8 Things Never to Say to an Adopted Child
Ours is the remarkable story of how two luminous girls born across the world in the southern portion of rural China became our daughters. But it's also our private story, our own family history, and sometimes we choose to share parts of it and sometimes we don't. So if you approach me in public and I don't want to discuss personal details of my daughters' lives, I hope you'll understand.
Interracial adoption becomes a public event because it's obvious: My children are racially Chinese; my husband and I are not. Sometimes people stare at us, sometimes they smile, and sometimes—when we're with our children—people ask us questions they would be unlikely to ask any other parent.
The staring part I understand. In my early 20s, I often stared at what I thought to be interracial adoptive families. I would want to follow them. I can't explain why, except that imagining myself in a family like theirs made some kind of bone-deep sense to me. Sometimes they would catch me staring, and I would smile warmly in an effort to convey my support. Now I realize that they didn't need my approval, or my enthusiastic smile. What they needed was for me not to notice, or at least not to make a big deal out of noticing. The thing I didn't understand at the time is that frequently what interracially adopted kids and their families long for is privacy: just to be treated like any other human being whose history the public doesn't assume it knows or assume it has the right to know.
The first time I was approached by a curious stranger was in Babies "R" Us. I was looking for a teething ring for Willa. "Where'd you get her?" a voice said, and I turned to find a woman staring at my daughter sitting serenely in her stroller.
I was startled. "Excuse me?"
"Where'd you get the baby?"
"Oh," I said. I touched my daughter's foot. "You mean where was she born?"
"Yes," she said. "Where's she from?"
"She was born in China."
"I thought so—so cute. Do you mind my asking how much she cost you?" I mumbled something like the name of my adoption agency and pushed the stroller in the opposite direction. Luckily, Willa didn't comprehend this exchange, but she's 9 now, extremely alert, and, like all of us, never more so than when someone asks intimate questions about her or her sister. She has also absorbed some of the negative theories people have about adoption. A few weeks ago, having lunch, she looked at me and casually asked, "Did you buy me and Josey?" I took a deep breath.
"Why are you asking that?"
"Because that's how you got us, right?"
"Did somebody at school ask you if you were bought?"
Willa wriggled in her chair. "I don't remember."
"Willa, adopting you—getting you and Josey—required a long list of things to do, and part of that was to pay a fee to the adoption agency for the work they did to make it possible to bring you and Josey into our family. But there's almost always the exchange of money when children come into a family."