Asian American Transracial Adoptees: Identity Development in College

Jessica J. Fry
The University of Texas at Austin


The multifaceted identities of Asian American transracial adoptees in college are rarely – if ever – discussed in academic settings. Few studies exist on adoptees and education, adult transracial adoptees, or adoptee identity development in college. Since the majority of Asian American adoptees are adopted into White families, many are exposed to a new and often more diverse environment for the first time in college. While all college students go through developmental changes, this process can be elevated for transracial adoptees, triggering insecurities about their identity and self-worth. This article reviews several critical areas of literature that inform the development of Asian American transracially adopted college students, including transracial adoption, trauma related to adoption, adoptee identity development in college, and the transracial adoption paradox. While there are many studies on adoption, trauma, college students, and identity development, it is critical for these issues to be addressed together as they specifically relate to Asian American transracially adopted college students.

Keywords: Asian American transracial adoptees, college students, identity development

Initial research on transracial adoption – the adoption of a child of one race by parents of a different race (Baden, Treweeke, & Ahluwalia, 2012; Baden & Willey, 2007; Lee, 2003; Park 2012) – began in response to various social and political controversies in the late 1960s and 1970s (Lee, 2003). Most adoption researchers have focused solely on babies and children, and little is known about identity-related processes that occur during late adolescence and adulthood (Raible, 2006). In addition, limited studies exist on international and transracial adopted persons that move beyond basic adjustment issues (Kohler, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2002). While focusing on children is crucial to understand identity development, adoption is increasingly being recognized as a lifelong process (Baden & Wiley, 2007). Early adulthood is a time when important shifts in life roles and relationships occur, which correlates with the traditional college years. As many adoptees move away from home, they are exposed to a new and often more diverse environment (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). While all college students go through developmental changes, this process may be elevated for transracial adoptees, triggering insecurities about their identity and self-worth (Suda & Hartlep, 2016).

Importance of Understanding Asian American Transracial Adoptees

The number of families touched by adoption has increased over the last several decades, with approximately 1.7 million adoptive households in the United States (Park, 2012). Families can experience adoption through a number of different ways, including domestic, international, and interfamily. Approximately 85% of transracial adoptions are international (Lee, 2003) and in 2000, 95% of parents adopting internationally were White (Park, 2012). Creating interracial families through adoption can result in complex dynamics for adoptees around race, identity, and self-worth. This paper will focus specifically on the identity development of Asian American transracial adoptees who were placed in White families.

The high number of international transracial adoptions is due to various social, political, and legal factors, including that White parents often feel safer adopting internationally due to the closed nature of those adoptions (Park, 2012). Adoptive parents often feel a strong desire to “keep their own family intact and protected,” and international adoptions are less likely to come with birth parent contact (Park, 2012, p. 493). Yet, closed adoptions have been shown to be less than ideal for adoptees; questions around their origins, identity, belonging, and feelings of betrayal are left unanswered (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Seemingly rejecting a transracial adoptee’s birth family can be perceived by a child as “the rejection of the race, culture, or country of origin of the child” (p. 125).

Nearly 60% of internationally adopted children between 1970 and 2001 were adopted from Asia (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2002). Following the Korean War in 1953, there was a large spike in the number of adoptions from South Korea (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2002). Between 1958 and 2001, more than 100,000 Korean children were adopted by families in the United States (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2002), particularly by older, White, and infertile couples (Lee, 2003). The United States Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs (2016) reports that more than 20,000 babies and toddlers were adopted by families in the United States from South Korea from 1999-2015. Similarly, 80,162 children were adopted to families in the United States from China – over 85% of whom were girls – between 1999 and 2017 (Bureau of Consular Affairs, n.d.). In 2013, China sent 2,306 children to the United States to be adopted, which was the largest number of intercountry adoptees that year (Fong, McRoy, & McGinnis, 2016). India is also a leading country for adoptions to the United States with growing numbers since 2013 and 5,946 adoptions from 1999-2017 (Bureau of Consular Affairs, n.d.). However, concerns about baby selling, kidnapping, and manipulation has led to a recent decrease in the number of children sent to the United States for adoption from many countries in Asia. Some countries have shown remorse over the high number of international adoptions that took place – for example, in 2018; South Korea dedicated a park in honor of their “lost” children (Gamel & Chang, 2018).

Despite the large numbers of Asian American transracial adoptees, research on transracially adopted college students is extremely limited. With thousands of Asian American transracial adoptees quickly approaching traditional college age, it is important for higher education professionals to acknowledge, value, and learn more about the unique challenges and struggles facing this specific demographic.

