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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When They Don't Get It

The other day someone walked up to me at a public event, gestured to the Tongginator, and asked, "where did you get her?" Okay, so maybe I'm overly sensitive about this, but... GET her? As if I ran down to Target and purchased some toilet paper, a bag of chips, baby wipes and, oh, a CHILD. Thankfully the Tongginator did not hear the woman's comment and I replied, "we adopted our daughter from China."

That's when she pointed across the room to her daughter and said, "I just thought we might have that in common."

The encounter made me stop. It made me think. I don't exactly know how to navigate situations such as these, when someone walks up to me - out of the blue - to discuss adoption topics. Usually the Tongginator also hears the comment, so I draw my daughter into the conversation, asking if she'd like to discuss the topic and, when she says no (and she ALWAYS says no), I share that my daughter doesn't usually wish to discuss such personal matters with people we do not know.

But how to navigate when the questioner is a fellow adoptive parent who either used an unfortunate turn of phrase that just so happens to be a hot button for me? Because maybe it wasn't just a quick word... maybe that quick word signifies a belief that I don't agree with. Maybe, just maybe, she is the type of adoptive parent I really don't want to get to know. My problem is that I can't tell from one quick encounter which side of the spectrum the parent falls into.

For example, Canuck K met a close friend at an FCC event where the woman approached her, asking, "which of your girls is the oldest?" Now, Cinnamon and Spice are identical twins, so Canuck K expects this comment from others outside of the China-adoption community. Because it's a natural question to ask of and about twins. But those of us within the China-adoption community usually "get" that both the girls and Canuck K don't know how to answer that question. Because they don't know the answer. And that? Is painful to them.

For this woman, it was an "I am going to kick myself all day because I was an idiot to ask such a question" kind of moment. And I am so glad Canuck K allowed for that... because now this woman is one of her closest friends.

And maybe the woman who approached me this weekend simply had an open-mouth-insert-foot kind of moment. But... maybe not. Or maybe I am too sensitive and reactionary when it comes to adoption language. But... maybe not. Maybe she is the type who truly does commodify her child. Who talks about their adoption journey as a touristy shopping trip where, oh, they also happened to pick up a baby.

Maybe not, but... maybe. Because those people are out there.

There is a family in our town that adopted their daughter transracially as well, although not from China. We belong to the same gym/ pool/ babysitting co-op/ church/ whatever (I'm trying to be vague, y'all). We bumped into each several times over the summer because of our shared membership. During our first three chats, I heard several warning bell comments that I let slide because:
  • I don't wish to judge someone else harshly. I want to love and accept everyone for who they are, where they are. (cue rainbows and fairies and red threads and a chorus of Kumbaya)
  • There are definite gray areas within adoption parenting that I may not exactly agree with, but they aren't exactly "wrong" either.
  • I am trying to teach the Tongginator to be gracious and polite. And how can I do that if I don't model the behavior myself?
During our fourth chat, I realized I needed to avoid this momma in the future. And I needed to do so because, while there are lots of gray areas in adoption parenting, there are a few areas I believe are black-and-white, please don't treat your adopted child that way, ever. And this momma crossed my line. Unfortunately, she did so while the Tongginator sat right next to us. And yes, the Tongginator heard her comment.

(And no, I'm not gonna share it. I mean, what if she reads this blog and recognizes herself?)

I talked with the Tongginator privately about that momma's comment after the fact. And I tried to address it then in a friendly, non-confrontational manner by simply stating something to the effect of, "oh, we have a different view on that" before I quickly changed the subject. Basically it was damage-control, though, because the comment? It was OUT THERE. And once something is OUT THERE, it's very hard to put it back in the little narrow box where it belongs.

So I'm ending this rather rambling post with a question. How do we model being friendly, open, kind, avoiding that good ole chip-on-the-shoulder while still protecting our children from adoption-related comments that sting? From adoption-related comments that anger? From comments that devalue adoptees? Where is the line? And how do I toe it?

