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Asian International Adoptions

Summary and Keywords

Although Americans have adopted and continue to adopt children from all over the world, Asian minors have immigrated and joined American families in the greatest numbers and most shaped our collective understanding of the process and experiences of adoption. The movement and integration of infants and youths from Japan, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea, and China (the most common sending nations in the region) since the 1940s have not only altered the composition and conception of the American family but also reflected and reinforced the complexities of U.S. relations with and actions in Asia. In tracing the history of Asian international adoption, we can undercover shifting ideas of race and national belonging. The subject enriches the fields of Asian American and immigration history.

Keywords: Asian international adoption, refugee, transracial, transnational, International Social Service, Amerasian, Cold War, humanitarian, Pearl S. Buck, redemption, Operation Babylift, heritage tours, Hong Kong Project, Harry and Bertha Holt, Syngman Rhee

Although Americans have adopted and continue to adopt children from all over the world, Asian minors have immigrated and joined American families in the greatest numbers and most shaped our collective understanding of the process and experiences of adoption. The movement and integration of infants and youths from Japan, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Korea, and China (the most common sending nations in the region) since the 1940s have not only altered the composition and conception of the American family but also reflected and reinforced the complexities of U.S. relations with and actions in Asia. In tracing the history of Asian international adoption, we undercover the forms and legacies of U.S. military, economic, and political interventions; conceptions of race in the United States and Asian countries; and revisions in immigration policy that enact national beliefs about belonging. Moreover, this special group of immigrants illuminates the broader Asian diaspora triggered by political unrest and globalization.

Challenges to racial segregation, gender codes, and conceptions of youth wrought by social upheavals in the middle of the 20th century altered the demand for and acceptance of adopted children in the United States. As women married later and postponed childbirth, fertility rates fell. Meanwhile, the stigmas respectively attached to abortion and single motherhood dissipated, reducing the supply of children surrendered for adoption. During the 1940s and 1950s, social workers and social scientists also arrived at the position that children were better off inside families rather than state-run institutions, professional wisdom that made adoption all the more acceptable. These domestic developments created a disjuncture: more American couples and individuals wished to parent but struggled to locate available children (especially the white, healthy infants most coveted).1 Their search led them beyond national borders during a period of heightened U.S. involvement overseas. At first, a war-ravaged Europe provided the setting and inspiration for international adoption. The presence of the U.S. military and a refugee crisis prompted the first formal provisions for the migratory practice. Within the 1948 Displaced Persons Act—legislation designed to facilitate the processing of hundreds of thousands of European refugees—policy makers added a special orphan category. Although the category was open to all European children, those unsettled by Soviet occupation in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Greece, and Italy most often took advantage of the five thousand visas made available. In total, more than four thousand were adopted by Americans between 1948 and 1953.2 Their absorption by American families expressed not only the power of anti-Communist beliefs in shaping refugee policy but also a shift in ideas of care and connection; rather than protect children overseas by investing in their families, communities, and institutions, Americans after World War II would increasingly choose to bring them to the United States. This idea of adoption as a solution to international political and economic crises showcased a confidence in family as the locus for change and the realization of U.S. geopolitical goals.

By the mid-1950s, American demand for European babies outstripped the dwindling supply as nations of that continent recovered, rebuilt, and reformed racial ideologies that had initially stigmatized the offspring of black American GIs and European women.3 Moreover, although most Americans wished to adopt babies, the majority of available European children were adolescents. Jewish agencies, tending to Jewish youths, preferred to resettle them in Europe or Palestine rather than the United States. Finally, the renaissance of nationalism persuaded European countries to withhold rather than deliver the next generation to expectant foreign families.4

