The increase in inter-country adoption has led to several pieces of federal legislation, most recently the Child Citizenship Act (2000), which automatically confers U.S. citizenship on foreign adoptees at the time of adoption.

Adopted children have come to the U.S. from scores of countries, but two nations have sent more than others: 57,000 or about 22% of all foreign-born adopted children have come from South Korea, and 28% of those under six have come from China

More girls than boys are adopted, in large part because the majority of children available are girls. The availability of girls has some of its sources in Asia's ferocious discrimination against girls and women, and China's one-child policy has of course been a particularly important driver of the imbalance. China's own 2000 census found 117 boys for every 100 girls under five years old, a shocking number that has apparently caught the nervous attention of the Chinese leadership.

Gender discrimination has led to the demographic catastrophe that social scientists have called "Asia's missing women." The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as 100 million women are "missing" from the continent's population because of a combination of selective abortion, differential child-rearing practices, and even female infanticide. These are the constituent parts of the "culture" that some opponents of international adoption overlook when they subordinate the welfare of individual children to the abstract requirements of ideology.

Adoption has always posed a challenge to conventional assumptions about legitimacy, family integrity, inheritance and identity. International adoption raises those challenges with particular urgency. Such adoptions are emblematically connected to some of the most recurrent themes of twentieth and twenty-first-century experience across the globe: abandonment, displacement, homelessness, and exile. To the traditional stigma associated with adoption is added the further complication of national and ethnic mixing.

That symbolic valence explains why, in spite of the small numbers of individuals actually involved, international adoption generates such lively debate, a debate that is often heated and occasionally even illuminating. Some of the opposition to international adoption, by an unintended irony, re-traces the discredited preoccupation with "matching" that wrote children into and out of adoptability throughout much of the twentieth century.

Obviously, the so-called traditional or nuclear family – two parents of the same race, one of each sex, married and living together with one or more birth children – does not describe the American reality. Nonetheless, adoptive families, and especially mixed-race families, can still provoke confusion. In an odd alliance, some cultural conservatives, with their reverence for conventional norms, and some, mostly academic, theorists and others who fetishize ethnic identity, find mixed-race adoptive families subversive.

To take one flagrant example, in the spring of 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers condemned the placement of African-American children with white parents, whether for foster care or adoption. A formal resolution opposing such placements called transracial adoptions "a growing threat to the preservation of the black family," and even went so far as to characterize the adoption of black children by whites as "racial and cultural genocide."

All adoptions, whether intra- or inter-country, intra- or interracial, entail disruption, loss, and mourning. At the same time, a long list of empirical studies has demonstrated that adoption offers a substantially better outcome for abandoned children than the two alternatives that tend to predominate in the countries in question: orphanages, and the street. I have visited orphanages in several Asian countries; no child should be denied the opportunity to escape such institutions.

Ignoring those facts on the ground, one critic of international adoption has asked: "Could it be argued that, rather than transferring the children of the poor to the economically better-off people in other countries, there should be a transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor ones?" A statement like this is mere talk, with no connection to the politics of the real world in which poor children live. Worse, such an attitude holds children hostage to a posturing ideology. Given the scale of the crisis for children, and the efficacy of adoption as a strategy of intervention when – and I repeat only when – family preservation is impossible or unsafe for children, social policies should encourage an increase in the numbers.

The debates that roil scholarly journals also take place on the street. Here, narrated from personal experience, is a typical exchange between a well-meaning stranger and an interracial family. Stranger to parents: "What an attractive little girl. And how many of your own children do you have?" Or the variant: "how many natural children…?" Note the unintended sub-text: the adopted child is not one's own; the adopted child is not natural. Animated by amiable curiosity, such questions rehearse the deep-seated conviction that adoptive families are not quite first-class, not quite right. And inter-country adoptive families are even more suspect.

I would propose that we reverse that understanding. Beyond its instrumental utility as a humanitarian intervention, international adoption exemplifies the possibility of re-orienting the definition of families away from either/or, monolithic ethnic and biological models. Families really do come in all shapes and flavors. In addition, multi-ethnic adoptive families are sites of constant ethnographic instruction: they offer routine access to cultural knowledge and experiences that lie outside the usual domestic interactions.

Let me give, again from personal experience, just one example, with which I shall conclude. Our daughter, Jennifer, arrived more than thirty years ago, from Korea. Just over two years old and weighing only nineteen pounds when she joined us, Jennifer quickly gained both pounds and facility in English. One night at dinner, when she was three years old, Jennifer suddenly announced: "Koreans don't eat broccoli." I also learned from my daughter that Koreans don't eat asparagus, or Brussels sprouts, either, though they do eat hot dogs and chocolate ice cream.

Who knew?