Heritage cannot be sealed and bottled, to be spooned. To survive, with all its powerful headiness and ability to sustain a sense of self and well-being, it must be distilled and allowed to mingle with the air in which it finds itself. Heritage needs to be used to live.
For my children adopted from China , what their Chinese heritage means for them is bittersweet. And so it is also for children adopted from other cultures and societies. My children's heritage isn't about ribbon dancing, or water buffalos, or dim-sum and language class, although these are part.
My children's heritage, a snapshot in China 's history, tells of a country in transit from country rags to global riches, a country of vast and complicated difference. It tells of a country where wages for most are low, where conditions for living and working are hard and where family planning is decided by the state and not within a family. It tells of a country where some children are adopted overseas because the state system cannot properly accommodate all the children in need of social welfare or new families. It tells of tough parental decisions to let go of a child: on the steps of an orphanage, the gates of a factory, the side of a road. It tells of parents who may have abandoned their child and never looked back or intended for the child to survive.
My children's heritage also tells of Chinese people, kind as people are the world over, who've lifted a foundling child and given that child a chance at life. It tells too of mothers in China , in the countryside and in the cities, still with their children. In poverty, in poor domestic situations but still with their children.
How hard this heritage is to explain to our children! How can they use it to make sense of themselves? How can it help build self-esteem? It's for us, their parents of the present, to explain the contradictions and conundrums which lead our children to live with and be loved by us. We are here to help our children make their mark in our communities, to help them bend the air', just as - for a little while - they bent the air in China . We are here to help them develop pride in their heritage despite the prejudice that their heritage may engender in the societies in to which we bring them.
How best to explain?
Heritage needs to be lived to come alive. A birthcountry visit is worth a million words. My family, my children adopted from China and I, have made several visits back to China ; the children make sense of China with their own eyes. What can a child's eyes make of China ? Well, what my children see changes as they mature, and their understanding of the conundrum of their heritage expands, is exponential, each visit. They see with the simplicity of a child's vision; perhaps that vision sees clearer than any adult exposition of heritage.
Is this too tough? To permit a child to see conditions and situations which may have applied to them? To look at begging, poverty, substance abuse and poor housing conditions? Yes, it's tough but it's placed in context. And the context is more than simply seeing difficult scenes. It's seeing Chinese children going to school, playing in nurseries, in play-parks. It's jostling in a queue for tickets for rides in the parks, blowing bubbles with Chinese bubble-makers, sharing an offered balloon with yet more kids in the parks. It's shopping, looking at how things are different and some are the same. It's thinking the whys of cooking and sanitation!
It is facing the suspicion with which our family is regarded in parks, in restaurants. It's having ordinary people take time to explain how our family shocks because we are part of the politics of family planning made real - and how that is shaming.
It is receiving the knowledge that there is welcome in the welfare institution, their first community of care. For my children, it is knowledge that staff there call the children by their given Chinese names. It's wonderful to see a child realize she is both her Chinese and English name; and her names only name who she knows she is now! The sum of two contexts.. One child, two names, one identity .
Heritage is part, but not the sum of identity. Identity is what a person chooses to make of history, the personal narrative that is the web and waft of the whole person, enabling their personal narrative to develop . A child who is held by loving hands (parents from the present, carers from places in the past) will be able to paste the snapshot of their heritage and history in to their Book of Life whether or not it's in their lifebook. With a grasp of living heritage, adopted children can move on from the roots of the past to future routes - which knowledge of love's journey make easier to take.
Heritage is a part of composite identity. We owe it, must show it in its reality, in birthcountry visits, to our kids. As responsible parents, how we choose to show and tell about their heritage, when in birthcountry and once home, is critical. We must also offer our children a sight of their heritage without gloss but without gloom. Why? Because our children rely on us to start them on that journey.roots and routes. We help the seam their past - through our present family - to the future which beckons them.
Sheena Macrae (MA, PH.D) is Senior Editor at EMK Press, and mother to two children adopted from China . She is co-editor of EMK Press's ground-breaking book Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections, and editor of the EMK Press newsletter. She is Topic Editor at EMK Press's associated listserv Adoption Parenting - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/adoptionparenting/ .
Sheena is an active participant in the Voices of Adoption Community.