by Martha Groves
The Los Angeles police officer, dispatched to investigate a stolen car parked in front of my house, barked the question as I stood holding and smooching my 3-year-old daughter, whom I adopted as a toddler in China in 1994. Stunned by his implication that I had no business kissing her – I could only answer feebly: “Because she’s my daughter. ” His disbelieving eyes peered first at her dark skin and almond-shaped eyes, then at my blonde hair and pale face. Then he said: “The father must be – what? – Japanese? ” Luckily, at that moment, my daughter defused the tension by burbling, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”
Chalk up another episode in the life of one of Los Angeles’ growing ranks of transracial families. This one tops my collection of strange or insensitive or downright ignorant comments from strangers. But there are plenty of others.
There was the Macy’s sales associate who said sweetly: “You must be the baby-sitter.” And the Chinese-born furniture store sales clerk who queried: “Is the father Chinese? ” “Yes,” I replied, “and so is the biological mother.” And the countless others who have wondered “Is she yours?’ “Where did she come from? ” “How much did she cost?” “Does she speak with a Chinese accent,” (this last even after I had explained that I adopted Nora before she could do anything but babble).
For more than two and a half years now, Nora Tai-Xiu and I have experienced our share of probing eyes and questions. Adoption experts call them “grocery store scenes,” in which parents or other family members are approached in the children’s presence and asked about their origins. This amazes me somewhat, given the boom in non-traditional or interracial families both in San Francisco, where I lived when she and I became a family, and in Los Angeles, where we are now.
Until lately, my standard response has been to recap the high points of how Nora and I got together. I’ve felt obliged to do this in part because, as often as not, the person who asks is seeking information about overseas adoption, and I love to proselytize. Plus, as my friends know, I still get a huge kick out of telling our story (over and over and . . .). It pleases me to think that I might be helping someone else start down a path that has led me to such overwhelming joy-and, in fact, my experience has encouraged many friends and acquaintances to pursue transracial adoptions, many of them in China.
But now that my daughter has turned four and is suddenly becoming much more aware of the physical differences between us, I’ve been rethinking my wide-open, “What would you like to know? ” approach with strangers. As the experts see it, it’s not really my story to tell. It’s Nora’s. Therefore, the decision whether to share details should rest with her alone.
For a time I considered this a harsh stance. After all, I figured, most strangers who comment are merely curious. But adoption experts-many of whom themselves have adopted children from other races-view the questions as an intrusive and not-so-subtle form of racism. However well meant a remark, “My, what beautiful almond eyes she has! ” still serves to highlight the differences and undermine a child’s sense of belonging to the family.
“Answering such questions in any depth at all tells the child that he needs to be explained or justified,” wrote Holly van Gulden, a nationally recognized adoption speaker and counselor, in her book Real Parents, Real Children. Choosing not to answer, she added, helps teach your child how to protect her personal boundaries. And instilling some reserve in non-white children, Van Gulden and others say, can help prepare them to deal with the more overt forms of racism and name-calling that they will inevitably encounter as they go to school and get out into the real world.
Cheri Register, a Minneapolis educational consultant and the author of Are Those Kids Yours?, recalls the day she “resigned from the freak show” and stopped feeling compelled to answer every question about her two Korean born daughters politely and accurately. Shopping in a supermarket’s produce section, she was beset by a woman who plied her with irritating questions: “Are they Korean? Are they sisters? How long have you had them?” Finally the woman asked: “Do you have any of your own?” “I have these two daughters,” Register responded. “They are my own.”
One single mom years ago, when transracial adoption was far rarer than it is today, had the ideal retort for a woman who asked, “Does she look like her father?” about the mother’s Indian-born daughter. “I don’t know who the father is, so I couldn’t really say.” I’ve occasionally tried a similar rejoinder, when I’m feeling mischievous, and revel in seeing a shocked look cross the questioner’s face.
