Drive-by Culture

People ask me all the time for a "top 10" list of suggestions or rules that are must-do’s regarding transracial adoption, and I’ll admit that I have a really hard time doing this.

Mostly, it’s because there is no easy prescription or formula for getting it right. This was pretty clearly demonstrated in the adult adoptee panel I spoke on this past weekend. The other two panelists and I had three very different experiences growing up. I am the only Korean child, with two younger siblings biological to my parents, and I grew up in a small town with no diversity at all and parents and a community that did not understand racism or the effects of being the only person of color in a community. One of my fellow co-presenters is a mixed race adoptee with two white siblings (like me) but in a diverse setting with parents who understood the importance of diversity and actually pushed "culture" on her. And the other presenter was adopted with his biological brother and spent parts of his childhood in rural, suburban and inner city settings with liberal parents.

And yet – all three of us as adults had come to the same conclusion. It was not enough. We all struggled with our racial identity. We all felt like outsiders within our family and outsiders within our racial communities. It’s not that we didn’t feel loved, because I know that each of us on the panel never felt excluded or differentiated in that sense.

Understandably, this is confusing for prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents. One audience member asked with clear frustration – what are they to do? Where is the balance? They don’t want to push too much, like my co-presenter’s parents nor ignore completely, like mine did. And I wish I could have given this prospective adoptive parent a more satisfactory answer.

The advice I can give is that each child will be different and their needs will be different over time. But, the choice to be involved in the child’s community should never be dependent on the child.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that there will be times that the child won’t want to attend culture camp, language lessons, or have tacos on Tuesday and egg rolls on Wednesday. But being part of the child’s community is more than those things, which amount only to cultural tourism. Being part of the community is dependent on the adults. The parents. It’s that the parents attend a Korean church or a Black church for themselves. Because they value it. It’s not about "dropping the kids off at the curb" and coming back to pick them up later. That suggests that culture and diversity is the kid’s job.

Sue at My Life Postponed has a great post about why she has her kids involved in culture school. My favorite part is this:

I don’t take my kids to culture school for the things they will learn . . . I take them there for the relationships. If I cannot model comfort with people of their own origin, then they will pick that up very fast and feel and reflect my own discomfort. I am not always comfortable but I have kept faking practicing comfort, as best I can, until it becomes more natural and it truly has. And once in awhile, in the midst of what feels like a whole lotta posing, an authentic connection just happens.

Remember my previous post where I mention how in the film Outside Looking In, none of the prospective adoptive parents did their "homework" of spending time in a community of color? I thought of this when I read the following from Sue:

Sometimes I have to be the first to say hello, and have to smile a few times before the ice gets broken and sometimes the ice remains regardless of my effort and I take the cue to step back. I am also learning that just because someone is not immediately smiling and opening their heart to me, that does not mean they are hostile. Maybe they are shy, maybe they don’t know what to make of our family, maybe there is a language barrier, maybe they have a headache, maybe they have mixed feelings about the environment or someone else nearby and I am taking a vibe–not meant for me–personally.

Community building is not easy for any of us. But we sure can make it easier for each other, if we keep trying. It requires vulnerability, and it requires persistence, and a lifetime commitment. Oh and a thick skin. It all starts with some basic manners, which can be difficult to remember when we are feeling plagued by all kinds of discomfort that systemic racism has taught us.

It’s a responsibility that for our childrens’ sake, we transracially adoptive parents should not evade. If we want our children to know that we accept them for exactly who they are, a genuine desire to be with and respect people who share their ethnic background is an important aspect of showing–rather than saying–how we feel.

For the adoptive parents reading this blog, I have a question that you don’t have to answer – but please think about. When was the last time you participated in your child’s community without using your child as your emotional crutch? That is, for you and you alone – not to "expose" your child to his/her community. Just for you. When was the last time you placed yourself in your child’s community and left your child at home? Or do you feel more comfortable going into "their" community only when they are with you? Do you see it as "their" community, or is it truly the whole family’s community?

There will likely be a time when Junior will say "forget it" and will refuse to go to culture camp or culture school. But he’ll be watching. Watching to see if your involvement with "his people" ends if he decides to take a break.

