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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

You bring out a good point ttstevens and thank you for reading and giving us your perspective.

I would agree that being an immigrant is very different than being adopted.  However, the similarity lies in that the choice to have a different culture was not made by the children (which was the case with me and my husband) and so will be the case with our adopted child.

We will do our best to learn about the Japanese culture because we too want to be able to understand our child and want our child to have a sense of connection, but we will not be able to fully understand the culture since we are not Japanese.

And to be honest, there is an aspect of the Japanese culture that worries me: The importance they place on blood lines and blood ties.  So, as a Japanese child who was given up for adoption, he/she is already an “outsider” to their own culture. 

We can only hope that when we begin to study all the aspects of the Japanese culture, that this particular area will not cause our child extreme pain because by then, our child will consider themselves American-Japanese, which is a culture into itself, just like what Sharon was referring to.

I believe, like Sharon and you do, that culture knowledge is important. Our child will know their culture and will visit Japan with us when they are older because we love to travel and experience different cultures.  But just like I do not fit in with my Hispanic culture, and my husband does not fit in with his Philipino culture, our child will not fit in with their Japanese culture. That’s just the way it is, and we are ok with that.

We all fit in nicely with the American melting pot culture.

By Emma on Thursday, March 03, 2011 at 8:59 pm.
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Meet the Author

Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps

Washington

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

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