Looking to Asia

Still swayed by ascendant humanitarian principles of the Cold War era—namely, a faith in the curative powers of democratic institutions and the Christian values of the United States—and a desire to parent, Americans looked elsewhere. In the late 1950s, Chinese American and white American families acknowledged and chose to adopt children from Hong Kong who had fled the mainland after the Communist Revolution. Death and desperation on the crowded island pressed relatives to abandon or find alternatives for their kin. One grandmother, Ling Wing Yung, described life in Hong Kong as “very hard. To make a living at my age in order to support myself and my two grand-children . . . is unimaginable.” Although she recognized the existence of freedom in Hong Kong, she feared the eventual advance of Communism. “I would not like to have my grandchildren grow up under such circumstances,” she pleaded in a letter to friends, so “those are the reasons I want you to take them to the States. They could grow up with their minds free from fear . . . Will you help me?”5 By the early 1960s under the authority of the Hong Kong Project cooperating U.S. and Hong Kong organizations had recognized the concerns of Lin Wing Yung and placed as many as five hundred Chinese children in the United States, first wooing Chinese American families whom they argued best understood China’s political situation and could best communicate its cultural traditions.6 Many of those immigrants who answered the call were distant relatives or friends of the children. In fact, their applications doubled the number submitted by prospective parents who were unrelated. This imbalance raised concerns among the project’s case workers, who wondered whether Chinese families were manipulating the program: using it as a method of migration to improve the next generation’s economic opportunities rather than a means of last resort. Oftentimes, those children placed with Chinese American kin retained ties to their birth families, thus creating truly transnational families. Moreover, the shape and strength of these connections challenged ideas about the exclusivity and singularity of the adoptive family. Rather than the severance of old ties and creation of new, adoption could multiply affective attachments.7 The uniqueness of the Hong Kong example within the larger history of Asian international adoption was also apparent in the demographic profile of the adoptees. Chinese American families more readily chose older children and boys (a reversal of the gender and age preferences expressed by those seeking to adopt elsewhere in Asia.) Yet, in their explanations of their motives to adopt, many highlighted the same concerns about the safety and security of the children that had energized other couples. Moreover, white Americans also wished to help Chinese children, wishes that invited experts to revisit the convention of racial matching that had guided adoption practice and discuss the role of racial difference in transnational families.8 In their diligence, social workers tried to measure the relative racial tolerance of white couples. Experts stated their reservations about the ability of these families and their communities to accept the physical differences of “full” Chinese boys and girls but ultimately concluded that change was possible and endorsed the transracial placements.9

These conversations remained relevant as Americans turned their gaze to Japan and Korea. In these locations of U.S. military involvement, media reports of mixed-race GI babies being ostracized by discerning locals, who insisted upon racial purity, mandated a swift response. The Japanese-American Joint Committee for Help to Mixed-Blood Children; Sawada Miki, a Japanese heiress; and Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of American missionaries to China and revered author, stepped to the forefront of the cause.10 Buck founded the Welcome House Adoption Agency in 1949 to help a population she termed Amerasians, including mixed-race Japanese and Okinawans born during and after formal U.S. occupation of the island nation. One year earlier, Miki had opened the Elizabeth Saunders Home, the most well known of many orphanages in Japan that accommodated children with Japanese mothers and American fathers. In addition to feeding, clothing, and housing the children she believed suffered extreme prejudice, Miki sought to instill Christian values and locate adoptive families. This involved courting media attention and lobbying the U.S. Congress to find ways within or outside existing immigration laws to permit the children’s passage out of Japan. In the absence of precise regulations and procedures that would develop as transnational adoptions became more commonplace, children from Japan were adopted via proxy and often delivered to American families without formal background checks. This relatively unencumbered process and the publicity Miki generated through news coverage and her writing of books, journal articles, and magazine pieces helped legitimize and popularize such forms of family formation.11 By the mid-1970s, more than 4,500 Japanese children had been adopted into the United States.12


