Over the last 20+ years, the spotlight on international adoption shined brightest on the thousands of mostly female children adopted from China. Notwithstanding the many memoirs and articles written by adoptive parents of their daughters from China, there are so many reasons for this particular interest – China’s One-Child Policy, the country’s radical approach to gender selection, US-China political and industrial relations, the West and her longstanding fascination with Chinese culture. What will happen to the babies adopted from China?
No longer babies, the growing adulthood of Chinese adoptees and how they will impact the adoption community has been a curiosity. In recent years, FCC (Families with Children from China), an adoptive parent-created organization, is working through the transition of creating space for adoptee leadership. Another is China’s Children International (CCI), where the adopted person’s voice is privileged. Recently, CCI published its first online magazine and it is gorgeous!
IAMAdoptee is thrilled to connect with founding members and creators of CCI and its publication.
We hear from Charlotte Cotter, one of the founders of CCI…
Basic Biographical Information
Name(s): Charlotte Cotter
How do you identify yourself?
Where were you adopted from, when and if you would like to share any aspect of your life before adoption?
Before I found my birth parents, I only knew a couple of facts about my life before adoption: I was found on the steps of a building in the eastern Chinese port city of Zhenjiang by the local police, as an infant with nothing but a small slip of paper stating my birthdate. I was taken to the Zhenjiang Social Welfare Institute. I stayed there until I was adopted at five months old in January of 1995.
Now that I have been in reunion, meaning that I have located my biological parents, I know much more, for better or for worse. For starters, I know that the birth date stated on the note was correct. I was born on August 5, 1994 in a hospital in Zhenjiang to a family in rural Jiangsu province. By that time, they already had two daughters, making me the third for a family to feed while looking for a son to carry on the family line. But Zhenjiang was not my family’s hometown; they had traveled three hours from their hometown of Huai’an to give birth to me, staying with family in the city to dodge family planning local officials. I now know that when I was two months old, my family heard from a wealthy ex-military couple hoping to have a daughter. They decided to send me off to that family through a third party, but somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Instead I was sent to an orphanage, where I stayed for three more months before my adoption to the United States of America.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I was initially adopted by my two moms to Roslindale, Massachusetts, USA, but I’ve grown up most of my life just outside of Boston in Newton, MA, with my parents and my sister who is adopted separately from China. I am still currently living in Newton, MA.
What is your profession/what are you pursuing?
I’m not quite sure, but I hope it relates to China. I’m currently working for the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies Collection at Harvard University, which focuses on contemporary China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and, particularly, rare materials on the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.
What is the origin story of CCI?
In some ways, it began with an article that I saw in the Boston Globe about a group of local Boston-based adoptees who were slightly older than I was at the time. The article detailed their journey back to China to volunteer at their orphanages. I had a number of close Chinese adoptee friends when I was younger, but for some reason, this was the first time I really thought about the international “Chinese adoption experience” as something much larger than myself, a truly global phenomenon. It really struck me that there were so many Chinese adoptees out there, and that if we were able to come together and harness that collective power, we truly would be a force to be reckoned with. I wanted some way for us all to connect and realize that we’re not as alone as we might have thought. I had also been involved in events held by Families with Children from China, the robust support network set up by parents who had adopted from China, so I knew that international organizations for Chinese adoption existed. But since many of us were growing up, going off to college, and getting jobs, I knew it was time that we had a space of our own, as well.
However, when I went online, I struggled to find what I thought was an active group created by and for Chinese adoptees to connect our community. That is how CCI was born.
The core vision of CCI was, is, and always will be to support an international community created by and for adult Chinese adoptees. We knew that “Chinese adoption” was a global phenomenon so much larger than ourselves, and yet at the heart of this phenomenon are the individuals. We wanted a way to connect all of these individuals who share these similar beginnings, to form a supportive community, to let us know we’re not alone, and to hear all of the diverse stories, aspirations, questions, and experiences. We’re all Chinese adoptees, but by no means is that our only identity. With our motto, “same beginnings, different paths,” we hope to challenge the notion of one singular “Chinese-adoptee” identity. CCI is about bringing us together to support each other, celebrating both our similarities and differences, and allowing Chinese adoptees to take control of the bright future of our community.
What is CCI addressing that you felt necessary to distinguish within the international adoptee/adoption community?
There has been movement within the international adoptee community to in some ways outgrow country-specific groups in favor of universal adoptee groups, because there is a feeling of being silo-ed in when, really, we share so much in common with all adoptees. I whole-heartedly support this movement and acknowledge the value in bringing adoptees together, no matter what country they are from.