Any ideas, y'all? I am all ears.


lin said...

I don't know TM, it's hard, very hard. Once when I was very young and we were on holiday in Austria I think someone walked up to my mum and said "where did you buy that?"

One of my mum's friends is very close with her daughter and they go away for weekends etc. According to her my mum and I don't do that sort of stuff "because it isn't the same with an adopted child". That so isn't the truth. I just happened to fall in love with a person from another country, and moved there - making close contact with my mum much harder. Besides I now have a young family so have other commitments.

But comments from people who you think understand really hurt.

I think you're doing great as you are. Please help the Tongginator learn to speak up for herself, and cut off questions/discussions about her adoption if she wishes so. Unfortunately I was brought up far too politely and still get drawn into discussions with strangers that I'd much rather avoid.

Kerrie (and Jason) said...

TM - when my husband (who is adopted himself) and myself decided to adopt originally my then sister in law questioned whether we could 'truly love' a child who wasn't 'our own'. My husband saw red and said very clearly "are you saying that my parents do not love me or my sister because we are not blood relations?" He was told that was apparently 'different'. We never did find out how it was 'different' exactly. My blood still boils at the comment. Her child was an 'accident' - does that imply she loves her child any less? I think not.

Some people will always be insensitive. In the situation you struck, I would probably answer 'buy? - people do not 'buy' a child.' and then walk away laughing. And tell my child that some people are nice and lovely and others are not. No point in sugar coating it unfortunately.

Claudia said...

yeah, this is one of the toughest questions we face as parents, I think. On sunday, a friend brought his new girlfriend to church and I was talking to her afterwards. She was talking to me about the babies and mostly it was fine but she was saying how adopted kids are always SO DAMAGED, AREN'T THEY and I just found myself badly caught in the feeling of 'I want to punch you, but I don't think it would be polite'. Fortunately the babies were nowhere near. I ended up just saying 'well they have certainly been through a lot of TRAUMA' but I didn't say that I found her comments offensive, which I certainly did - obviously, it's still bothering me two days later! Under the circumstances - new, probably a bit nervous and babbling - I think I was right not to pull her up on her choice of words, but it just feels so IMPOSSIBLE to get that balance right. Gaaaaah.

autumnesf said...

You know its that whole empowerment issue. Some comments are just NOT OKAY. And sometimes a sharp response is the best response....just like with racism. But as when dealing with a child...a reprimand does not have to be rude or loud. Sounds to me like you do a rather smashing job. And me? I tend to get caught off guard and end up having to do damage control because I'm SPEECHLESS in the face of the comment. You'd think I'd have learned not to be so naive.

Aus said...

Morning TM - there's two sides to this one....let's deal with the 'offensive adults' first....

I find humor to be effective more often than not, but only if the kids are not around. When confronted with your comment that started your post "where did you get her" I'm likely to say something like "There was a blue light special at Kmart in asile 3 last week"....generally makes the point!

If it's a repeat offender or they are particularly rude I give it right back generally with something like "That is one of the most stupid things I've ever been asked" and walk off....sorry....but one thing my kids will ALWAYS know is that their old man will defend them!

Turning our attention to our kids - at least once they are school age - well they are then old enough to know that some people will be rude, sometimes through ingorance, sometimes accidentally, and sometimes through bias, and sometimes through prejudice or bigotry. I tell them that in simple words "Sweet, sometimes people are just rude - sometimes they mean it, and sometimes they don't - either way all you can do is say a prayer for them and let it go - it's not your job to fix or change them."

And saying that to your child while you are still in the presence of the 'offending adult' - well that really kind of puts and end to the situation.

YMMV - but that works for me!

hugs - aus and co.

Keating Mom said...

Great post and comments! Lin, I totally agree about being brought up o be too polite! I'd like my son to b e polite , there are times it's ok to walk away or just say , "I'd rather not talk about such personal things."
TM, I think you're doing a great job!

