“You should be grateful” is a phrase that many adoptees are familiar with. It may be that it was said to you, as it was to Angela Tucker, author of a new book about adoption. Or it may be the dialogue that has gone on inside your head, like it has for me.
Hidden in the phrase is the suggestion that you have no right to question or think negatively about your experience as an adoptee. Your only choice is to be thankful and prove you are worthy of the life that has been given to you.
Tucker is a Black woman who was adopted by a white couple in Bellingham. Like the author, I am a transracial adoptee. Adopted by a white couple in Port Orchard, I am Korean American — one of the over 200,000 Asian American adoptees in the U.S.
Because our stories differ due to how race is experienced in this country, Tucker deepened my understanding of the trauma of transracial adoption. Part memoir, part case study, part call to action, her book reflected, challenged and changed the way I think about my own experience.
Tucker shares her own story, including her successful search for her biological parents. She also shares her perspective and extensive knowledge as an adoption case worker, mentor to adoptees and expert on adoption issues.
The common conception of adoption valorizes adoptive parents for accepting a child into their home. They are praised for loving an adopted child as their own, as if it’s expected they might not. Biological parents are also painted in a rosy light to hide the harsh realities of adoption. My parents told me that my biological mother loved me so much that she gave me up for a better life. In her book, Tucker describes how people called her biological mother “brave” for what she went through.
These narratives prioritize or protect the perspective of parents, while Tucker’s book centers adoptees. As we read about Tucker’s journey to find her biological family, we see that she is the brave one, a warrior intent on filling the hole left by the trauma of adoption.
Tucker’s story and the stories of the adoptees she features gives readers access to thoughts adoptees have but might too afraid to tell others or what they talk about amongst themselves.
For example, she writes about how adoptees enter a “Ghost Kingdom” when thinking about their origins. The phrase coined by psychologist Betty Jean Lifton describes the vivid imaginary world created by adoptees to describe the lives of biological relatives.
One adoptee featured in the book wonders how much she cost, which for me brought back memories of when a childhood friend asked if my mother sold me. Tucker writes about the Adoptee Lounge, a monthly mentorship group for teenage adoptees. She started off each meeting by asking participants how they felt about their adoption that day. Their answers were full of ambivalence, hurt and a complex range of emotions reflecting the pressure they’re under to meet other’s expectations for being “grateful” for their lives.
One confession early on establishes the theme and dramatic tension of the book. Tucker grew up in a multiracial family with seven siblings, six of whom were also adopted. Her anecdotes about growing up are full of laughter and love. Her parents worked to give her a sense of her racial identity and supported her search for her biological parents.
Still, she isn’t just grateful, as others said she should be. Instead, she wishes she was never adopted.
As much as I don’t want to be, I’m so wrapped up in the “you should be grateful” narrative that this confession at first struck me as the most transgressive of all.
But Tucker shows how, with transracial adoption, the wound of adoption is inseparable from the wound of systemic racism. Transracial adoption erases the racial identity of the child. It is the result of a racist society that leaves Black people and other people of color in poverty, without the support to keep families together. Tucker wonders how her life could have been different if her biological mother was cared for instead of discarded by society.
Another common narrative about adoption is one of reunion: The adoptee finds their biological family, rushing into their arms and feeling an instant connection. Tucker shows how reunion is much messier. Finding answers about your “Ghost Kingdom” leads to more questions. New wounds are created to replace the ones that have healed.
This is a reality that more Asian American adoptees are experiencing — and I’ve considered — as more reunions become possible thanks to DNA testing.
Still, Tucker makes the case that access to information about their adoption is an adoptee’s right. Building a relationship with biological parents is healthy, she argues. It helps to heal wounds caused by transracial adoption and the systemic racism that led to it.
Published April 18 by Beacon Press, Tucker’s book, You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption, rejects that narrative. The author will be discussing her book at Elliott Bay Book Company on April 20 with South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green.
Angela Tucker also reads with fellow Beacon Press authors Catherine Ceniza Choy and Samira Mehta as they address the topic of “Stories of Transracial Adoption” on Wed., May 3, 2023 at an in-person only event at 7:30 pm (PST). In Town Hall Seattle’s Wyncote NW Forum 1119 – 8th Ave. (Enter on Seneca St.). Go to http://townhallseattle.org for details.