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Adoption Blog: Man Up!

What Does It Mean to Be American for Children Adopted Internationally?

Manu, adopted from India

On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, Manu’s preschool was having a “Bike Day.” The kids decorated their bikes, trikes, and Big Wheels for the Independence Day holiday and brought them to school for a parade around the parking lot. Manu was very excited about the event and was quite particular about how and where the decorations were to be placed: streamers on the back, flags on the handlebars!

So the night before, after some initial frustration in figuring out how to securely attach all that red, white, and blue to his Big Wheel, it was time to put on the finishing touches. Manu had been walking around waving two little U.S. flags in his hands all evening. When I asked for them so that we could finish our decorating, he handed them over and said, “Here are the Indian flags, Daddy.” I told him that they were not flags of India but that they were United States flags. He accepted my explanation, but I could tell that he was more than a little confused.

“United States flags, Daddy?” he asked in his high-pitched, curious tone.

“Yes,” I responded. “That’s our country’s flag. It’s where we live.”

But I’m Indian.”

That’s about where the conversation ended as he shrugged his shoulders and quickly rode off on his newly decorated ride. As I watched him go, I sighed quietly as I realized that this was the beginning of yet another sensitive conversation we will eventually need to finish.

Listen son: Remember how we talked about how you came into our family? Well, you didn’t just lose your birth family. You lost your country and your culture, too. Sorry.

Of course, that’s a bit crass. I’ll prepare what I want to say in a sensitive way before actually talking to him about it, but this little interaction reminded me that, for all of the joy that my wife, Leslie, and I (and hopefully Manu) have gained from this adoption, it has all come at quite an expense to him. No matter how hard we try, we won't be able to help him fully understand what it means to be Indian. I have read many stories of international adoptees in similar circumstances that convey a feeling that, although they are members of two cultures, they often don’t feel that they completely belong to either one. We are lucky to live in an area with a relatively large Indian population, so I hope that helps a bit. But Manu is a first-generation immigrant, while his Indian peers are likely second- and third-generation Indian-Americans. Even if he could fully assimilate into the Indian culture of our town, it would still be into an Indian culture that has already assimilated into American culture.

I have given a lot of thought to what it means to be an American. Growing up, I was intrigued by textbook stories of the founders, and I bought into the idea that the United States was somehow better than the rest of the world—a chosen land, so to speak—and that everyone else would benefit from our culture and our style of government. Many people I know still feel this way. But with age, education, and experience, I have personally come to believe that many of those stories are exaggerated in an effort to always paint the U.S. in the best possible light. I find myself mentally trapped between the history that I want to believe and the history that I really believe, and sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the two. Our trip to India revealed a world so astonishingly different from anything I have experienced in the West that I can no longer accept the premise that we are in fact superior to anyone or that what works for us here politically and economically should necessarily be prudent or acceptable to anyone else in the world.

But what I do appreciate about this country is the relative diversity of its people. According to the latest U.S. census data, America is more colorful than ever. And for the first time in our history, white non-Hispanics no longer account for the majority of babies born in the United States. Of course, this is a very emotionally charged, controversial topic, but I hope that a part of what it all means is that it’s becoming easier for our internationally adopted children to feel more at home in the country into which we've welcomed them.

I think when the time comes to continue this conversation, I’ll use a melting-pot analogy to illustrate for Manu that many people, of widely diverse backgrounds from all parts of the world, have come to this country and now call it their own. If anything, it is this collectivism that has always made America great. There is no one person or group that can lay claim to our country, or the American Dream. Almost everyone who has lived here has a history that begins somewhere else. For Manu, his is just a little more pronounced than most. I not only want him to feel proud of his Indian heritage, but also to feel that, by simply being here, he is contributing to the story of America, and as a result, feel proud of his American heritage too.

But when it comes to discussing this with Manu, this is a conversation for another day or maybe another year. Right now, we need to figure out how to keep those streamers from coming loose on hairpin turns!

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I can relate to this blog.  My kids get confused b/c they know they are Hispanic but born in the USA. 
We tell them they are American but tell them their birth family comes from Mexico.  It’s very confusing to them.  I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be if they had been born in another country.

Good luck to you with this.  I’m still trying to figure it out myself!

By Danielle Pennel on Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 12:01 am.

danielle- i have the exact same scenario!

