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Untended Grievances and Leftover Destinies: The New American Family Analyzing Performances of International Adoption, Assimilation, and "Mother Road"

ABSTRACT:

I chose this specific area of research because my mom is the oldest of 10 kids, seven of whom are internationally adopted. I love my family dearly and am grateful to have them in my life, but as I get older I notice more and more how much trauma there is to unpack in my family because of the practice of international adoption. In the play Mother Road, I see a lot of my family’s struggles. The play raises questions about what it means to be a family, what it means to be an American, and how intergenerational trauma affects people’s daily lives. In this essay, I will analyze Mother Road, focusing on the meaning of the New American Family in the play, and how that meaning becomes a performance when applied to families created through international adoption—a performance which can ultimately serve as a metaphor for the United States as a whole.

“All of us respond to the idea of rescuing helpless children from the dragon of deprivation[...]but problems in adoption are infinitely harder to resolve in an adoption which spans the ocean.”—U.S. Children’s Bureau Chief Katherine Oettinger.

CAPTION: The photo on the left shows Bertha Holt, co-founder of Holt International, smiling and carrying a Korean adoptee of around one or two years old off of a plane after landing in the U.S. The baby is about to be handed off to their new family. Photo via Holt International.

ESSAY:

In the play Mother Road, elderly farmer William Joad journeys from California back to Oklahoma with Martín, a young Mexican-American man and William's only lasting blood relation. William is dying, and, having promised his late mother he would keep the Oklahoma farm in the family, feels like he has to pass this farm over to Martín. They take Route 66 from California to Oklahoma, because Martín has a fear of flying and William wants to get to know his cousin's grandson a little better before passing down everything he owns to him.

The play is centered around this road trip, with the story being told through conversations in the car, as well as through a Chorus made up of people involved in the stories reenacting and adding to the stories, seemingly outside of time and space. They serve as one unit, often each speaking only pieces of lines, completing each other's thoughts and sentences. Early on in the road trip, William and Martín drive in silence. They're still in California, and William notices the "fields, fruit stands, and irrigation ditches" specific to California, while Martín notices "bugs collected on the windshield."

As a part of the Chorus, Martín's former fiancé Amelia, whom he left at the alter after getting arrested for beating up an ICE cop, says "A lot of grievances left untended[...]" The use of the word untended draws the audience to think of untended land, natural resources being ignored, left to rot, to fester in abandonment. Immediately following Amelia's line, Ivy, a waitress at a diner in a small town off Route 66 who also embodies William's mother, continues the sentence with "objections in mirror are closer than they appear[...]" These objections in the mirror are a parts of the viewer buried deep in the past, all too quickly catching up with them. Abelardo, the motel clerk that nearly refused service to William for being an "okie," continues the sentence, saying "hasta que al fin, no se puede..." This translates to "until at last you can't," implying you can't keep running from the past. Then the entire cast says "Mile, mile, mile," noting the distance being covered as the car travels. They're returning to their past.

An image from Mother Road, courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Martín, Mo, William, and chorus members sit in the "car," all looking forward. Route 66 signage is projected behind them, the light is blue, and the car's "headlights" shine a bright yellow. They aren't physically holding each other, but it still seems like they're closely connected somehow. They're in it together.

Bertha Holt sits, surrounded by children, at the Holt Annual Picnic. Every year Holt adoptee families are invited to a picnic together in cities across America. Photo courtesy of Holt International.

For the hundreds of thousands of international adoptees living in America, returning to their past isn’t necessarily an option. The barriers to returning home are endless; they can be physical, emotional, political, financial, mental, even linguistic. These barriers apply not just to physically returning to the land in which they were born, but even to returning mentally to the reality of their childhoods and recognizing the trauma inherent in the practice of international adoption. Of course, any adoption story starts with loss. Losing your parents, for any reason, is traumatic. But losing your parents and then immediately losing everything else you’ve ever known is one of the scariest situations a child could experience. These are kids being brought to a country where they know nobody, they don’t know any of the customs, and they don’t speak the language, in order to become a part of a new family. Mother Road presents the idea of a New American Family: a family which is fragmented, pieced together not just through blood but through journey. In the play, this New American Family is created through healing, through returning home. But the New American Families created through international adoption tend to be created through assimilation and trauma, and ultimately function as a performance of the “post-racial” ideal America is prone to declaring.

A baby boy, around one or one and half years old, stands in a crib on a plane. He has a blank expression, possibly confused. There are several cribs, and several babies, on the plane. An older woman stands nearby, seems to be caring for a baby that we can't quite see in the picture. These are babies being moved to America as part of the international adoption wave in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Holt International.

American families adopting children from other countries is a relatively modern practice. It didn’t begin until the late 1950s, when farmer Harry Holt and his wife Bertha Holt, a nurse, decided they wanted to adopt eight children from Korea after seeing a film about South Korean orphanages in the wake of the Korean War. United States law only allowed two foreign-born children to be adopted at a time, but that law changed after the Holts convinced Congress that the number be increased. Before long, the Holts, who were also devoted Christians, founded Holt International, a Christian organization that facilitated the adoption of children across the world by American families. The practice reached its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, with international adoption numbers doubling in the ‘90s. In 2001, around 20,000 international adoptions took place. Today, nearly one million Americans are international adoptees.

International adoptees in the United States face many specific challenges. Most of them have little to no information about their lives prior to living in America. These gaps in family history can come from disorganization in the orphanages, information being lost by the adoption agencies, or even information intentionally withheld by the adoption organizations or adoptive families. Besides those adopted as babies, most of what adoptees know of their origins come from their own childhood memories. Withholding this information distances the children even further from their heritage and culture. As they learn English and lose their native language, they too start to lose a connection to their culture and instead pick up American characteristics—the beginning of their assimilation.

