Over the decades, new immigrants to these shores were obliged to fit themselves into this black/white racial scheme. Not surprisingly, most chose to identify themselves with the group that had full rights. In books such as "How the Irish Became White," scholars have traced the path that immigrant subgroups took to become considered part of the "white" race. It's a poignant and peculiarly American journey. The protection and status of whiteness was not without costs. Most distinct subgroups gradually lost their distinctiveness. Their members traded specific ethnic labels — Italian, Swedish, French — for the generic racial label of "white." They exchanged identities that told us something about their unique histories for an elastic racial category that mostly tells us what they are not.
Such encounters are rare for the thousands of American families who have adopted Chinese children. But increasingly these families are making the return journey to China, not merely as tourists climbing the Great Wall and steeping their daughters (and they are almost all girls) in Chinese culture, but as detectives trying to unravel the most elusive mystery of all: Who is my child? Who are her biological parents, and where are they from? Is she Han Chinese or a member of one of the many ethnic minorities? Does she have a biological sibling? And, most important, how did she come to be abandoned and referred for adoption?