Parents’ embrace of the ”home” culture can have its costs

Another country, not my own

By Mei Ling Hopgood

One overseas adoptee explains: Parents’ embrace of the ”home” culture can have its costs

Author Mei-Ling Hopgood with her parents. She was adopted from Souther Taiwan in 1974.

Author Mei-Ling Hopgood with her parents. She was adopted from Souther Taiwan in 1974.

First, read the article here.

I have several thoughts about this article and in addition, some thoughts about the response(s) to the article that I have been reading by other adult international adoptees and at Anti-Racist Parent. I originally had just posted the article link and photo from the article and set it on self-publish, but after reading a few of the comments around the blog-o'sphere, I thought I would add some of my thoughts.

Some of us adoptees "of a certain age" and those of us at any age who were raised in families who lived quite isolated (geographically or due to parents choice to segregate) from any community made of folks from our country of origin, were raised in a straight-forward assimilationist mode. That is, our families adopted us, but not our culture of origin and raised us to be "American" which to them meant White, Euro-American. It's fair to say that while our parents physically adopted us as children and infants, we adoptees were the ones "adopting" our new American cultures. Or perhaps I should say some of us adopted white American culture and others of us just adapted.

Local adoption agencies did not provide "culture camps" for us, nor did they train adoptive parents on how to be culturally-sensitive or how to provide culturally "appropriate" (whatever that means) activities.

Somewhere around the mid- to late 1970s, we began to see some of these adoption-specific, folk-based camps and schools forming for adoptive families. Many of these were created by adoptive parents to help support adoptive parents. While many culture camps and adoptive parent organizations for country-specific adoptive families do provide programming for kids, the main focus almost always begins as an adoptive parent support, not as a adopted child or youth support. That is why when you visit these camps, often times it is adoptive parents who are running the show. Adoptive parents make up the board, schedule and create the programs, and often run the classes. An adult adoptee friend of mine attended a large, well-known camp for South Asian Indian adoptees and related that all the adults there were white adoptive parents, even the white adoptive parents cooked the Indian food (and gave the kids a hard time if they turned their noses away from the curries).

For some of these culture-camps, it took the interventions or protests from adult adoptees themselves who had come of age and observed or more likely volunteered (and by the way, I'm tired of how adult adoptees are always asked to volunteer for these organizations rather than being paid. Hey, I know budgets are small but if you're going to pay non-adopted Korean Americans to come teach classes at culture camp, you can pay the Korean American adoptee too) at these organizations to ask aloud why there were no adult adoptees or members of the ethnic community on the board of directors or running the camp/school. Gradually, the more responsive organizations did include and incorporate feedback from adult adoptees too.

It is really only in the past 10 years or so, however, that we have come to see the kind of culture-keeping that sociologist Heather Jacobson writes about in Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption and the Negotiation of Family Difference, and which author Mei-Ling Hopgood references in her article. 

Hopgood writes,

"Parents do these things hoping to help their children adjust to the
sometimes tricky duality of their existence. Yet I worry that some
parents are now taking things too far: Going to extremes to idealize
the native culture might be as damaging to an adoptee as ignoring it.
Asian-American activists have for decades fought the idea that you are
born with a culture – that if you look Asian, you must eat with
chopsticks, wear different clothing, speak a different language; that
you are different and thereby less American. Parents, to some extent,
are asking children to conform to those expectations. And without
adequate acknowledgement of the reality that actually is – their
experience in America – I suspect that children might have an even
harder time figuring out where they belong."

"Eager to do the right thing, many adoptive parents – usually white and
middle-to-upper-middle class – have tried to re-create their children’s
native cultures. Moms and dads formed and joined support groups,
enrolled their children (and themselves) in language, dance, and art
classes. They decorated their homes with Russian paintings, threw Lunar
New Year parties, bought Guatemalan jewelry, and made regular
pilgrimages to the local Chinatown. They established their own
specialty magazines, attended culture camps in the United States, and
spent more than $10,000 on “heritage tours” in the Motherland. An
entire industry – from travel agencies to doll makers – caters to these
families’ desires to provide adequate cultural touchstones."

I feel sorry for the young adoptees of today. In part because we some of us have complained about the lack of knowledge and accessibility to our "culture" (which I actually think is more of our wanting to be less racially stigmatized), adoptive parents have gone totally the other way and are now forcing it down their kids throats.

As if transracial and international adoptees don't have enough to contend with every day, now they have to perform how "well-adjusted" they are regarding how much they love the folk culture, costumes and Americanized-food of their country of origin to please their parents. And adoptive parents now have another thing to worry and agonize over – when their child tells them they don't want to participate in [insert ethnic group] school/language/culture camp activities any more. Because now, maybe that means the child is rejecting "their" culture that the adoptive parents have tried so hard to install in them!!