Ultimately, Korea became the favorite, most abundant source for Asian children during the early Cold War. Between 1950 and 1965, an estimated 5,500 children of full or partial Korean descent were brought to the United States. The Korean government, which in the wake of liberation from Japanese rule celebrated a nationalist vision incompatible with racial diversity, eased access to the multiracial offspring. The mixed race children could not legally secure a family registry, which assured stable social status in Korea. Nor could they engage in Confucian practices so central to Korean culture. As they matured, their marginal standing as illegitimate children prohibited them from marrying individuals of legitimate birth.13 Initially, limitations and underinvestment in its child-welfare system made exporting these children acceptable.14 However, U.S. servicemen, missionaries, and social workers—key agents in recovery plans following the Korean War—proved as important in promoting and facilitating adoption. They transferred American racial ideologies and adjusted local structures of childcare. The extraterritorial rights the United States claimed in South Korea inhibited the Republic of Korea government’s ability to act independently and hold U.S. servicemen responsible for their often irresponsible behaviors. Operating within these constraints, President Syngman Rhee concluded that mixed-race children—one example of the servicemen’s indiscretions—be sent to the United States. His directive empowered missionary organizations; the agencies worked hard to locate as many mixed-race children as possible, soliciting local orphanages daily and requesting the aid of the U.S. Commanders of the Army.15 To facilitate this process and commit to his vision that as many mixed-race children as possible should migrate to the United States, Rhee created the Child Placement Service in 1954. These political and cultural endeavors encouraged a singular, readily accepted script; Americans would rescue mixed-race children doomed to difficulty in Korea.

The pair most instrumental in popularizing this narrative and promoting the adoption of these GI babies was Harry and Bertha Holt. In 1954, the pair watched a heart-wrenching documentary that depicted the suffering of seemingly innocent, mixed-race children in Korea sponsored by World Vision, an evangelical and humanitarian organization active overseas. Determined to help the “waifs,” Holt flew to Korea, where he arranged to adopt eight Korean GI babies. This foray would initiate rather than conclude the Holts’ outreach. Establishing the Holt Adoption Agency, they labored to remove and place with primarily evangelical families as many mixed-race youths as possible, labor that often involved circumventing or violating customary practices of child placements. The Holts expressed frustration with the time and costs imposed by social welfare agencies, which required much fuller investigations of adoptive families, and they argued that the urgency of the situation mandated a relaxation of red tape. Other independent agencies would facilitate the migration of Koreans, but the Holt Adoption Agency dominated the market, responsible for more adoptions by far than any other. They did so by taking advantage of the absence of consistent, comprehensive adoption policies; state laws conflicted, and the federal government had not yet passed adoption legislation. Specifically, and much to the fury of social welfare professionals who believed the Holts’ process sloppy and a potential endangerment to the children, they arranged adoptions via proxy (American parents need not venture to Korea but relied on a representative on the scene), as allowed by a revision to the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. As part of its Refuge Escape Act of 1957, Congress extended the orphan provisions under the RRA, lifted all limits on the number of orphan children adopted by Americans who could enter the United States, and increased the eligible age of orphans to fourteen.16 As important to rationalizing and normalizing the process of adoptions from Asia, the law transferred responsibility for administration from the U.S. State Department to the attorney general. By 1961, however, Congress had responded to years of pleading from prospective parents and child-welfare agencies for further clarity and regularity. Amending the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), its new orphan law made non-quota visas for children adopted internationally permanently available, thus establishing the practice as a feature rather than exception of American immigration and life.

This legislation and the continued demand to adopt from Korea, even as GI babies grew scarcer over time, prompted a shift toward full-Korean orphans and such manipulative practices as baby hunting and compensation to Korean mothers who relinquished their offspring.17 This American appetite for and interest in Korean children undermined official efforts to contain the United States’ neocolonial objectives; by insisting upon responsibility for and importing Korean children, Americans extended and intensified their influence beyond Korean borders. The construction and even recommendation of these interracial families composed of Korean children and primarily white parents also encouraged new conceptions of race, gender, and family during a period of renewed civil rights challenges.18 The entry of visibly distinct children into primarily white families showcased a colorblindness worthy of celebration. Transcending and banishing the ills of racial conflict, Americans were making new families as familiar and reassuring as the old. Rather than preserve the cultural distinctions of their children’s home countries, however, the couples sought to cultivate American sensibilities and sameness. Most strikingly, the integration of their Korean children dampened anti-Asian sentiment and helped reconstruct Asianness as something precious rather than pernicious. While Asian Americans, especially Japanese Americans, after World War II strategized and struggled to rehabilitate their image, becoming hardworking, cooperative, education-minded, and overall good citizen in the minds of whites, Korean adopted children and their families reinforced this reimagining.19 News accounts and testimonies portrayed the maturing children as exemplars of American culture; they looked cute, spoke English, ate hot dogs, and loved baseball.


