Made in Denmark?Is adoption all good? Researcher Lene Myong Petersen takes a critical look with feminist eyes at the phenomenon transnational adoption – the subject of her prize-winning doctoral thesis.
Lene Myong Petersen received the KRAKA Prize 2010 for her doctorate thesis.
In March 2009, there was an air of jubilation in Copenhagen’s popular gay Café Oscar. The rapturous applause and exclamations of joy signified that the day was a special one for Denmark’s gay and lesbian population. On 17 March, a majority in the Danish parliament, Folketinget, passed a highly controversial bill giving homosexual men and women the right to adopt children on a par with heterosexual and single people.
However, while many were celebrating, one person was finding it difficult to share in their euphoria. Even though adoption researcher Lene Myong Petersen fully supported the amendment, she felt that the whole adoption debate lacked critical discussion. For her, the debate, which has been running since 1999 when homosexuals received the right to adopt stepchildren, has been very limited in its scope. For the most part, the debate has focused upon three issues: the extent to which homosexuals can be as good parents as heterosexuals; the consequences for the children of homosexuals; and the reaction in the birth countries if the adoptive couple is homosexual.
Facts on adoption
However, the big issue of transnational adoption – the fact that the white middle-class of the northern, developed countries are getting children from the poor, southern, underdeveloped countries – is being talked about by no one. Nor is anyone discussing what it means for those who are central to the transnational adoption phenomenon – namely the adoptees themselves.
Adoption – a win-win situation for all involved
“In the public debate, transnational adoption is depicted as an expression of altruism and as a win-win situation for all involved. But no one is talking about the fact that transnational adoption is a form of welfare provision meeting the need for more children in Denmark. Nor are we discussing the conditions that affect those people giving their children up for adoption. And no one is studying the problems that transnational adoptees face every day of their lives in Denmark,” explains Lene Myong Petersen.
Lene Myong Petersen has spent four years researching the transnational adoption phenomenon. She has focused on its effects in terms of identity, kinship, self-perception, love, sexuality and other key parameters in the life stories told to and told by Korean adoptees who have grown up in Denmark.
Herself adopted from Korea, Lene Myong recently presented her doctoral thesis, entitled, Adopted – Recounts of transnational and racialised existence, at The Danish School of Education, at Aarhus University. Her research, which she has conducted within a framework of feminist understanding and analysis, is based upon in-depth interviews with a total of 35 men and women Korean adoptees brought up in Denmark. Together, these interviews show some common patterns: Danish society does recognise them as ‘Danes’ – but not all the time.
A real family
‘Who are you?’ That’s a question most of us are asked at some time or another. With the question comes a certain expectation of a definite reply, often relating to kinship, believes Lene Myong. And precisely this concept of kinship permeates throughout her thesis.
The role played by kinship in the whole debate about transnational adoption is a significant one. This question is seen not merely in its formal context, such as the state deciding who is allowed to adopt and therefore be granted access to kinship, but also, to a much greater extent, how kinship is constructed by and for the adoptees themselves. In the family: Are you the child of your Danish parents? Or the child of your biological parents? In the community: Are you ‘Danish’? Are you more ‘Dane’ than a second-generation immigrant with a Pakistani background? For yourself: Is there some bond between yourself and the other Korean adoptees? Or do you have nothing in common with them?
“Kinship is interesting because it’s a fundamental element within society. Kinship tells us something about the circles within which we can live – which relationships are possible and which are not? Who is it possible to be in a family with and who is it not? Kinship is quite simply about creating a sense of self,” she explains.
In this way, transnational adoption functions like a prism through which we can read the prevailing perceptions of what counts as a ‘proper kinship’ in a Danish late modernity.
A complicated family story
In the material gathered through Lene Myong’s interviews, it is clear how much of an influence heteronormative constructions of kinship have on our lives. Because most people have a perception that a real family consists of one set of parents, or alternatively one single parent, it is difficult for adoptees to have a family story which includes two sets of evenly valued parents – the biological parents and the adoptive parents.
