Misconstrued Notions of Transnational Adoption
A Feature Review of
Adopting for God: The Mission to Change America through Transnational Adoption
Paperback: NYU Press, 2021
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Reviewed by Alice Stephens and Sara Easterly
In this unique conversational book review, adoptees Alice Stephens and Sara Easterly discuss Adopting for God by Soojin Chung—Alice from the perspective of a mixed-race Korean who was adopted through Pearl S. Buck’s organization, Welcome House, and Sara, with a lens for child development and mental health, and vested in correcting problems that arise when religion and adoption are too deeply entwined.
SARA: I’ve encountered some compelling work about Korean adoption and have heard many stories from Korean American adoptees in various adoptee circles, including the Adoptee Voices writing groups, which Alice and I facilitate together. I was excited about this book’s potential, as I wanted to learn more about the history of the Korean adoption movement.
I think we’re both in agreement, though, that the book did not live up to our expectations. Alice, what are the main issues that arose for you as a Korean American adoptee while reading Adopting for God?
ALICE: My first clue that I was going to have issues with this book started in the Introduction when author Soojin Chung asserts that “American servicemen who were stationed in South Korea during the war impregnated numerous Korean women through military prostitution and fleeting love affairs. Many mixed-raced children, along with orphaned ‘full-blooded’ children, were abandoned at this time” (2).
Fleeting love affairs? My Korean mother was in a long-term relationship with my US soldier father, and I would hesitate to define that as a love affair, but rather an economic relationship. And Chung’s insistence that the “full-blooded” Koreans were orphans is misleading. Chung cannot know if they truly were orphans or not, because the Korean government intentionally orphanized children in order to make them adoptable. For example, my adoption papers include the official South Korean document that declares me an orphan, though at the time, I had a living father and a living mother. My living mother physically relinquished me to the adoption agency. But Chung chooses not to delve into the historical and socioeconomic realities of the time because that would undermine her simplistic view of the evangelical adoption movement. And the use of the term “orphan” in intercountry adoption persists to this very day, sentimentalizing intercountry adoption into an act of saviorism while eliding the socioeconomic and geopolitical factors that compel women of the global south to send their babies to wealthy, white nations.
This distrust in the author’s grasp of the facts was cemented when she asserts, “During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order to forcibly remove 112,000 Japanese Americans to an internment camp in Manzanar” (8-9). Manzanar was just one of ten internment camps, and at its peak, held a little more than 10,000 internees. In all, approximately 112,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned during the war. The Wikipedia entry for Manzanar is worded very similarly to Chung’s.
Which brings up another issue with this book: How did it pass peer review? Besides the glaring factual errors, Chung often contradicts her own assertions, and frequently cites herself as a source when she could have cited someone else for more credibility (i.e., her assertion that Buck coined the term Amerasian). Additionally, Chung’s breathtaking assertions go against history and scholarship (Billy Graham is anti-racist) and she has an incomplete understanding of U.S. history, the civil rights movement, racism, anti-racism, and, most unforgivably of all, adoption.
SARA: The points you’re making here—inaccurate and misleading facts, along with credibility problems—point toward my main struggles with this book, too.
In the Introduction, the author states that “this book’s central argument is that both evangelical and ecumenical adoption evangelists collectively advanced the anti-racist narrative and popularized transracial and transnational families through the practice of overseas adoption” (16).
Pretty lofty statement, I thought. In spite of my disbelief—due to widespread anti-Asian sentiment and violence recently and frequently on display—I read on, hoping to discover facts and anecdotes that might support Chung’s theory. Chung is careful not to suggest that Asian racism was completely resolved, but readers must critically ponder; Did the Korean adoption movement advance the anti-racist narrative, as the author claims?
I’ve listened to many transracial adoptees talk about the emotional pain of living in isolation in whiteness and how hard that experience was on multiple levels. Chung herself mentions these issues on several occasions. She writes, “Because transracially adopted children could not find a “biological mirror” in their parents, they often suffered pain and difficulty as they sought to understand their ethnic identity and cultural roots” (44). And, “Unfortunately, many evangelicals’ deep-rooted cross-cultural incompetence continued to linger even after they adopted Asian children” (50).