The political, institutional, and cultural practices that structured and explained the adoption of Koreans informed the immigration of other children from Asia, including Vietnam. The ways in which Americans would frame their desire to adopt as well as the process and unfolding legacies of the Vietnamese children’s migrations, however, revised earlier patterns and conceptions of Asian international adoption. Some Americans continued to explain their will to adopt in terms of patriotism, anti-Communism, and humanitarianism, but more critical, subversive and explicitly political articulations came to prevail. When Americans spoke of their obligations to the children of Asia, they no longer conceived of that obligation as a theoretical proposition arising from the inevitable violence of war and the mission of a rich, freedom-loving nation, but as the concrete consequence of failed U.S. policy. They articulated their responsibility in the negative language of guilt and blame rather than the positive rhetoric of uplift and rescue. Competing views of the Vietnam War and the nation’s foreign affairs had made political the seemingly apolitical act of caring for and adopting Vietnamese children. In their appeals to adoption agencies and international relief organizations, prospective parents explicitly linked their mounting opposition to the war to their wish to adopt from Vietnam. In a 1967 letter of inquiry, Donald and August Sandstrom wrote, “We are well aware that children all over the world need love and care, but our focus is presently on Vietnam due to the horror which is being perpetuated in our name there.” Concerned that their intentions might be misunderstood, they added, “Please don’t be concerned that ‘guilt’ is our motivation, it isn’t that simple when you have a great deal of love to share; but when you see an evil war being waged, it is hard to turn your eyes away without helping at least one little soul caught up in it.”20

Such public criticism of the war and the U.S. government’s efforts to deflect that criticism shaped the most spectacular episode of the Vietnamese adoption story. As the military and political situation in South Vietnam deteriorated in 1975, the U.S. government, in collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies, arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese orphans to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply hurried adoption proceedings already in motion by placing children already matched with American parents. However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in midair, killing half of its passengers.21 Rather than derail the evacuations, however, the horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of various organizers and President Gerald Ford to get children out of Vietnam. In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government borrowed the rhetoric of responsibility articulated by Left-leaning Americans. They sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children but also to control the peace. The war had gone poorly, they acknowledged, but they could still salvage the nation’s reputation by saving some of its children from Communists.

However, the initial excitement American citizens and the mass media expressed in response to Operation Babylift soon turned to dismay and doubts about the conduct of not only the Ford administration but also the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu, aspiring parents of Vietnamese children, adoption agencies, and volunteers. Asserting that “the final indignity for the Vietnamese is that, after we have bombed, strafed, napalmed and maimed half the population, we now take their children from under them,” Desmond Smith of the Nation and CBS said, representing the thoughts of so many; he concluded that these adoptions constituted a “traffic in used babies” that government officials should stop.

Many Vietnamese also disrupted the positive message of rescue and American responsibility promoted by proponents of the airlifts. In many cases, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had strategically chosen the airlift as a means of assuring the safety of their young relations, with whom they intended to reconnect when or if they themselves immigrated to the United States. Those fortunate enough to reach American shores and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, confronted the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies, and government officials, who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own interpretations, which would shape how they settled in the United States, remained connected to Vietnam, and influenced foreign policy.

Even those Vietnamese children who never reconnected to Vietnamese family or found friendship in refugee communities had opportunities to access Vietnamese culture and history, opportunities encouraged by adoptive parents swayed by the ascension of multicultural ideals in the 1970s. While Americans who adopted from Japan, China, and Korea had largely followed the prescriptions of experts and prioritized the rapid Americanization of their charges, those parenting Vietnamese children felt pressure to recognize and preserve birth heritage, pressure that only intensified at the close of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. This orientation reflected the influence of nationalist movements generally and the warnings of the Black Social Workers organization particularly; in 1972, it issued a statement arguing that whites knew too little about black culture and experiences of racism to suitably raise black babies.

