Tracing the Red Thread: An Ethnography of Chinese-U.S. Transnational Adoption

Frayda Cohen

PhD Thesis 2007

The 1990s witnessed a sudden, dramatic increase in the number of adoptions of Chinese children, 95% of whom are girls, by U.S. parents. Currently, more foreign born children are adopted from China than any other country. These adoptions, the resulting gendered migration from China to the United States and the children who remain in Chinese social welfare institutes, serve as the basis for this research.

This dissertation is based on nearly three years of multi-sited ethnographic research. Initially, I conducted fieldwork with parents and staff in adoption agencies and support groups in Pittsburgh. I subsequently accompanied a group of parents on their adoption trip to China. The final phase of research was conducted in China. This phase involved extensive participant observation with volunteer groups, local hospitals, and international aid organizations who are working with Chinese social welfare institutes and providing supplemental funding and medical care to resident children. As a volunteer for these groups, I was able to work in a variety of sites (Beijing, Tianjin, Henan Province, and Guangzhou) in both Northern and Southern China which illustrated important regional differences.

In China, red thread, in the form of wall-hangings and ornaments, has a distinctly auspicious meaning and is quite literally woven throughout the fabric of Chinese daily life and rituals. This imagery has also become central to the U.S. community of families with children from China. However, the complex and shifting meanings associated with this imagery as it migrates from China to the United States through the process of adoption are not readily apparent and key questions arise. How did U.S. adopting parents come to know this story? How do meanings of the thread change with the community? How is this sample of Chinese folklore used to promote and encourage adoption? And how does it reflect ideals of bonds not only between adopting parent and child but also between adoption communities in the U.S. and China? In answering these questions, I explore three key aspects of the transnational adoption process: 1) adoptive families and cultural identity; 2) gender, race and citizenship; and 3) adoption and labor in China.