By Eshotwell on Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 2:00 am.

Jeff, I’m interested in following this story as you continue the conversation with Manu. We are starting the process of adoption from Haiti so we will probably deal with similar questions. So, pave the way!

By Gaby on Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm.

After 35 years of working as a post-adoption provider with adoptees of all ages, I am convinced that the issue is race and not culture for both the adult adoptees and also for adopted youngsters growing up Today.  The adult adoptees named their struggle loss of culture, but in reality, complained nearly to a person that they feel a keen sense of disconnect from their own racial-ethnic heritage (are shocked every time by seeing themselves in a mirror because their FELT-racial identity is white) AND don’t feel competent to fit themselves into their racial-ethnic group here, in the USA or in their country of origin. 

    Many have expressed surprise, disappointment, and great sadness that their younger counterparts who ARE acquiring more cultural competence—at least with their racial-ethnic group within the US (Korean-American, Mexican-American, Ethiopian-American people)—so they at least feel somewhat prepared to behave in socially appropriate ways even if they travel to their countries of origin—do not feel comfortable in their skin or with individuals/groups with shared racial-ethnic heritage.  Its a shock and surprise to them because their parents described this as a cultural difference when in reality, the issue is internalized racism.

    Internationally adopted youngsters are not unlike 2nd or 3rd or 4th generation youngsters in that they are acquiring a hyphenated cultural identity.  I do not see them grieving for the cultural ways they would have absorbed and would be able to practise, had they grown up in their culture of origin.  Many to most (if not all) seem to see it as a gain that they can straddle two or more cultural groups.  It is the RACE issue that is troubling to them—and that is as troubling to the majority as it was to their predecessors who are now adult adoptees. 

      One of my sons (born in Korea, now living and working and raising his nine-year-old son in Korea) is a good example of what happens when adoptive families work to make certain their child acquires healthy racial-ethnic heritage. He does not have complaints about loss of culture.  He grew up with plenty of opportunity for immersion in multi-racial and multi-cultural environments and so, did not suffer from internalized racism (seeing people of the same race as exotic, “different,” or inferior to people who are white due to little lived-experience with them, and eventually suffering a loss of his sense of self worth as he realized that he shares racial-ethnic heritage with them).  He sees himself as not being entirely culturally competent (describes feeling more American than ever IN Korea) because he does not deem one cultural identity as inferior to another.  He experiences being surrounded by others of Korean heritage as “normal” and familiar and never had the illusion that acquiring competency in Korean cultural ways yielded that,, so that there is no sense of loss over the cultural ways he WOULD have practised had he grown up in Korea.

    I strongly encourage parents raising children of color adopted internationally and/or domestically to focus on race—learning enough about racial-ethnic identity acquisition to nurture healthy identity in their children, and making sure their children grow up in multi-racial and multi-cultural settings.  Its the children who grow up in predominantly white communities who do not get to develop ongoing, meaningful , everyday relationships with adult role models of color who tend to develop problems and complain loudly and vehemently about their sense of dislocation. 
Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Friday, July 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm.

My Chinese-born daughters still consider “American” to mean “white” or “Caucasian”. They believe they are Chinese/Asian but don’t associate themselves as Americans as well.  Though they are American citizens, they see themselves first as Chinese. We are still working on what it means to be American and also have a different racial identity.

By honfleur on Friday, July 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm.

Thanks everyone for your comments so far.

Jane, I agree with much of what you say. My hope is that the idea of America as a “white” nation is changing. I marvel all the time, when we’re out and about, at how divers our community has become, especially in the last 10 years or so. I see a similar demographic shift in most medium-to-large communities we visit. Manu’s pre-school is probably 60/40 white to other ethnic groups, teachers included. I’m guessing our neighborhood is about the same.  We can’t turn on the television without encountering news reporters, sports figures, and entertainers of all ethnic backgrounds. I hope all of this combines to make my son feel more like a part of the community at large, and not so “exotic” as I feel might have been the case 15-20 years ago.

And maybe he’ll never experince real regret for not being culturally Indian - mayby it is simply me internalizing some low-level guilt - but we took him from his birth-counrty without his consent, and as such have deprived him of that heritage. In my opinion that is a real loss, too.

By Jeff on Friday, July 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm.