These complaints about white parents’ preparedness and general anxiety about the open adoption process reinforced an American preference for finding children internationally. However, by the 1980s, the supply of children available from Vietnam and Korea had dropped. In Korea, the wider use of birth control limited the number of illegitimate children surrendered to orphanages. As important a cause of the decline was new restrictions on intercountry adoption imposed by the South Korean government. As host of the Olympics in 1988, South Korea wished to showcase its democratization and industrialization. However, negative media coverage criticizing the nation’s export of children tarnished these efforts, embarrassing the government, prompting national self-reflection, and sparking reform, specifically tax subsidies and a public interest campaign that encouraged domestic adoptions. Such efforts succeeded in dramatically lowering the number of Korean children adopted internationally.22


Prospective parents increasingly looked to China. Between 1988 and 2013, approximately 85,251 U.S. immigration visas were issued for Chinese orphans.23 The enforcement of the nation’s one-child policy and weaknesses in its child-welfare system had created a relative abundance of abandoned, mostly female babies. State-run child-care facilities struggled to stretch limited funds for food, clothing, and medical care across its growing population of children. The conventional wisdom that small-family norms, the one-child policy, and a historically rooted antipathy to adoption discouraged all but a minority of childless couples in China from adopting these children proved false. Recent studies revealed that contemporary adoption practices reflected changed family ideals, specifically a preference for a gender-balanced family. More than half of all adoptive Chinese parents already had children and wished to realize the ideal of having one daughter and one son.24

Despite a growing acceptance of adoption within China, Chinese officials feared its promotion would highlight the problems of its family-planning policy, thus intensifying domestic dissent and international criticism. Thus, it devised an adoption program in the early 1990s that readily provided young, healthy infants, divorced of ties to birth families, to childless Americans.25 These adoptive parents, many of whom were older, gay, single, or infertile, appreciated the relative ease of adopting from China, especially as charges of corruption and abuse marred adoptions elsewhere, including Vietnam and Cambodia, and expected a smooth absorption of their new sons and daughters. Although the Chinese government required that parents travel to China, remain for two weeks, and pay a fee to the orphanage, it guaranteed that each child was legally available for adoption and completed the adoption process prior to the child’s emigration. The scale of interest in adoption spawned the growth of new adoption agencies, essentially for-profit businesses that helped Americans navigate their adoptions and which marketed themselves as humanitarian in motive. As in the past, the United States’ political and economic objectives structured its management and representation of adoptions from China. A seeming reluctance to investigate the possibility of a black market for babies and the U.S. State Department’s strong recommendation that American families teach and maintain Chinese culture suggested a desire not to upset fragile U.S.-China relations.26

Foreign policy objectives may underscore and help explain the intensified commitment of American parents to preserve their Asian-born children’s cultures of origin since the 1970s, when social workers and others raised its importance. An infrastructure of goods and services has sprung up to fulfill and facilitate their efforts. Asian dolls, Korean textbooks, Vietnamese videos, Chinese tea sets, and paper umbrellas are readily available. Families can participate in heritage tours, where specialized travel companies arrange visits to birth countries and orphanages, or join weeklong heritage camps, where adopted youth of shared ethnicity make traditional crafts, partake of conventional camp games, and build friendships. Language classes, family-support organizations, the Internet, and various forms of social media also provide spaces for connection and culture keeping.27 Whether the adopted embrace these cultural opportunities varies, and whether the early excursions and classes and contacts preempt confusions about identity as the adopted mature remains to be seen. The conviction, though, that one should expose children to a mediated version of their pasts powers the practices of many adoptive parents of Asians.

