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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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11 Comments

Hi Sharon,

  As the mom of many now-grown and teen sons and daughters who joined our family through transracial adoption, and a social worker who sees adopted youngsters (age 5 through 16) throughout the USA, Canada, and Australia—most of whom have been transracially adopted—via my program,Adoption Playshop!, I would like to comment on your blog entry. 
  I’ve been involved in the TRA community, as both a parent and a professional since 1977—a very long time ago—and some of the history I can and will comment may shed some light, as well, on the excellent questions that you are raising. 
 
    For instance, it may be illuminating to learn where the idea that integrating birth culture into an internationally adopted child’s upbringing came from, and what the original expectations were.  It was adult adoptees who were first publicly revealing their own struggles with straddling two or more racial-ethnic groups, growing up with White parents, and feeling alienated from their ethnic group who suggested the possibility that if adoptive parents connected with their child’s racial-ethnic group, so that their children could learn about and integrate their original culture, they would feel less disconnected to their racial heritage, more competent and confident about participating in their ethnic community, and would suffer less internalized racism—problems that are commonly reported by adult adoptees of color who were raised by White parents in predominantly-White communities.  The adult adoptees, along with adoptive parents and professionals have been surprised and disappointed that the current generation of youngsters whose adoptive parents ARE making these efforts are NOT reporting that they have fewer problems, and instead tend to be telling us that while they enjoy learning about their birth culture and participating in adoptive-parent-led celebrations, this has not provided them with the knowledge or skills to be able to participate in their ethnic communities,  and it has not helped them develop healthy racial-ethnic identity.

    What DO these gatherings do for them?  It helps to normalize what it means to and about them to be growing up transracially and internationally adopted.  To know that they are not alone in how they think and feel, or in the type of experiences they tend to have.  It provides them with a network that will yield support throughout their lives—important, because they will spend only approximately a 1/4 of their lives living under our roof. 

    What DOES best help them to feel comfortable in their skin, have the competence and confidence to participate in their ethnic communities when and if they want to, and provide them with the necessary skills to resist racism and stereotyping?  First, they need regular, ongoing, meaningful relationships with adults of color, some of whom share their racial-ethnic heritage, and others who are—like them—transracial adoptees.  They need immersion in racially diverse environments on a regular basis, rather than merely when we take them to cultural events or festivals.  As they mature, they need opportunities to be immersed in their ethnic communities without us—their White parents—accompanying us, for when we are with them, they STILL stand out as “different,” and do not get to experience being insiders in those communities.  They also need for us, their parents, to face and discuss racism openly and honestly, and for us to be active anti-racist participants who are allies to people with whom they share racial-ethnic heritage, and to ALL people of color.  These are the life ingredients that can help them build healthy racial-ethnic identity so that they will WANT to learn about and be able to participate in their cultural heritage alongside those who share that heritage with them.  Otherwise, it is very likely that they will reject opportunities to be involved with their ethnic community and feel themselves to be outsiders.  Even worse, if we do NOT get beyond culture camps, face up to what we really need TO provide, the danger is that our children, like far too many of their predecessors, will have absolutely no interest in participating IN their birth culture or racial-ethnic communities because they ill not have developed healthy racial-ethnic identity, which is foundational to our sense of self worth and quality of life.

Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 10:41 pm.

While I think attending a party in your community was wonderful… it isn’t enough.  The cultural aspects you are talking about need to become part of your home, all the time, not just on special occasions.  The food should be a part of the regular family menu.  Art and music in the home should reflect the birth culture, the history and folk lore needs to be learned and most important of all… the language needs to be studied.  This is the only way an adoptee can truly enter into his/her birth culture - by being able to communicate with people of that culture.
Toni - mom to 2 kiddos from Korea

By ttstevens on Monday, January 10, 2011 at 10:12 pm.

Thank you Jane and ttstevens, for taking time to read and comment. I’m concerned that maybe I didn’t get my point across very well, though…The point of my was post was indeed that adoptees need more than culture camp. They need authentic cultural experiences that are part of the fabric of their everyday lives. The local Indian families that put on the Diwali party have formed a group that holds events throughout the year, and we’re fortunate to be part of it, so it wasn’t a one-shot deal. Several of the children involved attend my daughter’s school, so she has ongoing relationships with lots of people of her ethnicity. We also have several people of East Indian descent in our extended family. The blog post got overlong and we had to cut some parts, but one of the reasons we felt out of place at that particular culture camp was because we do incorporate Indian culture into our everyday lives and we didn’t happen to meet many other families at the camp who were doing this also. Frankly, I was shocked to meet families who never eat Indian food or watch Bollywood movies etc SO in other words, I totally agree with what you’re saying.