Hi again, Jeff.  I thought that I should clarify one of the points I was trying to make.  Our children need much more than to see a racially diverse community around them.  Seeing people on the street, behind store counters, riding bikes, etc… is a good thing, but not enough.  What they need is something different—two things.

  First, they need adult role models in their up-close-and-personal environment.  That means that they need to have adults of color cross the threshold of their homes, play with them, teach them, tell them their stories—they need to have so much familiarity and comfort with them that they have those I-wanna-be-like-you moments with them and feel that the adults, in turn, like them and have an investment in their future. 

  Secondly, they need to see their parent/s build and keep personal relationships with adults of color (some who look like them, and others who don’t).  They need to see their parent laugh, talk, dine, touch, and share stories with them.  It is far different to share meals with someone than it is to have them serve you, for example, and our kids need to see us parents interacting with people of color if we are “white.”

    Our children benefit, too, when their classes at school are filled with a diverse mix of students, and some of the staff (teachers and administrators) are persons of color.  When difference is the norm and not the exception, they and their family members have a far better fit—they can count themselves as normal, rather than describing what most of the kids I see describe:  that “there are 2 brown kids and lots of the regular kind of kids in my class at school.”

    I feel so very sad when I hear a child say such things for it demonstrates to me that they have already begun down the path to internalizing racism.  In other words, they see people who look like themselves as “different, exotic, not-like-me-and-my-family” and of lesser worth, and are already recognizing that others place them in the same category.  Most secretly or openly wish that they were same-race to their white parents. Many describe being surprised every time by the brown face in the mirror because it is not the face they expect to see and so, they avoid looking. 

  So yes, our children and we DO benefit by our society becoming more racially and culturally diverse, however, we still have a very very long way to go and we are, unfortunately, still as segregated as we ever have been in far too many geographic locations throughout the USA. 

  I also want to clarify that I do think there is value in introducing your child to their birth culture. However, those facets of cultural acquisition that help them involve how people interact—the unspoken as well as spoken rules for how people ought to behave, and regard and treat one another—NOT museum-type culture that is so popular in the greater-adoption-community.  (dressing up in traditional clothing, learning ethnic dances, making crafts, etc…) Those activities/lessons do not and will not help our children gain cultural competence so that they can participate in their ethnic communities IF they choose to, on their own, when they are no longer clinging to our hands when they engage with their ethnic communities. 

    I wish you and your son (and family) well, Jeff.  Hopefully, you all will learn a great deal from both the earlier generations of international adoptees and their adoptive parents. 

Jane A. Brown, MSW

By Jane Brown on Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 8:28 am.

Great post Jeff!
The question of what is means to be an American is a great one for our internationally adopted children.  My daughter (adopted in China, now 19) went through a number of distinct stages in terms of grappling with this issue.  In early elementary school she was frequently asked questions by other kids such as “why are you here?” and “do you speak Chinese?”  These questions confused her, made her feel as if she did not belong in America, that she was somehow second best.  She wondered what it meant to be Chinese in America and really did not have the ability to understand it.

During this time, it really helped that she understand the value of her culture of origin, that it was not second-rate to be from China..  Going to Chinese language school in our beautiful China Institute helped her do that. (she didn’t last long—preferred to play soccer—but I think it was great for her self-esteem).

      Later, in high school, when she came to know other Chinese-Americans, and came to understand the bias that underlay those question she began to have a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be an Asian American.  Now, in college, she seems fully comfortable with all the distinctions (race, culture) and sees hereself fully as an Asian American without any sense of inferiority.  But it’s a long journey and it starts so early!

Did the streamers stay on the bike??


By SusanC on Monday, July 18, 2011 at 8:12 pm.

Thanks Susan!

They did stay on, but they hardly resembled steamers after a day of hard play.

By Jeff on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 3:01 pm.

Jeff, enjoyed your post. It’s brought up some great points. The other day I was driving a friend of my 13 year old (biological, Caucasian) daughter home. My daughter’s friend happened to be adopted from China. During our light chatty conversation, she said at one point. “I like being American, but I’m Chinese, too.” She said it with such poise and peace, I had to smile. My 7 year old, who was also adopted from China, was sitting next to her and heard it. I hope my daughter grows up with such a healthy balance of who she is and such a love for both parts of her.

By Stacy Clark on Saturday, August 06, 2011 at 4:07 pm.

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