Asian Adoptees as Authors and Activists

The energy and activism of adult Asian adoptees have also altered ideas about the incentives, circumstances, and outcomes of adoption. Their organizations and virtual networks, as well as plays, documentaries, memoirs, songs, photos and other creative productions, which focus upon adoption, have invited scrutiny of and anxiety about the politics of alternate family formation even more than during the Vietnam War; those who were once objects of a discourse about obligation, affection, and community have become its authors. As the largest and oldest cohort of adopted, and as those whose easy adaption to American culture was assumed and used to justify the expansion of international adoption, Koreans have fashioned a “self-conscious community” that counters conventional narratives.28 Perhaps, the boldest expression of this self-consciousness is their return to Korea not as tourists, but as residents with the prospect for dual citizenship and advocates for change in Korea’s adoption policies.29 More recently, Vietnamese and Filipino adoptees have followed the example of their Korean predecessors, building their own networks to provide support, resources, and interpretations of their experiences.30 Their assertions as well as external investigations of international adoption, which have exposed abuse and sparked new regulations, have raised recognition of the economic, political, and moral complexities of Asian international adoption and reduced its incidence. The United States joined ninety-two other states in The Hague’s 1993 Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The compact bound signatories to “to take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin” and “to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children.”31 In 2005, Americans adopted almost eight thousand Chinese children, but the annual numbers fell by more than half in successive years. Statistics for adoptions from South Korea show a similar diminishment. In the first decade of the 20th century, fifteen hundred to two thousand Korean children were adopted annually, but between 2010 and 2013 the number fell to less than eight hundred per year. The dip in Vietnamese adoptions proved most precipitous. Since 2008, citing “forged or altered documentation, mothers paid, coerced or tricked into releasing their children, and children offered for adoption without the knowledge or consent of their birth parents,” the U.S. State Department prohibited adoptions from Vietnam and in September 2014 agreed to the subtlest relaxation of that ban; Americans could adopt Vietnamese children over the age of five, with disabilities, or with siblings already residing in the United States.32

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars of diverse disciplines, journalists, essayists, parents, and adopted Asians33 have investigated, reflected upon, and analyzed the past and present of Asian international adoption. They have often resisted efforts to characterize their research as generative of a separate field, insisting that such a construct reduces and misconstrues the scope and significance of their work. Instead, they see adoption as an entry into explorations of the transnational processes related to heightened globalization. More specifically, they argue, adoption reveals much about immigration policy and practices, race relations and categories, notions of kinship, mechanisms of imperialism and neocolonialism, and national identity.

Writings about social welfare, family norms, and transracial adoptions have invigorated and complemented studies of Asian international adoption. Ellen Herman’s book Kinship by Design and her digital project Adoption History trace the evolution of ideas about and strategies of forming alternative families within the United States through the 20th century. Barbara Melosh offers a similarly broad history of modern adoption. Karen Balcom and Laura Briggs have concentrated upon the movement of babies across borders in North America. Balcom’s Traffic in Babies examines the efforts of child-welfare leaders, who sometimes enjoyed the support of immigration officials, politicians, and police, to control the adoption of several thousand Canadian-born children by families in the United States between 1930 and the mid-1970s. Laura Briggs’s Somebody’s Children spotlights the women and families within and outside U.S. borders who give up their children. She argues that domestic social politics, globalization, and war have enabled the movement of poor children of color into wealthy American families and highlighted widening inequalities. Rachel Winslow’s book manuscript tracks the evolution of international adoption from a temporary answer to geopolitical crises in Europe and Asia to a permanent part of child-welfare policy.

The history of Asian international adoption has also benefited from more general works that document the “intimate side of imperialism,” specifically the use of children to express and enact the United States’ policy objectives during the Cold War.34 In Innocent Weapons, Margaret Peacock investigates how Soviet and American leaders deployed carefully composed images of children to win popular support for their programs. Donna Alvah writes about service wives and children whose Defense Department–endorsed labors with local populations near U.S. military bases were intended to assure good relations and reinforce foreign policy goals.

Literature about heightened U.S. military, economic, political, and cultural interventions in Asia have also framed the study of Asian international adoption. Christine Klein’s Cold War Orientalism demonstrates how U.S. policy makers, artists, writers, and intellectuals imagined the nation’s growing power in Asia as benevolent and familial. Shirley Lim riffs upon these ideas, noting that concerns about racial integration within the United States and American imperialism in Asia were assuaged through representations of Asian-descent women as beautiful and benign. Jodi Kim explains how Asian American cultural productions critiqued U.S. imperialism in the region.