Laurie said...

I sure hope a LOT of people comment on this post, because I am just not good at thinking on my feet when I need to respond to these people. I'm usually just so shocked at what they've said that I stand there with my mouth open. Maybe THAT says something in itself?

My worst case.... pushing the grocery cart (empty of food but full with my 2 kids) when a woman approaches me and says, "That's a pretty expensive cart you've got there!" WHAT? I was just floored, until she pulled out a picture of her grandkids and started talking about how difficult financially it was for her daughter to adopt both of them. It's an example of how it was made a bit better since she'd "btdt", but at the same time made worse since she should have KNOWN better!! My CHILDREN were not expensive!!!! The PROCESS of adoption is expensive. Geez!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes exaggerating your natural response, and then slowly and carefully explaining it works well for me - or as my dad says, play it like you're dumb. For example, with the question "where did you get her," I probably would have given a very noticeable wince, and then laughed and said, "Sorry, I have an instinctive reaction against using that phrase in relation to my child ... I know you didn't mean anything by it, just my sensitivity!" If a person really is being just thoughtless, that sort of reaction usually makes them stop and think, and if they are being rude or deliberately unkind, it leaves them without much of a leg to stand on.

Although I do like the suggestion of saying you "got" her at the bluelight special at K-Mart, too!

Briana's Mom said...

I've done a post similar to this one on my blog. How to react to blunt and/or insensitive/offensive questions or statements. I got the "Is she your biological daughter?" question asked of me not too long ago.

It is so hard to navigate what to say sometimes - especially when you might be shocked by the question.

I guess if a statement is really offensive, something should be said - and politeness needs to go out the window.

Chelsea Gour said...

First of all, you did great. The best thing you can do is model better adoptive parenting for that momma. You never know, it just might sink in! And, the important thing for T is that you don't ever let these things go. You always address it with her. Because the bottom line, we can't protect them from this stuff. It's out there. We can't protect them racism. We can't protect them from stupid adoption comments. We can't protect them from having their faith challenged or berated. If you were to be able to find a way to insulate them from all that right now, they would have no idea how to react to it when you aren't around to shield them. Instead, you are equiping T to deal. She'll grow up to be a better person for it. And I? I'm learning so much from watching you teach her. Thank you! Thank you for being so vigilant and thank you for blogging about it.

lmgnyc said...

You ask what we can do about this kind of thing?

I am trying to be proactive about it. Last year I went in to DDs kindergarten class to do an adoption presentation during November, National Adoption Month. I figure get 'em while they're young and show them that adoption is nothing weird or strange, it's normal and just another way families are formed.

It worked out real well even though one kid, when I asked if anyone knew what adoption means said "adoptions is when you get a dog from the pound and then you don't like it and you take it back and you get another one". groan. He said this in front of my DD. double groan.

When we talked about it later at home she just rolled her eyes and smiled and said he was silly and didn't understand adoption and wasn't it lucky I had gone to the class to explain it to him?

jennifer said...

I appreciate this post and all the comments. Since we are relatively new at raising our adopted daughter, I am still green at responding to rude comments. I have only had a couple and since Wesleigh is so young, it was easier for me to respond because she didn't understand.

I have the added responsibility of having teenagers and tweens around our house. There is one teenager who has repeatedly told me a joke about how "Chinese people name their kids". It infuriates me but I have yet to respond in a way that will teach him why that is unacceptable. Your post has inspired me to make sure I explain how offensive that is and why. I can have that effect on the world, that the young people I am around can learn sensitivity. Maybe when those kids are adults, they won't be the ones making rude comments!

Andrea said...

I am not an adoptive parent, but have several friends that are. So I learned from watching one of my dearest friends when we were out in public with our kids. I learned you never ask "where are they from" and "where did you get her/him" because that is rude! I am amazed when people assume that any Asian child with a non-Asian parent is adopted. I work in a daycare and actually had a co-worker ask one of our Mom's where her daughter was from - she wasn't adopted!