I agree with Hopgood that perhaps the one thing that truly could make a big difference – language fluency – is tricky at best. In that sense, adoptees share that piece with other ethnic groups raised outside the country or isolated communities where their language is the majority. But I know of no adoptive parents who decided to raise their adopted children in a Korea Town and send them to immersion schools with all Korean families. Only then perhaps would an adopted Korean child become fluent enough and inculturated enough that they could go to Korea and attempt to assimilate (but I doubt it, even then, they will still have an American accent).

Feeling good about yourself as a transracial/international adoptee can be easier when you're surrounded by others like you, and that is a benefit to these kids whose parents are involved in culture keeping. But it doesn't help them when they're at their majority white school and "friends" are telling racist jokes. It doesn't buffer them from having to shrug off teen idol Miley Cyrus when she pulls the chink-eye and offers a lame apology because all their white friends insist "she didn't really mean it" and they're just being "oversensitive."  It doesn't protect them from having to be reminded every time they look at a family/class/yearbook photograph that they're the only person of color in the picture. Or that books with Asian protagonists become made-over in Hollywood featuring all-white casts.

Culture keeping isn't going to help your child be able to integrate into their country of origin someday should they decide to go there, nor will it help them integrate into the [insert ethnicity]-American community either. Culture camps, art on the walls and folk tale books will never substitute for long-lasting, sustained relationships with the adoptee's ethnic community.

One of the comments on a forum I read regarding this article was from adoptive parent who was frustrated that, in her view, all the adoption articles people post on the forum are written by "unhappy" adoptees. Guess I should be happy that the a-p didn't say "angry" but I had to laugh because  Hopgood is far from being an "unhappy" adoptee. Hopgood's parents, according to her book "Lucky Girl" did a much better job of trying to instill cultural pride and knowledge than many adult adoptees I know. She actually advocates for a "rainbow" family at the end of the article
in a way that personally rubbed me the wrong way, and in her memoir,
writes about adopting some day. In fact, I would go as far as to say I disagree with her on some things because I feel she glosses over some aspects of international/transracial adoption. But I value her writing and her perspective anyway, because it adds to the whole dialog about transracial and international adoption. If Hopgood is lumped in as an "unhappy adoptee" in the minds of some adoptive parents, I shudder to think of what kind of discourse these parents will be willing to face in the future when it's their own children who are asking the questions and looking for answers.

I am so thankful that as an adult, I got over my fear of Koreans enough to ask them for help. Although there were those who rejected me because I wasn't "Korean" enough, I was fortunate enough to find some lovely people who helped me out a lot. I can guarantee that knowing how to fan dance or count to ten in hangul isn't worth a dime. Transracial and international adoptees will be better off understanding that they are a person of color living in a world that still discriminates based on race and ethnicity. And that is something that, unless the parent is also a person of color, they will not learn unless they have good mentors in their lives who will help guide them.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

14 thoughts

  1. I disagree with nothing you’ve said, and this is the first time I’ve posted about this article. What I keep thinking is why did THIS story get so much attention? Why is the warning all about not going too far? Certainly not because most parents do and actually need to be told to back off.
    Perhaps it is getting so much attention because it makes parents who are afraid they do too little (perhaps because they do too little) feel better about themselves.
    Just saying.

  2. I have talked with many adult Korean adoptees and all urged me to expose my adopted son to the Korean language. He is too young now for it to mean much, but I am attempting to help both my sons (eldest is bio) be able to read Hangul and speak at least a little Korean. We also make efforts with Spanish (and some other langauges I speak get some play, but they are not so important).
    I have no intention of pretending that I know more than I do or that Korean history and folk-ways are the same as Korean culture. We do have people in our lives who can better address our adopted son’s questions, when they come, than I ever can. And though he was adopted domestically, my husband will be able to share at least SOME feelings with our adopted son.
    I am curious how you feel about such efforts to maintain/learn some language skills? Obviously, fluency is something else entirely, but this is a struggle with any multi-lingual pursuit, and I’d like to at least open the door-way, as much as I can, for my sons to be able to read Hangul and speak Korean.
    As an aside: Our culture camp here is run by older Korean adoptees, not white APS, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to afford it. Given that my resources are limited, I want to give my efforts to what seems best over-all.
    Thank you for your open-ness.