By Sharon Van Epps on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 12:34 am.

Ah… I see.  I understand that feeling.  My kids go to our local Korean culture camp, which when it was started 25 years ago was a hugh deal as there were no resources to help adoptees learn about their culture at that time and the idea was a bit “out there”.  grin  My kids end up a bit board at culture camp because we do all the stuff at home as part of our lives, but I figure the opportunity to be in a group that is mostly Korean, and get to interact with Korean college students who come from Seoul to volunteer makes it worth while. grin  Thanks for your post!

By ttstevens on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 2:01 am.

Hi Sharon and All,

  You did get your point across, and did a nice job of that, Sharon!  I apologize if I somehow led you to think that I didn’t grasp what you were intending for us to grasp.  I understood that you had already realized that superficial, occasional doses of culture—especially when presented in adoption groups rather than by and with the individual child’s ethnic group—is hardly enough to help a child become culturally competent.  I agree.  I recognize, too, that you provide much beyond that to your children and family. 

    My point, and I hope that you don’t mind my making it again, is that while it has become popular amongst adoptive parents who’ve adopted transracially, to try to find ways to integrate their child’s cultural heritage, that does NOT help a child develop healthy-racial identity.  That is foundational to who we are.  Cultural competence (while I DO think its important) is not as essential to an individual’s sense of self worth and personal identity.  It CAN help to nurture racial identity IF it is authentic and develops because the child is immersed in his or her same-race, ethnic group.  Its nice FOR a child to become culturally competent and have a choice as to whether he or she wants and will participate in his or her ethnic community because the skill set has been taught and integrated, but a person can function and function well in multi-racial and multi-cultural societies (the USA, for example) without being culturally competent IF they possess healthy racial-ethnic identity.——perhaps that clarifies why I posted a comment and why it may have seemed, Sharon, as though I missed the point of your blog entry. 

    In an ideal world, a transracially adopted child would get ongoing opportunity to develop racial identity AND cultural competence.  However, if we were going to pick only one of those two, we should know that racial identity is essential and cultural competence—while useful—is not as necessary.  In fact, lots of individuals who possess healthy racial identity (feel comfortable in their skin, feel comfortable with others ascribing them to their racial-ethnic community, and know how to stand up to/resist stereotyping and racism) do not actively participate in their ethnic community and instead, focus their attention on participating in and valuing a multi-racial and multi-cultural community. 

    For example, some Korean adoptees socialize with Vietnamese people because they do not feel comfortable within a Korean or Korean-American community due to too much focus on whether or not they speak Korean fluently, are competent at reading and responding to the subtle nuances that go hand-in-hand with a relationship with a first generation Korean person, or rejection of the expectation that they SHOULD only associate with others of Korean heritage.  Instead, they enjoy participating in a group in which they do not stand out racially, especially when out in a public setting, but are NOT berated for not being 100% culturally competent. 

  I have developed a growing concern about this narrow focus on trying to introduce transracially adopted kids to their birth culture—something that is not necessarily practised by non-adopted persons/groups with shared ethnicity, INSTEAD of recognizing that race and not “culture” is THE Number One most salient issue. Many folks are uncomfortable talking about and facing how race is an issue for their child and for them, and instead, believe that if they merely engage in an occasional so-called cultural event—one that often yields only superficial (what the kids refer to as “fake” culture, once they are middle schoolers).  That was the issue that I was raising in my comments. 

  I also encourage families to recognize that there is considerable difference between a child’s BIRTH culture and the multitude of ways Culture X is lived in the country in which they are growing up.  Cultural practises evolve.  They do not remain static.  So, people who are 4th generation Korean do NOT practise the identical cultural ways that were are are practised in Korea today.  In fact, they may have shed lots of the original cultural ways their families lived them, trading them in for other ways of thinking, working, relating to others, etc… So, a transracially adopted child who learns Korean dance, or drumming, or how to wear hanbok may have little in common with a Korean-American family living nearby who has kept some cultural ways, but has shed many others over the course of multiple generations. That is why helping an adopted child with race-related matters is much more necessary. 

    Thanks, Sharon!  It sounds to me as though your children receive plenty of attention to all of their needs!

Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 2:19 am.

“that does NOT help a child develop healthy-racial identity” 

Respectfully, I think that is wrong.  Really wrong.  And I’m sure there is research out there to support it both ways. 