However, at the same time, I also believe there is still a place for country-specific groups. While there is so much we can learn from the greater adult adoptee community, I believe that there are also aspects of being a Chinese adoptee that may be difficult even for other international adoptees to resonate with, particularly in connection with specific economic, social and cultural factors within China that have led to large numbers of international adoptions. For instance, because of the One Child Policy, many families resorted to abandoning children, many (but, of course, not all) of whom were girls, in public places or at the gates of orphanages in hopes that they would be taken care of, rather than following procedure to give up the child through the government or through an agency. For this reason, whereas many (but again not all) Korean adoptees may request access to documents from their agency with which to search for biological family, most Chinese adoptees have no paper trail or knowledge of our birth families, orphanages or agencies through which we were adopted, complicating a birth parent search in critical ways. CCI gives us a space to discuss and reflect on such aspects of our experiences particular to us.
In creating CCI, we recognize that international adoption groups and country specific groups play different but equally important roles. Being able to be in both spaces gives the adoptee different but equally important perspectives. There is room for both, after all!
You have a gorgeous inaugural issue of an online magazine. How can people access it? How did this come about?
To be honest, it’s not an inaugural magazine. We’ve had 2-3 past editions. We’ve always been about centering the adoptee in the narrative, and the e-magazine has long seemed the perfect way to do that!
But you’re right that this one is a turning point for us. When Emily produced this Magazine this past Spring (2019), we hadn’t made one in a long time, and we were hoping to fundamentally redevelop our E-magazine program. We were incredibly lucky to have the ultra-talented Emily Finley put together an entire team of writers, editors, and designers for this project. Not to mention that it is stunningly gorgeous!
What is going on in the adoption community you wish would get more air time?
Yes, I have a lot of thoughts on this!!! My experience in the adoption community has been largely very positive; I’ve learned so many things from older adoptees. For instance, I’ve learned to also look past personal experience and question the larger global socio-economic structural conditions that create and perpetuate the conditions for international adoption. Importantly, I’ve also learned a lot about the role of loss in adoption: loss of country, language, heritage, and birth family. To have gained in adoption is only because one has profoundly lost. They are, after all, two sides of the same coin. This is the “primal wound,” one of the only instances in the world in which people who have experienced loss are not allowed the space to properly grieve. The world expects adoptees to be grateful, happy, content. If we speak even one word critical of adoption, they immediately write us off as maladjusted and label us “angry” adoptees. But I’ve learned so much about how this is not right. As a group, we should be able to speak about the complexities of adoption, the anger, the grief, the loss, the pain, without being labeled ungrateful or maladjusted. That is, I’ve learned to challenge the “grateful adoptee” narrative.
However, I also feel that, in some circles, the narrative has swung too far in the opposite direction, such that happy experiences and individual stories are not validated, are deemed not useful, and, dare I say, outright disrespected.
As a community, I believe we should be able to have the space to voice whatever is our Truth. People have their own personal Truths that might differ from person to person and even within the same person among different time periods, but that doesn’t make that Truth any less true! This online bullying towards one particular narrative (it doesn’t matter which way) needs to be addressed within the adoption community in favor of respect and validation of fellow adoptee’s experiences, even if they differ from your own or run in the face of some sort of agenda. I personally think that the expression of such a diversity of complex and nuanced thoughts on adoption is what makes our community so rich and interesting. And this can only happen if we are open and respectful of each other’s experiences. That’s why CCI focuses on inclusivity and mutual respect for fellow members, recognizing that we’re not always at the same stage in thinking about adoptions, and, yes, that we’re not always going to agree, and that’s okay.
In broader terms, the discussion here is about how we, as adoptees, tell our stories and our respect for how others tell theirs, but it is also about who we are telling our stories for and for what purposes. I definitely hope that this complex conversation gets more airtime going forward!
ADOPTEE to ADOPTEE:
What is the best part of being an adoptee?
At the same time that I do not totally fit into either my birth or adopted culture, I can kind of fit into both! Being an adoptee puts me in the unique position to bridge the two countries and cultures and navigate fluidly between China and America. To me, what’s better than having one home than having two homes! In the words of the old adage (and also Hannah Montana?), it’s the best of both worlds.
What is the hardest part of being an adoptee?
That my two homes are so far away from each other. I wish China and America were just a little closer and cheaper to travel back and forth between!
Is there something of the Chinese culture you have incorporated into your daily life?
Yes, Chinese language. I love it. I live it, breathe it. It has become a part of my identity. My parents encouraged me to study Chinese when I wanted to study French. Now, eleven years of Mandarin study and one East Asian Studies degree later, I’m very glad they did.
If you’ve been to China, please finish this sentence – Next time I go to China, I…..
Hope to bring my parents to meet my birth parents.
I embarked on my searching trip alone, so my parents have never met my biological parents and vice versa. It feels like two parallel planes that do not even exist on the same earth. I would love for those two planes to converge.
With gratitude to Mahli Knutson, who helped to edit this interview.
Mahli Knutson lives in Vermont with her mother and older sister. She is an undergraduate senior studying International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College. She is interested in learning new languages and human rights advocacy, and in her free time, she plans cultural events with her college Japanese Club.