  3. As an AP who is planning on starting all 3 of my kids in Vietnamese language lessons this Sunday, this article and post were timely… I haven’t been able to get it out of my head all day. I am a long time reader of HEart Mind and Seoul(and miss her!) and found you through her and have been reading you for quite a while, I am a mom 2 3 kids, 2 bio and one adopted. I hope it is ok for me to link back here…

  4. I think this is very different than the route I would recommend, and what I have chosen to do. Become a part of the society where you live of your daughters/sons culture
    AND send them to a multicultural school where being Asian is something to be proud of. I still see white parents, dressing up in Asian costumes trying to pass down traditional customs in a white environment. What needs to be is to have your children raised among other kids of his/her ethic groups. Yes the other Asian kids are eating with chopsticks, but while watching High School Musical and playing Nintendo or Wii. Adopted Asian kids are Asian American kids, and they need to grow up with other Asian American kids. If they have daily exposure to their “Americanized Asian” culture and other Asian people, then they will feel more comfortable in that arena when they grow up, and they won’t feel like a “fake” Asian. What it is not is sending your kid to an all white school and coming once a year to do a presentation on Chinese New Year. This DOES make your kid feel different. What it is NOT is sending them to a culture camp once a year. Let them go to a church where pot luck means Asian food (and occasionally hot dogs grilled and chips). Let them go to a school where everyone else has language classes on the weekend associated with their culture of origin: whether it be Greece or Korea or India or China. Let them hang out at houses of friends of their culture where they get a sense of the real culture of Asian American kids: not a fake culture that you attempt to provide in two weeks. Let them learn swimming from an Asian coach that all the other kids go to. Let them learn how to make traditional foods from their friends moms. In short, let them learn how to be Asian Americans and all that entails from other Asian Americans: not from you. You can’t do it. You are not Asian. You provide the transportation…

  5. Thanks J-R. I really liked the article and appreciate your thoughts. I definitely need to put “Lucky Girl” on my must-read list.
    As a TRA parent, I have found that it is necessary to be flexible, open-eyed and open-eared, that I can’t do everything but doing nothing is not an option either. There is no one-size solution for the multitude of identity issues created by inter-country, transracial adoption. Culture school is only a small piece of what should be a complex ever-evolving strategy and web of relationships.

  6. I (white adoptive parent) grew up in a very diverse environment and would find living in rural Minnesota very uncomfortable. We have experience with that part of the country.
    And I do think this should be a consideration for adoptees if this practice is to continue. I am not sure it should.
    My children have yet to attend a school that is majority white and usually attend schools that aren’t majority anything. I am convinced that has been good for them. I am not convinced that culture camps are worth the effort.
    Anyway, what I first take from that article is that a strong sense of self is what it is important. The journey to that is ultimately going to be up to them. They will never experience any doubt from me nor will they ever have to wonder if I care about what matters to them. I can’t teach them to be anything but good people.
    I have spent much of my parenthood in serious doubt as to whether I have any business being a father to my sons. That has been harder than I could ever say. But that is what it takes to find the humility to accept points of view that I cannot grasp.
    This doubt is what us parents need to be willing to experience. The rest will just work out if we are committed enough.

  7. Yondalla, I wondered the same thing.
    I struggle with the idea of trying a culture camp. One way in which I do think it could be valuable is it would provide my child with an opportunity to be “in the majority” as an Indian adoptee. He is certainly in the majority in school as a person of color, and he is certainly in the majority in our immediate an extended family as an Indian (by both numbers and by exposure, as we have a far closer relationship with my husband’s family than we do with mine), but he does not have many opportunities to be in the majority as an adoptee. As a matter of fact, I’m going to sidetrack and rant for a moment about having recently signed him up, along with several of his buddies who are also TRAs, to do Jane Brown’s Playshops but it was cancelled due to lack of interest. As we live in a community where approximately 15% of each class he’s been in from preschool on has been adoptees, it frustrates me to no end that the sponsoring group was unable to make their minimum to be able to bring the workshops to our area.
    Anyhow, I hesitate with the culture camp because I fear it will feel very contrived to all of us for some of the reasons you’ve discussed above. As my husband says, “Hey, he goes to culture camp every single time we have a family get-together – you’re going to have him do “Indian culture distilled?” And then I question whether some of my desire to do camp is about MY feelings of inadequacy, as a White, American-born mother, at being “culturally literate” enough to do right by him.
    This is a great analysis, Jae Ran.