Wendy said...

Now that she's old enough to discuss this kind of thing, take your daughter's lead more and more, which, it seems you are doing anyway. Obviously, when our kids are younger, we have to make quick decisions on how to handle those questions that hit us from out of nowhere. There will be situations and times when it is warranted that you lay down the law with these people with their insensitive and intrusive questions and remarks and other times when you need to approach them from a teaching perspective, and that is exactly what your daughter will need to hear. There will be other times, likely when she is a teen, when you will need to avoid embarrassing her at all possible costs, which translates to "Don't open your mouth at all mom. Ever!!" There will be other times when your daughter does the talking--and I'll bet she will--and relieves you of the responsibility altogether (Becky handled a situation on her own beautifully one time--I posted about it under http://lilybelles.blogspot.com/2009/10/are-they-yours-or-are-they-adopted.html). I sometimes think you gotta take them one comment at a time. Trust your instincts on this one! They are good ones!

Colin and Jill Canada said...

This one is tough. I am dying to read all the comments and your follow up post! ;)

You are a great role model for us all.


Patricia/NYC said...

You are always so articulate, TM, & I think this is a fabulous post! Kudos to you & the way in which you are handling these situations!
It's so tough, but I agree that at this point with our girls being in 1st grade now, it's important to teach them that they can make the choice as to whether or not discuss their story with other people.

Here, in NYC, particularly my neighborhood (which actually FOUNDED the FCC, btw), many adoptive families are extremely unfriendly & will almost never approach us or even acknowledge us...which I find strange...I usually smile at a family who looks like ours and almost never get that in return...maybe they've been "burned" by some of what you speak of in your post, I don't know, but what's wrong with a smile or nod?

Anyway...I try to do what you do...draw Kiara into the conversation & let her decide...I can tell she is uncomfortable at times with it & with the attention.

You're doing a great job & thanks for sharing this with us!!

Katherine said...

My parents did a great job at raising my three adopted siblings and myself and learned a myriad of responses that blended humor, education and empathy. I'm sure that they wrestled with the things that currently frustrate you. On a totally tactical level, my parents' responses to the akward and rude questions and comments often included something like "oh, I'm so thankful that she doesn't have my frizzy blond hair or big nose" (fill in the blank with your less than desirable physical attributes). My mom had a great way to wrap up this conversation with something along the line of "yes, I think I've done my public service by not perpetuating my genes of vericose-veined women with hot tempers."

But at the end of the day, it was the conversations had in the car or at home after the awkward/rude/inappropriate encounter that mattered most. As a kid, particularly an adolescent, I cared what my mom said to ME not what she said to others about me. And she said that I was the daughter of the King. This was so key because it wasn't just about my identity as an adoptee but about my identity in Christ. Now that message may have become somewhat convoluted in my 6 year old mind as I was then convinced I truly was a princess (loved the dresses) but it also gave me the dignity (bordering pride) to say "no" as a 16 year old.

Jamey... said...

I surely don't have any advice, but let me know what you come up with. When I run into adoption "Situations" I ask myself, "What would TM do?" :)

LucisMomma said...

What this post and all the comments are reminding me of is that I need to be more on the ball and figure out ahead of time what would be a good response to unthinking questions. I am not good at thinking on my feet--now, on the way home I'd probably think up 6 different things to say to that person, but at the moment I would go blank.

I guess I need to fine-tune my radar, too.


triona said...

As an adoptee I've suffered through the "where did you GET her?" question and it can be really upsetting. Kudos to those of you who are adoptive parents for educating people on why such comments are not appropriate.

I wish, when such comments were made about me, that my parents had stopped right then and there and (politely but firmly) corrected the person. Because people are going to keep making insensitive comments unless we teach them otherwise.

As always, great blog, TM!

Julia said...

