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Race no barrier to family ties in interracial adoptions

By Vivian Ng

A white mother is holding the hand of a little Chinese girl on the street. They talk to each other just as any mother and daughter would but you soon notice that passers-by may stare at them for a moment. Some seem suspicious, even annoyed, while others may give them a wide, cheerful smile.

According to Victoria Woodyatt, this is exactly what she and her daughter Jessica have experienced in the past. The seemingly disapproving stares come from those that disagree with interracial adoption. They question whether it can replace the blood link between mother and daughter and the cultural links between members of the same ethnic group whereas the friendly looks come from those who appear to support it.

There are usually around 100 adoptions in Hong Kong every year and according to the group, Mother’s Choice, around a third of these are interracial adoptions.

The Social Welfare Department has accredited three non-governmental organisations to work with its Adoption Unit, namely the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISSHK), Mother’s Choice and Po Leung Kuk. These organisations arrange and process the adoptions.

Under the government’s adoption programme, priority is given to matching children with families of the same cultural or ethnic background to minimize the cultural changes and the child’s adjustment problems. Single people also have the chance to adopt, but they, together with the non-ethnic Chinese families, are usually at the bottom of the list.

People who want to adopt a child can go to any of the four approved units to start their applications. They have to provide comprehensive details about their family background, income, education and adoption motivations in their application form and provide supporting documents.

After being informed of any new cases of children given up for adoption, the Adoption Unit will discuss placing the children with suitable families with the NGO’s. Social workers will then let qualified applicants have some basic information about the children they are being offered and let them decide whether they want to go ahead.

If the applicants decide they would like to adopt the child, social workers will conduct a home study to assess the family’s readiness and suitability for the child. It takes between six months and two years to process the applications, depending on how quickly the applicants can provide all the required documents.

The adoption cases will then be referred to the Court after six months. Once the Court grants an Adoption Order to the families, follow-up work from the social workers ends.

Connie Wat, the adoption services supervisor of Mother’s Choice, says that there have been cases of failed adoptions in the past in which adoptive families gave up the adopted children after taking them home. “But usually it is due to personal reasons such as violence and health problems,” she says, “very rarely do they give up because of ethnicity.”

Wat explains it is preferable for adoptive families to have the same ethnic background as the children because in reality, interracially adopted children are very likely to encounter judgmental stares from strangers and questions from their classmates.

“We encourage parents to tell their adopted children the truth [about their adoption] as early as possible,” she says, “but for interracial adoption, the children may still have to face problems such as confusion over their own identity.”

Wind Au Fung-han, a social worker at the ISSHK, says there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of society’s openness towards adoption in Hong Kong, especially towards interracial adoptions. She says adoption is a lot more common in the United States, where “rainbow” families can be easily found.

Maggie Cheung grew up in an unusual mixed family in Hong Kong. Cheung, whose birth mother was Pakistani, was raised by a local Chinese family. She is culturally, linguistically and by family background, a local Chinese Hong Konger. Yet she has always been marked out.

Cheung learnt about her own story at a very young age because her mother always had to repeatedly explain to everyone who asked. Her father was even asked by his relatives that why he adopted an “ah-cha” (a derogatory term for South Asian), directly in front of the young Maggie. “But I could easily accept the truth when I was told as a kid,” she says, “I have become more resistant as I’ve got older.”

Cheung was born in the Tai Lam Correctional Institution where her biological mother was jailed for transnational drug trafficking. She was raised by her foster parents, who eventually became her adoptive parents when she was three years old. That was when her her birth mother went back to Pakistan. She has never received any contact from her since.

Despite all the questions, the young Maggie regarded herself as a complete Hong Konger until she entered primary school, where she faced strange looks and endless questions from her schoolmates. In order to protect herself, she became a bully in school. “I used foul language and bullied others,” she says.

Things changed when she was in year two of secondary school. It was 2001 and after the terrorist attack on the US on September 11, she became the centre of attention. “My classmates gossiped about me and said, ‘Hey, she’s the daughter of Bin Laden’,” she says of her most difficult time in school. The upside was this meant she received a lot of help and support from her teachers. “I was so touched as I got people to care about me, finally,” she says.

Cheung says she never excelled academically, but she pushed herself hard, passing her A-level exams and getting into university. She is a graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and now teaches liberal studies at her old secondary school.

“Deep down I acknowledge that it’s the government of Hong Kong that adopted me,” she says, “and that’s why I feel like working harder in order to contribute to society.”

However, she still finds herself struggling with identity issues at job interviews. She encounters prejudice from her fellow Hong Kongers and she puts it down to the fact that many people tend to look at skin color rather than nationality.

Except in Hong Kong, skin colour, or more specifically ethnicity, does not indictate nationality. Her application for a Chinese SAR passport was rejected because she is not biologically Chinese, and an administrative blunder at birth means she could not acquire the nationality of her adoptive parents.

