Communication Currents

Communication Current

How Chinese-American Adoptees Negotiate Bicultural Identities

October 7, 2019
Critical and Cultural Studies, Intercultural Communication

Today, many American parents adopt children internationally whose race often differs from theirs. The vast majority of transnationally adopted children are adopted by white parents. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 40 percent of all adoptions are transracial, and 84 percent of international adoptions are transracial. Of the international adoptees that come to the United States, many are from China, and most are female.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 40 percent of all adoptions are transracial, and 84 percent of international adoptions are transracial. Of the international adoptees that come to the United States, many are from China, and most are female.

In a new article published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Maya Blair and Meina Liu examine how Chinese born, American adopted individuals (re)negotiate their bicultural identities. This study focused on how Chinese-American adoptees “perceive, make sense of, and negotiate their bicultural identities as they transition into adulthood.” For the study, Blair and Liu interviewed Chinese-American adoptees about their identities to examine the ways in which they use co-cultural communication to (re)negotiate their bicultural identities.

According to Blair and Liu, “co-cultural communication theory seeks to explain the experiences of traditionally marginalized, non-dominant group members, referred to as co-cultural group members.” A co-cultural group member could be a religious or ethnic minority, or anyone who is not part of the dominant group. Co-cultural communication focuses on how members of co-cultural groups communicate with members of the dominant group. Blair and Liu were interested in how Chinese-American adoptees used co-cultural communication in “(re)constructing their (bi)cultural identities.”

Blair and Liu investigated three co-cultural communication practices: assimilation, accommodation, and separation. Assimilation refers to when co-cultural group members attempt to fit in with the dominant group by denying differences. Accommodation seeks to integrate co-cultural practices into the dominant group culture. Finally, separation refers to when co-cultural groups form separate identities outside of the dominant group. However, separation was not reported by any of the participants in this study.

Blair and Liu recruited 10 participants from middle- to upper-middle- class families. All were from adoptive families with white parents; half of the households had different-sex parents, three had single moms, and two had lesbian parents. Blair and Liu gleaned information from the participants in semi-structured, in-depth interviews, meaning that the interviews were guided by questions, but interviewers and participants could expand on topics whenever necessary.

The interviews revealed that Chinese-American adoptees identified with both the dominant group and their co-cultural group, but this identification was fluid and changed depending on the context. For example, while most participants reported that their cultural identity was “American,” this identity “did not produce the same feelings of comfort for everyone.” For example, one participant felt guilty for identifying more with American culture: “It’s hard for me to live up to saying that I’m Chinese-American because I feel so Americanized, so I feel that I’m sometimes lying about being Chinese.” This statement demonstrates how transracial adoptees sometimes feel that their identities “clash,” which brings the challenges of constructing their bicultural identities into stark focus.

Other participants sought to (re)claim their ethnic identity and construct a bicultural identity. One participant said, “it’s something I didn’t grow up with, but something I want to hold onto, it’s something I’m learning about.” This participant felt that they could develop a bicultural identity that included both their dominant and co-cultural identity.

All participants described times when their Chinese identity was denied by members of the dominant group. One participant described how they had to remind their friends about their identity: “I sometimes feel like they forget that I am like a person of color…I find it funny and also just like ‘wake up! Don’t forget!’ I never forget who I am.” Participants also reported that there were times when members of their co-cultural group denied their Chinese identity, such as on visits to China, where one participant reported feeling as if they were “automatically picked out as being different.” And, participants also reported stories of when their American identity was denied by strangers who only saw their race. Both types of denial can cause co-cultural group members to struggle as they work to develop their bicultural identities.

Assimilation was reported by many participants who strongly identified with American culture. Some participants engaged in nonassertive assimilation, such as avoiding conflict with others. This was particularly common when participants were young. For example, one participant reported having been teased about their eye shape but felt at the time that they could not respond. Similarly, assertive assimilation also occurred when participants were younger. In these cases, participants actively sought to be absorbed into the dominant group. One participant reported “want[ing] to assimilate into white culture” in high school. Finally, some participants reported engaging in aggressive assimilation wherein they made self-deprecating comments, so that others would not make similar comments about them first. One participant reasoned that they did so as a “self-defense thing.”

Many participants also reported engaging in accommodation. Using nonassertive accommodation, some participants attempted to change the dominant culture by talking about their Chinese identity with others. Assertive accommodation refers to when co-cultural group members actively promote pluralism, such as speaking up in response to inappropriate remarks. Finally, aggressive accommodation refers to using confrontational communication to defend one’s co-cultural identity.

The variety of experiences and ways that identity was discussed by Chinese-American adoptees in the article demonstrates that bicultural identities are often fluid and change over time. Participants engaged in various assimilation and accommodation strategies to (re)negotiate their bicultural identities. The authors make note that accommodation strategies are particularly helpful for Chinese-American adoptees to develop stronger bicultural identities.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Maya Blair & Meina Liu (2019): Ethnically Chinese and Culturally American: Exploring Bicultural Identity Negotiation and Co-Cultural Communication of Chinese-American Female Adoptees, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2019.1649710

About the author (s)

Maya Blair

The George Washington University


Maya Blair

Meina Liu

The George Washington University

Associate Professor of Communication

Meina Liu