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Interdisciplinary faculty symposium addresses transnational adoption in Asia

March 3, 2023

Last Friday, the departments of sociology, Asian studies and history hosted a day-long symposium on transnational adoption in Asia.

Four guest speakers addressed topics central to the discourse on transnational adoption, such as the Chinese adoption narrative, the use of genetic testing in adoption and the history of Philippine international adoption. This symposium is part of a larger endeavor by College faculty to catalyze an Asian American Initiative, which will officially start next academic year. The initiative will highlight the Asian American experience through new curricular and co-curricular offerings, as well as an exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Faculty from the three departments that hosted the symposium are currently co-teaching a course “Asian America and Empire: History, Society, Literature,” approaching transnational adoption in its curriculum. After working together, the course’s professors—Professor of Social Sciences Nancy Riley, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and English Belinda Kong and Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang—came up with the idea of the symposium with the aim of highlighting Asian American experiences that are not often discussed.

Riley, who primarily spearheaded the event, noted the event’s significance to her as the parent of a child adopted from China.

“There’s a piece of [the symposium] that’s become increasingly important to me,” Riley said. “There are students at Bowdoin for whom these are really important issues, either they themselves are adopted or they know someone [who is]—maybe a family member or somebody else.”

The professors involved with the project all came from different academic backgrounds, which made the symposium inherently interdisciplinary. For Riley, this mixture of perspectives was one of the event’s strengths.

“What sociology brings is really important, but so is what literature brings or history,” Riley said. “Students do interdisciplinary work all the time because you’re taking these courses all over the place, whereas we focus on certain disciplines. We’re having to stretch ourselves and it’s a challenge … that is enormously fun.”

Kong agreed that bringing together different perspectives about transnational adoption is important.

“Transnational adoption has been dominated by sociologists, anthropologists and to some extent historians. But not so much in terms of cultural studies or literary studies,” Kong said. “I feel like I was coming at the topic from a different angle with the memoirs of adoptees that I teach or the poetry or social media.”

Kong taught a class last spring, Asian America’s Margins, which included a unit on memoirs by transracial Asian adoptees. Kong’s continued engagement with transnational adoption narratives led her to participate in the symposium.

“I’m interested in how Asian adoptees fit into the larger landscape of Asian American memoirs…. There’s a push towards multiplying the stories of Asian American lives that maybe historically the white publishing industry has excluded in a lot of ways,” Kong said. “This is a moment where I feel like people are being given permission to narrate their stories. That in itself will be worthwhile in terms of enriching our understanding and imagination of what it means to be human and to legitimize the humanity of Asian Americans.”

Like Riley, Kong believes that the importance of this symposium lies in its ability to platform the experiences of adoptees within America—experiences which have been historically erased.

“I think it’s important to have an injection of Asian content into Bowdoin, which is a white majority college environment,” Kong said. “It’s always [important] not just to have [Asian American experiences] represented in the curriculum, but also in co-curricular activities … where students can have exposure to work beyond the classroom.”

Lia Scharnau ’26 decided to attend the event because of her interest in researching transnational adoption.

“What was most interesting to me was the first presentation that talked about demystifying the lucky girl narrative of Chinese adoptions within the last 20 years, and also talked about how this stereotyped narrative stems from a lack of context of contemporary Chinese culture,” Scharnau said. “That was really interesting and challenged a lot of the literature that informs about adoptees.”

In addition to enjoying the opportunity to engage with a topic about which she is passionate, Scharnau appreciated the symposium’s willingness to approach tensions and experiences that are not often discussed in classrooms.

“It’s important to give these topics a platform to be discussed and heard by students,” Scharnau said. “[The symposium] started important conversations and put them into [students’] personal spheres.… I think the other adoptees in the room really appreciated being able to hear this conversation and be a part of it.”

Riley received positive feedback from students like Scharnau during the last hour of the event, and hopes that the momentum created by the symposium will endure.

“It might have given some students permission to explore things in different ways than they might have. Where can students go to think about these issues at a small school? I think [the symposium] has allowed that kind of space,” Riley said. “There were several students who expressed interest in having some kind of community to talk about these issues. I’m hoping that … students can benefit from this in an ongoing way for themselves and build some kind of community.”


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