On the “familiar” in adoption.

Over at Transracial Eyes [link], I posted a question concerning the way in which the world looks at us as adoptees, and how this radically changes with time. The basic point was that when we are children, and we are seen with an adult who is not of the same ethnicity or of similar physical resemblance, the mental calculation is pretty straightforward: “Adopted”. When we are older, however, this same calculation does not maintain, and other answers to the equation come to the fore, varying depending on the family member: “partner”, “caregiver”, “adulterer”, “kidnapper”. Many of these terms reflect the same racist and stereotypical categories applied to the minority populations in the country that we are perceived as being of.

In pointing out this difference, I used particular terms to define members of my adoptive family: “mother”, “sister”, “nieces”, etc. It seems that some adoptee activists, whom I’ve known a very long time, were taken aback at such use, and made me aware of this via email:

But they are not your family and you need to use different words. Otherwise, your reading audience now wonders what was all that time in Beirut for? Have you regressed? Where is the fire in your writing? In your heart?

It was a bit distressing, for a variety of reasons, but I attempted to explain a little bit better where I was coming from, and this has grown into a post in and of itself. I pointed out that elsewhere on this site and at Transracial Eyes, I’ve discussed the use of language and the dangers of imposed vocabularies on ourselves. At the same time, I’ve expressed endlessly that getting caught up in such language use as an exercise in futility. Changing the vocabulary we use to define ourselves does nothing to change our situation.

In adhering to extremely strict labels, categories, and definitions, such activists are mimicking the dominant cultural mode in a way that is a philosophical if not existential trap. In adhering to Anglo-Saxon conceptions of family and familial nomenclature, adoptees end up inscribing the legal definitions of the adoption industry itself to define their connections to others. It is this vocabulary that tells us we only have “one of this” and “one of that”. It is this industry that has reduced family to immediate connections; has redefined society as consisting solely of quite separate nuclear families; has reduced extended family and community to nothing at all.

This mentality, reflective of a particular culture and mindset, doesn’t hold up for much of the planet. In Arabic, for example, I use the words “brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, aunt” 100 times a day to define relationships that have as a basis for understanding shared humanity and common/communal bonds. The hajjeh upstairs from me in Beirut referred to me as “ibni“, “my son”. I referred to the Syrian workers in my neighborhood as “brother”, and vice versa. When one of them started referring to me as “[his] original brother”, I could not imagine a greater compliment and I was so humbled I was moved to tears. When I learned that the hajjeh upstairs lost her son during the war, it was utterly overwhelming to me.

Belaboring the point: I refer to my former students as “sons” and “daughters”, and in Arabic this is acceptable. To refer to strangers as “my uncle” or “my aunt” is considered a compliment. For 99% of the world’s languages and cultures—including dialects within English such as Black American Vernacular English—such kinship-based nomenclature is acceptable and, in fact, is required to maintain community and a daily sense of connection. The friends of my sister-in-law who is from Chile refer to me as “hermano“, and I do not challenge them. Brazilians refer readily to familias de criacão, or “created families”, and there is no internal distress evident in this. This reflects an informal conception of family structure that has been historically targeted for destruction based on liberal economic and political needs. It remains a formalization of the common law conceptions of relationships in order to impose state control over society.

Such a formalization rejects completely concepts of context, tone, or speaker/listener relationship. When I was a teenager I wrote a poem for my adoptive mother for Mother’s Day. It started out, “of mothers, I have two.” If she is willing to share the appellation, and I am sure, culturally speaking, that my mother in Lebanon would have no problem with it, it is invalid for anyone to shift this contextual use elsewhere. Right before I left Beirut I was presented with my adoption story which not only connects me with two people I am now aware of for the first time, but to a huge extended family, clan, and community. Many of them have rejected me; but many more—including many strangers—have accepted me as “their own”. For the former, I use terms that reveal this distance. For the latter, I do the opposite.

In the context I was writing in, there was no reason to use the term “legal guardian” or “caregiver” or “Mrs. Drennan”. How would such adoptees have me refer to my nieces? “The progeny of the biological children of my legal guardians?” Such a shift in context is only inoffensive to the system which emerges triumphant from such an exchange. In this light, adoptees who would impose a subset of the language on us are mimicking the colonialist and neo-liberal mentality that would have Anglo-Saxon mores be the basis for family structure worldwide. Such reductive use of the language is functional to a reactionary subset of English, one that is bourgeois, racist, and elitist. There is no other way to define it.

We live in a cold and calculating world, but I for one refuse to abide by its way of thinking. The idea that I have only one mother, or that I absolutely must not refer to my mothers both as “mother” or “mom” is reflective of this sad place we were acculturated in and which I now return to after being away for 12 years. In that time, I’ve been privy to different ways of seeing things, in terms of culture and faith, and I abide by this more radical approach to referring to others who share my life. It thus becomes an extremely dangerous trap to use only the “denotative half” of the language; and it saddens me to hear adoptees caught up in this trap. Such use ignores context, tone, social engagement, and the language’s full semantic use. To enforce such language on others is rather Orwellian, and is functional to fascistic thought that is found on both the right and left ends of the political spectrum.

Some food for thought: Perhaps we should not consider “what words we must use” but rather “what words challenge the dominant mode’s conception of adoption”. Because to reiterate my post at Transracial Eyes, when I was a child, the dominant mode “told me” that my adoptive parents were my parents, and so the radical reply was to say, “no, actually, they’re not”. Adoptive parents talking about “sons” and “daughters” they’ve never met need to be reminded: “No, they’re not”. Now that I am an adult, the dominant mode and the general culture both agree in very disturbing ways that this adoptive family is not my family. This is what my post was about; this antipodal shift in mentality, and disparaging “defamiliarization” if you will, of people I’ve spent more than half a century with.

And so the “radical” reply, it seems to me, is to thus exclaim: “Yes, actually, they are, in ways you cannot fathom”. Such a radical stance calls into question our underlying concepts of nuclear family; the dominant cultural mode’s deleterious use of the language; the technical formalization of formerly organic connections; the economic and political systems that give us adoption as well as its defining terminology. It seems to me that this much more nuanced outlook that focuses on what brings us together is what is needed right now. We owe this to ourselves as a community; we owe this to ourselves as brothers and sisters of the adoptive activist realm.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
This entry was posted in Adoption activism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On the “familiar” in adoption.

  1. Brent Snavely says:

    There are “those-who-raised-me” (he, she, and their extended families), and then there are “my DNA relatives”. My use of these terms frequently gets a rise out of people, but for now I find no other terms that seem as descriptive or as fitting.

    If you surmise that neither group fits the nuclear family model, you would be correct.

  2. jan says:

    To me what you said – “Many of them have rejected me; but many more—including many strangers—have accepted me as “their own”. For the former, I use terms that reveal this distance. For the latter, I do the opposite.” – that sums it up in terms of both the a and b families. and the c – z families.

    Why would moving to Lebanon mean that you would have to change how you address members of the family where you were raised? I have never seen you refer to your family in NJ differently than you did in the TRE article. Regressed? Seriously?

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