Tag Archive for: vietnam

Asian American Adoption- Part 3: The Interviews

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

It’s impossible to capture the long and complicated history of adoption in just a few blog posts. The previous posts (Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry and From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today) cover just a small fraction of international adoption history, but hopefully they set the stage for sharing the interviews I conducted during my internship. Each woman I spoke with has had a different experience with transracial adoption that shaped their identities. I’m grateful to my sorority sisters Dana, Mattison, and Laura, for sharing their experiences and being open about their adoption stories.

Dana, on proving her “Asian-ness”

Growing up Chinese, with a white mother and Chinese siblings, Dana’s family is not what most people picture as a typical American family. But for Dana, this is the only family she can remember. Born in the bustling city of Guangdong, China, Dana was one of the thousands of children sent abroad when their birth mother gave up parental rights. Dana spent less than a year of her life in the country of her birth.

Dana entered a family that had adopted a girl from a different part of China two years earlier. Three years after her own adoption, Dana’s mother expanded their family and welcomed a boy from another part of China. Most adoptive families have both a mother and father, but not so for Dana’s story. Her mother adopted three children in five years as a single woman in her forties.

Dana’s mother enrolled her children in Chinese schools to incorporate as much Cantonese and Mandarin language and culture as possible in their lives. Dana was able to attend the school in her hometown that had an Asian population of 30%-40%. Dana remembers enjoying the experience, though her time at the school was short-lived. Unfortunately, when Dana was very young, her mother passed away and Dana and her siblings moved in with their maternal aunt.
Dana attended Clemson University, a predominately white institution in South Carolina where she continued to look for ways to embrace her culture. As a freshman, Dana joined Delta Phi Lambda, where her sorority sisters cultivated an environment that was inviting and safe to explore her Chinese background.

But there were challenges outside the safe space of the sorority. Not having grown up immersed in Chinese culture and tradition, as an adult Dana felt like an outsider compared to her peers raised by Asian parents. She felt the stark difference between Asian-raised and white-raised Asian children, and looking back, remembers not understanding or realizing she should be offended when children made fun of her for looking “Asian” or mocking a Chinese dialect.

One of the complexities of transracial adoption is this dual question of identity—on the one hand, being raised culturally white but experiencing racism and othering, and on the other hand, not having experienced the cultural language or traditions that would create a sense of belonging in the Asian community. As Dana expressed in her interview, “How are you going to invalidate my identity because we didn’t grow up the same?” Though the Asian diaspora is vast, with varied experiences, many adoptees feel they have to prove they are Asian.

Mattison, on “otherness”

In the capital of Hubei province, in Wuhan, China, a little girl named Mattison was born and put up for adoption, spending the first year of her life in an orphanage. Mattison’s mom traveled more than 15 hours to pick up her daughter from a hotel lobby. When telling her story, Mattison laughed when I asked about the location—most people imagine parents first meeting their child in a hospital or even an airport, but not in a hotel lobby.

Mattison grew up an only child in a predominately white community. She attended a private Catholic school with few other Asian students enrolled. Her mom tried to encourage her to connect with her Chinese heritage by taking language classes and wearing traditional Chinese apparel. Unfortunately, children bullied her, and eventually those lessons stopped. Those memories of being bullied still resonate with her today as she recalls how children made fun of her because of her clothes. These experiences impacted her personality, and she became shy and kept to herself. She knew she looked different compared to other people and it made her nervous. These feelings of wanting to belong continued into college.

Studying at Clemson University, Mattison first joined a Panhellenic, an historically white-only sorority, but quickly felt like an outsider and quit after one semester. She later learned about Delta Phi Lambda, which advocates for Asian awareness. The sorority welcomed her and she found a community in which she felt like never had to prove herself. And Mattison’s Chinese American boyfriend and his family were instrumental in helping her learn more about her culture, taking the time to teach her Cantonese along with Chinese traditions and recipes. But she still struggled with her identity—not looking like everyone else at Clemson was still hard. It affected friendships, romantic relationships, and how she viewed herself. Unlike many of her classmates and friends who grew up surrounded by those of their own race, Mattison could never take belonging for granted.

Mattison’s mother was also adopted, which helped them to share a special relationship. This commonality of being adopted is a connection that many adopted children do not share with their parents. However, unlike Mattison, her white mom was adopted into a white family. Still, her mom was always open with her about race and adoption and is the person Mattison often turned to for difficult conversations. While Mattison’s mom was very open to these conversations, her father was not. Mattison often felt she had to educate her father about race and racism, which is not uncommon within the adoptive community. For Mattison, the weight of this burden was often exhausting and disheartening. The burden of tackling racism and bias—already fraught topics—has added another complicated layer to the complexity of transracial adoption.