“I have developed a growing concern about this narrow focus on trying to introduce transracially adopted kids to their birth culture—something that is not necessarily practised by non-adopted persons/groups with shared ethnicity, INSTEAD of recognizing that race and not “culture” is THE Number One most salient issue.”
BUT… non-adopted kids were not taken from their culture of birth with no say in the matter.  Read the blogs of adult adoptees… I have and the point that is made over and over is the lack of knowledge about their culture of birth.  And language - the most important part of culture - needs to be learned as well.

By ttstevens on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 2:27 am.

Hello Sharon and fellow respondents,

This is a very intriguing topic.

I was born in Central America, but was moved to the US when I was 5 years old.  My husband was born in the Philippines but was moved to Canada when he was very young also.  Both of us are aware of our heritage but we are not connected to it since we consider the American culture to be our culture.

We would not feel comfortable immersing ourselves into our birth cultures, such as a culture camp, because we didn’t grow up in those cultures.  We appreciate them and know them and we enjoy some of their foods, but we consider ourselves Americans.  We don’t feel a sense of loss.  I speak Spanish.  I took Spanish in college.  I’m not very good at it, but I can make other people from the Hispanic community feel comfortable with me if I need to translate for them (I work in the medical community).

Our baby will be Japanese.  We are learning about the Japanese culture and we will expose him/her to his/her country when they are old enough to understand its significance.  But, we are not fooling anyone by believing that he/she will “fit in” with the Japanese native children.  He/she will be very Americanized like us.  Maybe we will be able to expose him/her enough to their Japanese culture so as to know what will offend and what will not.

If he/she wishes to learn Japanese later in life, then so much the better and we will accommodate.  So, we will play it by ear as to how much culture to expose him/her to.

One thing for sure: We will not go crazy or fill guilt if we cannot find a culture camp for our Japanese baby.  There are so many other things to go crazy over:-)

By Emma on Wednesday, March 02, 2011 at 8:48 pm.

Hi Emma,
Thanks for reading. Your personal history of immigration gives you a unique perspective that so many international adoptive parents don’t have. Although the camp I wrote about in this piece didn’t connect for us, our family has really enjoyed Ethiopian Heritage Camp for other other two children. It’s been a nice experience for the whole family, getting to know other adoptive families who look like ours, and the culture part is fun. There are also family camps for adoptive families without a real cultural component that give the kids the opportunity to get to know other kids who share the experience of adoption. Not every camp will work for every family but when the time comes you may find one you like.

By Sharon Van Epps on Thursday, March 03, 2011 at 5:56 pm.

There is a BIG difference between being an immigrant and being an adoptee.  An immigrant lives in his or her original family.  The choice to immigrate is often explained to children as a way to better the family’s life, together (job/educational opportunities). 
Many international adoptees are placed in families that do not share their ethnicity - making them stand out from their own family, and often their community.  Read the blogs of adult adoptees… so many write about not feeling they totally fit with the white communities in which they were raised, as they are seen as Asian (sorry - my kids are Korean, so I am speaking from there…), while in the Asian community they have no knowledge of their birth culture and are seen as not belonging.  It’s a hard place to be in.  Read the blogs, visit TRACK, InKAS or G’OAL - these are adoptee run organizations that are working to make sure Korean adoptees can learn about their culture, learn the language so they can access the culture.  There is a real sense of loss from so many of these adoptees - not just the loss of their birth families, bu the loss of their birth culture as well.  Since many internationally adoptees will not have the opporutnity to meath their birth families, the knowledge of the culture can help them .  Reading this blogs has totally changed my opinion on this topic.  I feel that if I do not give my children back what was taken from them then I am a not a good adoptive parent.

By ttstevens on Thursday, March 03, 2011 at 7:00 pm.

Hi ttstevens,

Thanks for reading. I’m not sure what in my post conveyed the sense that I haven’t read the blogs of adult adoptees, or read their books, listed to their presentations etc. Of course international adoption is not purely an immigrant experience; it adds a unique layer of complexity for our children. However, there are also challenges in common. The East Indian community even has a special term for the struggle faced by first generation kids here: ABCD, which stands for American Born Confused Desi (meaning Indian.) Some of the parents in the Indian cultural group we joined refer to themselves in this way. My daughter positively identifies herself as Indian American, to the extent that I have Indian parents asking me what they should do about the fact that their kids are rejecting their heritage. We absolutely have a responsibility as parents to do all we can to connect our children with their ethnic heritage, but if we can do this without dwelling on guilt and other negative emotions, I think it is healthier for our kids.

By Sharon Van Epps on Thursday, March 03, 2011 at 8:01 pm.
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Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps

Washington

I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
Ethiopia, India

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