In adoption-speak, what difference between “from China” and “Chinese”?

This is the 13th question in the series: “Anti-adoption month: 30 answers to 30 questions on adoption” [link].

I received a reply in response to a review I posted at Mediarama, in which I questioned the inappropriate use of the phrase “Kiss Me I’m From China” on a T-shirt meant for adopted children:

Based on the [dictionary-based] meaning of this suffix, the denotation of “Chinese” or “from China” is synonymous. If you perceive a specific connotation from the text, that is one thing. And you are certainly entitled to your opinion.

I’d like to elaborate more on this idea that “from China” and “Chinese” mean the same thing, or that this is simply a “difference of opinion”.


Let’s talk linguistics. A denotative definition is half of language. No one walks around quoting dictionaries. Dictionaries list all usage, including current or actual usage, dialectical usage, as well as archaic usage. What they don’t give is connotative meaning, or usage that reflects the intent of the words used. So it is invalid to say to me “that is one thing” if I understood the meaning differently than you. Language is social; there is no individual understanding of language. It is, on the other hand, possible to tease out meaning from actual use of words.

And so, “Chinese” vs. “from China”. We tend to talk about things “from China” in one way and things that are “Chinese” in a different way. We can refer to Chinese culture, Chinese food, the Chinese language, Chinese imports. It seems to me that in terms of current usage, anything that maintains or attempts to maintain a living link to the originating place is defined using “-ese”, hence, “Chinese”.

We don’t say, for example, “this language is from China”. Furthermore, to say this food is “from China” means something quite different than saying “this food is Chinese”. So the argument does not hold based on purely the denotative meaning. There is flexibility here, but it is one-sided; and where it leaves off is where it is most telling. For example, if I walk into a Wal-Mart (which I wouldn’t do, but bear with me), I might say, “this shirt is from China” or “this television set is from China” but I do not say “this television is Chinese”.

If a Chinese-American worker there approaches me, s/he might say that s/he is “Chinese”, different from if s/he were to say “I am from China”. But this is completely different than if I describe her in either of those two ways. They obviously would mean different things—the context would be describing two completely different and non-interchangeable responses, as well as different points of view.

This difference comes down to a lost connection—something that or someone who is of a place but has no rooted connection to that place for whatever reason is “from” there; something or someone that maintains or attempts to maintain that living connection is given the “-ese” suffix. So, personally speaking, I’ve never been truly able to say I’m “Lebanese”, though this is where I was born, and I’ve since regained my nationality (which, conceptually speaking, was never “lost”). I am, on the other hand, able to say that I am “from Lebanon”, and even after living here for many years, I am careful to maintain this distinction because it is insulting to the local culture to do otherwise.

Unfortunately, because of my adoption, I am not “Lebanese” in this cultural, place-based sense; perhaps I never will be, despite re-establishing my nationality, or living here the rest of my life. There has been a rupture. The borrowed phraseology here is “Kiss Me I’m Irish”, and so the leap to “from China” is not innocent.

Quite the contrary: The glib insensitivity of this seemingly banal T-shirt speaks of the condition of those who are displaced or dispossessed from their origins in any way, and who see the dominant discourse reminding them of this fact, especially at an age when they don’t even have the ability to understand such a concept, much less stand up for themselves.

We can start to see here the insult of literally labeling someone as being “from China”. The child wearing this T-shirt is, unfortunately, able to say: “I’m from China”. This is in no way the same as saying “I’m Chinese”, and the extent of what has been lost between these two statements is irretrievable. This remains a damnable function of those who removed her from her place, and they should not—adding insult to injury—impose this loss on the child as well.

A Marxist Philosophy of Language, by Jean-Jacques Lecercle.

The Arabic Language and National Identity, by Yasir Suleiman.

Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self, edited by Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz.

Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Debate Tactic: The use of the word “entitled” in a conversation about opinions concerning adoption is in and of itself obnoxious; it is a subjective cop-out and a power play of those who are, in fact, “entitled”.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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