Most adoptees would agree that adoption is a truly wonderful thing. However, at some point or another, I think every adoptee has experienced a friend, acquaintance, or stranger ask them about adoption in an awkward way. “At what age were you adopted?” “Where are you from?” “Have you taken a DNA test to find out what you are?” “Are you in touch with your birth parents?” The list of questions goes on and on and on.
Is it okay to ask? The answer depends on the person and the question. My advice would be to ask the adoptee first before proceeding with any questions. By making sure they are in a comfortable mental place before discussing adoption with them, you will have a more productive conversation, and the adoptee will be a lot more receptive to your questions. The other thing I would recommend is to pay a lot of attention to body language. If you ask a question and an adoptee cringes or breaks eye contact for a long period of time, chances are the question bothers them for some reason. If asking a more personal question, prefacing it with something like “feel free not to answer if this question is too personal” will relieve any pressure on the recipient and allow them to deliberate whether they would like to answer or not.
I cannot speak for all adoptees, but I am totally happy to talk about my adoption or adoption in general to anyone who asks (as long as they are not rude about it). However, when discussing adoption, there are still certain things that make me uncomfortable. Here are some things that make many adoptees (and people in general) uncomfortable:
“So, do you know who your real parents are?”
When I was in elementary school, my school participated in this program every year called “Family Life.” It discussed (in age-appropriate terms) the different types of families that young children could be a part of. The program, which lasted maybe two weeks, touched on married couples, single parents, living in multigenerational households (i.e., grandparents and parents), adoption, foster care, becoming an older sibling, etc. When talking about adoption, the program paid special attention to the terminology used. The workbook would deliberately use the terms “birth parent” and “adoptive parent” rather than “real parent.” That was the first time I remember being alerted to the fact that “real parent” was problematic.
I think “real parents” (instead of “biological parents”) is the most triggering term used in the adoption conversation. Many people will innocently use this phrase because they do not realize the impact the word “real” has. “Real parents” implies that an adoptee’s adoptive parents are not really their parents when, in reality, they are. They have the same legal rights and responsibilities as birth parents. Furthermore, the vast majority of adoptive parents have a solid emotional connection with their children. Because of this, it is insensitive to both adopted children and adoptive parents to refer to birth parents as “real parents.” Instead of using the term “real parent,” I would strongly suggest using the terms “biological parents” or “birth parents” and “adoptive parents,” as those are the more politically correct and less offensive terms.
“You’re from China? That is so exotic!”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “exotic” is defined as “introduced from another country: not native to the place where found” as well as “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.” From the definitions, this could easily be a compliment: “you are strikingly different.” However, calling an adoptee (or anyone) “exotic” emphasizes the notion that they were or are an outsider. As someone born in a country they have very little connection to and raised in a country they consider home, the term “exotic” is displacing. “Exotic” implies my presence in the United States is not natural, but at the same time, the United States is where all my metaphorical roots are. “Exotic” implies I am a product of China even though I was raised in the United States and consider myself to be American.
Additionally, as if “exotic” was not already problematic enough, when I googled the adjective “exotic,” most of the suggestions that pop up are plants or animals. Exotic pets. Exotic flowers. Exotic birds. When directed to a person, the term “exotic” is rooted in the implication that the person is unusual–not common. Because the term “exotic” is generally used for animals and plants, it can come across as dehumanizing and objectifying. Adoptees are humans, not fruit.
Better adjectives to use instead of “exotic” are: interesting, cool, unique, awesome, fascinating, and fun.
Asking if I Will Ever Find My Birth Parents When it’s Impossible
“If you were able to, would you ever like to meet your birth parents?”
Imagine if you were asked, “If you could raise your great-grandparents from the dead, would you?” This is a weird question. On the one hand, most people probably did not get to meet their great-grandparents. Why would you choose to bring them into your life when the only connection you have with them is blood? Presumably, there is no emotional connection, and the only things you may know about them are their names. On the other hand, though, it would be cool to meet them simply because they are your great-grandparents, so there is some familial connection there, even though you likely have not met them. The majority of people would likely answer this question with “yes” out of curiosity and lack of negative ramifications. But, at the end of the day, it is impossible to raise them from the dead, so now you are just left to wonder what they were like and what you would say to them if you met them hypothetically.
This section certainly does not apply to everyone- adoptees who were born and adopted within the United States, particularly through open adoption, probably do have the ability to meet their birth parents when they are ready. However, there have been plenty of times where I have explained to someone how my orphanage was torn down a few years ago, and my birth country is very strange about keeping records.