“This is sad and deplorable,” she says. “The government talks a lot about anti-race discrimination, but many of its own policies are in fact fraught with racism.” Recently, under media pressure, the government accepted Cheung’s application.

Although she is disheartened by society’s denial of her Hong Kong identity, Cheung nevertheless sees herself as a complete Hong Konger and is not keen on tracing her roots. “Root tracing will make me emotionally more confused,” she explains. “I don’t want that chance to re-question myself who I am.” She adds that she may go to Pakistan one day to see what the country is like, but has no intention to find her birth mother.

Despite the difficulties she faces in the outside world, Cheung feels perfectly safe when she is at home. “My mother once said, ‘I will raise you up no matter how hard it will be’,” she says, “I really feel so lucky to be brought up by her in Hong Kong, if not I would be following my birth mother as a drug trafficker in Pakistan.”

While Cheung’s adoption story contains struggles and difficulties as well as triumph over the odds, the interracial adoption of Jessica by the Woodyatt family seems to be much smoother.

The Woodyatt’s, who are from Australia, have found the experience of adoption very enjoyable. Victoria Woodyatt, is happy and grateful that they have not encountered many difficulties.

Woodyatt and her husband decided to adopt a child after Victoria gave birth to their first son, Daniel. They decided they did not want Daniel to be an only child and when he was three they went to the Social Welfare Department to start adoption procedures for Jessica.

When they were told about Jessica’s background and her health, the couple thought everything was perfect about her. It took them only nine months to process the adoption and welcome Jessica to their home.

Woodyatt and her husband see Jessica as their own daughter. She thinks modern western culture attaches less importance to blood lines. “When I look at her, Jessica is just Jessica, my daughter,” she says. “The time, effort, care and love that we’ve put into her make her. I don’t care whether she’s a Caucasian or Chinese.”

Daniel and Jessica, who is now eight, get along well. “I was so touched and happy when I first saw her at home because I’d got a Chinese adopted sister,” says Daniel. “I don’t care where she is from and I will take care of her just the same as the elder brothers in other families.”

The siblings attend the same local school and while Jessica does not get any special attention, Daniel is the one who stands out as the only kid at school with blonde hair. Jessica does not face many difficulties over her status, as the school has explained to the children what adoption is and they have all accepted it very well.

Today, the Woodyatts are the very picture of a loving and united family. But Victoria admits she did have a strange feeling shortly after the adoption. Just four years previously, she had given birth to Daniel and she knew how her hormonal changes had increased her maternal feelings. This was something she did not experience with Jessica and she could not help feeling strangely detached from the child at first.

“I didn’t have that strong instant attachment feeling when I had my daughter where there was no birth, no hormones,” she adds, “but after two years it felt the same, it takes time.”

Woodyatt has told Jessica the truth about her adoption, and she began to ask more about her story when she reached the age of seven. The Woodyatts answered all her questions honestly. The only things they are keeping from her are a necklace and a letter from her birth mother that were received from the Social Welfare Department.

Woodyatt explains that because Jessica is being brought up under her values, it would be more confusing and challenging for the child to have another mother and another set of values in her early years.

“I have no doubt that Jessica will meet her birth mother one day, but I want her to have grown up and have the maturity to handle it,” she says.

Whether the adopted child faces a lot of difficulties in their teens seems to differ from case to case. But groups working with adoptive families say the government does not provide nearly enough resources to help cope with any problems. According to a support group, the Adoptive Families of Hong Kong (AFHK), there is a serious lack of social workers specialising in adoption.

The AFHK is currently doing supportive follow-up work for adoptive families in Hong Kong. Most of its members are families who have adopted interracially with Caucasian parents and Hong Kong Chinese children but there are are also local adoptive family members.

The group organises regular gatherings for the families and holds support group meetings for them to share their experiences and difficulties. Through the meetings, the families get support from other parents who are psychologists or who have encountered the same issues. Mina Weight, the AFHK chairperson, says the next event will be the annual Christmas party, where the families can come together to share again.

“The government should provide more training to existing social workers and do more follow-up work with adoptive families.” says Weight.

She points out that although adopted children often receive good care from their adoptive parents, they still have to face many difficult times at school. She says the government should appoint more counsellors at schools to support adopted children through their teens.

More importantly, Weight says the government should educate the public about what adoption is and make people realise that adoption can be a good way to form a family and that adoptive families are no different from families that are biologically related.

As an adoptive mother herself, Weight says people always think the adoptive parents are great and that they are doing a favour to the adopted children. She sees it differently – that they are rewarded by the adopted children and should always feel lucky to be given a chance to become parents.

“Adoption is a thing to be proud of. It is a wonderful way to build a family,” she says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of.”


Related story:

Locals who are not considered Local: Hong Kong’s South Asians – Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities still struggling for acceptance due to language barriers and skin colour