What Not To Ask An Adoptive Parent
So we were in Vietnam in 2007, when Yao Yao was six. We were walking along the river in the ancient town of Hoi An. After a while, we began to notice that we were collecting an entourage of curious townspeople. “Vietnamese? Vietnamese?” they asked, pointing at our daughter. “No. Chinese,” we replied.
It wasn’t the first time we were asked this seemingly fascinating question concerning our daughter’s origin. Nor would it be the last.
We’ve been a family for a long time now, and I often forget that Yao Yao is adopted. (No, I would remember if I had experienced labor and giving birth – but that’s a one-day event, and from there, being a mother is all about love, care, and plenty of patience and planning. It’s a level playing field from Day 2, in other words.)
In the years since, not a week goes by when I don’t get some question vis-à-vis adoption – and of course, most of the time Yao Yao is present when the questions are posed. Do they think she hasn’t learned English yet? Is that why they feel free to ask such questions as:
“Did you pay extra to get such a beautiful child?”
“Do you ever wish you had your own child?”
“Does she miss her real mother?”
“Do you worry she’ll go back to China?”
“How does your husband feel about her?”
“Couldn’t have any of your own?” (When people find out adoption was our one and only choice, I’ve often gotten, “If you could have had your own baby, why would you ever want to raise someone else’s?”)
“Does your daughter know how lucky she is?”
Not all questions are as nutty or insensitive as these. And there are people who are seriously interested in the process – these are often women considering adoption themselves. To them, I usually respond, “I’m happy to answer any questions you have, but not now. Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you.” Usually, the conversation will die out there, but I’ve kept in contact with three women who gave me their numbers and who ended up adopting lovely families of their own. The rest, I believe, are just curious about my life in ways I’ve yet to fully comprehend.
But here’s a good rule of thumb if you find yourself compelled to question families like mine: If you have to lower your voice when you ask the question, it’s probably not appropriate. And if you wouldn’t want the child in question to hear your question, don’t ask it in front of her. I remember it was Dr. Jane Aronson, the well known New York “adoption doctor,” who told me, “Just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.” Good advice still.
Longtime readers of this blog know that our happy little family has traveled all over the world, and we’ve gotten some pretty strange reactions along the way.
In Egypt, locals offered us money if we would let them hold Yao Yao and take photos. There’s very little adoption in Egypt, so the whole thing seemed like a bit of a novelty.
In Myanmar, I was asked over and over again if I had “another man.” (Meaning, is Jim my second husband or is there a birth father out there that I had some sort of wild affair with?)
In Bali, the local women were very tough on Yao Yao and kept asking me if I were Chinese. Of course, they knew good and well I wasn’t Chinese, but I finally started saying, “Yep, I am Chinese!” That earned me the enmity of many a local matron. Not my finest hour.
Sometimes it seems that things aren’t much better on the home front, either. At a local sushi restaurant when Yao Yao was just a toddler, she was just hanging out stabbing Cheerios with a single chopstick. A woman at the next table leaned over to me and said, “It’s in their DNA, isn’t it?” I wanted to stab her with the other chopstick. What, did your kids come out of the womb with the ability to wield a knife and fork?
Then, not more than a month ago, I was taking Yao Yao to an art class at the local art guild. Another mother came up and pointed a finger at my daughter and asked, “Chinese?” It was so out of context, I said, “No, printmaking!” (Really, I’d never approach someone I didn’t know, point a finger at their kid, and ask, “Norwegian?” It ended up that the woman was a mother of two girls, adopted from China. She should have known better.)
Anyway, I’m grateful every day that I am Yao Yao’s mother (and yes, we adopted her from China). And I am eternally grateful to her birth parents for loving her and ensuring she got to a safe place. But do me a favor: if you need to ask a question about someone’s family, make it about babysitters, or school, or travel, or clothes, or playdates, or . . .
Worldwide Orphan Foundation
Dr. Jane Aronson
Child Welfare Information Gateway
There are a lot of great resources out there on adoption and I am happy to share them with you. Write a comment on the blog or send me a email if you would like other resources or have questions.