Between Two Cultures: Transnational Adoptee Voices at Tufts

Art by Matilda Peng

Editor’s Note: Josephine Yip and Iris Yang are members of Tufts China Care. 

Over the past few weeks, Tufts China Care has hosted several events for the transnational adoptee community, both on campus and in the wider Boston community. A waffle-making event for adopted children and their families in March was followed by an annual fundraising event last week, where students purchased tickets to play games. All proceeds were donated to the OneSky Foundation, an organization that aims to provide better lives for at-risk children and orphans in China, Mongolia, and Vietnam. In addition to raising money for the OneSky Foundation, Tufts China Care aims to connect local Chinese-born adoptees with their birth culture and raise awareness on campus about issues related to international adoption. The organization represents one of few spaces at Tufts where transnational adoptees can talk about their shared adoptee identity.

Transnational adoption, or intercountry adoption, refers to the process by which an individual or couple adopts a child who was born in a country different from the one in which the adopter(s) reside(s). In the US, the largest population of transnational adoptees is from China. Following the implementation of the One-Child Policy in China in the 1980s, the number of local orphanages increased to meet the demands of families giving up their children for adoption due to financial concerns and the government’s increasing efforts to curb population growth. 

The lives of transnational migrants, including students at Tufts, are often characterized as being in between two nations and two cultures. Anju Meyer, An-lin Sloan, and Megan Starses—three members of Tufts China Care—all have unique relationships with their identities as Chinese transnational adoptees. Meyer, Sloan, and Starses all are ethnically Chinese and were raised by American parents in predominantly white areas. Although China is the most popular country to adopt from, it represents a small portion of the larger transnational adoptee community. 

Meyer is a sophomore at Tufts and a member of Dumplings, a subgroup of China Care, which organizes events to help transnational adoptees in the Boston area connect with their culture through games and activities such as calligraphy writing and egg-waffle-making. As an adoptee herself, Meyer finds the opportunity to interact with adopted children and their families meaningful. She sees it as a chance “not [to] pay it forward, but to provide kids with a space to embrace their adoptee identity.”

Meyer was adopted from Lianjing, located in the Guangdong province, at 10 months of age by a white couple. Growing up, Meyer said her parents were open about her adoption and commemorated her “Gotcha Day” each year—a day that marks the anniversary of when an adopted child joined a family. “They told me—and my sister, who’s also adopted—very early on [about our adoption], which I guess was probably good for my mind. I feel like I’ve never really had an issue with it,” she said. 

Many adoptees have no recollection of their life before adoption, and all three interviewees said their adoptee identity is a fundamental part of who they are. However, being raised in a western country like the US, it can be difficult for adoptees to find a connection to their birth culture. Even though Meyer’s parents, who initially intended to adopt a child from India, were open to different cultures and diversities, Meyer remarked that she wishes she was more connected to Chinese culture. “I could have gone to Chinese school, which I wish I had. There was a school in Chinatown which [offered] a dual-language program. We went to the Chinatown Parade during Chinese New Year… which is nice,” Meyer said. But she also recognized that “having white parents… it’s kinda hard.” She said, “I don’t think I missed out on anything per se. I’m not sad that we didn’t do anything. But [Chinese language and culture] were not the biggest part of my upbringing.”

Like Meyer, Sloan, who is a sophomore and the Education Chair of China Care, was adopted from China at a young age. She said being adopted is just a natural part of life. “[My parents] are the only parents I’ve ever known. They are my parents; they’re not my adoptive parents,” she said.

However, Sloan highlighted another experience that is not specific to adoptees but closely linked to the general demographic of couples who choose to adopt: having older parents. “The majority of adoptive parents are older [than birth parents], at least in the US,” said Sloan, which leads to a larger age gap between parents and their children. Sloan’s parents considered having children, but were focused on their careers. As her mother got older and decided she didn’t want to go through childbirth, Sloan’s parents decided to adopt from China given her mother’s cultural heritage as a Chinese American. Sloan said growing up with parents from an older generation led to parent-child interactions that were “way different than [those of her] other friends who had much younger parents… the values are different. They’re in the old Baby Boomer mindset.”

While the age gap has led to funny moments, such as being mistaken as her mom’s granddaughter at Chinese restaurants, Sloan expressed more serious concerns about her parents’ health and their futures. “There are statistically less years you have with them, so it’s a little bit worrisome, but not something you think about every day… Just as you’re starting your career, you also start taking care of them. I definitely want them to be around to meet my kids.” Although many people will encounter the same worries as their loved ones grow older, Sloan sees this as a marker of her adoptee experience.