Laura, on being immersed in culture but still struggling to belong

A Chinese orphanage was Laura’s home until, at one year old, she made the 15-hour trip to Tennessee to begin her new life. Not long after her adoption, Laura’s parents adopted another child, a boy from Russia. Laura spoke of how her parents encouraged them each to explore their backgrounds and their cultures and never shied away from the topics of race and who they were.

Her parents made immersing Laura in the Asian community a priority. They would drive two hours to Nashville to celebrate Chinese New Year, and worked to keep Laura connected to two other girls that were adopted with her—friendships that are still important to her today. Laura has also had the privilege that many adoptees dream of, but rarely achieve—she was able to go back to her birth country to be immersed in Chinese culture.

Identity and belonging were still issues for Laura; not feeling Asian enough or feeling she did not have the right to speak on certain topics, she did not come to easy conclusions about herself. Laura faced racism that made her truly reflect on her identity. Despite having had so many opportunities to be immersed in Asian culture and community, she still keenly felt the internal battle of growing up looking Asian in a white culture.

Laura longed for acceptance in a community that is not always accepting. Always migrating towards people who look like her, Laura learned the hard way how, for some, adopted Asians are not perceived as “real” Asians. Twenty years later, through many struggles with identity and race, Laura finally feels proud to be an adoptee. With support from others and a growing inner strength, she is more confident in her identity and story.

Adoption stories are extremely personal, and difficult to share. Dana, Mattison, Laura, and I all have different adoption stories that shape our lives. Their stories are just three in a world of complicated stories and do not speak for all adoption experiences; they’re meant to foster conversations about identity, race, belonging, and inclusion. My hope is that these stories are a catalyst for bringing attention to transracial adoption. For many, myself included, our stories and experiences are not an open topic. For those curious about Asian transracial adoption, I have included some resources below to start—or continue–your journey. The experience of adoption is not singular, it takes time and research to understand how people feel about adoption and why it takes place. The complexities of transracial and international adoption are becoming an increasingly louder national conversation, one which will hopefully lead to increased understanding, awareness, and inclusion.

Readings and Resources

For a full list of sources, view here.

Asian American Adoption- Part 2: From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today

A Vietnam exhibition display of two soldiers standing next to the helicopter and one in the cockpit.
A section of “The Price of Freedom” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Clarissa Trent.

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

After the Korean War, Asia faced other crises, including the Vietnam War, Cambodian Civil War, and the Laos Civil War. These wars left millions of men, women, and children dead. Countries fell into geopolitical tyrannical regimes and East and Southeast Asia transitioned to communist states. At the same time, international adoption was gaining traction in South Korea and growing popular in other Cold War countries. One infamous example of this popularity was Operation Baby Lift, which occurred after the Vietnam War.

Operation Baby Lift was authorized by President Gerald R. Ford and allowed for 30 planes to be filled with Vietnamese and Cambodian children. These infants and toddlers were airlifted out of the country to adoptive families in the United States, Canada, Australia, and more. The operation evacuated over 2,000 children from their home countries. While many applauded the United States government and military for their seemingly heroic rescue of these children, critics have characterized the event as “kidnapping,” describing the evacuation as a photo opportunity designed to pull public focus away from an extremely unpopular war.

During and following times of war, parents were often unable to find work and unable to provide for their children, and many turned to orphanages to care for them. Governments and adoption agencies, however, would misconstrue the facts and depict children as parentless even if one or both parents were still alive. Whether it fit the legal definition of kidnapping or not, the once-popular idea that international adoption saved children from the perceived threats of communism has become a central topic in modern conversation around adoption.

A newsletter clipping of the Disabled Child of the Month by Holt International.
A Holt Adoption Program Newsletter from September 1967 featuring a “Handicapped Child of the Month.” Photo by Clarissa Trent, courtesy of a National Museum of American History collections tour.

In recent years, adoption requirements have become stricter. Many countries have age, income, marriage, and health requirements. A number of countries have also agreed to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This sets an international standard for how international adoptions are conducted worldwide, to combat abduction and trafficking of children. However, not all countries are part of this agreement—most notably South Korea—and Americans continue to adopt from countries that are not part of the Hague Convention.

