On July 27, 2009, I wrote Part I of "How (Not) to Talk to Adoptive Families."
Unfortunately, here's Part II:
A month or so ago I was visiting preschools in Shanghai, looking for a good fit for my two-year-old daughter Tully. I wanted what all moms and dads want for their child's first school: a warm, creative, loving atmosphere with fun, attentive, smart teachers and a safe environment in which to thrive.
At one particular school that I'll not name here, I met with the staffing director, a Shanghainese woman named Katrina*.
After a tour of the school, Katrina and I sat down in the office to fill out paperwork and talk. Because the toddler classroom was located on the second floor of the building and featured a balcony, I wasn't interested in the school. Big safety issues. But I filled out an information form anyway: protocol.
Next to the question "What is your child's nationality?"I wrote Vietnamese.
"Vietnamese?" Katrina said, reading over my shoulder.
"Yes," I said.
"From the United States."
"And your husband is from?" Katrina glanced at the form. "Ireland."
"Yes," I said.
Katrina waited for me to explain. I didn't. I tried to move the conversation to the necessary topic: whether or not I was interested in sending Tully to school there.
But Katrina? Nope, Katrina was not ready to let go of the question of Tully's nationality.
"I don't understand," she said. "How is your daughter Vietnamese if you are American and your husband is Irish?"
[Quick pause to explain that while Katrina is from Shanghai, her English is excellent. There wasn't a language problem going on.]
"We adopted Tully from Vietnam," I said after a long silence during which I tried to decide whether to answer or leave abruptly. In retrospect, I should have left abruptly.
Katrina and her husband, it turns out, had talked a lot about adopting a child themselves. Of course, in China, most couples are still only allowed to have one child (although this is changing a little). So in the end, adoption was not a possibility.
"Besides," Katrina went on to explain, "I don't believe you can love an adopted child as much as you love 'your own child.'"
Should have left abruptly.
Without going into the details of every one of my responses, here's a quick list of the things Katrina said to me over the next (very long) 5 minutes:
- If you get very angry and beat your child, "your own" child will understand that you did it because you love him. Your adopted child will always think it's his fault.
- Does your daughter [pause] "look" Vietnamese?
- You can't love an adopted child as much as you love "your own child." (She said this a number of times.)
- I don't understand...why don't you have a child of "your own"?
There were a lot of issues buzzing around this conversation, including a wide cultural gap that I couldn't have narrowed no matter what I'd said. Adoption isn't common in China, and many people are bewildered by the concept. But Katrina? She's a pretty smart, educated woman with a lot of interaction with the expat community. Even if these thoughts were in her head, she should have known to keep her trap shut.
"I have a child of my own," I told her before I left the school.
"Oh," she said, getting visibly excited, "you have a child besides your daughter? A child of your own?"
"No, I have one child," I said, "I have my daughter."
"I don't understand," she said. "You just said you have a child of your own."
"Exactly," I said.
*Katrina's name has been changed.