Here's two strategies I learned from other APs:

1. "I'm sure you're a nice person who didn't mean to suggest [insert negative implication]. You must have been asking [question phrased as you would want it asked.]"

2. "Why would you ask that?" (said in a very polite, playing dumb manner)

I love the idea of asking your daughter if the conversation should continue or not. Brilliant.

Debra said...

I simply tell my children that they, (the offending person(s)) doesn't know what they are talking about, don't understand completely, or it's not like that with us, (depending on what was said) and always follow it with a "Bless her heart"...being southern I get to use that one a lot. We all know what "Bless her heart" really means now don't we.
Generally, I get my children and myself out of the situation as soon as I can. I generally re-phrase what was asked in a better way. Example: Where did you get them? Answer: My daughters were born in China, and then off we go.

snekcip said...

Our family has a now 3yr old *we have had her since birth*that was placed in our care lovingly and willingly by her mother who suffers from debilitating seizures and such. We had another "relative" who had the audacity to ask "I wonder why ____ didn't ask us to raise her, Lord knows, I could've use the "extra income" in the household, since "I know" you get a check for her"!

My reply after a "dead stare" I replied..."I agree with only one thing you said and that is "THE LORD KNOWS!" That's why you DON'T have her!

Nothing else needed to be said, the "relative" just stood there...w/her mouth open and a a barely audible "hmmmph"!

The things people say is just unacceptable! I hate the way they "constitute" money for a child!! Makes me "HOT AS FISH GREASE" mad!!!

Denise said...


Carla said...

If they have a child with them, or I know they have children I will sometimes look them in the eye for that question and ask, "So did you and your husband have sex or go to the reproductive doctor to get pregnant?" Or I'll ask what hospital they got their child from. Did you get her from this hospital or that hospital?

But, well, that's not really friendly now is it? ;)

When the kids are around, I smile at them, and say, "What exactly do you mean where did I get them? I adopted them from China. I'm so glad that I was allowed to adopt them." When the idiot person walks away, I will say under my breath loud enough for the kids to hear...what an ignorant thing to say, like I just got a child somewhere under a cabbage leaf or something. Don't they know where children come from?

suz said...

Ugh. As a birthparent, I can echo the equally icky feelings this type of statement brings about. You may recall my post titled "Emma" where I overheard an adoptive parent exchanged somewhat like yours.


Then, as in now, I have no words.

kitchu said...

first i think you are doing an amazing job in this area and i learn so much reading you (as always).

second- i leave rudeness at the door as often as possible, though i admit i've slipped (in our case, it ends up being questions like: "what's wrong with her?"). the first time i got that question, i thought i did the right thing, i looked shocked, glanced at E, and then back at the older man asking the question and said, "Nothing. She's fine" when there is a small chance he really was just curious as to why such a small child needed a wheelchair.

but, there needs to be a balance, and it's a fine line, isn't it? we want to be models for our kids, teach them to feel empowered, without being a-holes in the process, right? and sometimes, it's hard not to be an a-hole, especially when that protective instinct kicks in...

anyway. i am working and always striving for that balance, tempering my responses so that i don't become as disrespectful as the person who asked the question.

Annie said...

You have gotten some gret ideas and I have loved reading them. I think you are handeling it very well. I think you do want to model appropriate and polite behavior/reactions but then again, there are times when you just need to end the conversation and it sounds like that is exactly what you did!

Chris said...

Oh, I don't know...
I am still learning how to respond with grace and dignity but at the same time giving Shea & Avery the respect and privacy they should have in theses kinds of (awkward) situations.

Here is a link to a post that I wrote which is similar to what you are talking about here.

I try to be aware that usually my Littles are within ear shoot of these (not so great) inquiries....I want them to see me being strong and aware for their sake. I want them to know that I am their advocate and protector....
I also want them to witness me behaving in a godly manner...but, man, sometimes it is hard! Ya know?