Transracial Adoption

The existing research on transracial adoption focuses almost exclusively on adoptive parents and young adopted children (Raible, 2006). The problem with this method is that only early, measurable, and quantifiable outcomes for adoptees are accounted for, ignoring the “lifelong impact of the adoption experience itself on adoptees and their families” (Raible, 2006, p. 181). Such outcomes-based measures also ignore the continuous flux and negotiation of racial identity development. Exploring the identity development of older transracial adoptees requires going beyond the child’s experience while contained within the adoptive family (Raible, 2006), and the early college years may be their first experience with independence (Iarovici, 2014).

The vast majority of transracial adoptive parents are White. When White families adopt children of color, the family instantly becomes visible due to the obvious physical differences between the child and their parents (Baden, Treweeke, & Muninder, 2012; Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Thus, certain unconscious expectations may be placed on the adopted child; for example, they may be expected to integrate fully into their new White family and culture and in many cases, spend very little time with people that look like them (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Historically, parents adopting transracially have rejected or downplayed their child’s racial or ethnic differences, engaging in the practice of cultural assimilation (Lee, 2003). This is done by downplaying the adopted child’s race and heritage in favor of assimilated them into their White culture. Often times, cultural assimilation takes place with minimal effort by the adoptive parents, especially when they are surrounded by and exposed to the dominant White culture (Lee, 2003). Some parents believe their child “inherits” Whiteness and may even deny or invalidate racialized experiences (Hall & Steinberg, 2013, p. 42).

This often leads to a “colorblind” approach to parenting. Parents who adopt transracially can show racial ambivalence through touting a colorblind ideology, claiming not to see skin color or implying that issues of race are unimportant or irrelevant (Park, 2012). As a result, many Asian American transracial adoptees actively work to shield their adoptive parents from their encounters with racism or racialized experiences. In a qualitative study on Korean adult adoptees who had been raised by White parents, Docan-Morgan (2010) found that the adoptees (as children) had actively avoided discussing negative encounters with their parents. This was due to a fear of parent unresponsiveness and a need to self-protect.

Asian American transracial adoptees are often raised by adoptive parents who internalize stereotypes like the model minority myth or the notion that adopted Asian children have an easier time assimilating into White culture than Black children (Park, 2012). The model minority myth is a stereotype that promotes the argument that all Asian Americans are the same and “achieve universal and unparalleled academic and occupational success” (Museus, 2017, p. xiv). Developed in response to political and social events during 1960s, the model minority myth gave rise to the idea that Asian Americans could have an honorary White status and discounted their minority status in the United States. Many White people – citing the new idea of the model minority – elevate Asian Americans as “better than Blacks but not quite as good as Whites” (Museus, 2017, p. xv). Thus, this stereotype has been used to reinforce and propel racism in America, as well as disregard the vast diversity and uniqueness of the vast number of Asian American subgroups.

While identity formation – the task of achieving a sense of self while individuating from parents and family – is a normal part of adolescent development, adoption adds the complexity of discovering a unique meaning of self (Kohler et al., 2002). For transracial adoptees, this includes exploring their complex racial and ethnic identity (Baden et al., 2012). The White population in the United States tends to experience and view life through a lens of certain privilege (Raible, 2012), and it can be difficult for White adoptive parents to recognize that the racial and ethnic differences between them and their child are important (Hall & Steinberg, 2000). Baden et al. (2012) found that more than three quarters of Korean transracial adoptees “reported thinking they were White or wanting to be White as children” (p. 387). On the other hand, when adoptive parents prioritize enculturation by emphasizing the importance of race, encouraging ethnic participation, and living in racially integrated communities, transracial adoptees demonstrate a greater sense of racial and ethnic pride (Lee, 2003).

Trauma Related to Adoption

At its very core, adoption is the result of the traumatic event of a child being given up, and primarily involves what is known as the adoption triad: the birth parents, adopted child, and adoptive parents (Grotevant, Dunbar, Kohler, & Lash Esau, 2000). Higher levels of behavioral and psychological problems among adopted children and adolescents have caused clinicians and researchers to investigate the impact of this adoption-related trauma and its effect on identity and social development (Baden, Mazza, Kitchen, Harrington, & White, 2016; Grotevant et al., 2000). Adoptees also tend to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma at higher rates (Baden et al., 2016). Empirical research has shown that over 17% of adopted persons are in therapy, which is approximately twice as many as non-adopted individuals (8.67%) (Baden & Wiley, 2007; Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Numerous studies (Hjern, Lindbland, & Vinnerljung, 2002; Slap, Goodman, & Huang, 2001; von Borczyskowki, Hjern, Lindblan, & Vinnerljung, 2006) found higher rates of suicides among adolescent adoptees compared with non-adoptees (Baden et al., 2016), and Raible (2006) writes, “I encounter too many stories of self-destruction, including suicide, among transracial adoptees” (p. 186). In addition to the trauma of adoption in general, transracial adoptees must contend with issues related to race, family visibility, and a loss of culture.