A woman I met at an adoption conference noted that misunderstandings about adoption can lead to sticky situations even when the children are of the same race. The woman, a dark-skinned Caucasian, told of taking her adopted blond, blue-eyed son to a Bay Area restaurant. She noticed that a couple at a nearby table kept staring, but she paid them little notice. After arriving back home, she answered a knock at the door to find a San Rafael police officer, who sheepishly asked her whether the boy was indeed her son. The couple had apparently reported her as a possible kidnaper.
The topic of insensitive or plain old dumb remarks gets quite a bit of attention among adoptive parents in internet chat groups and adoption organizations, such as our local chapter of Families with Children from China. One Caucasian woman shared online two of her favorite questions: “When she grows up, will she look like you?” from a 6 year-old trying to figure out how it all works, and another not-so-charming query from a 40-year-old, “Are you going to tell her she is adopted?” To that, the woman replied: “No, we’re hoping we get a dumb one and she never notices.”
Last Christmas, Nora and I had a tree-trimming party. Of the children there, two were girls from China, one was a boy of Vietnamese and Korean heritage whose mother is Caucasian and whose father is Japanese American, one was an adopted Caucasian boy whose blondness contrasts sharply with the appearance of his dark-haired parents, and the other was a girl whose single mother visited a sperm bank. Other neighbors – an Italian American woman, her African American husband, and their biological daughter – could not be there. I hadn’t planned for my guest list to look like the United Nations, it just turned out that way. And it often does these days in Los Angeles and other cities big and small. I guess I wonder when non-traditional and mixed-race families will become so commonplace that people will begin to assume that Nora is my daughter.
As I wrestle with these issues, I’m still finding it difficult to follow the advice of consultants and many other adoptive parents. Linda Bothun, a Washington teacher and lecturer, whose newsletter promotes positive attitudes about adoption in the media, agrees with others that an ideal way to handle nosy questions is to turn things around. If someone asks, “Where did you get her?,” respond with: “Why do you ask? ” That helps restore the balance of power, rather than leave the adoptive family in the spotlight. I’ve not used that yet, but it’s nice to have it in my repertoire. The details are, after all, none of their business, Bothun noted.
Maybe it’s not their business, but I happen to think that these new ways of forming families eventually will be the business of us all. For now, when people ask incredulously, “Is she your daughter?,” I just smile and say emphatically and proudly: “Yes!”
Martha Groves, who lives in Los Angeles, adopted Nora Tai-Xiu Grove’s in Nanking in June 1994. This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 newsletter of the San Francisco Bay Area FCC. Reprinted with permission.
An FCC Readers Response:
Here’s what happened to me (47 year old ugly white Dad with my 21 month old cute as the dickens daughter, originally from Jiujiang, Jiangxi). I happened to be in the Marina district of San Francisco on a recent sunny afternoon, on a fruitless shopping expedition. Since my daughter and I had both been rushing around in the car most of the afternoon, I thought it would be fun to take a little e walk before returning home. We were busy strolling along, trying to pick up cigarette butts and gum from the sidewalk (!) and having a really nice walk, when two police squad cars came screeching up to the curb 30 feet from us. We carried on with our walk, but were prevented from continuing by two of the officers who said they needed to talk to me. They explained that they had had a call on a suspicious looking couple (me and my daughter) and required me to explain what I was doing with an Asian child. They were quite nice about but it was clear I was required to explain myself to them
Fortunately I had read the article ” Why are you kissing that child?” in a recent issue of our FCC newsletter and had taken the precaution of making sure that I had a picture of my daughter in my wallet (not that I needed much encouragement!). I told the officers that I really thought it was a shame that I should be required to explain my family’s racial make-up to them in front of my daughter but that I could hopefully prove my right to walk in public with my daughter by the photo in my wallet. This seemed sufficient evidence of my bona fides and we were allowed to proceed.
My daughter at least did not seem too disturbed by the events, and I hope she didn’t understand too many of the implications though she seems to understand just about everything else she sees and hears. I can see that the officers were in a difficult situation although it is hard to see what legal justification they actually had for stopping me.
Tim Grice- San Francisco, California