Asian adoptees who experience transracial adoption often have a complicated sense of identity. While adoptions do occur in families of the same race, the majority of Asian adoptions are to white families. The issues that Asian adoptees face are a part of a growing field of study looking at identity crisis, racism, mental health, emotional health, and abandonment. A study published in 2013 explored these issues in American adoptees. The results indicated that adoptees are four times more likely to die by suicide than biological children. These issues around plural identities and racism are not felt by all Asian adoptees, nor are they exclusive to Asian adoptees. While sometimes difficult, these conversations are essential to uncovering the stories of adoptees historically and today.

Readings and Resources:

For a full list of sources, view here.

Asian American Adoption- Part 1: Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

An Asian woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing a black button down shirt stands on a white stairwell.
Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern

When I was six months old, I was adopted from South Korea. I am a transracial adoptee. I am the daughter of white, evangelical parents in rural East Tennessee, and the life my parents imagined for me is very different than my other Korean friends. I grew up in the evergreen mountains of Appalachia, listening to Country and Bluegrass, eating cornbread, saying holler instead of hollow, with a sister who looked nothing like me. The microaggressions I experienced at the time—“friends” asking me to speak Korean (when I didn’t) or mocking a stereotypical Asian accent—contributed to my sense of identity. I could forgive my friends, but it was harder when the microaggressions came from adults—I was once asked by a teacher if it was okay to call me a racial slur. These microaggressions and overt racism meant that even though I was raised culturally white, I felt like an outsider. I was a Korean daughter who knew nothing of her home country or birth language. It was not until I entered college that I fully embraced my dual identity and started to consider what it means to have an identity as an adoptee.

The history of adoption is a long and complicated one, and there are a number of books and resources that trace its history from the start of World War II to today. In this series I will provide a brief overview of international adoption and share three first-person interviews I conducted during my internship with the Smithsonian Institution. For these three interviews, I asked fellow sisters from Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc., an Asian interest organization that prides itself on creating a home away from home for Asian/Asian American women across the country. These women, all Chinese American, joined Delta Phi Lambda for reasons all their own, and found in the sorority a family that teaches them and creates a safe space for them. Each interviewee has had different experiences with transracial adoption which shaped their identities. I am so grateful to them for generously allowing me to share their experiences. To contextualize their stories, let’s first delve into a brief history of international adoption.

From Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Map of Korea
Map of North and South Korea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When the United States and the former Soviet Union engaged in war by proxy on the Korean Peninsula, no one could have predicted that it would create a new form of child rearing around the world. The devastation of the Korean War left thousands of children without parents, and thousands of parents without the jobs and resources they needed to care for their children. The war caused irreparable harm to the peninsula and ended with a shaky ceasefire, creation of the 38th parallel, and a nation of people fully divided. The aftermath had lasting effects on Koreans at home and in the diaspora (those who have left the Asian continent and are living somewhere else). A provisional government was not prepared to take on the responsibility of orphanages overrun with children whose parents were gone or could no longer provide for them. The best solution, at that time, was to adopt children out to other countries.

Today, the international adoption system is a multi-million-dollar industry; families pay tens of thousands of dollars for lawyers, psychological evaluations, at-home visits, and plane tickets. The history of international Asian adoption is steeped in colonialism and racism, and many adoptees feel the weight of these topics today.

Before adoption started in South Korea, there was a group of children that had easy access to the care of the United States. Called “mascots,” these were young boys (and occasionally young girls) taken under the wing of U.S. military units moving through the Korean Peninsula. They were clothed, fed, and trained to spy for the military. When the war ended, mascots were the first children to be adopted.

In comparison, GI children—children born to local women and American soldiers away at war–had a much different experience than mascots. Stereotypes and prejudices prevented many of these children from being adopted. The patriarchal Korean society placed heavy emphasis on the continuation of the fathers’ blood through recorded lineages. Children from American fathers were ostracized because their Korean DNA came exclusively from their mothers.

The South Korean and United States governments established new orphanages to manage those who did not have direct access to US military resources as mascots and GI children did. Many of these orphanages were heavily associated with the United States military—some were even named after military units. Other orphanages developed at the time were overseen by Christian groups operating out of the US. These orphanages added a new layer to this complicated history. Children were marketed to white, Christian families as needing to be saved. While white, middle-class families were not the only group to adopt from Asia, they were the most prevalent. Many were introduced to this world of Asian adoption through Harry and Bertha Holt.

