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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home
Do Cultural Celebrations and Heritage Events Do Enough to Help Form an Identity?
Culture keeping is a source of great anxiety for me: Am I doing enough to connect my internationally adopted children with their roots? Am I doing the right things? I struggle to avoid comparing myself with other adoptive parents who seem to do more culture, and try not to judge those who seem to do less.
When the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute's 2009 study of nearly 500 adult adoptees, Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption, touched on similar themes, the findings hit home for me. Their research revealed that although attendance at heritage camps and ethnic festivals is certainly worthwhile for adopted children, these activities aren’t enough. What did the authors find to be more beneficial? Having ongoing relationships with others who share their ethnicity and frequent and sustained involvement in cultural activities.
"[Adoptive families] need to go 'beyond culture camp' to … promote positive racial (and adoptive) identity development," according to the study's authors.
Since loss of culture is one of the main reasons why some people object to international adoption, nurturing a cultural identity is a huge issue for families like ours. And I’ve seen in my own life how true the study’s conclusions are.
For the first time since our 9-year-old daughter, Didi, arrived from India four years ago, our family recently celebrated the Hindu festival of lights at a Diwali party hosted by a group of local Indian American families. She and her Ethiopian brother, Gobez, and Ethiopian sister, Lemlem, had a great time making diyas (clay lamps used for special occasions), getting mehendi (henna "tattoos"), and learning to write their names in Hindi. Together we all gorged on a vegetarian buffet of dal, samosas, chutney, and hot dosas made to order. In fact, Didi ate so much, she had to undo the top button of her salwar suit! However, the best part of the evening was simply savoring the warmth and kindness shown to us by other families who are struggling to keep Indian culture alive in America for their children, just as we are.
That festive evening felt strikingly different from our experience at an Indian heritage camp last July. We'd been putting off attending Indian camp because it required out-of-state travel, but this year, we finally made it. As the new kids at camp, we struggled to make connections with the old timers. The girls Didi's age weren't unfriendly, but the existing bonds previously forged among them proved tight and unyielding. I'd been worried that attending camp might make Didi long for India, but instead, her struggle to break into the camp's social circle brought back unhappy memories of feeling excluded by the girls at her orphanage.
I could appreciate why many families, who live in communities without significant Indian populations, and for whom this camp was a first time to be so immersed in so many cultural experiences, loved the camp. But our family didn’t come away feeling nourished by the experience. Didi told me she doesn't want to go back.
Before attending the Diwali party in our community, I wondered how Didi would react. What memories and emotions might be pricked? It was comforting to watch her work the room that night with ease, chatting with Indian friends from school and basking in the attention of the elders, clearly in her element. As the evening drew to a close with the songs and lamp lighting of Aarti, the Hindu ritual of worship, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude. We're so fortunate to live in a community that offers our daughter so many friends and role models who share her Indian heritage.
Later that night, as I was tucking Didi into bed, we were still chatting about the party when she said something that made me feel at peace as a mom, at least for the moment:
"You know what, Mom? I'm an Indian-American girl, and I always will be."
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