Photo by Luigi Diamanti
I’m re-posting a blog post I wrote about three years ago on my other blog, that I initially titled “Life in the Fishbowl.” I wrote this post when I was reading a lot of academic books and peer-review articles about transracial and transnational adoption written by academics and adoptive parents (more on that later) and reflecting about how they relate to me, the subject and/or object of study. When I wrote this post I had been accepted into my current doctoral program, so I was also conscious about the research I was about to undertake and what the perspective(s) would be from “the other side” of the research.
As I’ve made my journey through school, one of the things I’ve been struck by is how little discussion there has been overall about insider/outsider issues – not just in terms of research (and what discussion I’ve had on insider/outsider research has been mostly contained in my qualitative research class) but also in practice.
In some areas of the “helping professions” there is a lot of emphasis on practitioner insider knowledge. Chemical dependency treatment and domestic violence are two areas in which it seems that a personal experience as a client is considered expertise. This is not so in child welfare, where my research areas reside, or in disability studies (my collateral area). I have met a very small handful of practitioners or researchers that come to child welfare as a client of child welfare services. That is, there is a very small group of foster care alum or adopted persons or birth families that have been *in the system* as a client of child welfare services that currently work within these systems as professionals. The most often recognized member of the foster/adoption “triad” that works in the child welfare system is the foster or adoptive parent – who are in some ways overrepresented – and they are often put up on a pedestal as bastions of knowledge because of their lived experience.
But what about the now grown-up children and/or the birth parent, how do we contribute to this knowledge base? Well, unfortunately we are often considered suspect. Two things happen frequently when we talk about system changes that we think need to happen: 1) we are tokenized and 2) our objectivity is questioned, and we are told our personal experiences are merely one story, irrelevant to the larger body of peer-reviewed, quasi-experimental, large nationally representative data set that found X, Y or Z. I have told this story before – I was once told by an adoption professional that my lived experience as a transracial, transnational adopted person did not make me an expert on adoption. Somehow, this person believed that their experience as a professional made them more of an expert on my own lived experience than mine. This is what is frustrates me about the social work profession.
It is interesting to me that adoptive/foster parents aren’t considered to be subjective. In fact, in the social work and psychology field many research studies about adoption are conducted by adoptive parents who fill dual roles as parent and academic. Some even mention their adoptive parent status or their personal experiences within the articles they publish. Where are the research studies by adult adoptees and/or formerly fostered persons? Are we silent on our status? And if so, why? Have others experienced what I have – when wrestling with insider/outsider questions in research and practice – been told I was “too close” to the topic and that I should find another area of research? (My guess is that similar to other areas of research/practice, such as mental health, social work professionals with insider knowledge have also largely remained silent. How sad. I find role models like Kay Redfield Jamison very inspiring).
Some of us choose to work within the system as an agent of change. Others take a more grass-roots approach, organizing to put pressure on the policies and procedures from outside the system. In my adult life, working on behalf of the rights of adopted and fostered persons, I have taken both approaches at different (and sometimes at the same) times.
Personally, I don’t think the solution to these hard questions about how one approaches research and practice from within a population that one is also a member of should be to choose something else. I think that we need to dive in to the ethical dilemmas that are inherent – remembering that there are also ethical issues when researching people that are members of a group in which we know nothing about. Two sides, perhaps, of the same quandary – how much of our own experiences (or lack of) go in to our research and practice? And how reflective are we of our positionality?
I’m about 3/4 of the way through Signe Howell’s book, The Kinning of Foreigners: Transnational Adoption in a Global Perspective and while I’m finding it a very interesting read, I’m also finding myself surprisingly sensitive to feeling like a caged monkey being poked and prodded for the purposes of research and science.
I’m always conscious of being in this strange world as an adult transnational and transracial adoptee who is also an “adoption professional” and soon to be adoption researcher; this third space,the proverbial fence or tightrope, attempting to balance or straddle (or whatever overused cliché seems applicable) between didactic notions of being.
Research has tried to define me in terms of these dyads – Am I more Korean or American? What has had a greater influence in my life, nature or nurture? Are we, as adoptees, researched from a perspective of our strengths or our pathologies? Studies seem to indicate we’re “well-adjusted” or completely f*ed up. What is given more credence, empirical research by “professionals” or the personal narrative?