While some researchers support the belief that adoptees are more adversely affected by psychological problems related to their sense of self and belonging, others disagree (Baden et al., 2016; Grotevant et al., 2000). Grotevant et al. (2000) attribute these differences in findings to the fact that some studies only “looked at identity in a global way” without accounting for societal attitudes about kinship, rather than using a holistic view of “one’s sense of identity as an adopted person” (p. 381). Adoptive identity development relates to how adoptees construct meaning about their adoption through three core components: the cognitive and affective process, relational contexts within families, and the interaction with contexts outside of families (Grotevant et al., 2000). In transracial adoptions, family visibility increases the challenges of being accepted as a “real” family (Grotevant et al., 2000; Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Adoptees are often questioned about their “real” parents, leading them to believe that their family is perceived as inferior to traditional, biological ones (Kim & Hall, 2016; Wegar, 2000). Adoptee identity development is extremely complex and difficult, with “adoption transgress[ing] our notions about identity” (Yngvenson quoted in Grotevant et al., 2000, p. 382). A difficult aspect of adoptee identity development for transracial adoptees is that they are expected to immediately fit into and accept their new White family. Children adopted from Asia leave behind a completely different culture and language yet are expected to fit into their new White family without any trouble. For Asian American transracial adoptees, this pressure is coupled with racist stereotypes about well-behaved, quiet Asians, as well as the model minority myth.

Identity Development for Adoptees

Adoptees can become preoccupied with their adoption, grappling with missing or difficult information about their past and questioning where their familial loyalties lie (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). While everyone struggles with their identity at some point in life, transracial adoptees face additional challenges (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). Since transracial families are visible, it is impossible to hide the physical differences between parent and child, automatically inviting unwanted attention and intrusive questioning from acquaintances and even strangers (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). In addition, society often sends the message that adoptees should always be grateful for their adoption – ignoring the fact that it is a complicated, lifelong, and often traumatic journey – and more than just a “happy one-time event” in the lives of the adoptive parents (Raible, 2012, p. 115).

It may not be surprising then, that most transracially adopted adolescents and adults express discomfort with their appearance and lack of racial or ethnic identity (Baden & Wiley, 2007). Between the ages of four and five, transracially adopted children begin to encounter racism and microaggressions and notice that they do not physically match their parents (Baden et al., 2012). This lack of a “biological mirror” may be the first realization of adoption for young children, although their ability to cognitively understand what this means does not occur until much later in life (Hoffman & Vallejo Peña, 2013, p. 153). For parents raising transracial adoptees in predominantly White areas, it can be easy to view racial issues as isolated events instead of ongoing messages that shape their child’s perceived identity and feelings of selfworth (Hall & Steinberg, 2013). This can result in adoptees feeling uncomfortable with their identity, and Baden et al. (2012) found that approximately two thirds of transracial adoptees identified with a race different than their own.

Adoptee Identity Development in College

Many young adults get their first taste of independence and freedom during college, which has come to signify a transitional time from youth to adulthood (Iarovici, 2014). For some students, especially those from homogenous communities, college is their first exposure to a variety of worldviews that differ from those with which they were raised (Kryder, 1999). This may increase questions and doubts about long-held beliefs and values and many college students decide to abandon parts of their identity that no longer work or fit into their sense of self (Iavovici, 2014). According to the 2011 National College Health Assessment Survey, nearly half of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, which may be caused in part by struggles with identity development (Iarovici, 2014). Such a transition may be especially startling for transracial adoptees who grew up in a White family. White parents experience the benefit of White privilege because they are often “presumed by others to be smart, safe, or trustworthy not because they demonstrate those traits but simply based on racial stereotypes” (Hall & Steinberg, 2000, p. 42). One way in which this privilege is demonstrated by White parents is by embracing notion that racism or discrimination does not exist because they do not personally experience it. While growing up, transracial adoptees may have received some of the benefits of belonging to a White family (Pinderhughes, Matthews, & Zhang, 2016); however, even when transracial adoptees self-identify as being White, they still “contend with experiences associated with lower status” and are seen by outsiders as being a person of color (Pinderhughes et al., 2016, p. 155).