Unfortunately, the odds of me finding my birth parents is pretty close to impossible. The most awkward thing for me is when people ask if I could meet my birth parents, would I? Not only does it wedge in the knife that I will never have this option available to me, but it is also a question that makes me feel stuck. Obviously, I would love to meet my birth parents, even if only for a brief moment, just to know who they are. That is not necessarily to say I would want a relationship with them because I am unsure if I would or not. But, even thinking about these hypotheticals is a bit painful because I have already made peace with the fact that even if I wanted to, I would not be able to meet them. When I get asked this question, I am left wondering what I would do if I met my birth parents and who they even are. To me, there is no point in bringing up this hypothetical question when it is not practical. I would personally rather be asked, “How do you feel towards your biological parents?” than “Would you meet your biological parents if you could?” because the former is more direct and open-ended.
Responding with Ridicule or Disbelief
Me: “I’m adopted.”
Them: “Haha, that’s funny, you’re not actually though, right?”
This happens more than you might think. Television shows, movies, and books have used adoption as a major plotline for many characters and as the basis for running jokes. Although the adoption plotline is drawn out in a more relatable way in later movies, the jokes still remain. For example, the main character of Kung Fu Panda, Po, finds out he was adopted in the second movie; however, there is the running joke because Po, a 260-pound panda, never questions his parentage despite being raised by a slender, old goose named Ping. Obviously, for viewers, Ping the goose is not Po’s biological parent, so when the adoption plot is revealed in the second movie, it is not really a big surprise after seeing Po and Ping in the first movie. This is not to say all adoption plotlines need to be serious–I do not personally mind the adoption story in Kung Fu Panda. However, using adoption as a comedy device has translated into how society thinks about adoption. Many people forget that adoption is more than just a plotline and is some people’s reality.
Upon telling people she is adopted, my sister has had several friends laugh because they thought she was joking. My sister, who is a lot blunter than I am, would always respond with a straight face and an annoyed voice: “Why would I joke about that?” I understand her frustration. Imagine telling your friend something personal only to have them laugh in your face and question your reality. It honestly does not feel good being on the receiving end, and it hinders adoptees from opening up to others because they are worried about getting the same reaction.
If someone is telling you that they are adopted, do not doubt them. It would be better for you to go along with their joke until they reveal the joke than for you to discredit someone who actually mustered up the courage to tell you something personal about them.
Responding with Sympathy
Me: “I’m adopted.”
Them: “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that.”
Think of things that you would respond with sympathy to. The first things that likely come to mind are losing a loved one or pet, the loss of a job, a car accident, or a health concern. Adoption does not really make the cut. Yet, some people respond to the fact that I am adopted with pitiful looks and concerned tones.
In many of my articles, I have made the distinction between abandonment and adoption. On the one hand, losing birth parents and being abandoned physically and emotionally by people supposed to love you unconditionally is sad and painful. However, on the other hand, being adopted—being unconditionally loved by people who have no biological connection to you but become your parents anyways—is beautiful and joyous. Adoption is a happy thing–it is the formation of a family. Adoption entails the same amount of love and celebration that comes with other positive life milestones. If your friend told you they were getting married in the fall, you would likely not respond, “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that,” because that response is inappropriate to the situation. In the same way, giving condolences after an adoptee states they are adopted is not the correct response. Not only does that bring down the mood of the conversation, but it also makes adoptees feel like we should be sad or ashamed that we are adopted when we should not be.
Instead of being sad and sympathetic, I would just recommend treating it like a normal conversation (because that is what it is). Try not to use body language that indicates sympathy, and do not apologize. Ask questions and have a conversation if you are interested in hearing about the adoptee’s experience, but do not appear sad or concerned, because that always makes the conversation really awkward.
In conclusion, I would say most adoptees are generally pretty open to questions. Just make sure to be sensitive but not sad. Also, try not to invalidate the adoptee’s experiences or feelings (especially by questioning if they are joking). It is just a normal conversation, after all. If you do not take anything else away from this article, just remember: Please do not use the term “real parents!” That is probably every adoptee’s biggest pet peeve when it comes to discussing adoption.Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Not sure what to do next? First, know that you are not alone. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to speak to one of our Options Counselors to get compassionate, nonjudgmental support. We are here to assist you in any way we can.
Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).