Finnish Transnational Adoptees

Belonging to the Family and Nation

(In Finnish: Suomalaiset kansainvälisesti adoptoidut - Perheeseen ja kansaan kuuluminen)

Heidi Ruohio


This study deals with transnationally adopted individuals’ sense of belonging to their family and nation in the framework of their two origins – the biological one and the one acquired through adoption. Transnational adoption, and also in this study the transnationally adopted individuals themselves, challenge the self-evident matters that are attached to belonging to a family, an extended family and a nation, and expose the complex and contradictory nature of belonging. Transnational adoption is a way of starting a family, an individual’s experience of migration and also a process connected with transnational child protection.

The study participates in the discussion on the daily life of adults who were transnationally adopted as children. The study asks the following questions: 1) How are transnationally adopted individuals’ sense of self and of belonging shaped in various social environments? 2) How do transnationally adopted individuals live with the (small amount of) information on their biological origin in a society which considers this to be of essential importance from the perspective of self, and belonging to a family and a nation? 3) How is the visible aspect of biological origin reflected in the meanings it is given and the experience of belonging?

The study data comprises semi-structured interviews carried out in 2009 and 2011 with adults who were transnationally adopted. 16 of the interviewees are women and eight men. The interviewees were born in a total of nine different countries. As there is only a small group of transnationally adopted adults in Finland, special attention has been paid to protecting anonymity. The author of the study, as an interviewer and researcher who is not adopted, has also observed and problematicised her own role in the production of information on the lives of adopted people. The analysis of data is formed of two parts, thematising and so called theorising with data. The study’s theoretical framework comprises symbolic interactionism and the concepts of self and belonging. The study uses two sources in particular in the data analysis. The researcher follows Nira Yuval Davis’s conceptualisation and politics of belonging. Another important source is Erving Goffman and his concept of the presentation of self in everyday life and individuals’ need to control information about themselves in different ways with different people.

Transnationally adopted individuals only have a small amount of fragmented information about their biological origin. The adoptee and adoptive parents make one another their “own” their mutual relationship. “Being adopted” and at the same time “own” are not exclusive in adoptive families, even though outside of the family, the “real” child–parent relationship is assumed to be based on a biological family relationship. The “differences” between transnationally adopted children and their family members and other close relatives often start to feel so normal that they can even be forgotten. However, the exclusive understanding of belonging to the family and nation also reach the intimate sphere of close relationships.

Transnationally adopted individuals’ sense of belonging to the family and to the nation is frequently questioned by people outside the family. The study reinforces the results of Finnish migration studies, in which a Finnish person is considered to be a biological descendant of Finnish parents and born in Finland and to thus have a certain type of physical appearance. In everyday encounters, transnationally adopted individuals often have to negotiate their belonging in relation to various social categories and positions: their relationship to Finnishness and non-Finnishness, “immigrants” and the ethnic and racialised hierarchies. The noticeable aspects of migration, based on physical appearance, spoken accent and identity connected to name, have a major impact on the individuals’ opportunities to control the information related to their biological origin in everyday encounters. By explaining that they have been adopted into a Finnish family, the individuals distinguish themselves from other immigrants. The image in people’s minds regarding transnational adoption is, above all, of a voluntary way of setting up a family, not that transnational adoption is forced migration.

The study examines the meanings that transnationally adopted individuals have given to their biological origin through the links they have created. Three ways of creating links were selected, on the basis of interviews and earlier literature, for closer analysis: searching for the biological family, “root trips” and contacts with the adoption community. The individuals’ primary motivation for finding their biological family or related information was the desire to gain more information about themselves. In their relationship with their own childhood family, i.e. their adoptive family, the interviewees emphasised the importance of care and growing together from the perspective of belonging together, whereas in connection with their own children, the biogenetic relationship and thus having a similar physical appearance was considered to be important. A “root trip” is a journey to the alternative future that was not experienced by the individual. In “root trips” the individuals often feel like they fit in in terms of physical appearance, but cultural differences and being unable to speak the language are often highlighted when meeting people in their country of birth. Contacts with the adoption community offer some adopted individuals peer support and a forum where they feel like they belong: people in the community can ask questions that would feel too personal if asked by someone outside of this community. Indeed, the study’s main observation is that the individuals in the community have collective knowledge of the issues that adoptees and adoptive families are required to confront in their everyday life. 

Keywords: transnational adoption, adults who were transnationally adopted, self, belonging, migration