Even though these examples could argue against the premise of her research, Chung does not utilize these examples as more than asides. Since I am not a transracial adoptee, though, I’d prefer to hear your thoughts around the claim of transracial adoption advancing—or not—an anti-racist narrative, Alice.
ALICE: I question Chung’s understanding of what anti-racism means. It is about the dismantling of racist structures, policies, and attitudes that imbue the society in which we live, not about absorbing someone of a different race into the white community by bestowing honorary whiteness upon them. Perhaps Pearl S. Buck could be considered an anti-racist, but the Holts, Robert Pierce, and Everett Swanson of World Vision, and author Helen Doss were emphatically not. Chung even admits that their main impetus was to save souls for their white Christian God, which is the opposite of anti-racism. And I must reiterate that she claims several times that Billy Graham was an anti-racist activist.
Again, this goes back to my disappointment in the review process. Chung stated, “Simultaneously, the black migration into the American industrial north and the transnational adoption movement created the preconditions for the anti-racist movement and the civil rights movement” (148). How could peer reviewers let such assertions as this go unchallenged?
Just because a white person adopts a child of color, doesn’t make that person an anti-racist. I know a number of Korean adoptees who have been adopted into racist families. Even those of us lucky enough to be adopted into white families that are not racist must deal with constant othering, microaggressions, and white privilege from those whom we love the most. And, as we discussed before, there are also the white adopters, often evangelicals, who use their adopted children of color as click-bait for their social media feeds, objectifying them for approbation, publicizing them as proof of the power of Christian love. But assimilating a child into your white culture is neither anti-racist nor colorblind; it is erasing their genetic identity and cultural origins in order for you to have the family of your dreams, or, in the case of some evangelicals, in order to feel closer to God. It’s a dangerous sense of entitlement that excuses the adoption of any child from the global south in the name of salvation and a better life, no matter how the child is procured. We saw the tragic repercussions of trafficked children in the name of Christian adoption in countries like Uganda and Cambodia, where parents were tricked into signing rights to their children away or babies were stolen outright. It is because of cases like these that sending countries like Ethiopia and receiving countries like the Netherlands have suspended intercountry adoptions.
I would be more forgiving if Adopting for God were part of a religious study or a religion and social science series, but it is not. While there is a tiny religion banner over the ISBN on the back cover, New York University Press is marketing the book, according to the blurbs, as a study on “the intersections of race, gender, family history, and Cold War politics”, an “[integration of] Transracial Adoption Studies and Asian American Studies with a nuanced understanding of religion”, and “A major breakthrough in the study of the transnational adoption movement in the postwar era.” Unfortunately, the Library of Congress classifies it as HV875.55, which is Social Public and Welfare (HV) Destitute, Neglected, and Abandoned (875)—the same classification as books like Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know and Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound—instead of Christianity (BR) Biography (1600-).
I’d go even further and say that this book should be classified under Hagiography, if the LoC had such a classification. I find it particularly sad that someone of Korean descent is such a cheerleader for the colonialist practice of removing a child from her culture to be raised in whiteness. The author glances at this when she addresses “colorblind love” very late in the book, but as we have both observed, the cursory acknowledgment of the issues that contradict her central thesis, often stuck at the end of the chapter or in the footnotes, only serves to further erode confidence in the author’s authority to write about adoption in general, and transracial adoption in particular.
As someone who has read a lot about Korean adoption, I do not think this book is a “major breakthrough in the study of the transnational adoption movement.” That would be books like Susie Woo’s Framed by War: Korean Children and Women at the Crossroads of US Empire (also published by New York University Press), Eleana Kim’s Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging, and Kyung-eun Lee’s The Global Orphan Adoption System: South Korea’s Impact on Its Origin and Development, among others.
SARA: Yes, and I would add to your list of better resources Deann Borshay Liem’s documentary Geographies of Kinship (Mu Films).
In addition to the glaring problems you’ve mentioned, Alice, with the book’s central, flawed argument that transracial intercountry adoption advanced anti-racism, Chung spends the four core chapters of the book detailing the careers of various missionaries involved in the Korean adoption movement: Robert Pierce, Everett Swanson, Harry and Bertha Holt, Pearl Buck, and Helen Doss. Underneath this information (not all of it accurate, to your point, Alice) are the author’s unnamed biases that the movement to adopt and evangelize Korean children was a positive thing and that adoption itself is a force for good; “The impressive accomplishment of the evangelicals is their success at arousing the social conscience and nudging their co-religionists into social commitment” (146).