“Biological kinship and adoptive kinship are perceived to be mutually exclusive – you relinquish your Korean kinship in order to adopt a new Danish kinship. However, juggling between the two is not impossible, but it does require an fair amount of mental focus as you’re constantly faced with situations requiring you to take a stance one way or the other: Just who are my real parents? How many parents can I have? We think along the lines of the kinship model in which it’s only possible to have one set of parents, and in the case of the transnational adoptee, this is then the Danish parents. Many of those interviewed grow up being unable to imagine that they have another set of parents,” tells Lene Myong.
Some of those interviewed by Lene Myong have parents who view biological kinship as something threatening to their own parental position. Others support their children in their search for their biological parents.
It is exactly this search for their biological roots (and being forced to choose between two different kinships) that has proved highly popular with Danish TV viewers.
The hit Danish TV show ‘Sporløs’, which helps Danes to track down and find long-lost relatives, achieved million-strong audience figures when it was broadcast on Denmark’s state DR channel. A number of the cases in the programme involved grown-up adoptees tracing their biological roots. According to Lene Myong, the way many such stories ended is very interesting. The programme does its utmost to emphasise the importance of biological kinship – after all, who wouldn’t want to go searching for his or her biological parents? However, it is often the adoptive kinship that comes off best in the end. In many of the cases, tracking down and finding biological roots only serves to reinforce the fact that the person is, in actual fact, mostly Danish – and that it is his or her adoptive family who is their ‘real’ family.
And precisely this ‘Danishness’ is itself a key criteria for kinship.
Kinship and ethnic identity
How do adoptive parents bring up a child with tolerance and acceptance ensuring he or she is treated in exactly the same was as all the other classmates born to Danish mothers and fathers?
The answer is to ensure that you tell your child that he or she is just like all the others – like the Danes. As one interviewee’s mothers explains, when her daughter asks her what she should say when the other children ask where she comes from, she tells her to say, “I come from home”.
Lene Myong’s research shows that whilst race and racial differences are played down and almost taboo in adoptive families, ethnicity is something that is strongly apprised.
“There was much emphasis placed on turning the adoptive children into Danish children, and the fact that Danishness is something to be shared within the adoptive family was always keenly stressed. Sharing a common feeling of Danishness is a way of creating unity within a family, and compensates somewhat for the lack of a biological unity. As no biological union exists in the adoptive family, other ways of unifying the family must be established, including through the creation of a common ethnic identity. Ethnicity is interpreted as a glue, binding people together. On the other hand, race is perceived as something that separates people. This goes some way to explaining why one is promoted and the other is played down,” she explains.
Those interviewed by Lene Myong all see themselves as being Danish to some extent or another – at least most of the time. Because, as one interviewee put it, you might have a rucksack full of ‘meat and potatoes’ (a phrase denoting something archetypically Danish based on a stereotypical Danish meal), but if your rucksack is not open and people can not see inside, you risk being singled out as ‘foreign’ by the average Dane on the street. Having ‘meat and potatoes’ in your Danish Fjällräven backpack, wearing a ‘studenterhue’ cap (a tradition practiced by Danish college graduates), and attending a Højskole (Folk High School – an institution woven deep into the fabric of Danish society) still does not stop people asking “Where do you come from?” Nor does it prevent people at social events from asking whether or not you have considered finding your biological parents.
“As has been said, racialised differences aren’t talked about much within the families. One reason for this is the notion that in Denmark we are colour blind – a colour-blind society where race has no meaning. But this creates a schism. On the one hand, adoptees are brought up under the impression that we live in a colour-blind society; on the other hand, many adoptees experience that they are racialised and singled out as being different from the norm.”
Using findings from her interviews, Lene Myong shows that there is a great deal of assimilation logic in the stories told by the interviewees. One example is that many – particularly when younger – chose white boyfriends and girlfriends. For others, the thought of dating an Asian is completely out of the question. Perhaps this is because having a white boyfriend or girlfriend is something that signals being Danish.
“If you choose a white partner, you can avoid marking race as a category – “race doesn’t mean much to me. It just feels natural that being in Denmark I choose a white person”. Whereas should you choose an Asian partner, you risk signalling: “Race, and perhaps adoption, means a lot to me” – in other words, marking these categories and bringing them to the fore.”