Going to college is a significant life event and may trigger transracial adoptees to doubt their sense of self, create a desire to learn about their birth culture, or inspire a search for their birth family (Baden et al., 2012; Kohler et al., 2002). First-year students with pre-existing attachment anxiety – a tendency to cling fearfully to relationships – may have additional problems with their sense of social self-worth (Iarovici, 2014). Since transracial adoptees often struggle with attachment disorders or anxiety, campus life might increase these insecurities (Hoffman & Peña, 2013). Transracial adoptees may have received an honorary White status within their families and communities, but this “honor” ceases to exist once the adoptee leaves home (Baden et al., 2016). Some transracial adoptees struggle to hold on to their White status, while others may desire to shed it completely (Baden et al., 2012).

In college, transracial adoptees may experience isolation or feel a sense of grief and loss when interacting with groups (Hoffman & Peña, 2013). College may also be the first-time adoptees fully comprehend the lack of knowledge they have about their past (Kryder, 1999). This is especially true for those with closed adoptions, which tend to be international, since this information is usually inaccessible (Pinderhughes et al., 2016). In addition, transracial adoptees experiencing new independence or diverse environment may be shocked to realize the varying social attitudes that stigmatize adoption (Hall & Steinberg, 2013).

Transracial Adoption Paradox

For many adoptees, college is their first opportunity to form relationships with fellow adoptees, which can validate their feelings and realities (Kryder, 1999). Some adoptees may feel freer to explore their adoptive identity after leaving home and have a cathartic experience when meeting and interacting with other adopted college students (Kryder, 1999). This is especially true for adoptees that grew up with emotionally present adoptive parents, with whom they could discuss their adoption (Docan-Morgan, 2010; Grotevant et al., 2000; Kryder, 1999).

For some transracial adoptees, however, this experience is more complex and difficult to navigate. For example, if Korean adoptees seek out Asian groups on campus, for example, they may feel caught between two worlds – the White one in which they were raised, and the one they have never known (Lee, Yun, Yoo, & Nelson, 2010). This phenomenon is known as the transracial adoption paradox (Lee, 2003; Pinderhughes et al., 2016). Adoptees are expected to meet society’s expectation for what their race “should” be while being simultaneously rejected by these ethnic groups who view them as inauthentic (Baden et al., 2012). These students may also experience a dissonance between their appearance and their cultural knowledge. Transracial adoptees may identify with more than one racial or cultural identity, shaped by their exposure and self-worth within different groups (Baden & Wiley, 2007); however, some adoptees fail to identify at all with any racial or ethnic group. For some transracial adoptees, this struggle leads to internalizing various stereotypes or experiences about their racial or ethnic group (Baden & Wiley, 2007). Transracial adoptees may not understand or be comfortable with their sense of self or their racial identity. This lack of understanding or discomfort can turn into self-destructive behavior for college students (Baden & Wiley, 2007).


The multifaceted identities of Asian American transracial adoptees are seldom discussed in higher education, in part due to the lack of research on adoptees and education, adult transracial adoptees, or adoptee identity development in college. As thousands of Asian American adoptees approach college age, however, it is important for educators to recognize and validate the unique challenges and struggles these students face.

For Asian American transracial adoptees, college may be a time of multiple forms of identity development. Asian American transracial adoptees are in a unique position of not wholly fitting in with one ethnic or racial group on campus and may feel conflicted about their place on campus (Suda & Hartlep, 2016). Too often, educators make assumptions about a student based on their appearance. Asian American transracial adoptees, for instance, might be presumed to come from recently immigrated families and have knowledge about different languages and cultures. In addition, Asian American students are often subjected to educators’ belief in the model minority myth or stereotyped as a monolithic and homogenous group (Museus, Antonio, & Kiang, 2012). These types of assumptions can make Asian American transracial adoptees feel even more isolated and unsettled in their identity.

The more that higher education faculty, staff, and practitioners understand the process of student identity development, the better they can “assist in promoting student learning and development” (Torres, Jones, & Renn, 2009, p. 578). For Asian American transracial adoptees, this includes being seen as a whole, unique, and individual person that is not lumped into a large, stereotyped “model minority Asian” group. By seeking to understand the strengths and struggles of Asian American transracial adoptees, student affairs practitioners have the unique opportunity to have a significant impact on the identity development of those whose voices are unknown or silenced in the dominant discourse.

Jessica Fry is a Ph.D. student and Dean’s Fellow in the Program in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin.


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