Writings that focus specifically upon Asian international adoption have multiplied in recent years, evidence of the complexity of the subject, the anniversaries of key events, and the greater visibility of adoptees. Scholars have paid more attention to Korean adoptees than any other Asian adopted group, an emphasis explained by the size of the population and the timing of their migration. Among the most exciting and noteworthy publications are those by Tobias Hubinette, Eleanna Kim, Arissa Oh, Soojin Pate, Elise Prébin, and Susie Woo. The dramatic increase in adoptions from China beginning in the 1990s inspired studies of the practice and its discourses by Sara Dorow, Emily Cheng, and Anita Andrew, among others. Fewer scholars have considered adoptions from Japan, although Lily Anne Yumi Welty examines the history of mixed-race American Japanese born to Japanese mothers and American fathers after World War II. Catherine Cezina Choy’s engaging Global Families is the most comprehensive treatment of Asian international adoption to date.

Complementing the works of academics, journalists, and fiction writers, adult adoptees, and adoptive parents have produced memoirs, articles, and essays that chronicle and interpret Asian international adoption. As sources both primary and secondary in nature, they reveal, advise, inspire, and entertain. Despite the richness and interdisciplinary character of scholarship on the subject, we still know less about the adoption of children from many regions of Asia, especially India and the Philippines. Nor do we have as full a portrait of child-welfare practices, government policies, and popular reactions to adoption within sending nations.

Primary Sources

Scholars interested in the subject of Asian international adoption will find primary sources in varied formats in scattered locations. Among the richest repositories is the University of Minnesota’s Social Welfare History Archives, which houses the records and individual case files of the International Social Service, a federation of nongovernmental organizations that assisted children and families confronted with the challenges of separation and migration. Given its interest in the recreational habits and outcomes of American soldiers, many of whom fathered children with Asian women, the U.S. Department of Defense’s and U.S. Army’s records, located at the National Archives in College Park, MD, have proved valuable. So have archival collections of humanitarian and religious organizations, such as China’s Children Fund (Yale University Divinity School Archives), Friends Meeting for the Suffering of Vietnamese Children (Swarthmore University Peace Collection), National Catholic Welfare Conference (Catholic University), Pearl S. Buck Archives (Bucks County, PA). Congressional Hearings, records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and reports of the Department of Health and Human Services reveal the ways in which the government has debated, regulated, and enforced the practice of adoption. The transnational nature of adoption invites an exploration of sources accessible in Asian nations of origin, including records of South Korea’s Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, China’s Centre for Children’s Welfare and Adoptions, and local orphanages. For those curious about adoption’s cultural manifestations, feature films, documentaries, autobiographical novels, plays, and articles in popular magazines—all of which have proliferated at the turn of the 21st century—are helpful. Although oral histories of adopted Asians are not concentrated in a single space, one can find full transcriptions of select interviews in some published anthologies and archives. Moreover, social media and networks among the adopted facilitate the process of communicating with adoptees and arranging new oral histories. Finally, academics and practitioners have long studied and deliberated about international adoption. One can track their evolving ideas in sources such as Journal of Marriage and Family, Child Welfare, and Adoption Today.

Further Reading

Choy, Catherine Ceniza. Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America. New York: New York University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

    Dorow, Sara. Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship. New York: New York University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

      Kim, Eleanna. Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

        Kim, Jodi. Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

          Oh, Arissa. To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

            Pate, Soojin. From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.Find this resource:

              Prébin, Elise. Meeting Once More: The Korean Side of Transnational Adoption. New York: New York University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                Sachs, Dana. The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Boston: Beacon, 2010.Find this resource:

                  Varzally, Allison. “Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Atonement.” Adoption and Culture 2 (2009): 158–169.Find this resource:

                    Winslow, Rachel. “Immigration Law and Improvised Policy in the Making of International Adoption, 1948–1961.” Journal of Policy History 24.2 (2012): 319–349.Find this resource:

                      Woo, Susie. “A New American Comes ‘Home’: Korean War Adoptees and Cold War Sentiments of Race and Nation.” PhD Diss., Yale University, 2010.Find this resource:


                        (1.) Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 13.

