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A Transracial Adoption Reader

Now-adult adoptees who arrived in the United States from other countries are learning that their U.S. citizenship can’t be assumed. Two recent tragedies have highlighted the shocking realization: the May 2017 suicide of Phillip Clay, adopted at eight by a Philadelphia family and deported to Seoul 29 years later, and the November 2016 deportation of Adam Crapser, who was adopted at three and abused by multiple families, then returned to Korea after 37 years.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Gammage, whose daughter is Chinese-born, interviewed adoptees who, until recently, assumed they were American. Their countries of origin span the globe—Haiti, Iran, Colombia, Vietnam, Korea—and they all struggle with their naturalization status. Although the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 bestowed automatic U.S. citizenship to foreign-born adoptees, those born before 1982 were not included. Suddenly made “illegal aliens,” an estimated 300,000 adoptees discovered they’re not U.S. citizens. While the advocacy group Adoptee Rights Campaign pushes Congress to pass the Adoptee Citizenship Act to grant citizenship for all internationally-born adoptees, too many should-be-Americans remain in limbo.

The American transracial adoptee experience is nothing new, having begun in earnest when Korean orphans arrived in the 1950s after the Korean War. Fifty years later, Americans adopted more children from China than from any other country. Today, Asia leads the world in transracial adoptions.

Beyond these facts and figures are, of course, books and more books. Check out some of these titles told from both the adoptees’ and parents’ perspectives—linked to Booklist reviews when available.

 

Fiction 

The Collective, by Don Lee

Three college friends reunite after graduation. Eric Cho hopes to become a published writer. Jessica Tsai is a feisty artist. Joshua Yoon is a brilliant, angry Korean adoptee, raised as the privileged only child of two liberal Harvard professors. Joshua’s violent, shocking suicide becomes the catalyst for introspection, reevaluation, confrontation, and change.

 

Everybody’s Son, by Thrity Umrigar

Anton is removed from his drug-addicted mother’s custody and placed with a white, wealthy couple. With Anton’s mother in jail, his foster father desperately pushes beyond legal limits to keep Anton forever. As a Coleman, Anton inherits their privilege—connections, Harvard, promising career—but the truth won’t stay buried forever, and the consequences prove profound.

 

The Leavers, by Lisa Ko

“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days,” muses Deming Guo on his 22nd birthday, summing up a lifetime of leaving and being left. Deming, aka Daniel Wilkinson, provides half of the dual narrative of Ko’s achingly insightful, gorgeously redemptive debut. The other half belongs to Deming’s “Mama,” who’s also Peilan Guo, Polly Guo, and Polly Lin. In an uncertain world of what-if’s, the pair searches for ways to live beyond mere survival.

 

Lucky Boy, by Shanthi Sekaran

Teenager Soli becomes pregnant during her Mexico-to-California odyssey, eventually finding a Berkeley nanny job. Nearby, Kavya, the daughter of Indian immigrants, comprises one-half of an educated, financially secure couple growing more frantic with each failed attempt at parenthood. Both women will welcome the same child into their hearts, but only one can claim motherhood for keeps.

 

Somebody’s Daughter, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Lee entwines the two seemingly disparate lives of Sarah Thorson, a Midwest adoptee who leaves university to spend a summer studying in Korea, and Kyung-sook, her Korean birth mother who lives in a remote village selling salted shrimp. Both are conflicted, lonely souls who long for reunion, but seem otherwise fated by impossible circumstances.

 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell

Helen and her brother were adopted as babies from Korea by a willfully culturally illiterate white couple from Milwaukee. Now that her 29-year-old brother is dead, Helen is determined to understand his suicide and buys a one-way ticket from NYC to their childhood home. Helen’s no-filter descriptions of her perplexing life morph into an inventive, disturbing, and noir-ish tragicomic debut.

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

In a remote mountain village, the survival of an Akha tribe—one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities—depends on tea. Rigid traditions prohibit Li-yan from keeping her newborn, so she saves her daughter by leaving her in a nearby town, wrapping her in blankets with a tea cake hinting at her distinctive heritage. Interspersed with Li-yan’s exceptional story are those of her faraway child, the titular tea girl. See’s complex narrative ambitiously weaves together China’s transformation, cultural history, transracial adoption, and the global implications of specialized teas.

 

Nonfiction

The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea, by Jane Jeong Trenka

With a name claimed from each part of her life—Jane from her adoptive family, Jeong from her birthname, Trenka from her marriage—Language might be the most luminous of the adoptee memoir genre. Raised in a conservative Christian Minnesota home, Trenka eventually returns to Korea to reclaim herself as Jeong Kyong-Ah. Fugitive Visions, Trenka’s follow-up six years later, is a searing and disturbing account of why transracial adoption does not work. Newly divorced, severed from her adoptive parents, escaping from a violent stalker, Trenka’s relocation to Korea leaves her nearly paralyzed.

 

Lucky Girl, by Mei-Ling Hopgood

Journalist Hopgood reveals the remarkable story of her Midwest adoption and her reunion, more than two decades later, with her sprawling Taiwanese birth family. While she always knew she was adopted, she spent most of her “lucky” life with little curiosity about her Asian heritage. Then in 1997, she receives a surprising request to meet her family: “I felt elated and strange, with only a vague sense that much of what I knew about who I was and what I believed about my past and future was about to change.”

 

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love, by Xinran, translated by Nicky Harman

Xinran collects the affecting stories of Chinese mothers longing for the children they lost, specifically for those Chinese daughters—and a few sons—who question “‘Why didn’t my Chinese mummy want me?’” She offers irrefutable proof that each of those children was deeply loved but victimized by unavoidable circumstances that left birth mothers forever grieving their losses. The book’s final message remains clear: a mother / child bond remains unbreakable.

 

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, by Melissa Fay Greene

The memoir’s premise, so understated, is mind-boggling: “This book is one woman’s musings on the adventures of life with one man and many children.” That one man is her attorney husband, and as for those “many children,” four are of the “homemade” variety, while five more are “foreign-born” and arrive school-aged over the course of a decade. Despite daily challenges, Greene keeps her sanity. . . long enough to write this unforgettable family adventure.

 

Once They Hear My Name: Korean Adoptees and Their Journeys Toward Identity, edited by Ellen Lee, Marilyn Lammert, and Mary Anne Hess

“When I got to college I said I was adopted, right off the bat,” states Korean American adoptee Todd Knowlton. “It doesn’t bother me, but once they hear my last name, people always ask uncomfortable questions.” Such similar experiences resonate for the nine adult voices in this collection. Regardless of an adoptee’s individual circumstance, Name provides a community of people who’ve been there and felt that.

 

A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee’s Search for Her Roots, by Katy Robinson

A single Polaroid captures the day that Robinson’s life changed forever. Her mother’s worried face, her grandmother’s stoic grimace, and Katy’s childish smile mark the day that Kim Ji-yun left Seoul and arrived in Salt Lake City to become Catherine Jeanne Robinson. Twenty years later, Robinson returns to Korea in search of her birth mother.

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hong.terry@gmail.com'

About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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