Impure Acts: The Practical Politics of Cultural Studies
Developing out of a diasporic consciousness and a common history, international adoptees create an imagined community Anderson, International adoptees create spaces in which they narrate their life stories, disidentify with exclusive membership in white communities, and forward hybrid identities. Global flows of communication, including list serves, instant messaging, and multiple user chat rooms, h, in ave facilitated international adoptees' ability to imagine themselves as part of a transnational community of adoptees and as connected with larger Asian diasporic communities.
Indigo Williams Willing, an adoptee community intellectual, writes that the adoptees create virtual communities that support 'solidarity, collectivity, and association' 6. Face-to-face and online interactions develop an autobiographical storytelling culture and a desire for alternative historical imaginings. Imagining international adoptees as a community simply through communication, as Benedict Anderson conceives, glosses over shared trauma that they experience because of the displacement from their birth countries Eng, The struggle over adoption truths becomes an exercise in learning and teaching about life, death, and family.
In this sense, remembering trauma becomes a part of public pedagogy Hall, a; Giroux, The creation of collective memory and struggle over meaning are seen as interrelated. A significant feature of the community's activism involves developing a unique collective identity; therefore studying racial identity creation becomes imperative in understanding activism. Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the fundamental task of racial movements is to form new identities and meanings One can see a new form of identification beginning with Asian adoptee mobilization in the s.
Borrowing from Stuart Hall, one can see how identities are historically constructed rather than fixed and essentialized. The Asian adoptee identity becomes not only about what is, but also incorporates the evolving imagination of what is possible Hall, As young children, many adoptees experienced their racial identity as white. Although they saw an individual with Asian features looking back at them in the mirror, they had little context or space in which to sustain an Asian racial or ethnic identity.
Some began to find alternative spaces in which to assert an Asian identity as they grew into their early teens and twenties. What was missing was a conscious organized collective identity among the adoptees. Through community building, members develop alternatives to the orphan identity. The adoption gaze categorizes Asian children as malnourished orphans, susceptible to diseases, and requiring medicalization.
International adoption institutions discipline and categorize children's bodies in a Foucauldian sense. The concept of biopolitics explains how adoption agencies mark and categorize children's bodily attributes, making them either 'healthy' or 'hard to adopt', producing a type of bodily dividing practice. Children whose parentage is not known, or whose living parents have relinquished them, become orphans. Yet the governmental designation of orphan is contrary to a common understanding of an orphan as one whose parents are dead.
With participation in the community, most members have replaced orphan with the more politically engaging adoptee identity. The latter is a term embedded with implicit agency, extricating itself from the passive suffering orphan body, which has been saved by humanitarianism but has no collective voice. Some members insist on using the term 'abductee' to communicate an identity of one who had no choice in leaving his or her homeland, and becomes a type of forced exile and a stolen child Cho, Promoting these adoptee and abductee identities is a type of pedagogical activism where adoptees teach each other new identities through which to form an alternative adoption practice.
Employing the concept of community discourses enables us to see adoptee narratives as continuously negotiated and as part of an emerging political consciousness. Foucault's notion of power can be read as leaving little room for oppositional agency. There have been a number of critiques of his definition of power, and of the problematic implications it has for agency. However, this does not mean that power results from the choice or decision of an individual subject. Foucault argues that where 'there is power, there is resistance', although he has been criticized for inadequately explaining how power is enforced or resisted His focus is more on pervasive discourses than on the actions of individuals Sewell, In the case of international adoption, I agree with the notion that Foucault's definition of power opens up the possibility for agency, however ambiguously defined.
In Foucault's concept of governmentality, individuals play a role in their own self-governance, producing reality through 'rituals of truth', which a subject can partially conform to, or resist. In international adoption, social work and psychology form expert discourses to command the power of governmentality.
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Collaborating institutional bodies and schools of adoption thought and practices co-produce rules, terminology, and general discourse. Taken all together, these ultimately form the adoption truths that many of the participants in my study struggle against. Social workers and academics largely establish their truths through conducting studies on adoptee children. The adoptee community members, however, acting as their own ethnographers, have uncovered different truths, which are informed by their experiences within the adult adoptee community.
New community rules revolve around the legitimate right for adoptees to form truths from what they claim are empathetic experiences rather than professional knowledge. The adoptees' insertion of themselves into the study of their community creates an emerging category of adoptee expertise.
The intellectuals of the adoptee community, who are conscious of their representational strategies, become their own expert practitioners and autoethnographers. Fielding questions from other community members and weaving various Vietnamese adoptee stories into interpretive narratives can be a mechanism for public pedagogy. The politics of recognition forms an essential part of autoethnography, a part of the fundamental public pedagogy of adoptees.
The recognition of identities entails a measure of social acceptance for an individual's manner of self-awareness Honneth, Conceptualizing Asian children as those who were saved hides numerous complexities, both of how adoptees left Asia and how they make sense of their lives.
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The adoptees' community uses the politics of recognition to dismantle its victim status and add a more positive interpretation of adoptees' relationships to adoption history and diasporic communities. However, Foucault's politics of truth entails that the governing representations of bodies not only operate at the level of consciousness, but they must also be implicitly political The pedagogy of adoption attempts to influence consciousness, but it is the realm of adoption practice that turns pedagogy into a regime of truth.
The adoption community creates an anti-assimilation truth that requires adoptive parents and adoptive institutions to acknowledge that adoptees have the right to keep ties to their respective homelands, and insist on being not just culturally but also racially different from their parents. Much of the pedagogical work within the adoptee community involves attempting to locate learners and to find out in what ways adoption politics disciplines them through a normalizing gaze Foucault, Some community intellectuals attempt to find a critical mass with which to challenge expert knowledge by using empathetic experiences rather than social work education and policy.
