Written by Chaelee Dalton (이채연), SPEAK’s Education Director, for our social media series on International Mother Language Day and adoption-related language.
In my American family, summer marks the season of birthdays: my mom and I were born in July, and my brother and my dad in August. Birthdays, then, growing up, were sunny, lazy affairs- sleepovers and scavenger hunts, days that stretched and melted, ice cream against cake.
As a kid, I saw my “Coming Home Day,” which came in December, and my brother’s, in February, as simply another opportunity to indulge both my ego and my appetite with freshly baked cake and a takeout meal of my choice. My “Coming Home Day,” commonly referred to in other adoptive families as “Gotcha Day,” “Forever Day,” “Adoption Day,” or “Homecoming Day,” denotes the day adoptive parents pick up the adoptee to live with them for the first time as part of their family.
Unbeknownst to my childhood self, the terminology around “Gotcha Day” has already been subject to much debate within adoption communities. After adoptive parent Karen Moline wrote the article, “Getting Rid of ‘Gotcha Day,” for Adoptive Families Magazine in 2014, where she criticized the term “gotcha” for its adoptive parent-centered and possessive connotations, “dozens of readers,” responded with their own opinions on the term to the magazine and others, adoptees and adoptive parents alike, responded or reflected in independent blog and magazine posts.
By the time I was in high school, my relationship to my “Coming Home Day,” had changed, and I found myself self-editing the terminology when I had conversations about it with my friends. I felt- and continue to feel- uncomfortable about this idea of a singular “home” decided by my adoptive parents, and I began to refer to that day publicly as my “Adoption Day.”
Much of Moline’s original article cites these instinctive feelings of (dis)comfort with how a word sounds, where even an eight-year old adoptee notes that the language of “Gotcha Day,” “sounds weird,” and another young adoptee indicates that the name “has a gloating, ha-ha, tone to it.”
In the context of other adoption language, “Gotcha Day” distinguishes itself from “positive adoption language” because it attempts not to directly erase the complex power dynamics within adoption, but rather trivializes them by utilizing “gotcha’s” joking, game-like definition and informal nature. And ultimately, it is the adoptive parents who decide the joke, who have control over the game.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gotcha,” as a colloquial pronunciation of “(I have) got you’ (see especially “to get hold of, capture (a person),” “to understand (a person, the meaning of something),” usually with omission of ‘have’ and frequently also of ‘I,’ [and], especially used to express satisfaction or triumph, or to indicate understanding.” The OED goes on to cite examples which describe “gotcha” as “triumphant,” “righteous,” “proud,” and “tricky,” even something like a joke or a prank “pulled” or “played” on others.
Under this definition of “gotcha,” where to “get” a person means more specifically, “to get hold of,” or “capture,” “gotcha” has not only the possessive connotations which Moline characterizes, but specifically references acts of abduction and capture. When considered within the context of transnational adoption, an institution which 11 “sending” countries (countries which “send” their children transnationally to be adopted) have ended-predominantly because of child trafficking and coercion-, the term “Gotcha Day” becomes both ironic and sinister in its accuracy.
The language of abduction works alongside connotations of triumph and satisfaction to amplify the lopsided power dynamic between adoptees and adopters. Adoptive parents’ attempts to make the language two-sided, not just “the day we ‘got’ her, but as the day she ‘got’ us as well,” therefore, fail to acknowledge both the way “gotcha” has been historically used and the truth behind the adoption process.
Simply put, adoption is a choice for adoptive parents, and not a choice for adoptees.
Adoptees cannot be the “getters,” only the “gotten.”
from The Progressive, January 1988, “Babies for Sale.”
As I researched this term, I was struck by the discussion around it as much as the term itself. In many ways, this debate reflects the same clumsy mishandlings of the term “Gotcha Day,” the same ignorance of the ways adoptees are consistently dismissed and infantilized by adoptive parents.
The discussion, predominantly made up of adoptive parents, altogether ignored the opinions expressed in the article by adoptees, adults and children alike. Instead, the debate centered on the experience of the adoptive parents, with language like “this is not the kind of support that adoptive parents need.” If they considered the opinions of adoptees, they focused on the specific experience of their child, often an infant or very young.
We are now years removed from the origin of this debate, and I personally am almost a decade away from the high school self who revised the language surrounding the day for myself based on a feeling. The eight-year old adoptee Moline referenced is now at least fourteen, and the seventeen-year old is older than I am, twenty-three. It’s likely that their opinions about “Gotcha Day,” have changed and/or, like mine, deepened. Most adoptees today are adults, many of whom have gone on to research adoption and the language surrounding it, and even create the field of Critical Adoption Studies.
There are no more excuses.
As members of the adoption community, we now have the opportunity to deepen the conversation around adoption language to one that recognizes the imbalance of power between adoptive parents, adoptees, and natural families. Discussion about adoption language must work, as this series attempts to do, to center the expertise of adoptees, both on our feelings and on the facts, the histories, and the sociologies many of us have formally and informally educated ourselves on.