Scenes of Misrecognition: The Absence of (Visible) Family Ties

Adoptive families marked by their transracial or transnational composition find themselves existing in contradiction to traditional definitions of family, which place primacy on genetic-relatedness. Yet, the visual of the adopted child and parent has become solidified in the American imaginary. From depictions of war orphan waifs waiting for adoption in the immediate post-Korean War period to celebrations of multicultural families in present day society, the adopted child has become a more common site in portrayals of the American family. This is not to discount the rude questions asked to adoptive parents (e.g. “how much did they cost?”; “are these kids yours?”) or adoptees.

What happens when that adopted child matures and enters adulthood? Rather than being viewed as a family, the Asian adult adoptee and white adoptive parent may be mistaken for a myriad of relationships other than child/parent. For example, from conversations with other female adoptees it becomes clear that stereotypes concerning Asian/American women impact how they may be mistaken as their fathers’ girlfriend or wife. Adult adoptees may also inadvertently be mistaken for the foreign exchange student. Drawing from my own experience, when I go out to eat with my mother, we are asked if we want separate checks with the implication that we must be friends, not mother and daughter. Adoptive parents should be prepared to grapple with these scenarios. They also should feel comfortable with lists that clearly raises questions concerning adoptive parents’ understanding of racial microaggressions  (e.g. “You’re not ready to adopt an Asian child if…”).

Further, questions arise when considering how the adopted child and their siblings are viewed by the outside world. Within my own family a marked generational gap exists between my youngest siblings (ages ten and eight) and I. For example, when I brought my now ten-year-old brother to the first day of pre-school with my dad, I remember stares of other parents, who wrongfully assumed I was his mother. Recently, I have been mistaken as the nanny of my eight-year-old brother. While the age difference may exacerbate misrecognition of our relationship, I’ve also encountered other questions concerning my relationship with my younger sisters (ages twenty-one and eighteen). We are commonly mistaken as friends. In addition, during her so
phomore year of high school, my youngest sister needed to provide photographic evidence to a peer that she in fact had a non-white sister. Even upon meeting me at her high school gradSistersuation party in Summer 2014, this same individual still does not believe that we really could be sisters. The dissonance produced by my sister and I was further evident when I attended Parent’s Weekend at her university in Fall 2014. At the registration desk, I was mistaken as the student. We did not realize the female volunteer’s mistake until it five minutes into our conversation.

How do we prepare adult adoptees and their families for these scenes of misrecognition? These are conversations that no parent or child or sister or brother would like to have with one another. Yet societal logic concerning legitimate families is bounded to genetic-relatedness and monoraciality. Consequently, kinship units that differ from this legible construct encounter intrusive questions regarding their familial ties. No “right” answer exists to how we prepare ourselves to such intrusive and awkward questions. Instead for parents of young adoptees, I encourage you to think about how you will respond to the first and subsequent instances of misrecognition. Will you laugh? Correct the person? Or simply remain silent? Your reaction may impact how your child reacts to such misrecognitions in the future. Your reaction will also pave the way for future conversations with family members and friends about the subject. For adult adoptees, I encourage us to discuss our experiences with one another and other adoptive families. In doing so, we can contribute to conversations concerning the impact of adoptee status in adulthood.