When Amelia says “A lot of grievances left untended,” she is referring to Martín running away from his problems by not having a conversation with her after leaving her at the alter. But untended grievances can apply to many other parts of the play as well. Martín’s struggles, as well as his cousin Mo’s, are a result of generational grievances left to fester. Martín has to deal with the effects of his mother dying of cancer caused by working in the fields, being profiled and beaten by white people at a gas station, being hunted by the police. Mo deals with similar struggles, plus being kicked out as a teenager for being gay. Ultimately these issues all stem from colonialism. The same can be said of the effects of international adoption, another case of generational grievances left untended. Organizations like the Holts believe that the act of adopting is tending to the grievance, but it’s more of a band-aid solution to a much deeper wound. The trauma continues to go unresolved.

CAPTION: The photo on the right shows a scene from Mother Road. William stands above Martín, who is sitting on a bed looking upset. William is pointing at Martín, yelling at him. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Diner waitress Ivy then adds to Amelia’s sentence, saying “objections in mirror are closer than they appear,” a reference to the warning written on side mirror’s of cars which read “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” The mirrors show distorted images of what’s behind you, just as the traumatic pasts of children are distorted when American families adopt them and the children begin to forget their pasts, told that they’ve been saved and that they are simply “American” now. But what does “American” even mean? Especially in mixed-race families, as most families created through international adoption are, assimilation is very common. Kids often see their older, white siblings and want to be just like them, just as any younger sibling looks up to their big brother or sister. And it’s not just within their family; all kids of color in the United States grow up feeling pressured to assimilate to white culture if they want to succeed, surrounded by negative stereotypes of people that look like them, as well as images of successful cis, straight, able-bodied, wealthy white people.

My family tells a funny story about my Auntie Karin, who was adopted from Korea as a baby. She was the first one to be adopted, joining a family that was previously three white kids and two white parents. A couple years later, my Aunt Meghan was adopted from Korea as well. One time, when my Auntie Karin was around six or seven, she saw a commercial with a little Asian girl in it (which was relatively rare to see on TV at the time) and said "Hey, that looks like Meghan!" She was so disconnected from any kind of Korean identity that it didn't occur to her that the little girl on TV probably looked like her, too. She saw herself as white, because that's what she was always surrounded by. But the thing about assimilation is that it isn’t sustainable—the past will catch up, and it’s closer than it appears.

In the photo on the top, James holds the rifle after taking it from Curtis, who just shot William. Martín and Mo hold William behind James, as William reels in pain. In the photo on the bottom, Martín, William, Mo, and James sit together in the car as they travel. While there isn't a physical car, something about their body language tells you they're all in the same place. They are close to one another. They look like a family. Photos courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Top) and Goodman Theatre Company (Bottom).

The final line in this series, delivered by motel clerk Abelardo, is “Hasta que al fin, no se puede (until at last you can’t.)” The line is delivered in Spanish, and then translated into English in the script. After running away from the past, the past catches up, and Abelardo in this line refuses to assimilate by speaking only English. This evolution in the series of lines is representative of the past finally catching up—you can’t run away from it, because you destroy yourself in the running away. Then the whole cast says “Mile. Mile. Mile.” marking not just the distance travelled on the journey back to Oklahoma, but the bond being made in the journey.

Top Left: My grandpa and my Uncle William posing with a ketchup and mustard bottle. Top Right: A professionally taken, very posed picture of my Grandma, Grandpa, Mother, Auntie Karin, Aunt Meghan, Aunt Taina, Uncle William, Uncle Alex, Uncle Matt, and Uncle Jeff. They're dressed in hilariously '90s color-coordinated outfits. Bottom: My mom, three uncles, and two aunts at the Holt Family Picnic.

The practice of international adoption in the United States is complicated, and there's a lot to unpack in families like mine. But this isn't to say that families created through international adoption are just trauma and despair. That may be the origin, but it's impossible to escape traumatic roots when you live in the United States. Everyone in America has trauma to unpack. Like all families, we live in a chaotic jumble of fights, laughter, passive aggression, and joy, and ultimately we are a family because we love each other fiercely. But healing can’t happen when we pretend like nothing needs to be healed. You can’t live in a country founded on slavery and genocide and pretend like it's not in need of healing. Every person living on this land needs healing. The land itself needs healing. And healing is a journey that starts with returning to your past.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. “A Critique of Harry and Bertha Holt's Work While Setting up Intercountry Adoption in South Korea.” Transracialeyes, 7 Apr. 2013, transracialeyes.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/a-brief-historical-overview-of-the-life-and-times-of-harry-and-bertha-holt-and-the-origin-of-international-adoption/.

2. Chan, Wilfred. “Raised in America, Activists Lead Fight to End S. Korean Adoptions.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Sept. 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/09/16/world/international-adoption-korea-adoptee-advocates/index.html.

3. “International Adoption .” Adoption History: International Adoptions, University of Oregon , pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/internationaladoption.htm.

4. “International Adoption Rate in U.S. Doubled in the 1990s.” Population Reference Bureau, https://www.prb.org/internationaladoptionrateinusdoubledinthe1990s/..

5. “Our History .” Holt International , https://www.holtinternational.org/.

6. Solis, Octavio. Mother Road. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019.

7. Townsend, Marlee. “Orphan Fever: The Dark Side of International Adoption .” UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog, 14 Mar. 2018, cas.uab.edu/humanrights/2018/03/13/orphan-fever-the-dark-side-of-international-adoption/.

Title image courtesy of Holt International. Harry and Bertha Holt, the founders of Holt International, pose with their family, made up of the couple's biological children and international adoptees, mostly Korean. 1955 or 1956.