'What the map cuts up the story cuts across': Narratives of belonging in intercountry adoption.

Author:Richards, Sarah

Narratives of children's existence typically begin at birth. They attempt to encapsulate a biological beginning, a birth point that serves socially and culturally to situate a child. Birth is the point where certain attributes which are assumed to be fixed and static, such as sex and ethnicity, are ascribed to the child. For the biological parent, a connection through identification of similarities with one's children enables a sense of continuity and history to be felt, and an identity to be constructed through a 'narrative of generational succession' (Warner, 1991). These inherited connections are considered by some to form a primal bond linking biological, familial heritage to belonging in a particular nation state, and are essentialised as integral to identity (Bartholet, 1993; Jacobson, 2008). This 'essential essence' narrative continues to inform social work practice in adoption (Cohen, 1995). Adoption narratives also start from the assumption that there is a linear link between children's characteristics, family heritage and national belonging. The severance of a biological link is argued to be made more complex by removal from a birth culture, resulting in what Sants terms 'genealogical bewilderment' (cited in Volkman, 2005, p 26). Intercountry adoption is thus seen as risking the integrity of children's identity formation. A common critical discourse surrounds both the process of intercountry adoption and those who adopt in this way (Johnson, 2012). This is due in part to all adoption tending to be a stigmatised form of family formation (Fisher, 2003).

Using ethnographic research with families who live in England and have adopted daughters from China, this article explores origin narratives narrated by both the girls themselves and their parents. It illustrates narrative strategies employed by parents to support their daughters in developing their own sense of identity. The themes explored emerge from the data and are personally significant to the participants, but also respond to wider canonical narratives concerning adoption generally and intercountry adoption specifically. Here, I illustrate the difficulties faced by parents in providing their daughters with coherent identity narratives (Yngvesson, 2002). At the same time, while younger children in this study both embrace their origin stories and manage multiple kin relations--real and imagined--data from the older girls suggest that they can feel the emphasis on their Chinese-ness to be at odds with their assertions of individuality.

Gibbons and Rotabi (2012, p 311) argue that the voices of those most affected by intercountry adoption are 'rarely heard' in adoption research. However, there are a number of previous studies about intercountry adoption which include discussions on identity that are relevant here. Volkman's (2005, p 32) research with transracial adoptees in Sweden illustrates the 'complex transformations in identity' in the adoption process. Dorow's (2006, p 4) research focuses on Chinese adoptees in the US and using interviews with parents, she argues that identity narratives for these children are both complex and 'relational'. Howell's (2006) research, set in Norway, includes the voices of adult intercountry adoptees. Here, fluidity in identity is stressed where differing aspects of identity are emphasised in certain social contexts. Howell provides accounts of adoptees attempting to challenge 'essential' identity traits, which they suggest are often ascribed to them. Gray's (2009) study with young adult Asian adoptees in Australia also indicates that adoptees seek a broader identity narrative than adoption. However, the experiences of younger adopted children are notably absent from the literature, particularly from a sociological perspective (Willing et al, 2012). This article speaks to that deficit in knowledge and focuses specifically on the inclusion of the voices of younger adoptees.


A feature common to most of the studies outlined above is the recurrence of China as a sending country in international adoption. This is at least partly because of the significant number of adoptions from this country. Across the studies of Chinese adoptees it is also worth noting that the adoptees are predominantly girls. Explanations for this gender bias make reference to family-planning policies in China and the assumed traditional cultural valuation of boys. The circumstances which make girls available for adoption have not been studied in China and, therefore, according to Dorow (2006, p 166), no single explanation can provide a 'definitive' account of how they come to be over-represented in international adoptions. Johnson (2004) suggests that simplistic explanations concerning abandonment in China are insufficient and contradictory. Nevertheless, it is clear that a study of young adoptees from China to the UK provides a valuable complement to existing studies from other receiving countries and with older participants.

Despite the symbolic significance of intercountry adoption, the actual numbers for this kind of family formation are very low in the UK. For example, the latest statistics for 2008 show that a total of 225 applications to adopt were received by the Department for Education, with just 32 from China (Department for Education, 2012). Selman (2012) usefully sets out global figures and suggests that after a period of steady increase globally over the past 50 years, the number of intercountry adoptions is now steadily decreasing. Adoptions to the UK from China reflect this declining trend. However, China has been one of the prominent sending countries since the 1990s. The significance of China as a sending country for the UK is reflected in previous and current studies such as the British Chinese Adoption Study's (BCAS) ongoing research with 100 Chinese adoptees who came to the UK in the 1960s and 1970s (see Rushton et al, this issue).

The global decline in international adoptions is perhaps related to pervasive and extensive connections made between trafficking, corruption and intercountry adoption (Johnson, 2012). Adopters are variously depicted in ways that...

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