Much like the way the Dumplings subgroup of China Care strives to create a sense of community for local transnational adoptees, Meyer wishes Tufts had a space for adoptees to meet one another. She said, “There are more adoptees here than I thought, especially from China… If there’s a Chinese person and they don’t look wasian—not to stereotype—and they happen to have a very white last name, then it’s like, ‘oh yeah, they probably are adopted.’” 

Adoption can also shape aspects of identities and ways of interacting with the world below the surface level. If there was an on-campus group for adoption, these unique perspectives are examples of what students might share with each other. Meyer gave the example of her experience reading Oedipus Rex, a play by Sophocles about a child destined by a curse to kill his father and marry his mother. This plot, seemingly unrelated to adoption, prompted Meyer to reflect on her lineage and think about whether she should “make the effort to find [her] birth parents.” Although Meyer is acutely aware of the near-impossibility of locating her birth parents, she finds herself drawn to stories of transnational adoptees reconnecting with their blood-related families. For instance, she recently watched a documentary by the BBC that follows Kati Pohler, a Chinese adoptee raised in the Midwest. The film follows Pohler on her trip to China after she discovers that her birth parents had left a note asking their child to meet them every decade on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou, China. “It makes me cry every single time I watch it. I watched it in my dorm last year and just cried. I feel bad for my roommate. But it was really good. I was sniffling a lot,” Meyer said.

While Meyer and Sloan have had mostly positive experiences regarding transnational adoption, the same is not true for everyone. Starses, a junior at Tufts, was adopted at a young age from China and grew up in Arizona—a state with a predominantly white and Latinx population. She recalled that there were many religious Mormon students enrolled at her high school who would tell her things like, “They’re not your real parents. I think that’s so weird.” Starses was surprised by these comments. “I thought that this was just a joke, that I’d never meet somebody who has this kind of opinion. [They’re] against adoption for the wrong reasons. You should be against adoption because it [could be] traumatic for the child, not because it’s weird to not live with blood-related people,” Starses said.

Growing up, Starses didn’t have many close Asian female friends. She found solace in her relationship with her mother, who was also adopted from China. Starses said it is rare to have a parent who went through the same experiences she did, in terms of being adopted by an Asian mother and white father. This unique situation has subsequently affected Starses’ interest in wanting to find her birth mother. “I remember my dad telling me even from a younger age, ‘Mom gets a little bit sentimental and sensitive if you make comments about wanting to find your birth parents,’ because she had no interest in knowing about her birth mom… He was telling me to be careful when I talk about things like that because it might hurt her.” As a result, Starses remains ambivalent about reconnecting with her birth parents.

Nonetheless, Starses considers adoption to be a big part of her identity. She noted the complexity of adoption, especially transnational adoption, and that talking to one adoptee does not capture all the effects of adoption because everyone has their own story. Not every adoptee, like her, may feel represented in their community, and some adoptees may find it harder to reconnect with their culture. “As far as Chinese culture goes, my grandma is the only person who can actually speak Chinese fluently in my family… She did try to teach me Chinese, but I think young children don’t really see the value, so it didn’t go very far,” Starses said. “I heard this interesting statistic that people who learn a language usually have some sort of heritage aspect to it, but most people also have an additional reason. I think Chinese is very useful—it’s one of the most widely spoken languages and, especially since I was interested in IR, it made sense [to learn it].” After participating in a six-week immersion program in China during high school, Starses realized that learning Chinese “was enough to reconnect a little bit and [made her] realize that [she] did want to continue in college.”

Although all three of the adoptees interviewed are ethnically Chinese and raised in the US, that’s largely where their similarities end; each transnational adoptee has a different relationship with their adoptee identities. As Starses said, talking to just one or three adoptees will never “give you a full picture of how adoption affects kids,” especially since “there might be a little bit more resentment or trauma” in others’ stories. To paint a fuller picture, Sloan suggests that a more academic, systemic approach to learning about transnational adoption would be helpful. “Maybe it’d be cool to learn about it in class one day… Ellen Pinderhughes is the specialist on adoption… If she taught a class on that, I would definitely take it,” Sloan said. Ultimately, these transnational adoptees hoped for more opportunities to connect with and explore their adoptee identity at Tufts. In the words of Meyer, “It’s always cool to meet new people, and if you have something in common with them, then it’s super cool… I think any representation [would be] great.”