Race, Culture and Adoptive Families

The first Open Mike question was How do parents in multicultural and multiracial families teach their children about race and ethnicity? and many of you posted your thoughts in response. Now it's my turn.

To levelset: I'll be talking here about the challenges that face adoptive parents who do not share their children's ethnic heritage. Although multicultural families share many of the same challenges, being able to support their children's heritage through their families is a major difference, one that I'm sure brings additional challenges that adoptive families don't face, but a difference all the same.

Respecting and nurturing my kids' Korean race and heritage is something I take seriously. It's my responsibility as an adoptive parent, something I have no right to ignore or dismiss based on my personal views on race or culture. Parental belief in a color-blind society or a single human race is no good reason to deny children contact with their culture and community, nor is the fact that they may, from time to time, exhibit little interest themselves.

So presuming you agree, how do you go about doing it?

I think the first place to start is to think about the purpose of your efforts. Is it to make your children experts in their folk culture? Or is it to empower them to take their places in their racial and ethnic communities here in the US?

Although learning about folk culture may certainly be one of many steps along the way, I believe it's the latter. And if you don't share your child's race or ethnicity, you won't be able to do this on your own. You're going to need a lot of help.

So where do you get that help? Lots and lots of places. If you're like my family, you may start by "tourist parenting" - doing all you can to absorb your child's culture from any available source. I think this is an important phase in any adoptive family's cultural training, but it shouldn't be the only or last phase. In our case it was a way to get our cultural "bearings," so to speak, but it was only the beginning.

When children start school, and their racial awareness increases (and with it, the possibility of racially-motivated teasing from others), the focus has to change from folk culture to community. And this is something you can't learn from books or movies - this is something that takes contact with the people who share your child's racial and ethnic background.

My family is fortunate to live in the DC area, which has a Korean American population close to 100,000. This has given us access to people, organizations, activities, and events that would otherwise be unavailable to us. It has also allowed us and our children to make friends who have in some cases become our children's mentors - our daughter's taekwondo coach, for example.

We've been able to connect with the Korean American community in many ways. For example, through a Korean adoption support organization I'm active with, Korean Focus, my family has made connections with the Korean American Coalition chapter in DC, and with the Korean American Youth Association, another community service organization. These organizations have welcomed adoptive families into their activities, and have given us opportunities to volunteer - to roll up our sleeves and work alongside them, not just to attend their events as guests. But if organizations aren't for you, you can certainly still find ways to make individual connections and friendships - through parents you meet at your children's school, through churches, and through your activities.

Adoptive parents struggle sometimes with the decision to attend culture school, culture camp, and other cultural activities. There has been some dialog, even debate, over the years as to the importance of these. My opinion is that the debate is unnecessary - there's always room for more culture, and culture school may be your best source for Korean language lessons. However, I don't think that attending camp or school can be where your efforts stop.

Which brings me to Korean language. As someone whose educational background is in foreign languages and applied linguistics, who taught German and ESL for eight years in the public schools and another two or three more in community and private adult ed programs, I can speak with some authority on this subject. And I recommend putting the effort into learning the language if you possibly can. However, I know from my non-Korean-speaking Korean American friends that learning Korean can be as challenging to them as it is to adoptive families. But it's one thing I would have tried to do differently if I had it to over again, because I have learned from many adoptees how frustrating it is to go to their birth country without the language. Don't forget that there may be sources for Korean language lessons in your community even if you don't have a culture school - adult education classes through your public school system, for example (which is where I'm taking lessons this semester), or even online and computer-aided courses (like Rosetta Stone - my son is learning Japanese with Rosetta Stone, and hopefully in a few months I can offer some feedback on how Level I went. Anyone have any experience with the Korean version?)

A word about keeping up with Korean and Korean American issues: do. In the internet age, this is easy. Korea.net, the Korea Herald, and the Korea Times are online (as are many other Korean and Asian periodicals), and some offer news updates to your mailbox. There are any number of magazines you can subscribe to - we get KoreAm, Korean Quarterly, and Audrey, but there are many more. And don't forget that Korean movies, TV and music are one of the best ways to learn about popular culture.

And go to Korea!!!

I could go on and on, but you get the point. I think, though, that's it's more important for adoptive parents to hear from adoptees on this subject, so I recommend that you listen to the September 18th edition of Addicted to Race, in which Ji-in of Twice the Rice and Jae-ran of Harlow's Monkey discuss race and the importance of acknowledging it. They discuss the concept of cultural appropriation, one that is particularly important to TRAs and adoptive families. Download an MP3 of the program here.


weigook saram said…
You make a lot of interesting points. Of course our situation isn't exactly the same, but I do think we can learn from our common experiences.