Oregon Journal newspaper clipping of the article "Father Holt, 12 Children Reach Home."
Oregon Journal, newspaper, 1955, Gift of Holt International Children’s Services. In the Home and Community Life: Domestic Life collections at the National Museum of American History.

The Holts became significant to the history of international adoption when their desire to adopt more than two Korean children was restricted by the Refugee Act of 1953. To circumvent this, they successfully petitioned Congress to pass a special law, The Holt Bill, allowing them to adopt 6-8 children (historical records disagree on the exact number of adoptees). Photos and news coverage of the plane ride that brought the Holt’s adoptees to America introduced Asian adoption to white, evangelical families*. The Holts went on to establish one of the largest international private adoption agencies in the world. With the Korean government fully backing this endeavor, the newly formed country of South Korea became the largest country sending their children abroad.

A child's hanbok with a red skirt and a multi-colored jacket.
Traditional Korean Child’s Dress (Hanbok). Credit Betty Holt Blakenship

Sources and Author notes:

*The increase in white families adopting Korean orphans was attributed to coverage of the plane ride. In her book To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, Arissa Oh writes extensively about white parents adopting Korean children and how that type of transracial adoption differed from white families adoping Black children. She also suggests that adoption of Korean children was more enticing since their parents were thousands of miles away and could not come and claim their child.

For a full list of sources, view here.

Young Historians, Living History- Today’s Stop: Greensboro, NC!

Special thanks to Paula Lee, Smithsonian Affiliations intern, for this guest post. This is the second of a five-part blog series she is writing as part of the Young Historians, Living Histories (YHLH) collaboration with the Asian Pacific American Center and our Affiliate network.

Students of the Montagnard community proudly representing the Smithsonian Museum and Greensboro Historical Center

Students of the Montagnard community proudly representing the Smithsonian Museum and Greensboro Historical Center


Greensboro, North Carolina is home to the largest Montagnard community living not only in the United States, but outside of Vietnam which makes Greensboro, a pretty big deal. Today I’ll share what the Young Historians, Living Histories project has enabled the Smithsonian and its collaborators to discover in the recent weeks! Dean Macleod, Curator of Education at the Greensboro Historical Museum (Greensboro, North Carolina), guided me through some fascinating facts about the Montagnard community that he learned through interacting with the community’s youth.

French for “mountain people,” the Montagnard (pronounced mon-tuhn-yahrd), are the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Due to political, religious, and land disputes initiated by the Communist majority of North and South Vietnam, the natives were evacuated from the highlands at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 through American efforts. The refugees began their resettlement to Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte, NC starting as early as 1986 in multiple but slow waves of immigration. There are as much as 9,000 Montagnard refugees in North Carolina with a majority in Greensboro, some of which have identified as Americans.

No 'I' in Team - Students take on different roles in order to complete the oral histories.

The diverse Montagnard youth unite to complete each role required for the interviewing processes.

With this in mind, Macleod approached the community with caution and respect and discovered that “the youth of the Montagnard community were thrilled that the Museum was engaging with them, and interested in digitizing their stories.” Although the 15 Montagnard students are of one community, they are unique to each other. Each student represented separate tribes as well as being refugees from different waves of immigration; some were born in Cambodia, others raised in Vietnam, and a few even born in America. Macleod remarks that the students’ involvement in the program was a way for them to feel like they were giving back for the sacrifices made by their ancestors.

The Montagnard stories in Greensboro even inspired other participating Affiliates to learn more. “I didn’t know anything about the Montagnard until hearing about this project. Thanks to the Greensboro Historical Museum, I’ve done a bit of research as a result,” said Shauna Tonkin, Director of Education at the Pacific Aviation Museum (Honolulu, Hawaii).

Because of this research, Greensboro Historical Center included the stories and artifacts in their Voices of a City: Greensboro North Carolina  exhibition. This exhibit displays 300 years of local history that enlighten its viewers on the extraordinary stories that the city has to say about the community that shaped it.

Voices of a City Exhibition Photo Credit: Greensboro Historical Center

Voices of a City Exhibition. Photo courtesy Greensboro Historical Center

Don’t forget to check back, next week’s entry will highlight students in action as we step into the spotlight and begin filming and interviewing!

Mic Check! Students prepare to begin filming the interviews.

Mic check ! Let’s get these stories heard.

Students help edit each other's interviews using Mac OS Editing Software

Students are using Mac OS Editing Software to edit their videos.