Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Kinship Secrets and Narrative Work: The Shifting Political Economy of Adoption in Vietnam

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Kinship Secrets and Narrative Work: The Shifting Political Economy of Adoption in Vietnam

Article excerpt

Vietnam has a long history of diverse forms of adoption. Yet contemporary domestic adoption remains largely invisible, with families often keeping it secret. The three narratives of secret adoption examined here illuminate the complex dynamics that have naturalized the middle-class biological nuclear family as the ideal for a market economy. As women narratively perform kin-work to make such a family visible and real, they render invisible other relations of blood and desire. Enmeshed in classed, gendered and intimate dynamics of transparency and secrecy, adoptive kinship in Vietnam delineates new subjectivities, affects and forms of political economy.

Keywords: adoption, Vietnam, kin-work, narrative, political economy.

My interest in domestic adoption in Vietnam began in the 1990s, when I was conducting research in Ho Chi Minh City's famous Ben Thanh marketplace (Leshkowich 2014a). The market is a must-see stop for tourists. Among them were foreigners in the process of adopting a child from Vietnam--racial differences between the parents, most of them white North Americans or Europeans, and their Asian infants or toddlers making evident the form of their kinship relationship. Seeing me sitting on a plastic stool near a stall and chatting with its proprietor in Vietnamese, some of these visitors would pause to ask what I was doing, how I learned Vietnamese and whether I enjoyed living in Ho Chi Minh City. They often posed cultural questions, such as when women wore ao dai or why Vietnamese interlocutors often asked their age upon starting a conversation. Or they asked for shopping advice, with a particular interest in buying souvenirs that they could share with their child as part of preserving his or her cultural heritage. Those with daughters often outlined their plans to buy twelve or more ao dai in different sizes so that their daughter could have them throughout her childhood. They alerted me to cultural heritage education programmes for transnational adoptive families and to the items or practices that might constitute "Vietnamese culture" in the absence of its daily, lived experience in a community.

After the adopting families moved down the aisle, even more interesting conversations would begin. Having seen many such families in recent years, stallholders were enormously curious about why they were adopting children from Vietnam. I was showered with questions. "Why do foreigners like Vietnamese baby girls?" "Will they make the child do household chores?" "When the child grows up, will they return it to Vietnam?" "How can they love a child who doesn't look like them?" "How will they educate the child?" "How much did they pay for the child?" Such questions would likely have outraged the adoptive parents, for they implied that race and economics shaped kinship acts, whereas the adoptive parents tended to view family formation primarily in terms of emotional attachment.

Ben Thanh traders' questions provided insight into longstanding practices of adoption in Vietnam. Transfer of children between families has often involved issues of economics and lineage, with poorer families sometimes relinquishing a child to serve as an heir, in the case of boys, or to provide domestic labour, in the cases of both girls and boys, for wealthier kin or someone else in their social networks. For example, one of my contacts in Ben Thanh Market had been adopted precisely to relieve the burden on her rural natal family and to help the urban adoptive family with their family-run market stall. Her status as a con nuoi (adopted child) was contingent on her labour. When she took an office job with a foreign company, she was asked to leave the family home. The adoption of male children as heirs, in contrast, tended to be permanent. Other forms of child transfer might have been temporary, such as those intended to protect a child from supernatural harm. Stallholders' questions about why foreigners seemed to prefer Vietnamese girls or whether such con nuoi would in fact provide domestic labour reflected this history of adoption within Vietnam. …

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