Race, Culture and Adoptive Families

Race, Culture and Adoptive Families

Any parent with transracially adopted children over the age of 7 years old, is aware, or becoming aware, of the special challenges that face adoptive parents who do not share their children's ethnic heritage. Although non-adoptive, 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 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 should be where your efforts stop.

Which brings me to Korean language, or the language of your child's birth-culture.

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 couple of words about keeping up with Korean and Korean American issues: Just Do It .

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 !!! (Or the country your child is from)

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.

Regardless of where you start incorporating your child's culture and making it part of the entire family's culture, the most important thing to remember is this: Never Stop . Wearing a hanbok, cheongsam, or Ao dai traditional outfits and learning about the folk culture of your child's first country when they are little is just the beginning and certainly not enough to allow your child to develop a true and balanced identity as an Asian American, Russian American, Latin American, etc. Issues of culture and race are and will always be part of your child's life. Make it an on-going, celebrated part of the entire family's structure and life.

Margie Perscheid is the mom of two amazing Korean teens and wife of 30+ years. She explores in-depth adoption issues on her blog Third Mom. http://thirdmom.blogspot.com/


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