  8. @M: I agree, but I would qualify this point: “If they have daily exposure to their “Americanized Asian” culture and other Asian people, then they will feel more comfortable in that arena when they grow up, and they won’t feel like a “fake” Asian.”
    I think the last part is too optimistic. Lots of non-adopted Asian-Americans feel like “fake” Asians and go through major identity crises.
    The big benefit of adoptees being around other Asian-Americans is not that they’ll be inoculated against identity issues… it’s that they’ll know other people who are going through some of the same things they’re going through. They’ll have a realistic portrayal of what it means to be an Asian-American, FOBs vs. twinkies, warts and all, not a demonized or idealized image. They’ll know that agonizing over things like language retention and food preparation isn’t freakish.
    I tried talking about this kind of stuff when I was more involved in general-purpose adoption internet communities, a few years back, but I got burned out really quickly. I noticed that when I gave advice as an adoptive parent, even just as a prospective one, people listened to me. When I gave advice as an Asian-American, they didn’t.

  9. “The big benefit of adoptees being around other Asian-Americans is not that they’ll be inoculated against identity issues… it’s that they’ll know other people who are going through some of the same things they’re going through. They’ll have a realistic portrayal of what it means to be an Asian-American, FOBs vs. twinkies, warts and all, not a demonized or idealized image. They’ll know that agonizing over things like language retention and food preparation isn’t freakish.”
    atlasien, that so nails it.

  10. From an Australian perspective, I think the ‘culture keeping’ stuff here may be helpful (mostly in the pre-teen years for adoptees) where APs attempts to ‘do’ all the food, dancing, dressing, shopping & language classes etc is combined and done in association with meaningful engagements with diasporas and transnational kin (bio-family in homeland). It’s a small step to countering assimilation and creating better representations about birth countries than ones that reproduce the notion that sending countries are simply sites of abject poverty, wars and disaster (not that we shouldn’t unpack the West’s hand in being responsible for such conditions in many sending countries).
    I fully agree that the ‘museum view of culture’ is just a drop in the identity ocean of what needs to be negotiated in the complex politics of difference and identity that transnationally and transracially adoptive families face. Mentorship and language, as Jae Ran importantly points out, is the most meaningful resource when adoptive families reconnect with birth families and begin regular contact.
    What is critically lacking in the scene however is APs commitment to unpack white privilege. It’s the (white) elephant in the living room. I could not agree more with Jae Ran’s statement: “Transracial and international adoptees will be better off understanding that they are a person of color living in a world that still discriminates based on race and ethnicity. And that is something that, unless the parent is also a person of color, they will not learn unless they have good mentors in their lives who will help guide them”.
    I would simply add that White adoptive parents need to societal racism as something they, as Whites, benefit from and must combat and challenge everyday. Thanks again Jae Ran Kim for sharing your article on Lucky Girl.

  11. atlasien and Jae Ran
    I would agree with the last comment, and that was more of what I was going for. What I have read about is not that people won’t have any identity issues at all, but they will share with others AND be comfortable around other Asians. My daughter feels totally comfortable hanging out with other Asian kids and adults whether born here or recently immigrated or whatever. We know adopted kids who are Asian who go to predominantly white schools who avoid and feel very uncomfortable around non adopted Asians (both adults and kids). I have also read of adults who have felt like this as college students/adults and avoided non adopted Asians and making their life very difficult. What I was/am striving for is for my daughter to feel comfortable as she does, and will share her struggles growing up as an Asian in a not predominantly Asian country. Even her non adopted Asian friends who go to predominantly white schools tend to worry more about what white people think than she does. I would also agree with atlasien in that i see this on my adoptive parenting list– that adoptive parents want to discount the value of the advice of the Asian parents on the list, even about culture, which I think is very unfortunate- because who knows better? I am choosing to learn a lot from my Asian friends. I believe that they can tell me best how to raise my Asian child. They also love my daughter, want what is best for her, and can serve as excellent role models so that she can see smart successful Asian women and college students around her all the time. She certainly won’t see this in the media. So, I will hope that both of you will continue giving advice for those of us who will listen, and not become to discouraged by those who won’t.

  12. Re Yondalla’s comment: I think you are probably right that a lot of parents aren’t doing “enough.” However, I thought the article was interesting b/c, as I understood it, Hopgood was suggesting that quality, not quantity, is the problem. In other words, the problem isn’t whether parents engage in enough activities, but rather what types of actions they take.
    By the way, this is a topic addressed in Anne Tyler’s novle _Digging to America_. In this book, I think Bitsy is the charicature the parenting style that Hopgood is critiquing.

  13. An interesting and excellent point, atlasien.
    Please don’t burn out completely. Somebody out there is bound to be listening. Maybe the influence is subtle, but that still helps.

  14. I liked this, thank you. I find people keep asking if we’re going to help our children keep their birth culture. Lately I’ve been responding with, “No, we can’t give them a culture that is not ours to share. All we can do is realize and support that they do have a culture separate from ours, the culture of mixed-race adoption specific to their birth country.”

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