An adoptive mom and international adoption advocate opens up about her personal experience adopting a boy from Vietnam.

young boy from vietnam
Credit: Huy Hoan/Shutterstock

There were an estimated of 4,714 children adopted internationally in the United States in the year 2017, according to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs. But that number has been declining. 

International and transracial adoptions can be particularly challenging due to the unique demands of raising a child from a different culture. Facing prejudice and ethnic stereotyping is one of the more stressful aspects of assimilation, yet the topic is rarely addressed with prospective parents.

With that in mind, we asked New York City-based freelance writer Karen Moline to share her experiences with her 4-year-old adopted Vietnamese-born son.

Why did you decide to adopt from abroad?

The way much of domestic adoption is structured in this country, you have to be chosen. I thought, "If I was pregnant and giving up a child, would I choose a single woman in her mid-40s living in New York City?" I didn't think I could handle going through that. I also wanted a child as young as possible, and children adopted internationally tend to be younger than those adopted from foster care.

So I attended an infertility and adoption conference in New York to learn more. The speaker had adopted from Vietnam, and I went with my instinct.

How did you prepare?

I didn't do nearly enough. I read a couple of books and completed a social worker home study, which every state requires. Adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry, yet there is little regulation. The amount of training that's required of adoptive parents in Australia and the United Kingdom is very intense, but in this country many people spend more time researching what kind of home computer to purchase than they do adoption agencies.

Since you aren't given much guidance, you have to be proactive. But the process is overwhelming. There's so much paperwork police clearance, health forms, medical checkups, references it's easy to lose sight of the far more important mental preparation you need for understanding your future child's needs.

What were you most unprepared for when you brought your son home?

The state of racism in this country. People are in complete denial. I thought my son would be slightly more immune because we live in New York City. But as a 2-year-old he asked me, "What color am I?" That came from hearing people talk about skin color and being aware at that age that his skin is different from some other kids'. At 2 1/2 he asked me how much he cost because he overheard some adults near him on the playground talking about adoption costs.

In this country, if you're a person of color, you will be judged automatically. And especially if you're the transracially adopted child of a white parent, you will never have privacy. That was something I could not viscerally understand until my baby was in my arms. People come up to me all the time and ask, "Who's his dad?" or "Where's he from?" They aren't asking what country he's from; they're asking how did he get here. It happens surprisingly often when we get on a subway, train, or airplane.

How do you handle inappropriate comments?

I simply smile and ask, "Why do you want to know?" If someone is truly interested in adopting, I will gladly give out my e-mail address or phone number. But to the rude people I say, "My family business is private," and walk away. Most of them get the message.

I encourage all parents to fight for diversity in their child's school and also to try to educate strangers in a gentle way and out of your child's earshot -- when they make unintentionally offensive remarks. Don't be silent. Open your eyes, open your ears, and do something about it. If everyone starts to make these ripples, it may turn into a flood.

How are you teaching your son to respond?

I'm trying to teach my son that just because someone asks a question doesn't mean it has to be answered, that he doesn't owe anyone an explanation of his origins. Once a little girl of about 8 asked him, in a belligerent tone, "Are you adopted?" And my son replied, "Yes, are you?" He said it because he was genuinely curious, but the girl changed the subject very quickly. Learning to deflect politely is useful for any act of intrusiveness.

How have you learned to help your child adjust to his new life?

When I adopted my child, I also adopted Vietnam and his language and culture. If you're not interested in the country you're adopting from, why are you adopting from it? Some of the best advice I was ever given was to tell my child the story of his adoption as soon as I got him, and I must have told him 500 times before he could even talk.

My son referred to Vietnam as his country at age 4. He knows he lived in an orphanage. I'm trying to get him comfortable with his history now so that when he's older and understands the facts surrounding his adoption he'll be better able to process them.

There is a phrase in adoption circles for the day you go home with your child: "gotcha day." But adoption is not about getting; it's about understanding your child's point of view. You need to acknowledge the loss of a country, a birth culture, and a biological family. It's not an insurmountable loss, but the happiness I have now as his mother is tempered by the knowledge of what he's given up and how I must help him deal with it.

This kind of work needs to start before the adoption. We need to have mandated education. That would require agencies to start discussing this hard and painful stuff with prospective parents. They don't because they think bringing it up will make them lose customers.