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In Your Own Words: Why Adoptee Stories Matter

By Amy Lee Scott

I, along with 12.61 million other Americans, tuned into Modern Family’s premier on September 23, 2009. While it pulled in rave reviews from critics and viewers alike, what astonished me most was the introduction of Lily, a baby adopted from Vietnam. It was the first time I had ever seen an Asian adoptee portrayed in mainstream media. 

Tellingly, her adoption is told from the privileged vantage point of her wealthy white parents, who apparently went to Vietnam “not for pleasure” but to adopt a baby–a secret they kept from their entire family until her dramatic reveal. 

While Mitchell, one of Lily’s dads, bumbles awkwardly in telling his family the big news, Lily’s other dad, Cameron, enters the scene clad in an African robe and thrusts her into the air as The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” belts out from a boombox. Somehow, a spotlight beams onto Lily as her new, mostly white family crowds around her, grinning and cooing. 

The visual gag is over the top and funny. But then Lily’s white grandfather, Jay–whose gruffness covers an inner softie–holds his arms out to his new granddaughter and says, “Let me see the little potsticker,” a term of endearment that made me laugh, all while turning my stomach with its casual racism. 

While Lily’s entrée into the Pritchett clan is perhaps the most visible storyline an Asian adoptee has ever had on American network television, I felt a little queasy watching her character become an easy plot device that did not convey the richness–and complications–I experienced as an older generation Korean adoptee growing up in the 90s. 

Like Lily, and perhaps like many other Asian adoptees, I often encountered comments similar to Jay’s. I would ignore them or laugh it off (a people pleaser to the core). It felt easier to suppress the pain that came from often well-meaning comments, to rationalize away the person’s ignorance–especially when it was usually a friend or family member talking. 

But every time I pushed down the discomfort, a little part of me fell silent. Then came Covid-19 and the rise of the downright racist China-flu rhetoric. Suddenly my newsfeed was filled with Asians getting harassed and hurt. I looked at my half-Asian children and felt the need to protect them whenever we left the house. I constantly scanned the environment looking for possible escape routes, should we encounter a racist attack. 

At night I would stare at my childrens’ precious, beautiful faces and wonder what I could do to protect them from a world that seemed to hate us. From that space of helplessness, I started writing about my anxiety and my fear. As I wrote, I found myself leaning into a core part of myself I had shrouded for so long. She could speak the hard truths I ignored for so long. She made visible the person I always wondered if I could be–someone fiery, confident, strong. 

And of course, that part of me is me. By exercising my creativity, I unlocked my voice I had silenced. This is the power of writing, and why I am so eager to help other adoptees share their stories. We have all experienced the world of adoption in different ways. It is our time to tell our stories in our own words. 

In my session, “Let Me See the Little Potsticker,” we will use writing to confront racial stereotypes in Asian adoptee stories in order to make our experience central in the adoption dialogue. By examining media portrayals of adoptees, and conducting a hands-on writing workshop, we will work to interrogate some of our complicated feelings while in community with one another.


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