It is not uncommon for transnational adoption to double as transracial adoption, and in those instances families must strive to reconcile a new set of cultural, ethnic, and geographic concerns. A persisting race-conscious and race-critical American society inadvertently forces some adoptees to confront not only why they look different from their parents, but also why they are subsequently treated differently. Nonetheless, the American tendency to adopt from abroad is higher than ever, and our already diverse nation is witnessing the addition of many newly diverse households. The arduous process of upholding an adoptees’ multicultural identity relies on the proactivity of the parents, the community, and of course the adoptee him or herself.
According to a U.S. Department of State report, the most popular countries for American adoption in the 21st century have been Ethiopia, Russia, China, and South Korea (with at least 10,000 adoptees coming from each in the past 15 years, and China alone exceeding 70,000). For various political, cultural, and historical reasons, the primary region for American international adoption is undeniably East Asia. Over 100,000 adopted children (nearly half of all America’s international adoptees of the past 15 years) have come from Northeast and Southeast Asia. Chinese, Vietnamese, and South Korean adoptees are especially prevalent. Coincidentally, aside from adoption, these regions have also contributed substantially to America’s most recent and strongest growing demographic – the Asian American community. It is during this dual paradigm shift –in both adoption tendencies and in American demographics – that we witness the emergence of programs designed to aid children and families who face challenges of transracial, transnational adoption, especially within the East Asian diaspora.
At Princeton University, two such programs currently exist specifically for East Asian adoptees. The first program, Princeton Adopted Little Siblings (PALS), has been in existence for over a decade and is managed by Princeton’s Korean American Student Association (KASA). The second, more recently founded program is Chinese American Princeton Siblings (CAPS), which exists as an independent student organization designed through collaboration between the Chinese Student Association (CSA) and the Asian American Student Association (AASA).
The CAPS and PALS programs feature distinct agendas, yet generally both seek to provide children with special events, mentorship, and cultural exposure – foods, clothing, music – that adoptees may otherwise miss. Primary targets for the programs are families in which the adoptive parents are unfamiliar or inexperienced with the cultural heritage of the adopted children. The participating adoptees, usually young children or pre-teens, enjoy the opportunity to interact and partner with Princeton students who relate in experience or interest to the culture in question.
Stephanie Kim and Stephanie Char, two students who have served as executive officers in KASA, described their experiences with managing and participating in PALS. Likewise, Elizabeth Cai, a former student and president of CSA who had a large part in founding the CAPS program, explains many of her convictions in support of the program.
Though neither Kim, Char, nor Cai are adopted themselves, they recognize the importance of having exemplar role models for successful life between cultures. At times, Princeton students serve as these models themselves, though the programs occasionally invite older adoptees to participate in the events, as well.
“Last year, we brought in an adoptee who was in her late twenties and another who was in his mid- to late thirties,” Kim says. “Both had different experiences, but they offered [their own] narratives… Through our speakers and student volunteers, we want to provide these families a variety of perspectives on how it is to live in the States as an individual of Korean descent.”
The confusion and self-doubt that sometimes clouds Asian American identity is not limited to only international adoptees. For Cai, who is of Chinese heritage, it is instead considered a universal ordeal that can unite Asian students and Asian adoptees.
“Just as many second- and third-generation Chinese immigrant children can experience identity crises over their dual ethnic identities, Chinese adoptees experience this as well – oftentimes, with even greater intensity, due to their family situation,” Cai says. “[American-born Chinese] may reject their Chinese identity out of shame and/or out of desire for assimilation, but adoptees may reject their Chinese identity out of pure confusion and lack of understanding.”
The programs at Princeton generally appeal to children and adolescents, though older children enjoy often more substantial conversation with Princeton student participants.“I’m not the greatest with kids, so I asked to be paired with an older adoptee,” Kim explains. “We ended up talking a lot about my time at Princeton, and how I was extremely appreciative of KASA for giving me the opportunity to meet a lot more of the Korean-Americans on campus.” Likewise, CAPS seeks to provide more long-term mentor-mentee relationships between Princeton students and adoptees.
With events and interactions dedicated specifically to confronting Asian American identity, student participants in both PALS and CAPS note how the program also provides them with an opportunity to learn more about themselves. Kim explains how PALS is more than just an event for the adoptees; it is also “an opportunity to ask ourselves about our own identities and cultural heritage.”
Cai concurs, saying of the CAPS program, “It’s a two-way street, really, as I and other mentors can tell you that the experience can also make us better embrace our Chinese side.” In the end, of course, students in both PALS and CAPS would like to see their program participation increase, expanding to incorporate more role model participants as well as more Chinese and Korean adoptee families.
Needless to say, international adoption is a complicated social and logistical issue. Adoptees often experience confusion over national identity, estranged conceptions of community, and detachment from their ancestral culture. Moreover, the lives of international adoptees are further complicated when they are thrust into America’s hierarchal and prejudiced race system. However, these challenges are not uniquely their own. Instead, the obstacles that adoptees face can be used to tether the bonds between them and other non-adoptees in their respective cultural communities. They only require an opportunity to recognize these shared bonds in the first place. Through programs like PALS and CAPS, Princeton students not only are able to provide insight into adoptees’ background culture, but can additionally share expertise on navigating multiculturalism in America. By reinforcing cultural bonds on an individual level, the adoptee programs at Princeton ultimately strengthen the larger ethnic diasporas across America.
For more information on CAPS: https://blogs.princeton.edu/caps/about-caps/
For more information on KASA & PALS: http://kasa.mycpanel.princeton.edu/~kasa/what-we-do.html