Monday, February 10, 2014

What's in a word?

As we've gone through the process of adoption, we've encountered a curious thing: common words begin to take on whole new meanings.  I might even say that they take on troubling meanings.  Let's start with an easy one: "real".  According to Merriam-Webster*:
real (adj): actually existing or happening; not imaginary; not fake, false, or artificial
"That's a real diamond!" or "That's a real, live elephant!"  We use this word in English all the time.  We know exactly what it means.  So...
"Who are your real parents?"
For the adoptive family, this sentence can present a problem.  It may be uttered by the well-intentioned if somewhat tactless person who is interested in knowing if the adopted child knows who his BIOLOGICAL parents are.  They mean, "Do you know the woman who gave you birth?  The man who is your biological father?" For most adoptees, the answer is - and likely always will be - no.  But what should the child say?  Who are their REAL parents?  Obviously, my wife and I will regard ourselves as the REAL - actually existing, not imaginary or fake, false or artificial - parents of our child(ren).  We hope that she / they will feel the same way, that they are our REAL children.  We expect that there will be questions about the biological parents; this is only natural.  We plan, as our child(ren) grows old enough to question and understand, to discuss all this.
We didn't start out expecting trouble with the word "real".

Another word that takes on a different - and distinctly unpleasant - meaning is "lucky".  Children adopted from China are often called "lucky" both by Chinese and by people in the adoptive country.  "You're so lucky you were adopted!" Again, most people who say these things are well-intentioned.  But what does lucky REALLY mean?  What's behind all this supposed luck?

The children are abandoned.  The first and most important relationship in their lives - with the people who conceived them and brought them into the world - is severed, often (but not always) very soon after birth**.  They then become orphans: even their names are (usually) given them by a bureaucrat, not a loving parent***.  If they are "lucky", they go into a well-equipped and well-staffed orphanage.  If they are very "lucky", they go into a loving foster family.  Lucky... they come to know a woman and man as "mama" and "baba", and perhaps even have a jiejie (big sister) or gege (big brother).  Then, if they are VERY "lucky", all this, like the nascent family into which they were born, is torn apart as they are ripped out of the foster family or orphanage that is home to them, shoved into the arms of strangers, and jetted off to a faraway country where nobody looks, speaks, smells or acts in ways that they find familiar and comforting.

This is "lucky".

Yes, I know: luck is a relative thing.  The child adopted into a well-to-do family is very likely better off than a child left to grow up in an orphanage, even a very good one.  But, at the beginning of it all, the "lucky" child lost her family.  ALL of it.  There are no parents, no siblings, no aunts or uncles or grandparents, nothing.  No photos, no videos, no memories.



(**) In the documentary "Somewhere Between", one of the adopted girls discusses that fact that she was abandoned when she was about five years old and REMEMBERS her biological parents.

"Somewhere Between" (2011)
dir. Linda Goldstein Knowlton
(***)  For example, our daughter's name in China was given her by her orphanage.  Her "family" name is taken from the city where she was found.  The first part of her name was given to every child taken in during that month.  Only the second part of her name is unique to her.  Imagine calling a child February Jane St. Louis or December Susan Seattle.

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