Insights from Angelina and a boy named Pax

By Tram Nguyen Apr 02, 2007

Lately, I’ve been mesmerized by the newest Angelina Jolie adoption. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports, in need of brain candy to get me through another flight. This latest adoption also hits close to home, since it involves a 3-year-old Vietnamese boy taken from an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City, where I lived briefly as a child. Of course, I don’t much care what Angelina and Brad do with their jet-setting lives. As long as they do no harm, it’s just a diversion to fixate on the pros and cons of how they choose to go about forming their family or trying to solve the world’s problems through charity. But, as one of those things that make you go "hmmm," these tabloid tales made me think about the sticky questions of choice and responsibility that transracial and transnational adoption pose. There was a time when I seriously contemplated adoption. As I approached 30 without marriage or childbirth on the horizon, the idea of creating a different family unit appealed to me even more. And, having edited numerous stories in ColorLines about the child welfare system and the political and personal aspects of transracial adoption, I felt fairly familiar with the issues. In my mind’s eye, I pictured adopting a black or mixed-race child, preferably a girl, from the public system where I live. Black or mixed-race because I knew they were "hard to place," the least wanted in the hierarchy of kids. Local so that I could hopefully research the child’s background and keep her connected to any community roots. With good intentions and hard work, I was confident I would be able to tackle the challenges, get help where I needed it, and in the end provide a better life for a child while building a family I wanted. Nowadays, though, I doubt I will ever adopt. More and more, I’ve been dwelling on the aspect of adoption that is about exerting personal privilege at the end of a long chain of structural forces that result in more children from impoverished Black American, Native American, and Global South families ending up in foster care and orphanages. I could deploy my privilege with purpose, with the best of intentions and conscientious effort within the system, but it doesn’t sit right with me anymore as something I want to do. I say this with difficulty, because I have close friends and colleagues who have adopted transracially, and have learned from and supported and participated with respect in their decisions. Adoption, and the balance of race and social justice within it, bears no easy answers or judgments. Somewhere along the way, I started to focus less on who the "neediest" children were, and more on who I am and what I can realistically bring to the best interest of a child. Am I necessarily the right person to raise a black or mixed-race girl within the realities of this society? Am I any more attuned, by race or culture or societal expectations, to a child brought from Vietnam, China or Korea? I suppose the biggest factor in my change of heart is that I began to suspect it would never be so idealistically simple to tailor a family to my own wants and choices, much as I do my career or dating life. Maybe I have yet to reach the next stage, of still having the love and humility to start a family anyway. In the meantime, I’ll refrain from judging even if Angelina did re-name her new son Pax. What hubris! What privilege! What cultural and racial superiority! But then, I realized, at least that means they won’t be butchering his Vietnamese name.