By Guest Contributor Sara Erdmann
Despite the fact that international adoption has become commonplace — most recent studies show that over 70,000 Chinese girls were adopted into the United States between 1991 and 2010 — Beth Nonte Russell’s path to motherhood was a nontraditional one. In her 2007 memoir, Forever Lily: an Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption, Russell describes accompanying a friend who intends to adopt on a trip to China.
This book, while almost 7 years old, is continuously recommended across the web for adoptive mothers — it’s pinned on Pinterest and a regular on the book club circuit. In an era obsessed with memoir, it seems only natural that Russell would choose to chronicle her journey as such, particularly considering the major surprise (read: book sales) that characterizes her trip: Russell’s friend changes her mind. Quickly becoming the heroine of her own story, Russell looks down at the little girl she has only just met and begins conceiving a history in which the two of them were meant to be together. Eager to substantiate her sudden role as Lily’s mother, Russell proclaims that “there was a past life connection between [her] and Lily,” and that her “longing brought [Lily] into being.” To suggest that this child living in an orphanage in China exists because Russell willed her into being is problematic to say the least, but Russell goes one step further in her desire to feel permanently and unalterably connected despite her and Lily’s cultural and racial differences.
White adoptive families are regularly challenged by the idea of incorporating their child’s birth culture into their family. Researchers have long questioned whether an adopted child’s birth culture should be ignored, as in cases when families essentially raise their child of color as white, or whether it should be embraced, even to the point of trying to mimic a Chinese upbringing in the United States (think Chinese New Year parties and Mandarin lessons). In Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant observe that “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate.” Because Russell sees Lily’s race as an essence, something unalterable, and she needs to feel she was meant to be Lily’s mother, she relies on personal epiphanies and memories that confirm that, in some way, she is also Chinese.