Solving problem of adoptee representation in film, TV

A scene from 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians” / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Korea

This article is the fifth in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children’s right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries’ moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.

By Ella Wu

I discovered my passion for film and television at a fortunate time, in 2018, the year of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Like many of us, I fixated on the feeling of “Finally! It’s our turn now.” After decades of being pushed to the sidelines, Asians were stepping into the spotlight and onto the big screen. Each new Asian-led or Asian-created release after the breathless success of “Crazy Rich Asians” felt like a chest-pounding victory. “Do you see how brightly we shine?” I crowed in the privacy of my mind, “Do you see us now?”

I am a Chinese adoptee, and I was aware that Asians needed to score a big, sweeping win before we could dig deeper into the nuances of our diverse community. We needed to firmly establish our foothold in the industry with the widely understandable, easily digestible stories of our people, which we should absolutely celebrate for the groundbreaking progress they made. We marched out the glitter and the glam in a parade of excellence, shattering stereotypes and demanding our rightful spot in the A-list lineup. After that, we could coax out the richer flavors in our representation, when projects were more likely to be greenlit and audience interest was a guarantee.

Only after that did I feel comfortable wondering, “Is it the adoptees’ turn yet?”

I’ve been waiting a long time for a truly authentic adoptee narrative in mainstream movies and TV. It’s 2023 now, and I’m still waiting.

So far, the way transracial and intercountry adoption is portrayed in media has been unfulfilling and pretty disappointing, if not totally harmful. For Asian adoptees in particular, our voices have been consistently erased in order to center the (usually white) adopter’s journey to “ultimate sainthood.” Adoptee characters in movies and TV have been relegated to the miracle child, the changeling, grateful child, poor orphan in need of saving, troubled and/or disturbed kid, always searching for birth family and other two-dimensional caricatures.

These interpretations are, by majority, written for us by people who are not us. The ignorance makes my skin crawl when I see the tediousness of bureaucracy easily waved aside to make way for the reunion plot, when I know what the reality is. Spoiler alert, it’s not a “touching reunion with gentle tears of relief.” Most of us will never have a chance at that, and many of us have never wanted it.

I wonder if those writers, actors, directors, or producers have ever actually talked to an adoptee. And those that do are often guilty of exploitation, using adoptees’ stories without their consent and without a shred of compensation. It happens time and time again, and I have to ask: When is it going to change?

A scene from 2018 film 'Crazy Rich Asians' / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Korea
A scene from the American film “Blue Bayou,” written and directed by Justin Chon who is of Korean descent. The film is about a Korean adopted to the U.S. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The controversies surrounding movies like “Blue Bayou” and, most recently, “Joy Ride,” have been relatively localized to the adoptee community, barely a whisper among the shouts of praise from mainstream critics and larger audiences. For those outside our community, it might be hard to understand why we care so much, why we insist on pointing out the flaws in movies like those. “Why are you so negative?” I’ve been asked, “At least they’re trying.”

I know it’s a hard line to walk. Too much criticism, and projects stop getting the green light. Not enough criticism, and we validate damaging stereotypes by not speaking up. Representation for the sake of representation is a hollow victory, and inauthentic representation is a net loss. We care so much because, for a community that has scarcely seen a character depiction that we can truly relate to, the idea of getting it right is priceless. The experience of being an adoptee is filled with discordant notes of joy, sadness, pain, kinship, and anger. We deserve to be seen. We deserve to be heard.

True voices from adoptees

So, how can we get those in power to listen?

As adoptees, we can stand together as a community to raise our voices and demand improvement. We can write petitions, educate non-adoptees, and support each other when we run out of steam. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Talking about adoption is complicated, and requires a level of vulnerability that’s incomparably nerve-wracking. A lot of us carry scars from times when other people have, inadvertently or otherwise, forced us to justify our very existence. It’s less of a risk within our own community, but the sad truth is that we are never 100 percent safe.

Despite that slightly grim outlook, I carry hope for the future with me. There are brilliant adoptee writers, filmmakers, and actors out there right now creating beautiful, layered stories about us, for us. We can promote adoptee-led and -created entertainment, get enough momentum behind those projects to boost them into the mainstream. After all, in showbiz, sometimes all it takes is a single lucky moment to change the world.

It’s not just on us to generate change. Our allies, those who are interested in stories like ours and want to learn more, can also make a difference. Hiring more adoptees in writer’s rooms, being intentional during the casting process, and simply listening to adoptees when they speak are three easy ways to take steps toward progress. Ask questions when you meet adoptees (respectfully, and with their permission). Fund adoptee filmmakers, researchers, and non-profits. They are the people working to rewrite the narrative with our voices, a lot of times on a completely volunteer basis. Studios can partner with adoptee community leaders to facilitate meaningful outreach and an inclusive conversation about new releases with adoption-related storylines.

Laid out like that, the heart of it is relatively simple. For non-adoptees, the most important thing you can do is to have the courage to admit that everything you know about us is wrong, step aside, and give us space to enter the room.

Ella Wu ( is a Chinese adoptee who grew up on the U.S. East Coast. Based just outside of Washington, D.C., she is an actress, writer, and managing editor of The Universal Asian. Furthering authentic representation of the Asian adoptee and Asian-American experience is one of her lifelong goals, along with spotlighting underrepresented voices and perspectives.

This article was originally published in The Korea Times.

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