Things Not to Say to the Parents of An Adopted Ethnically Asian Child

A few days ago, I watched Things Asian Hate from comedian Eliot Chang. And I’ve realized there a few things I’d add to that list, albeit from another perspective. As an adoptive parent of an Asian American child, here’s the shit I wish people would STOP saying to us.

All of these things have been said to us at one time or another. For really and truly. Some by strangers in the grocery store, some by people who thought they knew us, some by folks who thought they were well meaning, some by people who are also adopted. All have been said by folks who, I confess to wishing had just stopped talking before they started.

Want to talk? That’s cool and we’re open to it. And open to having a discussion from a variety of perspectives. But please, oh pretty please don’t start with this crap.

“What do you know about his parents? No, you know what I mean. His REAL parents.”

“Is he Chinese or Japanese? I can never tell”

“Isn’t it amazing how little white babies can look Asian when they’re young?”

“What IS he?”

“I have real concerns about how you are going to keep up with his needs in math.”

“I am a music teacher. I have so many little Asian students and they are SO good on the violin.”

“I have a friend who has a daughter adopted from Guatemala. She’s 20 now.”

“Where is he from? No, I mean, where is he FROM?”

“It’s so good that you did this because, you know, the Asians? They don’t want their babies.”

“How much did he cost?”

“Little Oriental babies are the cutest, don’t you think?”

In Korea: “He’s so light. You are so lucky.”

“Can he speak Korean/Chinese/Japanese?”

“What province is she from in China?”

“Why didn’t you adopt an American baby? Were you afraid the mother would come take him back?”

“He’s going to hate you for this when he’s older.”

“I thought it was only girls that they didn’t want there.”

“Why did they give him away?”

“Oh, he looks just like you. I can see a little bit of Asian in you. It’s your eyes.”

At a work event on diversity with a collection on the stage of a black man, a woman in a wheelchair, and a gay man: “And speaking of diversity, here’s J____ with his baby from Korea!”

“Wow! His English is amazing!”

Looking at scribbles by our 2-year-old: “Wow! He can write Chinese!”

When alone with child: “Is his Father/Mother Asian?”

“God bless you. You are so good. So, so good.”

“I hate it that white people think they can do whatever they want and just adopt Asian kids. Do you think he even knows he’s Asian?”

“Do you get afraid he’s going to look for his real mother?”

“Your son looks JUST like a young Dalai Lama.” (For the record, NOT EVEN CLOSE.)

There’s so much more, but I think this gives you a taste of what not to say.

Have your own to add to this list? Let me know. Only by working together can we defeat the evil forces of people opening their mouths without having them actually connected to their brains.

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25 Responses to Things Not to Say to the Parents of An Adopted Ethnically Asian Child

  1. And for those of us with two adopted kids ….”Are they REALLY brother and sister?”

  2. That happens to us when out with friends. Because, you know, if our kids are both Asian, they MUST be related, right?

  3. Meg Robertson

    I second Sue Cairn’s above…and all of yours Sydne. Please,people…think before you speak.

  4. Indeed! All too often, we open our mouths before thinking.
    Of course, I’ve heard adoptive parents say excruciatingly thoughtless things too, but that’s another post. :)

  5. As a bungling, ignorant bystander, I’m wondering if there are appropriate, non-offensive ways to open a conversation about adoption? I can see how these statements are insulting and I wonder if/when I’m in a situation in which adoption becomes a topic of conversation, is there any way for a currently child-free person to broach the discussion without accidentally insulting any parties involved or sounding like an idiot?

    I’m asking this sincerely. I know how biting stupid comments are, but all of us have been in a situation in which a touchy and/or personal topic comes up and we are ill prepared to participate and we (or I, I’m not accusing any one else here) start fumbling and end up saying something offensive without meaning to. So besides remembering that silence is golden, how should one navigate this particular topic?

  6. What a wonderful question. First let me state that even by asking, you are starting from the right place. My issue is when I’m at the grocery store with my kid, trying to get through my day, and someone feels the need to chat about my child, our family, etc. I’m just trying to do my shopping and my kid and I are not there to satiate your curiosity!
    Starting from a place of admitting that you don’t necessarily know the right thing to say is totally legitimate and okay. Aren’t we all a bit more forgiving when we know that someone around us is learning? I certainly am! I hope I am never afraid to ask about the correct terminology, etc.
    As an adoptive parent, I feel like I have a lot to learn from so many people, adult adoptees in particular, and I hope I never afraid to admit what I don’t know. How else can I learn?

  7. I also think it really depends upon the particular situation and it’s really case specific. A party with a family whose child is adopted? Gauge where they are with it and if the opening is there. A conversation that involves adoption? There are probably going to be any number of opinions, ideas, etc. See where you fit in the context of that conversation and ask questions from a perspective of being open and perhaps listening more than talking.
    Also, if this is something you are truly interested in, read widely. There are any number of adoption blogs out there, and books I would recommend like Adoption Nation by Adam Pertman.
    And hey, thanks again for asking!

  8. As an adoptee I’ve gotten a lot if these. The one that hit home the most was “Where are you from? No, where are you FROM?” All caps don’t do the emphasis justice. Personally I enjoy giving those people the run around and act confused when “New York” isn’t a good enough answer.

    I’ve also gotten, “Do you know martial arts?” a lot, along with “Wow, you don’t even have an accent!”