Can I ask you to expand on when you ask T if she would like to discuss the topic....when someone -out of the blue- asks an adoption question? Could you give me an example of how I could use that strategy with my girls?

Thanks. :)

Lisa said...

Oh gosh...so hard and with really no completely right way to address such intrusions and rudeness all the time, as they often vary and arrive when least anticipated or prepared for.....

I'm sorry you had this kind of encounter.

One thing and I truly can't wait to go back and read the other comments as time allows....

but one thing I have perfected is the arching of one single eyebrow. Seriously. It has stopped more hurtful lines of questioning than anything else in my admittedly limited and growing all the time arsenol. Sometimes if the person this is directed to is particularly dense, it is followed up with a "wow" (not the good kind of "Wow!!") or a, "why do you ask?".

Not perfect for every situation but when accosted in a public bathroom with your child right beside you.....it works.

BTW, I think you handled the above situation beautifully!!!!

Anonymous said...

I just have to say that this:

"I'm likely to say something like "There was a blue light special at Kmart in asile 3 last week"....generally makes the point!"

is a really bad idea... I know it isn't meant this way but three reasons pop into my mind

1)other kids really say stuff like this to adoptees

2) kids who are out of ear-shot often pop back into ear-shot at the most inopportune moments

3) The person hearing this will remember it and may repeat it to the adoptee later.

4) It may indicate to the recipient that because you are an adoptive parent who thinks this kind of humor is cute, that it is okay for them to use it in kind, perhaps to other adoptees

5)It may give a more sensitive listener to the comment the idea that you are completely out-of-touch to how unfunny that can sound to someone who was commodified.

Oh that is already 5, I will stop now.


Michal said...

I loved this post.
I have struggled with this for a long time. Where to draw the line? How to answer these people?
Well, quite frankly, my daughter is 6, she knows that I am nice when I am treated nice, she knows I respect people....What she needs to see at this point in her life is ME, her mother, looking someone in the eye and not letting them get away with invading our lives with their ignorance. That being said, I won't get all Jerry Springer on someone in the CVS or Best Buy but.....? I will let them know that I am done with them.
I just had some older guy at Best Buy look at the kids and say " hey what aisle do you get those?" Now, the old me would have gone through the three steps with stupid questioners : Polite response, follow up question to determine their intent and then a less polite response to them if needed.
The new me just looked at him and said " you can't find treasures like this " and I walked away.

I also ask Ev is she wants to talk about her life with this person. She usually says no, but sometimes? She says it's ok but only if I answer the questions. I follow her lead because that girl is a mean judge of character and I trust her gut better than I trust my own.

I have decided that it's not my job to educate the masses. It's my job to provide a stable and safe environment for my kids and of that means "offending" some ignorant stranger- then so be it. I want my kids to see that we just have no room to allow people to infect us with bad vibes. We respond in a definitive manner and we go on.

I also love using the "bless her heart"- I might have to take that up!

Patty O. said...

Wow, yet again another issue that, though I don't have experience with adoption, hit home nonetheless. I have been dealing with a similar issue with moms of kids with autism. All of a sudden, I am part of this "community" of moms, which is great, but also not great, because many of these moms have ideas/approaches that I fervently disagree with.

Yet, I want to be gracious, but I do not want Danny to be subjected to these beliefs. It's a hard balance.

Kelley said...

I'm going to have to come back and read all of the comments...I know you've got some good ones here. Just wanted to chime in and say that YES, there are some really uncomfortable moments. I got blindsided the other day by the tree man, of all people. My girls were out with me (youngest home for a month on Monday!) and he said, "Are they sisters?" It stopped me for just a second...right after the "no" just popped out of my mouth. I was so mad at myself. But I quickly corrected, and said, "we adopted them both, and so they are sisters and we are all a family." I've gotten that question several times since then. It's SO annoying. I know people are trying to find out if they are BIOLOGICAL sisters...but still...sometimes I say, "they are my daughters. So YES, they are sisters."