They wish to contend with this expert adoption knowledge i. They encourage adoptees to have a voice in the social policy towards adoption, as a way to decenter the authority of adoption agencies. For Henry Giroux, public pedagogy is a way for communities to exercise ideological and institutional power To accomplish public pedagogy, adoptees form activist narrative discourses and racial projects, where racial projects are a type of activism, an 'interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines' Omi and Winant, This concept assists in the exploration of the activism Vietnamese adoptees, as one of their endeavors is to insist on the racialized understanding of adoptive families.
Racial projects define new adoption truths. These truths are not essentialized, but are rather a product of collective efforts. Interpreting racial dynamics through the mobilization of pedagogy becomes part of the community's activist engagement. Activism consists of participation in panels and list serves through which to educate and mentor adoptive parents and children, creating Vietnamese adoptee organizations, activist biographies and collective identities, and employment and volunteer work in adoption agencies. These activities function as racial projects in that their intention is to remedy the racial inequalities of adoption by educating adoptive families and adoption agencies.
They also forward articulations of a hybrid identity, one that is not specifically Vietnamese or American.
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As a Vietnamese adoptee, I always searched for a sense of legitimacy, a sense of purpose, and somewhere to place myself comfortably in the spectrum of identity. I always belonged to myriad worlds - my estranged birthplace, the Middle Eastern countries in which I spent my youth, the activist communities I've clung to, etc. Eventually, I came to refer to myself as 'misplaced baggage' - something lost in transit.
Anh Dao Kolbe, Vietnamese adoptee, Kolbe replaces the idea of an assimilated adoptee with one that is influenced by shifting geography and political engagement. Borrowing from Asian-American cultural theorists, I refer to hybridity as the formation of cultural objects and prejudices by the histories of uneven power relationships Eng, ; Lowe, It must be acknowledged, for example, that the adoption of Asians into white American families is the consequence of the United States' imperialist wars in Asia.
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Hybridity does not suggest the assimilation of Asian adoptees into the dominant culture, but signals the evolutionary history of survival within unequal power relations. Migration without an adoptee agency but rather through a system of racial hierarchy is what forms Asian adoptees' hybridity. Therefore, hybridity is not a free movement between an array of chosen identities. It is an uneven process where some adoptees articulate the political violence of the US, racial hierarchies, and capitalist imperatives as shaping the biopolitics of adoption.
Indigo Williams Willing's writings identify the history of Vietnamese adoptees as being entangled with that of the Vietnamese diaspora. This involvement becomes a project of the community politics of recognition where it gains power by building alliances with the larger diaspora. Although the community acknowledges its differences from the refugee community, it uses a type of strategic essentialism as temporary solidarity for the purpose of collective action.
On the other hand, adoptees have been successful in creating ties with some Asian community groups, particularly those with Western born second-generation members, whose relationship to their homelands is also ambiguous and uncertain. The biopolitics of adoption rarely involves a program in which adoptees can create links with other communities of color. Although social workers involved in adoption are socializing agents, the adoptees are not normalized in quite the way that was intended.
Post-adoption programs provide adoptees with opportunities to connect with the Asian diaspora, but they do so in limited ways. Lately, the adoptee community has been challenging biopolitical exclusion by independently creating an alliance with diasporic and refugee communities.
In some ways, the strategic essentialism of Asian adoptees, to invoke Gayatri Spivak's term, mimics the larger project to create an Asian-American identity from geographically and linguistically diverse groups Lowe, This seemingly essentialist relationship to the diaspora becomes a self-conscious construction. Although members are aware of their differences from the larger diasporic community, they are still willing to align themselves for the purpose of claiming a type of Vietnamese identity. Similarly to the creation of Asian America, the grouping of the adoptee community is neither a natural nor a static category.
It is a socially constructed collective produced for emotional and political motivations. It mimics Spivak's conception of being partially organized around racial and ethnic signifiers. Lowe argues that this operates in the continuous creation of Asian America. The Asian adoptee community is simultaneously a subset of, and separate from, the larger Asian-American community. Community members disrupt the truth discourses that displace Asian adoptees from the center of Asian America.
This is not to say that members of this community are not on some level ambivalent about racial minority identities and static conceptions of citizenship. Another Vietnamese adoptee, Chris, says in an interview:.
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The intellectuals of the adoptee community attempt to resist essentialism, especially in relation to the power hierarchies between adoptees and the biopolitics of adoption. They do not suggest, however, doing away with the notion of an adoptee identity that has emerged from the gains of mobilization since the s. The Vietnamese Adoptee Network vice-president writes:.
Barbara Yngvesson and Maureen Mahoney examine identity narratives of adult adoptees who engagein struggles for the cultural meaning of hybridity and authenticity. The path toward a non-assimilative hybridity is a result of community negotiation. Some members reformulate their life stories to emphasize new experiences that come with exploring their adoption histories and return trips to their birth countries.
Publicly highlighting selected life events allows the community to move beyond understandings of identity as fixed, toward a more nuanced approach that encompasses the fluidity of identity that develops with membership in a community. In this sense, it allows flexibility in understanding not only one's identity, but also the narratives that form this identity. Autobiographical pedagogy offers an opportunity to consider the entire process of the relationship between adoptee agency, truth telling, and biopolitics.
Narrative pedagogical storytelling provides community members with an opportunity to impose order on otherwise disconnected stories of adoptees, and to create continuity between an imagined community's past, present, and future. Those who tell and publish have the power to commemorate adoptees' history, become contenders in framing larger international adoption debates, and have the potential to form expert knowledge. Telling life stories becomes part of the adoptee community's pedagogy focused on appropriating their own histories.