Given the book’s scope: 1949-1960, Korean infants and children adopted during this era are now fully grown adults—for those still alive or not deported due to citizenship negligence, ranging in age from 62 to 73. Enough time has passed and life wisdom collected for many of these adoptees to directly inform the book’s thesis by sharing their experiences and perspectives around:
- Whether they feel the Korean adoption movement truly advanced the anti-racist narrative;
- What their experience of Christianity was like—whether they agree that transnational adoption indeed “awakened the evangelical social conscience” (57) and whether they still identify as Christians;
- How their mental health and racial identity has been affected by adoption and loss of cultural ties and genetic mirroring.
However, aside from a couple of adoptee-authored books cited in the notes and bibliography, it appears that no such interviews were conducted. Without the counterbalance of adoptees’ lived experiences and consequential results, the thesis of the book feels overly simplified and the evidence too thin to lend useful insight.
ALICE: That’s a great point. For a book that is about transnational adoption, the adoptee is conspicuously absent. Once again, we are made into the object, not the subject, of the adoption narrative.
One adoptee in particular who is absent from this narrative is Adam Crapser, adopted from Holt by American parents who neglected to obtain US citizenship for him, who has since been deported to Korea. He is currently suing the Korean government and Holt for violating his rights during the adoption process. In his petition against Holt, he charges that they neglected their responsibility of the best interests of the child in order to reap financial benefits by providing false information about him as an orphan though they were aware of the existence of living parents, illegally giving guardianship to foreign adoption agencies, and failure to ensure his acquisition of US citizenship.
SARA: I’m glad you brought up deportation and this case, Alice, because it could significantly affect intercountry adoption. Regarding what you said earlier about saviorism and adoption as a tool for evangelism, I also disagree with Chung’s bias that converting Korean adoptees can be assumed positive or successful. In my personal experience, as well as that of many other adoptees I’ve listened to, a significant number of adoptees have experienced religious trauma, suffering from the ways adoption is often misrepresented and even idolized in the Church. When adoption is consistently praised as “Holy work,” there’s a near-ubiquitous turning away from the corruption, racism, classism, and oppression you touched on, Alice, that can exist in adoption and obviously go against Christian values. When the significant losses inherent in every adoption are unseen and unacknowledged, attention instead given to beautiful testimonies of “God’s will” to fulfill adoptive parents’ dreams, adoptees can feel unseen, uncomfortable, or marginalized in the Church.
The result? Christians can come across as uncaring, hypocritical, and self-serving—not exactly persuasive traits of conversion. What’s more, many adoptees extend our experiences and feelings of abandonment to our spiritual understanding, deciding that if there is a God, he’s a God who abandons. Or, he’s a callous God who doesn’t ache alongside us over the injustice of one of the most sacred of bonds—between mother and child—being torn apart.
For these and other reasons, many adoptees flee from religion upon reaching adolescence or adulthood. While this could admittedly be my personal bias, Chung, who is not an adoptee, doesn’t own her potential bias in this regard, evidenced, again, by leaving out adoptee perspectives that would either justify or call into question the long-term outcomes of evangelicals’ and ecumenicals’ saviorism. Chung touches on this briefly, referring to “the over-spiritualizing of adoption,” but because Chung waits until the book’s conclusion to mention it, her credibility throughout the book is undermined.
ALICE: Yes, we both noticed how Chung tried to have it both ways by making bold assertions about transracial adoption and anti-racism and the implicit bias that being raised in an evangelical household made good little Christians of Korean adoptees, and then briefly offering evidence that contradicts the very assertions she just devoted many pages to. We both felt it was as if the book was accepted for publication but there was a request to revise and include more up-to-date scholarship on adoption, and in the course of doing so, she began to realize that adoption was much more nuanced than she originally presumed.
Along with shoddy scholarship and an incomplete understanding of American history, the civil rights movement and anti-racism, and the absence of Korean adoptee perspectives, this belated realization of the complexities of adoption undermines the simplistic assertions that the book is built upon. Serious scholars of transracial and intercountry adoption should look elsewhere.
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