Please read Sue’s post. I thought it was honest and heart felt and a great example for adoptive parents.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

11 thoughts

  1. This is a very thought-provoking post, and gets to the bottom of the culture issue. You wrote in the last paragraph:
    “When was the last time you participated in your child’s community without using your child as your emotional crutch? That is, for you and you alone – not to ‘expose’ your child to his/her community. Just for you. When was the last time you placed yourself in your child’s community and left your child at home? Or do you feel more comfortable going into ‘their’ community only when they are with you? Do you see it as ‘their’ community, or is it truly the whole family’s community?”
    Let’s suppose that non-Korean a-parents choose to participate in the activities of the Korean community, not because of their adopted Korean child, but because they see it as “the whole family’s community”. Let’s assume that this family also includes biological children.
    How will this work? The a-parents, of course, are not blank cultural slates: most likely they have a culture of their own, a community of their own, religious beliefs of their own, etc. Like all parents, they will pass much of this on to their own children, which is how family naturally works.
    The parents will be able to participate with the Korean community on some level, of course, and they should if they can – but Korean culture still won’t be their own. It isn’t something they would seek apart from their own child’s background, needs, and interests. And because it isn’t really their own, I think it will be impossible for them to pass it on in an authentic way. Or so it seems to me.
    Additionally, there is the question of whether the child deserves the full inheritance of the a-parents’ own culture and community. Shouldn’t the parents strive to pass on what they already have – what they truly do possess?
    How is it possible not to deprive the adopted child – in some measure – of one culture or the other?

  2. Jeff, I think your last sentence is quite poignant. And maybe that’s the paradox of transracial adoption. A transracially and transnationally adopted child likely won’t get the full measure of both cultures and one will take precedence over the other. That “one that takes precedence” is almost always that of the adoptive parents and it is because it is, as you point out, what is authentic and known to the parents.
    I’m not suggesting that white adoptive parents take on and appropriate a culture that is unknown to them; but they can become part of it on more than a superficial level if they want to.
    Having a child of a different race or culture will be the instigating factor for adoptive parents to become involved in that culture – and I think you made a good point that the parent’s wouldn’t have done it on their own without the child. But once in the community and part of that culture, it becomes more important that the parent embraces and becomes active in the cultural community. For the child’s sake, and because they love their child and the community s/he is part of.

  3. JaeRan, thank you for the reply. I think I understand what you are proposing a little better , and it does seem like it would be the best approach in many (perhaps most) circumstances. I wonder, though, whether this would really be the best approach in every case.
    Perhaps I have a philosophical difference of opinion. Considering the challenges TRAs already face, I would think it is better to give them one culture that is fully their own – at least as much as possible – than to give them two cultures in which they will always feel more like outsiders. In many cases this may not be a realistic expectation, but if it were possible, should it not be considered?
    We’re not a-parents, and probably won’t become a-parents at this point, but our kids are half-Vietnamese so there may some overlapping concerns. We are fortunate to be members of a tight-knit religious community. And not only a tight-knit religious community, but a community which is somewhat ethnically diverse. There are several mixed marriages among our acquaintance, and there are lots of children between them. Some of our friends have adopted children as well. They are all homeschooled, and they all share the same Catholic faith. It is very likely they will go to the same colleges and seminaries and religious orders as adults. They have been taught the same language (English), the same history (American and Western civ), the same prayers, the same stories, the same songs, and the same games. Etc. In other words, they are all full members of a common culture, although they have different racial backgrounds.
    For a while, early in our marriage, I had the idea that we should teach the children Vietnamese and get them involved in the Vietnamese community. Eventually, as we became more involved with our faith, we concluded that this approach just wasn’t realistic, that we could give them something better and more lasting. And that is how it is working out.
    I realize that TRAs may have other issues that are not completely addressed by our approach. Lacking a known biological family, TRAs may want more of a biological connection in their cultural life. What you have proposed addresses this need quite well.

  4. Another great post, Jae Ran.
    I, too, was struck by the last sentence of Jeff’s comment. Sometimes I feel a Venn Diagram, caught in between the intersection of the two sets, with no real definitive “This is Who I Am” place to claim soley as my own.
    I’m inspired by the APs who make a genuine, best-interest-of-the-child attempts to authentically expose their children to their birth culture, and to faithfully integrate it into their family’s lives. But when I hear parents say, “We give our son/daughter a chance to be surrounded by his/her culture – we have our holiday pictures taken in Hanbok”, I see there is still a long, long way to go.