Yes, I think a lot of parents get hung up on folk culture, and fail to make connections with the Asian-American community in the U.S. I think it's easy to go the folk-culture route, because it is hard work to get out of your comfort zone and connect with a community of people who are different from you.

I agree that language is really important, if for no other reason than that if the child wants to reunify he/ she may not be able to communicate with the birthparents.

It's interesting that we have the ESL thing in common. I learned so much about different cultures and negotiating cultural differences from teaching ESL.
Anonymous said…
This post really hit home with me. I started on the tourist level, and like you, I don't think that's a bad thing. However, I think it is so easy to get stuck there because it's comfortable. Honestly, FCC events and the like are so damn easy.

The next level I have been working on for the past year, joining various Chinese-American organizations. You hit the nail on the head about volunteering. By doing this I have found that it helps establish credit, that we're not just there for the fun stuff OR have expectations that because we have a Chinese child they have to accept us.

I suspect a lot of AP's resist making relationships out of their comfort zone because of the fear of rejection, of being humiliated. I can understand that-- not whining-- but it is difficult to put yourself out there, taking chances, and be rejected. However, that's life sometimes, and it's no excuse not to keep trying. Besides, ultimately, it's not about you, but your choice to adopt transracially.

Thank you so much for this thoughtful post, and for linking to Addicted to Race! I hope that roundtable discussion is the first of many to come, on issues surrounding transracial and international adoption.
Margaret said…
We are really still at the beginning stages of trying to bring our daughter's culture into our home and our lives (she's been home about six months). For us what is key is that she be able to develop a proud and secure identity as a person of Chinese ancestry. I want my daughter to feel comfortable going back to China someday and knowing the language and the customs. In order for her to be able to do that we know that she will have to have regular contact with Chinese people here in the US.....translation: we will continue to live in a neighborhood where Asian and Chinese Americans aren't considered an oddity, but simply your next door neighbor; we will make sure that she attends Chinese school run by Chinese people so that she knows her first language and heritage; we will continue to regularly celebrate Chinese holidays. And, yes, we will even do some of the more "lightweight" things like cook traditional Chinese food at home, decorate our home with some traditionally Chinese items. I think it's also important that she have access to other people who were transracially adopted, be they folks she encounters online or other children she knows who adopted transracially.

Again, sory to ramble....but all of this is going through my head a lot these days.
Sue said…
There is no debate for me about culture camp's importance and we will get our butts there but so far, our obstacle has been expense (on the heels of two very expensive adoptions creating a lifetime of debt).. For some that might be an excuse but for us it is a real obstacle.

But we CAN spread the expense out over time. So one significant way we have been able connect our daughter with the local South Asian community in a folky/cultural activity has been through a dance class that is primarily attended by American born South Asian children, and a few adoptees. It's not cheap but spread out, we can afford it if we make it a priority over the many other possible activities that tempt us.

It took awhile for her to start enjoying it and sometimes I look longlingly at other community ed activities for her, but she is in a public school where she can get a taste of so many things. This is her one hour of the week when her world is specifically South Asian.

The other day she said "I need to be wearing bindis more often so everyone knows I am an India girl." So it's totally paying off!
Kahlan said…
Or is it to empower them to take their places in their racial and ethnic communities here in the US?

That is it exactly. However, it is such a fine line. I want my son to be empowered, but how much can I (as a white American) push it? My husband and I are enrolled in Korean school. We have many Korean friends. We read Korean news, watch Korean shows, and do our best to expose our son to what we can. I still feel like we fall so short of what he needs though. Perhaps as he gets older and is more verbal, he will be able to help us.

I agree that the Addicted to Race show with Ji-in and Jae-ran was fantastic.
Ryan said…
Just wanted to let you know that we just finished the first section (there are like 8 sections each with like 8 sub-sections) of Rosetta Stone. It it a great way to learn, and when I recently went to Korea (2 weeks ago) our SW was impresssed that I could say "The fish is white". I can say some basics too, but I know my colors now!

Korea was wonderful... I LOVED it, and we tried to totally immerse ourselves. We went into restraunts that didn't have any English on the signs, no English speaking people, etc. We went off the "beaten path" so to speak and went through neighborhoods in Seoul, went through the poor section, etc. I have some pictures on my blog, but plan on posting more soon. Anyway, I love reading your posts!
Margie said…
Ryan, welcome back - I know your trip was wonderful, I've been visiting your blog, too.

Thanks for the feedback about Rosetta Stone, I think I'm going to go for it. It seems to me that while I'm taking the class at Fairfax County (which is really going well), it would be helpful to have Rosetta Stone to practice with during the week. And then I could teach my husband, too.

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