- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

When the Chinese New Year falls each winter, Kris Rose plans lots of activities for her 5-year-old daughter, Olivia.The two usually attend a party with a big Chinese dinner and Chinese dancing. Ms. Rose, of Reston, goes to Olivia’s school and leads a presentation that features a story and traditional “lucky envelopes” with a few coins or pieces of candy inside.

For mother and daughter, celebrating Chinese culture is a learning process, as Ms. Rose is not Chinese. Her daughter is, though. Olivia was born in China and adopted as an infant in 1999.

So, mixed in with Olivia’s all-American life in the Washington suburbs is an education about the culture, people and traditions of her native country.

It is a process that is an important component of raising a confident adopted child, says Dr. Jane Aronson, a New York pediatrician who specializes in international adoption. Whether it is through language lessons, international travel, culture school or simple friendships, cultural connections are necessary, Dr. Aronson says.

It is also a growing interest as one child in six in America is being raised in a household headed by a parent of a different race, according to the 2000 Census.

“It is essential,” says Dr. Aronson, who is also the mother of two boys adopted from Vietnam and Ethiopia. “There are no two ways about it. This is who the child is. If you try to hide it, it will be a big mistake.”

Bringing Chinese culture home with her child was something Ms. Rose, a Justice Department employee, says she expected to do. She just didn’t realize how important it would be in her life.

“When you adopt from China, you have to sign a pledge to keep the traditions alive and make sure your child is aware of her Chinese heritage,” Ms. Rose says. “These days I make a bigger deal about Chinese New Year than many Chinese families I know.”

Ms. Rose and Olivia are also very involved with Families With Children From China, a support and heritage group with a large Washington-area chapter. The two have befriended several other families with Chinese daughters. In fact, they still regularly see members of the group that traveled to China together five years ago.

“The thing we didn’t expect is how strongly we would bond,” Ms. Rose said as she hosted Jon and Betsy Leonard and daughter Abbie of Oak Park, Ill., and Regina Maier and daughter Anna of New Carrollton in her home for a recent adoption-trip reunion.

American culture does not have to replace the traditions of the birth country, nor should Chinese culture, for instance, erase the fact that the child is being raised in an American family, Dr. Aronson says.

Families should find a way to weave both cultures into their lives, she says.

“They need to face their heritage and figure out where that fits in the scheme of things,” Dr. Aronson says. “You can be Korean and still live in the suburbs and get bar mitzvahed. But you need to respect the culture” of the birth country.

Why it’s important

Making a connection to their international culture will help adopted children develop into confident adults, Dr. Aronson says.

At age 4 or 5, most international adoptees look at “their story” with pride, she says. They have heard it hundreds of times — how the parents took a plane, came to the orphanage and took them home.

However, by the time they are school age, they see themselves in the real world, wondering why they were adopted, what happened to the first family and whether the same thing will happen with the current family, Dr. Aronson says.

“If parents are talking about this and dealing with it, then the children won’t become depressed about it,” Dr. Aronson says. She points out the experience of many Korean children who were adopted by American families in the 1950s and 1960s. Their home country culture was not part of their lives, which caused many of them to have an identity crisis, Dr. Aronson says.

By their teens, many adoptees may have a desire to visit their native country to see where they came from, what life was like and fill in the blanks that might be missing in their story. Many groups offer heritage tours for that reason.

Chris Winston, founder of the Korean American Adoptee/Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), a California-based support group, leads a tour to Korea nearly every year. Mrs. Winston and her husband, Mark, have three children, two of whom were adopted from Korea.

“The connection to history they get on a tour is a big deal,” says Mrs. Winston, who lives in El Dorado Hills, Calif. “We started traveling initially because the adoption story seemed frozen in time for a lot of people. They may just have pictures of the orphanage and the way it was.”

Mrs. Winston’s adopted children are 17 and 20. Incorporating and understanding Korean culture and its place in their family’s life has been an evolving process, she says.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Mrs. Winston says. “No matter how much you learn about a country, it takes years to acquire cultural sensitivity.”

The Winstons had a bigger challenge in that their son, David, 20, came to them when he was 6. Mrs. Winston remembers approaching the Korean woman who owned the local dry cleaning shop to ask if the woman would help keep cultural traditions and language alive for her son. After some hesitation — the woman did not want to be just a translator — she agreed.

“You find people wherever you can,” Mrs. Winston says. “The impact of when they were in your life is not lost.”

In the years since, all three of Mrs. Winston’s children have attended Korean culture school one afternoon a week through age 13, as well as summer culture camp. She has encouraged friendships with other adopted children as well as children and parents from Korean-American families. She started KAAN as a way to connect people with other Korean adoptees and their adoptive families across the country.

However, there still are challenges, Mrs. Winston says. Her son David struggles with not quite blending into either the white community or the Asian community.

“David has said he can’t blend in [with Koreans] because of us,” Mrs. Winston says.

It also takes time, particularly as the teen years approach, to understand who is really a friend and whether you have more in common than heritage, Mrs. Winston says.

“At first those friendships can be sort of unnatural, but then they sort through it,” she says. “They figure out that the connection is not just Korea, it is other things.”

Culture every day

Adoptee Abbie Leonard has had Chinese all around her during her five years, says her father, Jon Leonard. She takes language and dance classes and has Chinese friends in her daily life.

“We moved to Oak Park because there was such an active group of Families With Children From China,” says Mr. Leonard, a teacher of English as a second language. “It was important for us to live in a community that was diverse.

“We have tried to make China more meaningful than decorating with Chinese things. There are ways to give children opportunities to be like everyone else and also to see how you are different. Right now, she is in a day care with seven kids who are adopted from China.”

The Leonards say they feel they are doing the best they can right now.

