At 4 days old, I was found by a policeman on a busy road in Hunan Province and taken to a nearby orphanage. At 9 months old, I was adopted and taken to London, England where I have lived for almost 21 years. I do not know anything about my birth parents.
I’m going to begin this article by talking about something that occurred when I was 14. The year was 2011, it was my first — and only— visit to China since my adoption. My mother and I were in the hotel elevator going up to our room when a middle-aged woman from Florida joined us. She made conversation with my mother and the topic of adoption arose. She asked, “aren’t you so thankful to be have been adopted? You could have had an awful life if you were still living in China”. I nodded uncomfortably. “Go, on! Thank her right now”. I muttered my thanks, my cheeks hot with embarrassment. This female stranger, now satisfied, left the elevator. I cried.
I was deeply upset but it was not until many years later that I understood why I felt this way. I thought, of course: I love my parents and they love me. I am so lucky to have the opportunities and privileges of which many can only dream. Why did being forced to thank my mother feel so wrong?
One often hears statements such as, “You’re so lucky that you’re not still in [insert country of origin]” and “Aren’t you grateful that your parents saved you [from a life of poverty, prostitution and lack of opportunities]?” Why are these comments problematic? Because they stem from what is known as the White Saviour Complex. This refers to a white person who helps people of colour in order to be lauded for it. Transethnic adoption usually involves a huge change in social and financial status for the adoptee. In return for being “rescued” from a life of poverty, prostitution and low life expectancy etc. adoptees should be eternally indebted to their parents and should feel never-ending gratitude. However, adoption is not a one-sided relationship. Adoptive parents feel lucky to have their children too.
And another thing: adoptees are not to be pitied. They never asked to be adopted. You might say to me, “You have everything you could ever need and more. You have had a great education and have opportunities people in China would kill for. How can you say you aren’t grateful? You’re so lucky you’re not still in China!”
The idea that non-Western children have to be saved from their circumstances prevails, even if that means taking them away from their families. In the West, no matter how ‘bad’ your life may be, the norm is that you stay with your family. Would you tell your friend’s parents that just because they are poor they should give their child up for adoption? How would you feel if someone told you that you could never see your family again, and from then on had to live with complete (albeit wealthier) strangers who didn’t look like you? What if society then told you that you had to be grateful for this new life and that you should not express any negative emotions about being taken away from your family. If it were you, you’d be upset—and adoptees are allowed to be too.
The White Saviour narrative and its unending demands for gratefulness are emotionally damaging to adoptees. They erase the trauma that always comes with adoption.
Brian Post, an American child behavioural expert, describes how our profound sense of loss and mourning, arising from adoption, will always remain with us. He argues that
“Scientific research now reveals that as early as the second trimester, the human fetus is capable of auditory processing and in fact, is capable of processing rejection in utero… routinely leading to states of anxiety and depression for the adopted child later in life.”
It is time that society acknowledges this initial trauma which is often unrecognisable and incomprehensible. Ever since that lift incident in 2011, I felt conflicted. I didn’t understand why it upset me so much. Now I do. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have a loving family. But don’t tell me I’m lucky to have been adopted.