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. One of the things I feel is part of my job as a parent is to teach my son how to deal with this as it comes, and to do so in a way that feels best for him. We try to model the idea that our family story, etc., is no one’s business unless we choose to share it! I do the same confused thing when Massachusetts doesn’t seem like a good enough answer for where he’s from.
    We still wish that when the person asked what province, we had said “Actually, Massachusetts isn’t a province, It’s a Commonwealth.”
    And I totally forgot about the martial arts one! We’ve gotten that one too! UGH!!! :)

  10. It somehow gets even more complicated later on. The worst was when I would be out with my Dad as a teenager and people would ask: “How long have you two been a couple?”

    So awkward for him, me, and our relationship. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but it really influenced the way that I behaved with my dad in public from then on.

  11. I cannot even imagine how awful that is! And how terrible that it had to impact your way of interacting with your own parent! I am curious to know how you two processed it together. Did you talk about it?

  12. Can’t people just say, “Hey, cute kid!” and leave it at that?

  13. Anglo woman to me (Asian stranger) about her own grandchildren: “They’re cute when they’re young but what happens when they grow up?”

  14. Nope! no talking. Just aversion. It’s sad because it altered so many of my ideas. I didn’t let him walk me down the aisle when we got married, I didn’t have a father-daughter dance, etc. It was just kind of too late for me to feel comfortable with all that.

    I’ve heard of that happening to a lot of adoptees, both men and women. I guess the woody allen/houseboy scenario has marred a lot of relationships!

  15. NO! I hope that her grandchildren are not permitted to spend much time with her!!
    And I forgot about the folks who have said to me, “You know, you’re going to have Asian grandchildren.”

  16. My peanut is such a snuggler and I hate to think of that ending more quickly because of people being insensitive idiots! He’s still perfectly willing to walk down the street holding my hand, and it makes us both feel good. How terrible to have that feeling of togetherness and closeness marred by things like you describe. Makes me want to give my boy a big hug right now!

  17. “I have real concerns about how you are going to keep up with his needs in math.”

    That’s dickish and invasive on SO MANY LEVELS. I don’t even know where to start. (All the comments are crazy, but this one is just a bit like “… Really?”)

  18. It was from a colleague at my husband’s job who actually took him out to lunch just to have this conversation with him! Can you imagine??

  19. One thing I hated when I was younger, after revealing my ethnicity, was for someone to ask me to say something in “my” language. Back then, I would give the old litany of swear words; now, I’m not here to entertain or perform for you.
    Forty-three years old, and it still burns me.

  20. Things Not to Say to the Parents of An Adopted Ethnically Asian Child

    I don’t think you can really say that a child is “ethnically Asian”. Asian is more of a racial/geographic category whereas ethnicity refers to a people like Korean, Persian, etc.

    All have been said by folks who, I confess to wishing had just stopped talking before they started.

    You need to do what feels good to you. If that means walking away, so be it. You don’t have to put up with such ignorant comments. It is not your job to educate others or satisfy their curiosity.

    But I think a few of the comments you mentioned were not really offensive like:

    “Can he speak Korean/Chinese/Japanese?”

    Some children do get adopted at a later age when they can speak some of their first language. If the asker knows that you adopted your child before this age, then I could see why it’s offensive, but not if it’s a complete stranger.

    “When alone with child: “Is his Father/Mother Asian?”

    I think this is a fair question to ask if they do not know he is adopted. A lot of mixed children take after their non-white parent. This includes a lot of mixed Asians as well. I know that a lot of biological parents get offended when asked if their mixed child is adopted when their child looks very different from them. In either case, I think it’s a fair question, but people have become agitated, rightfully so, after hearing so many ignorant comments that their shackles are up. Not everyone is going to know that your son is adopted and I don’t think that’s being ignorant. Most children are not adopted, but raised by their biological parents. And there are a few mixed couples that adopt as well, so I don’t really think you can assign a false assumption to the questioner. I would be offended if they said, “Oh, his mother/father HAS to be Asian.” Because there is clearly a false assumption in that. But questions that are asked for confirmation aren’t necessarily offensive.

  21. I don’t know if I’m insensitive or a jerk or conversationally challenged or what, but I’ve put my foot in my mouth so many times over the years. The thing is, if I want to communicate, I’m probably going to put my foot in my mouth. I always appreciate forgiveness. I tell people all the time that I love their freckles before I even know what I’m doing, because I do, I love their freckles, they’re so beautiful. And one time I saw a store clerk who had a huge birthmark that looked like a butterfly and I was like That’s the most beautiful birthmark I’ve ever seen!!! I guess one philosophy is that we should ignore each others’ differences and avoid the possibility of offense, but then sometimes I think the best part of people are their differences, their unique histories, their quirks, the things that make me look twice–all these things just take my breath away with their beauty.

  22. Q: Are they your real kids?
    A: Well, I am not going to let you touch them to see.

    Q: What language does she speak?
    A: None. She is 6 months old.

    And this one still makes my blood boil
    well-meaning upper middle class liberal white adult offering me a parenting compliment: You know, I never think of them as Asian.
    Me: Why not?

  23. You just made me laugh out loud with that last one. I totally forgot about that one! We’ve gotten it too. We live in a “progressive” area and sometimes, the folks here are worse than those in places where it is supposedly more conservative. That well-meaning liberalism, always from a white adult, drives me INSANE!

  24. I was adopted, one of my children was adopted from Korea. You are entitled to your feelings and certainly some of these comments were worse than others. But I feel that it is noteworthy that you remember ALL of these detailed comments and you sound sooo angry about them. I just, as an adoptee and adoptive mom, don’t get it!!! It doesn’t have to be that hard! Or difficult!

  25. Not angry anymore. Just incredulous and find it notable that these are so common and heard over and over again by so many of us. And really, the piece is a riff on the “things people say” theme that is going around the interwebs. I do a lot of writing around adoption and this is just one piece that came to me in response to something done by another writer.

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