How sexuality, gender and race relate to each other constitutes a large part of Lene Myong’s thesis.
“One of my principle points is that sexuality and race are connected. Often, we think about sexuality and attraction in relation to gender categories, but the interviewees’ stories indicate that sexuality is not merely a question of gender – it is also a question of race and ethnicity. The fact that the vast majority of those interviewed could not imagine themselves together with an Asian partner tells us that we must regard attraction and desire as racialised constructions. Race is of enormous importance when it comes to which intimate relationships we can imagine ourselves being part of.”
Altruism conceals an unequal world
With her doctorate thesis, Lene Myong endeavours to qualify and to stoke the Danish adoption debate. Up until now, little research has been carried out in this field in Denmark.
Lene Myong’s research indicates that Danish society, in general, has an idealised view of transnational adoption. It is perceived as an expression of an altruistic good deed by both the Danish state and by those directly involved in ensuring that children from poorer southern countries can be given new kinship in the rich north. This discourse has also been prominent in the whole debate about the right of homosexuals to adopt.
In 2002, for example, we could read in a press release from Pernille Rozenkrantz Theil, member of the left-wing Enhedslisten party, ‘throughout the world, children are living in squalid conditions. These children can be given a secure and loving upbringing with homosexual parents’.
“I hope that my research will be used to re-evaluate some of the prevailing conceptions about transnational adoption. I don’t think that by definition transnational adoption is wrong, but the way it is idealised conceals the asymmetrical power structure and injustices that also exist. By glorifying transnational adoption as providing a romanticised form of kinship, it’s possible to avoid talking about why there is a need for transnational adoption in the first place. And the reason a need arises in the first place is that there are poor people in the world, there is an unequal sharing of the world’s resources, and that there is a lack of human rights. With the tenacious idealisation of transnational adoption, all these uncomfortable questions can be blotted out.”
Lene Myong also wonders why the importance of biological kinship is so strongly emphasised when Danish children are forcibly removed from parents, and why people stress the importance of retaining some relations with the child’s biological parents. After all, compared to the number of foreign-born children given up for adoption, the number of Danish children given up for adoption is negligible. However, when dealing with a foreign-born adoptee’s relation to his or her biological parents, the logic is turned around. Unlike countries such as the USA, Denmark permits only closed, anonymous adoptions which means that once the adoption proceedings have been completed, the biological parents have no rights nor are they allowed any contact with the child. Here, any principles stressing the importance of maintaining some relations with the biological parents are completely cast aside.
“When it comes to transnational adoption, a whole different set of standards apply. The biological relationship is not prioritised whatsoever. Nor could you imagine anyone in Denmark using this as good argument to convince young single mothers to give their children up for adoption – give your children up for adoption and your life will be much better. This is a difference which I personally think is highly thought provoking.”
New kinships in the future
Lene Myong also hopes that her research will inspire feminist gender researchers to view the phenomenon of transnational adoption from a new, more critical perspective.
“In feminist theory, there has generally been a tendency towards apprising alternative forms of kinship – one of which is transnational adoption. This message that there are many ways of living is something I personally can identify with. But I want to go one step further because transnational adoption is also about mainly brown women giving up their children so that mainly white western women can realise their dreams of kinship and motherhood. This poses a number of challenges to feminist gender research. I hope that these challenges will be tackled because people have been taking it for granted that there is no downside to the practice of transnational adoption.”
Until this happens, new developments are underway. Today, the 200,000 children and adults born in Korea and adopted in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the USA are widely dispersed around the globe. Many connect with each other and an increasing number move to Korea for longer or shorter periods.
“I don’t think people imagined this when transnational adoption came onto the global scene in the 60s and 70s. But it tells us that transnational adoption is also a process of migration which has yet to come to an end. Admittedly, the number of those moving to Korea isn’t huge, but the tendency is on the increase. Currently, a significant process of mobilisation is taking place among those who were adopted, particularly in the fields of political activism, art and research. This, in a very exiting way, is shaking the very foundations of the perception of transnational adoption as a win-win situation.”