A Vietnamese Perspective on Adoptive Relationships — Blood is Thicker than Water

Sadly, in certain cultures (including Vietnamese), the non-biological parent-child relationship tends to be given second-class status, viewed at somewhat askance, with a suspicion that perhaps becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Idiomatic expressions such as “Blood is thicker than water” (or, “Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã”) preserve this cultural supremacy of blood ties.

In my experience, more often than not the adopted child (con nuôi; “nuôi” means to raise or care for, and is also the word for foster) is not fully accepted. They are sometimes held at arms-length, due to a vague suspicion that they may more easily leave or betray you (Vietnamese — phản bội), that they do not truly belong to you.

Even the term for a biological child (con ruột) or parent (ba/mẹ ruột) has a meaning, and evokes a sense, akin to the English term “flesh and blood”. A biological child is part of a parent in a deep, visceral, inalienable kind of way. It is a relationship that no one can forswear or deny, neither parent nor child, nor anyone else. Similarly, the adoptive parent is viewed as not the true parent but simply a temporary custodian or caretaker. In fact, the Vietnamese word for foster parents is the same as that for adoptive parents (ba/mẹ nuôi). Terms used are important because I believe language can be a window into cultural attitudes and beliefs, being both the repository of culture, and the medium by which it is passed on.

If an adoptive child has left, run away from or otherwise betrayed the adoptive parents, a typical response may be — that was to be expected, adopted children tend to betray you (“con nuôi là con phản”). Expected because they are not flesh and blood, and therefore dissimilar, incompatible. An adoptive relationship that works out is fortuitous - much like a graft that perchance takes.

Yes, there are biological children who leave or betray their parents. But in those cases the response tends to be to blame heaven or fate rather than squarely on the child or provenance of the child — ‘what an unfortunate/unblessed family’ (“nhà đó/ba mẹ đó không có phúc/ bất hạnh”) or ‘parents have children but heaven determines its personality/attributes” (‘cha mẹ sinh con trời sinh tính’).

Adoptive children are seemingly more easily rejected by either the parents or relatives due to some failure or supposed fault. The adoptive child may be seen as being a “bad influence” on the biological one(s), and therefore the adoption was a “bad idea”. The biological children should be distanced from or isolated from the negative influence of the adoptive ones. You can see how this line of thinking would not likely not be indulged if all were biological children.

Examples of adoptive children not being fully accepted, treated as second-class family members? Friends and family may remember only the biological children’s names, or in introducing that family to others, may only mention the biological kids. Relatives may only “count” the biological children — when saying how many grandchildren they have, grandparents may leave out the adoptees. During family reunions only the absence of biological children may be remarked on. Family photos will be taken, many with but some without the adoptive children.

Even in the case of an exemplary adoptive parent, their bond with the adoptive child is considered trumped by a biological one that the child may still have with, say, the biological parents who gave him/her up. In the case of a step-child, the relationship that child has with their biological parent trumps by far the one with their step parent. If the family is broken up, it is a given that the child will stay with its biological parent, no matter the quality of their relationship with their step-parent.

Is it fair to elevate the biological relationship and denigrate the adoptive one? What matters more to a child? Their biological relationship to their parents, or the quality of the nurture and care that their parents provide, whether biological, adoptive or step? Truth be told, perhaps it is the adoptive/step parents that should be honored and elevated above biological ones, because their love and nurture of children that are not biologically theirs is more altruistic and selfless. And rejection (or lack of full acceptance) by family is deeply hurtful and damaging to children.

So while we cannot hope to singlehandedly change societal attitudes regarding adoptive relationships, perhaps we can individually be more aware of this tendency to treat adoptive relationships as “less than” and avoid perpetuating it. The decision to adopt should be seen as a commitment as deep as the decision to have (biological) children.

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