“It is a challenge because we do not live in a predominately Chinese community,” Mrs. Leonard says. “We are never going to have a bilingual household.”

They hope Abbie will acquire some adult role models along the way, Mrs. Leonard says. Exposure to adults of Chinese background in her culture and language classes is key, Mr. Leonard says.

Jane Brown, a social worker who specializes in international adoption, agrees.

“Adoptive families need to find people of color as role models,” Ms. Brown says.

Ms. Brown and her husband have eight children, five of whom are adopted from Asia. She is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is the founder of Adoption Playshops, which are workshops for adoptees, their families and teachers.

“Oftentimes, people get together with other children,” Ms. Brown says. That is not really being exposed to the culture. The children also need to be around adults. It is different to break bread with a Chinese-American family than it is to go to a Chinese restaurant.”

Ms. Maier says living in New Carrollton gives her daughter Anna, 5, exposure to lots of Asian adults. Coincidentally, the dry cleaner, the dentist and Anna’s pediatrician are Asian.

Eventually, mother and daughter might take language classes together, Ms. Maier says. So far, Ms. Maier has kept cultural immersion simple and low-key.

“I don’t want to force it,” she says.

Living in a diverse area such as Washington is a bonus for international adoptees and their families. Opportunities abound to meet others who hail from the same countries.

“I believe it is unfair to raise adopted children in a strictly white environment,” says Ms. Brown, the social worker. “In a diverse place, families can really connect with families who share the same ethnicity. Not being the only child of color is a good thing.”

Mark Otto and Sydney Jacobs, whose children, Quilla, 13, and Kory, 10, come from Bolivia, agree. There are Latin American immigrant families all over the Adelphi neighborhood in which they live.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the children’s best friends are Spanish-speaking, Ms. Jacobs says.

Some of the best relationships have come from the family’s involvement in the Latin American Parents Association of the National Capital Region, an area support group that includes parents who have adopted children from Latin America.

Ms. Jacobs helps run the group’s annual Mis Amigos Culture Camp, in which children adopted from Latin America spend a week producing art, playing music and exploring other areas of Latin American culture.

“It’s a really fun camp,” Quilla says. “It’s cool because a whole bunch of kids you know there are adopted. I think I have learned a lot.”

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “ARE THOSE KIDS YOURS? AMERICAN FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN ADOPTED FROM OTHER COUNTRIES,” BY CHERI REGISTER, FREE PRESS, 1990. THE AUTHOR, MOTHER OF TWO KOREAN-BORN DAUGHTERS, WRITES ABOUT WHAT FAMILIES WITH FOREIGN-BORN CHILDREN CAN EXPECT AS THEY GROW.

• “INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION FROM CHINA: EXAMINING CULTURAL HERITAGE AND OTHER POSTADOPTION ISSUES,” BY JAY ROJEWSKI AND JACY ROJEWSKI, BERGIN AND GARVEY, 2001. THIS BOOK, WRITTEN BY A COUPLE WITH TWO ASIAN DAUGHTERS, COVERS ISSUES INTERNATIONAL ADOPTEES FACE AND HOW FAMILIES CAN INCORPORATE BIRTH-COUNTRY CULTURE INTO THEIR LIVES.

ASSOCIATIONS —

• FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN FROM CHINA HAS AN ACTIVE GROUP IN THE WASHINGTON AREA. THE GROUP SEEKS TO EDUCATE CHINESE CHILDREN AND THEIR AMERICAN FAMILIES ABOUT CHINESE CULTURE, LANGUAGE AND SOCIETY. THERE ARE PLAY GROUPS, HOLIDAY GATHERINGS, A NEWSLETTER AND A GUIDE TO OTHER AREA RESOURCES. INFORMATION: WWW.FCCCAPITAL.ORG.

• FAMILIES FOR RUSSIAN AND UKRAINE ADOPTION IS A NATIONAL SUPPORT NETWORK FOR FAMILIES WHO HAVE ADOPTED FROM THAT AREA. IT HAS MANY RESOURCES FOR FAMILIES IN ALL STAGES OF THE ADOPTION PROCESS, INCLUDING THOSE SEEKING TO KEEP TRADITIONS ALIVE. INFORMATION: WWW.FRUA.ORG.

• THE LATIN AMERICAN PARENTS ASSOCIATION IS A GROUP FOR FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN FROM MEXICO, SOUTH AMERICA AND CENTRAL AMERICA. THE GROUP HAS MANY ACTIVITIES IN THE WASHINGTON AREA, INCLUDING AN ANNUAL WEEKLONG CULTURE CAMP. INFORMATION: WWW.LAPA-NCR.ORG.

• THE KOREAN AMERICAN ADOPTEE/ADOPTIVE FAMILY NETWORK IS A NATIONAL NETWORK OF ADOPTEES AND ADOPTIVE FAMILIES. IT PROMOTES CULTURAL AWARENESS AND HOLDS AN ANNUAL CONFERENCE. INFORMATION: WWW.KAANET.COM.

ONLINE

• ADOPT SHOPPE (WWW.ADOPTSHOPPE.COM) HAS MANY ADOPTION GIFTS FOR SALE, SUCH AS SCRAPBOOKS, JEWELRY AND CULTURAL HERITAGE ITEMS.

• MULTICULTURAL KIDS (WWW.MULTICULTURALKIDS.COM) IS A COMMERCIAL SITE OFFERING VIDEOS, BOOKS, MUSIC, DOLLS, ART PROJECTS AND OTHER PRODUCTS TO REFLECT CULTURAL HERITAGE.

• THE WEB SITE OF ADOPTIVE FAMILIES MAGAZINE (WWW.ADOPTIVEFAMILIES.COM) HAS MANY ARTICLES AND RESOURCES OF INTEREST TO FAMILIES OF INTERNATIONAL ADOPTEES.

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