                        (2.) Rachel Winslow, “Immigration Law and Improvised Policy in the Making of International Adoption, 1948–1961,” Journal of Policy History 24.2 (2012): 324.

                        (3.) Heide Fehrenbach, Race after Hitler: Black Occupation in Postwar Germany and America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

                        (4.) Arissa Oh, “From War Waif to Ideal Immigrant: The Cold War Transformation of the Korean Orphan,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 31.4 (Summer 2012): 34–35.

                        (5.) Case 60–495, box 125–1960, International Social Service Case records, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

                        (6.) Cezina Choy, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (New York: New York University Press, 2013): kins49.

                        (7.) Ibid., 59.

                        (8.) Ibid., 68–70.

                        (9.) Ibid., 71

                        (10.) . Eleanna Kim, Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 46.

                        (11.) Choy, Global Families, 17–45.

                        (12.) Lily Anne Yumi Welty, “Advantage through Crisis: Multiracial American Japanese in Post–World War II Japan, Okinawa, and America, 1945–1972” (PhD diss., University of Santa Barbara, 2012); and Richard Weil, “International Adoptions: The Quiet Migration,” International Migration Review 18.2 (Summer 1984): 276–293.

                        (13.) Susie Woo, “A New American Comes ‘Home’”: Race, Nation, and the Immigration of Korean War Adoptees, ‘GI Babies,’ and War Brides” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2010).

                        (14.) By the early 1960s, government and social workers came to the conclusion that international adoption was an imperfect solution to the problem of child abandonment and began to implement programs to promote family preservation, facilitate the integration of mixed-race children, and encourage domestic adoptions. Kim, Adopted Territory, 73.

                        (15.) Woo, “A New American Comes ‘Home’,” 218.

                        (16.) Oh, Arissa. To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 40.

                        (17.) Kim, Adopted Territory, 72.

                        (18.) Woo, “A New American Comes ‘Home’.”

                        (19.) Arissa Oh, “From War Waif to Ideal Immigrant: The Cold War Transformation of the Korean Orphan.”

                        (20.) Donald and August Sandstrom, Letter of Inquiry, December 7, 1967, box 3, Friends Meeting for the Suffering of Vietnamese Children, Swarthmore College Library Peace Collection, Swarthmore, PA.

                        (21.) Cf. Peck-Barnes; and Gardner, Thai, and Domenici.

                        (22.) Tobias Hubinette, “Nationalism, Subalternity, and the Adoped Koreans,” Journal of Women’s History (Spring 2007): 117–122; and Woo, “A New American Comes ‘Home’.”

                        (23.) 1988–2004 statistics collected by Anita Andrew, “China’s Abandoned Children and Transnational Adoption: Issues and Problems for U.S. China Relations, Adoption Agencies, and Adoptive Parents.” Journal of Women’s History 19.1 (Spring 2007); figures between 2005 and 2013 drawn from the Bureau of Consular Affairs, accessed January 5, 2015.

                        (24.) Kay Ann Johnson, Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son (Seoul: Yeong and Yeong, 2004), 105–107.

                        (25.) Sara Dorow, Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship (New York: New York University Press), 57–58.

                        (26.) Andrew, “China’s Abandoned Children and Transnational Adoption,” 123–131.

                        (27.) Heather Jacobson, Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008).

                        (28.) Kim, Adopted Territory.

                        (29.) Maggie Jones, “The Returned,” New York Times Magazine, January 18, 2015.

                        (30.) Choy, Global Families, 168.

                        (32.) “Warning Concerning Adoption from Vietnam,” Embassy of the United States, April 2008.

                        (33.) Those adopted from Asia often opted for the term adopted Asian rather than Asian adoptee as a label of identification. The former suggests greater agency and action than the latter, they asserted. However, this preference was not universal.

                        (34.) Laura Ann Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).