  5. Jae Ran:
    I have been reading your blog for about a year now. I am so grateful for the valuable information and opinions you and adoptees like you provide.
    I am a Mom to two girls from China. I agree with you that it is not enough to drop my girls off to Chinese class and attend CNY celebration once a year. For my girls to truly feel that we are embracing their birth culture, I think my husband and I have to do more. For us, what comes naturally is reading. Reading books about China and books by Chinese, Chinese-Canadian and Chinese-American authors. We make sure to buy these books instead of borrowing them, so we have a nice collection that the girls can read later if they choose. As well, we will both soon be enrolling in classes on Chinese language and culture offered at a local university. We want our girls to know that we value and take an interest in their birth culture. We hope that our example will help encourage them to do the same.
    Our oldest now attends Chinese class, and just like Sue, our intention is not necessarily that she learns Chinese, but that she spends an hour every week with kids like her and more importantly, with a Chinese-Canadian teacher that she adores and who is a great role model.
    In addition to Chinese culture, we try to incorporate other cultures as much as possible in our daily lives…with books, toys, TV etc. We picked out a culturally diverse daycare and we will be enrolling them in a private school, primarily because the school has the cultural diversity that we cannot get in our local school. At the school we have chosen, not only will there be kids of color in my girl’s classes, but there will also be great role models… high school kids of Asian heritage starring in plays, on sports teams and helping out in the playground.
    In 15 years or so, our kids may tell us we did too much or that we didn’t do enough. But, as parents we can only do our research, keep our minds open, try our best and give our kids the support they need to sort things out.

  6. Thank you for this.
    As an adoptive parent, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to best provide opportunities for my children to know their birth culture. I think it’s absolutely critical that participation in cultural events be a whole family affair. Anything else just serves to emphasize the fact that our kids are “different”.
    I wrote a longer, more personal response to this entry on my blog: in case you’re interested.

  7. Thank you for this post. We are white a-parents to an African American toddler. We are constantly trying to find authentic ways to integrate several cultures into our daily lives. For instance, our son goes to an African American owned and operated preschool, with a racially and social-economically diverse group of students and teachers.
    One thing that I think is important to acknowledge is that although my husband and I are white, we are NOT a “white family” with a black child. I would never presume that since we adopted our son that my husband and I became “honorary African Americans,” but at the same time I no longer consider us as a “white family.”
    I also know that no matter how involved we are in black culture, he will always be the kid with white parents. For those reasons, we are currently looking for a church that is truly racially diverse, including interracial families and adoptive families. A tall order, maybe, but we’ll get there.
    Thanks again for this post, this blog, and your work. It’s so wonderful to hear the input of adoptees and other a-parents.

  8. We sense a need in our daughters to continue to be involved in her culture. We’ve done years of chinese language classes, dance lessons and cultural events. These are great but did not provide a genuine conection. We decided to attend a Chinese church. It did provide us with many opportunities to build relationships.
    After a year or so, everything has collided into a huge mess. Gender bias is alive and well, that should be no shocker. But I wasn’t prepared for my girls to be exposed to it in their church and community. How do you measure all that out? My girls have lost EVERYTHING because they were girls. I don’t feel I can tolerate the gender bias that is in plain view in our Chinese community. I am further incensed to realize that our Christian faith supports this gender bias. The Chinese + Christian male centric attitude is more than I can stand.
    I have amazing, beautiful children, we are a fantastic family-I’m tired of being a science experiment.

  9. Jay, you raised a really interesting point.
    When I was first looking for a Korean community, I attended a Korean church and did not find it welcoming at all. I felt very oppressed there; in a different but just as alienating way as the racist white Evangelical church I grew up in.
    There are obviously a lot of complex layers going on here and I’m truly sorry that you were not able to find a healthy environment in this church community. I hope you will try to find another way to connect with the Chinese American community.
    In social work, we are taught a concept called equifinality – which means, more than one path to a desired result. All of us as people need to be able to search out and try different paths as there will be no one solution for each family.

  10. What has worked best for me so far is to focus on the relationships I have with other adults.
    For example a Korean family we occasionally spend time with. Meals, etc. Always an interesting experience.
    But what is ironic and delightful about these are what happens at the intersection.
    This family is deeply religious and Christian. We are not. Christianity is something I fled and this family, from Korea less than a decade ago, embraced it.
    Then there is the food. This family’s mom always comes up with real Korean food for all of us to eat together, but she and I are the only two that will usually eat it. Her husband, my wife and the children all flee.
    So in that regard it indeed is about the adults. And the humor and good times that come with learning to understand each other.

  11. I think when AP’s read that whatever we do is not enough gives them an out. As in, I can never do it right, so why bother? I see acknowledging that we won’t do it right as a starting point for doing your best within that framework. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me.
    I really related to what Sue said. I think AP’s might want to consider volunteering in an organization before bringing their “emotional crutch” along. I have found this makes you even more approachable because people will want to know why the heck you are there, and seem to be okay with the idea that you actually want to do more than show up at a banquet (with said crutch). BTW- I love lists, good ones, bad ones, just in my nature.

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