And so it goes with how I’ve used my life in the adoption fishbowl thus far.
I think it’s pretty common for individuals who were adopted to use personal narratives as a vehicle for making connections – personal, psychological and spiritual – with each other. The personal narrative has been very important for me. Through sharing my experiences in exchange with other adoptees I was able to normalize my experiences and that helped bring me out of isolation which I’ve learned is so common among transnational adoptees.
The problem with sharing the personal narrative is that eventually it feels very pathological. Not only do you risk sounding whiny, but you also risk being critiqued. Unlike research, however, what’s being critiqued is your very essence. Especially when it seems people really want drama-filled, angst-ridden stories. We tend to gravitate towards Brother’s Grimm or conversely, Disney’s happy-ever-after endings. My life just hasn’t been that tragic nor Pollyanna. That’s why I bristle when people want to use strictly anecdotal evidence to prove a larger point.
I’m cognizant of this and so I set boundaries around what information I share. Knowing that everything that is written on a public blog is open to anyone with internet access means I sometimes struggle over whether to share something personal or whether to highlight yet another research study. Both are important; one must see one’s experience as both a singular existence and as part of a pattern of larger social behavior too. Sociologists and psychologists compare you with a cohort of others and look for correlations in either your socialization and/or genetics with your current status and rate you on some bell curve of “normalcy.”
I also question the dependence on research studies. Call me cynical too – it’s not that I mistrust all researchers who happen to also be adoptive parents – but I’ve learned to be wary because sometimes there are biased researchers. Either way, as I’ve said before, we need to take both into consideration. For example, I know that in a so-called random sample study on the “adjustment” of transnational and/or transracial adoptees the outcome might be that adoptees are “well-adjusted.” Usually the metrics for what constitutes “well-adjusted” are things like mental health diagnoses, behaviors (often reported by adoptive parents, not the adopted individual), whether the adoptee has friends, or scores in a certain range on some ratings scale. If I were to take those research studies at face value, I’d have to agree that it looks like transracial/transnational adoptees do, in fact, do well.
But there are two concerns I have about these “adjustment” studies. I have the additional information of being closely connected to adult Korean, transracial and international adoptee groups and from personal narratives and anecdotal stories I would say the studies don’t show the whole picture. Many adoptees “look” from outsiders to be “well-adjusted.” So as I told one of my former co-workers who once described me as an example of an adoptee who is “successful” – just because we appear this way doesn’t mean we don’t have or have had a lot of really hard times in our lives – and still, as adults, struggle to reconcile what we experienced with our adoptions. If those questions were asked differently or if the research was measuring other aspects of our lives, we might see some very different results.
Secondly, even if those numbers are small, they are important. For example, the number of adoptees I know who were physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their adoptive parents, for example, are shocking. Yet most adoption professionals and adoptive parents are extremely unwilling or unable to give this information any credence because 1) it’s not an empirical study and 2) the numbers are so small that compared to the large overall numbers of adoptees who aren’t abused by their adoptive parents, it can’t be considered legitimately an issue. This is where professionals and parents say things like, “the numbers aren’t any different than parents who abuse their biological children” or, “it’s statistically insignificant.” And while both those statements might be valid, it doesn’t invalidate that some adoptees are abused by their adoptive parents and that it’s just wrong and adds another layer of trauma on that adopted individual.
All of this is not to debate the merits of research or conversely to promote the personal narrative but just to say that sometimes I step back and look at my life and realize how much bigger this whole adoption thing has become. I have spent years trying to make sense of my adoption and the majority of the work I’ve done has been with the help of other adult adoptees. I’m this weird hybrid of adoptee, adoption professional, adoption researcher. Three hats to wear, three-headed hydra, always trying to combine them all together. Neither the personal narrative nor the research tells the whole story. Both need to be considered as important aspects of explaining the experience. Sometimes science can provide a name to a feeling or behavior, but it just can not explain at the core what my experiences were or how they made me who I am today.
Sometimes I just feel strange being the subject and object of research. Every now and then, like tonight, reading a book about how transnational adoptees behave and think makes me realize how strange my life has become. I guess that’s part of the reason why I work and study adoption as well as live it in my own life. I didn’t want to always be looking at other people from inside the fishbowl.