On Friday, September 17, 2021, Blue Bayou, a story about a Korean-adoptee American facing deportation back to South Korea, came to theaters in the United States. While it seems that the general public’s response is positive and generating hype, as a Chinese-adoptee American, I’m conflicted.
“If you love a good drama, and are in need of a little cry, 10/10 would recommend”
-Buzzfeed via Twitter
Common words that have been used to describe this movie are “emotional,” “inspiring,” “drama,”: the usual appealing Hollywood hooks used to promote tear-jerking films. But what about “trauma,” “traumatic”? To adoptees, this film is not a captivating drama, it’s real life. But inevitably, there must be some dramatization and flourishing of the story for it to be accepted by Hollywood. Adding layers of flourish conceals the real story, but adoptees feel exploited in the process.
For years, adoption and adoptee films have inspired and received praise from the general public but dissatisfaction and frustration from the adoptee community, and Blue Bayou is no exception. The marketing of Blue Bayou includes promotion headlines, like “motorcycle heists” as a main attraction alongside “inspired by true events” and “powerful and emotional story.” For many adoptees, this type of promotion comes off as exploitation of trauma for profitization.
In addition to the distasteful marketing, there is also an issue with the morality and ethics used in producing the film. Several people have pointed out similarities between Blue Bayou’s main character, Antonio, and a Korean adoptee, Adam Crasper. Prior to the film’s premier, Crasper was deported from the United States for being an undocumented citizen. People who claim to know him within the adoptee community knew Adam was interviewed by the director, producer, and lead actor, Justin Chon, about Adam’s deportation and life story. However, Crasper never gave Chon the rights to retell the story. People have even made petitions and Twitter hashtags such as #boycottBlueBayou and #CancelBlueBayou in response to the news.
However, the support from several Americans has created an even bigger personal discomfort. For example, several Asian American stars on Twitter have encouraged others to go watch it because of the important story and tough topics mentioned; yet in Asian adoptee communities, the response is not all positive. This contrast of perceptions between Asian Americans and Asian adoptees proves that Asian Americans and Asian-adoptee Americans are not identical. I am saying that Asian Americans and Asian-adoptee Americans do not experience the same trauma. Asian-adoptee Americans are another community within the broader Asian American umbrella, but the response to the movie seems to disregard this difference and lump the Asian-adoptee American community with the Asian American community.
In both the past and today, many Asian Americans have not allowed Asian-adoptee Americans to include themselves in the Asian American community. I myself have personally experienced gatekeeping of this identity because of the adoptee part of my identity. Therefore, because Asian Americans are now including this film into the Asian American identity umbrella, it is personally very frustrating and conflicting. Why are Asian adoptees being included into this identity now? Is it because of the film’s success and the fact money and recognition are involved?
On the other hand, several adoptees and the general public are very happy that the film was produced and gaining traction because it brings to light the issues that international adoptees, especially Korean adoptees, are facing. Now with Blue Bayou, more discussion is open about how international adoptees can be brought into the United States and be legally adopted by American couples; however, they are never given proper citizenship. Thus, they are not only undocumented but are only aware of their citizenship status after twenty or thirty years, and are even at risk of deportation. Soon-to-be Americans being at risk of deportation is not new to the United States. However, the situation is not exactly the same because with international adoptees, most of them have American parents who are United States citizens. They never imagine or entertain the idea of not being a United States citizen because their parents are citizens of the United States. When adoptees find out that someone did not handle their adoption and citizenship papers properly, the ramifications are different.
Whether adoptees are consciously or subconsciously aware of their adoption and trauma, most adoptees are subconsciously aware of the fact that they did not have the same nurturing support as a baby. Adoptees may also feel rejected and unwanted by their birth country and culture because they were adopted. These factors, and several others, may cause significant psychological stress and harm to adoptees who go visit their birth countries. Even adoptees who willingly travel to their birth countries may experience some degree of stress from being in the country. Their appearance screams native, but their cultural background doesn’t fit and creates this cognitive dissonance. Thus, if being forcibly deported, adoptees may feel amplified psychological stress that is unique to adoptees.
By bringing up the topic of deportation, the film has brought the issue of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 to light. For context, before this act was passed, in the United States, in order to internationally adopt a child and give them American citizenship, adoptive parents had to legally adopt the child and then file separate paperwork to make their child a United States citizen. Once the Child Citizenship Act was enacted in 2001, international adoptees under the age of 18 and future international adoptees were granted automatic United States citizenship after their parents legally adopted them and filed the adoption paperwork. Adoptive parents did not have to file separate paperwork to make their child a United States citizen after the act was enacted. However, adoptees who were 18 or older at the time of the act passing were not grandfathered in and given United States citizenship. Therefore, there are many international adoptees in their thirties or forties or even fifties who are at risk of being deported simply because of bureaucratic obstacles.
In the past few years, there have been attempts to close this loophole and extend citizenship to adoptees who were older than 18 when the act was enacted. The argument made in favor of the legislation was the child’s lack of responsibility for their citizenship when they are adopted from a foreign country and brought over to the United States. Most children who are internationally adopted come over as young as 8-10 months old and as old as around 3-4 or even 5 years of age. Because they are children, it is impossible for them to ensure that they become United States citizens. The responsibility falls on the United States government, the government of where the adopted came from, the adoption agency and the adoptive parents. It is not the responsibility or the fault of the international adoptees that the adults in their lives failed them at some point and did not legally ensure their safety. To the general public, this loophole is not well understood, and Blue Bayou does start to bring this issue out from the adoption community to the general public.In this short article, I try to use the film Blue Bayou as an example of how complex and complicated the Asian adoptee experience is, and the trauma and fears and identity issues that Asian adoptees face as well as the fears I have of a non-Asian adoptee retelling Asian adoptee stories. When I was discussing writing this article with my father— the white one and only one I know — he asked me “You will probably not be satisfied with this movie, so what will make you satisfied?”, to which my response was “I will be satisfied when Asian adoptees can tell their stories and tell their experiences using their own voices.” In general, when you want to learn about something, you go to the source. If you want to know the definition of a word, you go to the dictionary. So if you want to learn about Asian adoptees and their experiences, you go to Asian adoptees. You don’t go to adoptive parents. You don’t go to Asian Americans. They can try to understand the experience, but they are not adoptees. You go to Asian adoptees because, in the Asian adoptee American identity, the adopted part of the identity is so important. That adoption aspect of the identity changes so much of the Asian American experience. I will be satisfied when Asian adoptees are encouraged to use their own voices and Asian adoptee organizations are supported and heard. In short, I will be satisfied when our stories are not being retold, they are simply being told.