The movie Adopted opens with a quote from the book Beyond Good Intentions by Cheri Register:
“The joy and the tragedy coexist. That is the paradox of adoption, and we are all caught up in it.”
I had high hopes with an opener like this. It caught my attention because it’s powerful, and as an adoptee it rings true. Adoption is a paradox! It’s a mixture of emotions like love, hope and redemption, but also a mixture of sadness, loss, and confusion. I was all on board with hearing these adoption stories.
That is, until, I heard from the filmmakers’ main focus: Jennifer Fero. The movie follows two adoption stories: that of a Korean adult adoptee (Jennifer) and that of hopeful adoptive parents (Jackie and John). Adopted offered a balance between two important perspectives, which I can appreciate.
So, it starts with Jennifer, who is grappling with who she is as an adult adoptee. She was adopted in 1975 after being dropped off in a little bundle on the steps of a police department. Throughout the film, Jennifer seems angry at her adoptive parents’ lack of effort to understand what it’s like being a transracial adoptee. With both of her parents being white, her brother being white, her neighborhood and schools growing up being primarily white, she struggled with her identity. She never had the opportunity to learn about Korean heritage as a child, which brings us to where she is today.
The film bounces between Jennifer’s story and Jackie and John’s. Jackie and John are white hopeful adoptive parents waiting for a match from China. When asked about their thoughts on transracial adoption: “You don’t see skin color once you’ve fallen in love with them.”
And maybe that’s what Jennifer’s parents experienced. Throughout the movie, Jennifer seems angry, resentful almost, toward her adoptive parents for their lack of integrating Korean culture into their lives. Jennifer was adopted before any real transracial adoption education was available. She constantly asserts that love was not enough. She wanted her parents to learn about Korean culture with her. I don’t blame her on that one, but it’s how she did it that rubbed me the wrong way. She tricked her dad into going to a Korean restaurant with her so he could “adapt” to Korean culture, “because adoptees have to adapt” to American culture. As the viewer, it seems like she backed her dad into a corner at the restaurant, demanding an explanation for why he doesn’t advocate for Asian girls. To Jennifer, her dad is obligated to make sure things are right for people of color because he has a daughter of color. The scene ends with him getting visibly emotional and Jennifer going on a shopping spree to “blow off steam.”
Meanwhile, Jackie and John have received word that they have a daughter waiting for them in China. I admire both of their attitudes towards the amazing blessing, yet huge loss, that is international adoption. They both recognize that bringing her home to the United States will absolutely flip her world upside down, and they worry about her grief. Additionally, they’re very in tune with what could be going on with her birth mother. They grieve for the woman who is losing her child. That adoption paradox mentioned at the beginning? Jackie and John are suddenly thrown headfirst into it, all from a phone call sharing the news of a little girl available for adoption.
You can probably tell that I didn’t like Jennifer’s attitude throughout the movie. I feel for her and her identity crisis, and I can actually agree with many things that she said. For example, Jennifer tries to talk about her birth mother to her adoptive parents in an effort to dream about what might have happened to her. Her adoptive parents don’t really know how to handle the conversation, and Jennifer makes a good point by saying, “If we don’t talk about my birth mother, we’re dehumanizing her.” Her adoptive mom even goes as far to say that she doesn’t care about her birth mom. That would make me pretty angry, too. Jennifer elaborates in a surprisingly eloquent way: “You get more of me if you imagine that I was connected to someone else at one point in time.”
Maybe it’s unfair of me to dislike Jennifer’s attitude after all that she’s been through. But haven’t we all been through something like that? As adoptees, we’ve all had this crazy identity crisis. Adoptive parents play the biggest role in helping us navigate it, and it doesn’t seem like her parents helped too much. They adopted her because they wanted another child to love, but didn’t realize the complications that would come with having a transracial family. At the end of the film, both of Jennifer’s adoptive parents have been terminally diagnosed and she checks herself into rehab to start coping with substance abuse. She struggles to grieve for her birth mother and even describes herself as being “emotionally hollow” for her whole life. It paints a dark picture of just how important it is for adoptive parents to empathize with their adopted child.
The film did a good job of illustrating two different phases of adoption: pre-adoption with Jackie and John’s story, and navigating life as an adult adoptee with Jennifer’s story. It’s interesting how prepared and empathetic Jackie and John are when they go to China to meet their daughter. They likely went through some training on transracial families and are very aware of the loss experienced on the birth mom’s side. They even made it a point to make a diverse group of friends so they can learn about different heritages together. It’s a very different story for the Fero’s, who don’t acknowledge the existence of Jennifer’s birth mom and probably didn’t have much preparation for raising a transracial family. “Adopted” acts as a paradox in and of itself.
You can watch the film here.