I've seen many lists of things you're not supposed to say to adoptive families. Don't say "is adopted" because it implies that adoption defines our relationship; say "was adopted" instead. Don't ask if our boys are brothers, because even if they weren't biologically related, the adoption would have made them legally related. Don't ask me if I have or want "my own kids" because these are my kids even if I didn't birth them. Don't ask about their "real family" because it implies that our family is not real.
Honestly, none of these phrases and questions bother me. I don't expect the general public to have given that much consideration to the language of adoption. And I understand the thought behind the words. When you ask about our children's "real family," you are not passing judgment on the realness of our family, you're just asking about the family they came from and you lack the approved vocabulary. More importantly, these words don't do any harm to our boys. Their "real family" i.e. their family in Ethiopia is after all a real family, too. So you're not insulting them by calling them "real" and that's really what matters to me - that our boys' history and family is respected.
I also feel that if you're going to adopt transracially, you need to expect these phrases and questions. You can't let yourself get upset every time a little kid asks, "Why are you different colors?" Why not just have an answer ready, use it, and move on. When very young children ask me why I'm "pink," I tell them that mommies come in all different colors. Some mommies have brown skin and are called "black," some mommies have skin like mine and are called "white," and some mommies have blue fur and eyes on the top of their heads and like to eat cookies - wait, that's Cookie Monster! See what I did there, I gave them the basic message that families come in different colors and then I changed the topic to a silly, preschool level and from there we can talk about Sesame Street characters. And really, this is not about the child who is asking; this is about the child who is listening, my child. He heard me affirm our family, heard me take the question in stride, and heard me start a much more interesting (in his opinion) topic. I'm modeling for him what he can do - answer the question in a way that shows pride in our family and then move on. I've practiced this with him, too.
If an older child asks me why we're different colors, I may give a variation of "mommies come in all different colors," or I may say that I adopted my children and that I'm white because I came from Europe and they're black because they came from Africa. Then I'll ask the child a question, again to move on to another topic. I have witnessed A giving much more information about his personal history, and I've told him it's fine if he wants to do that, and it's also fine if he wants to answer like I do. My point is that we don't need to let these questions bother us.
But. There are some words that do bother me. One is when adoptive families say "coming home." First of all, it doesn't make any sense. If you ask me when we moved to Pennsylvania, you say, "When did you move to Pennsylvania?" not "When did you come home to Pennsylvania?" I didn't live here before, so how could it have been my home? Same with our boys coming to the U.S. Secondly, there is the implication that they should have been with our family all along. They belonged with us, and finally, after some unfortunate delay, they made their way "home." That is backwards. They belonged with their first family - you know, their real family - and then because of almost unimaginable loss, they came to us. Don't dismiss their history by saying they came home. (I also have a little bit of an issue with "birthparents," "birthmother," and "birthfather." If a child's first parents truly ended their involvement with the child's birth, then the phrase makes sense. Our children's family had, and continues to have, a much bigger role than just birthing them. Just say "father," "dad," "mother," "mom," "grandma" etc. I can figure out who you're talking about.)
The other thing that bothers me is when people ask what happened to the boys' family. I don't mind if the person asking is a close friend, or someone offering a resource, or an Ethiopian showing concern for their fellow Ethiopians. It's when people ask out of morbid curiosity. I had a woman at one of A's baseball practices ask me if my kids had experienced any trauma, "because my friend adopted two children from Chad and their mother was raped and murdered in front of them... Did anything like that happen to your kids?" Seriously? In what possible scenario would that question be OK? Do you approach people and ask them if their loved ones are being abused or dying of cancer just to, you know, make conversation and get a juicy bit of gossip for the next game? (And why did this friend share this information about her children? And does she know that it's being casually passed on?) This question bothers me because the thought behind the words is unkind. The thought is that our children deserve less respect and less privacy because they came from somewhere else. That their lives are weird and sensational. That you and I are on the same team so we can share this gossip, but my children are the other, so they can be gossiped about.
This post has turned out much longer than planned. What I meant to say was that the words people use don't really matter. If you ask me how long ago our kids left their "birthparent" to "come home" I might tell you the words I prefer, but I won't be offended. But if you treat my kids as something other than two real children with complicated lives that include families and history in two countries, then I'm going to walk away from you, and I'm not going to bother explaining why. Because while I am willing to teach you the words, it is not my job to teach you to be kind.