’. For adoptees, revisiting the past is not about positioning themselves as simply victims of history. It is quite the opposite; it involves teaching one another, adoption agencies, and adoptive parents through rejecting commonly held adoption truths and reclaiming their history.

The biopolitical discourse of international adoption grants adoptees only a minimal degree of agency. Furthermore, it attempts to counteract some adoptees’ rejection of the very system that claimed to ‘save’ them by granting them Western citizenship and raising their economic standards of living, as well as providing access to white nuclear families. In a discussion, one adoptee stated that the major problem among adoptees who attempt to critique the biopolitics of adoption concerns the fact that they have to confront the values and ethics of their own adoption, especially their material benefits. Empowered communities, however, such as the Vietnamese adoptee community, do not necessarily reach critical consciousness in a linear movement (Friere, 1970). The emotional difficulty in confronting one’s own individual adoption autobiography can create some difficulty in developing pedagogical goals.

Hall’s pedagogical approach of merging political practice and culture moves Foucault’s conception of power beyond the confines of free floating discourse. Instead it becomes grounded in activism. Films such as Daughter From Danang provoke members into creating alternative pedagogical stories, but these narratives often become edited and filtered through community intellectuals in order to produce socially and politically informed adoptee stories. Adoptee storytelling functions as one basis for the formation of new adoption truths because it conceives adoptive families in new and racialized ways, and solidifies the expert status of an emerging group of adoptee intellectuals.

Autobiographies expressing a hybrid Vietnamese adoptee identity reconsider the choices they have been offered and the ones that have been biopolitically imposed. Community members articulate hybridity discourses as an alternative to those that assert an assimilative whiteness. Hybrid discourses claim a unique membership in a diaspora and exhibit a type of ambiguous agency where community members simultaneously resist and accommodate their positions within the biopolitical institution of international adoption. In this sense, just as strategic essentialism can be a way in which to contest a larger colonial hegemony, it can also serve to oppose the biopolitics of adoption (Spivak, 1998). Heidi Bub’s story is not simply resisted, but it can be cast as just one story amiongst many.


I wish to thank Kevin Allen, Bert Ballard, and Indigo Williams Willing who read earlier versions of this paper and gave much needed feedback. Thanks to Mary Ingram who provided editoral assistance and emotional labor.


1 I wish to thank a Vietnamese adoptee participant for providing this insight.

2 For an analysis of subjectification involved in migration, see Ong (2003: 16).

3 For a journalist’s account of the international adoption of African-American children, see Davenport (2004).

4 Interview with author on June 25, 2002.

5 See Kim’s study of Korean adoptees who participate in organized return trips to Korea (2003).

6 I have borrowed Indigo Williams’ conception of evolving Vietnamese adoptee identity from her 2003 thesis.

7 In my interviews, I encountered stories of racial identity compatible with Williams Willing’s findings in his 2003 work on Vietnamese adoptees.

8 The notion of governmentality is introduced by Foucault (1991).

9 I would like to thank Williams Willing for the conceptualization of involvement with the Vietnamese diaspora as a type of strategic essentialism. For a definition and critique of strategic essentialism, see Spivak (1988).

10 For an example, see the Vietnamese Women’s Forum,


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