By Sunny Reed
Being a South Korean adoptee in an all-white New Jersey town was tough. Racism was sandwiched between episodic public speculations like “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” and “What is your REAL name?”
Sara Docan-Morgan, professor at the University of Wisconsin, calls those awkward questions “intrusive interactions.” Today’s article scrutinizes these behaviors and their impact on an adoptee’s racial identity and sense of belonging.
Visible racial differences between intercountry adoptees and their families sometimes invite unwanted “intrusive interactions,” those comments and inquiries that are uncomfortably invasive and question an adoptee’s race and personal history. Docan-Morgan identifies five categories of interactions and three response methods. The article suggests that intrusive interaction studies are necessary for rewriting the definition of family.
- Intrusive interactions question the legitimacy of an adoptee’s family role
- Five types of intrusive interactions exist: relational comments/questions, compliments, stares, mistaken identities, and adoptee-only interactions
- Labeling and explaining, defending, and joking were typical responses
- Preparing prospective adoptive parents for these interactions can educate parents pre-adoption
Intercountry adoptees want to belong, but continuously addressing their race and family relationships destabilizes their sense of security. Five types of intrusive interactions were identified, with the most common being relational comments/questions. These are the ones best known as, “Is that your daughter?”, “Is that your real brother?” and “How much did she cost?” Since so many of us have encountered these questions, it’s reassuring to see that implications of such prying queries are being taken seriously.
I often bristled at these questions, only to be accused of being overly sensitive to people’s natural curiosity. However, if those same questions were posed to a biological or in-race child (“How was your pregnancy?” or “Did you have a water birth or hospital room?”) it would likely be viewed as inappropriate and wildly out of line. I wonder how appropriate it would be to ask about the couple’s fertility and its influence on adoption; I’d cynically speculate some people are using the adoptee to get to this highly personal information.
For some reason though, an adoptee’s visible difference from their families makes them an acceptable target for misplaced curiosity. Compliments, a second type of intrusive interaction, objectify the adoptee and for Asian adoptees, keep them stuck as perpetual foreigners in the United States.
Stares were the only non-verbal intrusive interactions and more difficult for adoptees to address, since there was no appropriate way to confront the behavior. Ironically, adoptees were the ones peppered with inappropriate questions their entire lives, yet were too polite to speak up when it would have been warranted.
The most uncomfortable interactions were mistaken identity/relationships. Adoptees reported being mistaken for exchange students, hired help, or romantic partners (one adoptee was even greeted with a hearty, “Welcome to America!” while at a party). Not only were these interactions awkward for all involved, they “highlighted the discourse of the dependent nature of adoptive family members’ bonds. Rather than being unquestionable, these bonds were the source of others’ confusion and had to be reaffirmed through language.”
While some adoptees didn’t find the questioning to be intrusive (only annoying or merely curious), engaging in “boundary management” with strangers and even other adoptees caused understandable discomfort. Regardless of an adoptee’s reaction to the intrusive behaviors, it was common for adoptees to experience frustration at having to explain away their existence with the only family they’d ever known.
According to this limited study, adoptees interpreted these interactions differently depending on how the parents responded. If a parent responded in a joking way, it helped instill a sense of pride and belonging in the adoptee. Most adoptees reported some level of satisfaction with their family’s replies, but expressed an overall negative perception of themselves after each interaction.
Since this study relied on an adoptee’s memories, it is possible some of the memories become distorted or forgotten; however, I’d argue that these questions remain vividly woven into an adoptee’s history. Note the study focused only on Korean adoptees, whose political and historical presence in the United States differs from other intercountry and transracial adoptees. Despite these limitations, this is significant research since it provides prospective adoptive parents with a chance to preemptively address potential challenges.
Detailed demographics of the adoptees’ communities would be interesting for future studies. In a previous article, I discussed my own unfortunate experiences and several commenters mentioned that their communities were more diverse than mine, so future studies should take that into consideration. Still, this doesn’t discredit the histories of these adoptees, as their stories will help shape the future of adoption.
Your turn! Have you experienced intrusive interactions? How did you and/or your family respond? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!