Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A meaningful experience

Do you think a transnational adoptee needs to acknowledge their birth culture?

Maybe this sounds like a ‘duh’ question, but I like thinking about these types of questions because they can be so easily taken for granted. I pose this question because, through the blogosphere and various media, I have noticed many APs or future APs eager to integrate their child’s birth culture into the child’s life as much as possible. I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing. I’m simply curious. What informs us that this is the ‘right’ thing to do? What is a parent’s best hope for their child in making that decision?

My mom started integrating Korea into my life seemingly from the start. We were attending a local adoption group before I was out of diapers. The group was open to any family with adopted children, but ended up largely composed of KADs. We had parties at holidays, celebrated the Lunar New Year and many of us went to culture camp together during the summers. For us kids, it was really just time to have fun with friends. Or, if I’m being very honest, it was time for us to all feel awkward together trying say words in Korean and do a fan dance. By the time I was in middle school, most of my ‘generation’ had dropped out of the group and I didn’t want to go anymore, but my mom kept dragging me until I was about 15. I think she had a harder time letting go of it than me. I really didn’t care anymore. A parent might see this adoption group as a positive thing, but from the adolescent’s perspective, I didn’t see the point (and I really didn’t enjoy how wearing hanboks further flattened my nonexistent chest). If my mom had shoved Korean culture down my throat every day, I think I would have become highly resentful.

Today I am very interested in my heritage, but when I look back, I have to wonder if my mom’s choices to keep me involved in the adoption community affected where I stand now. I’m not really sure that it does. I don’t think that integrating a child’s birth culture into their life is necessarily a predictor for how they will feel about that culture as an adult. And for those who don’t recognize their heritage, are they any worse off than someone like me? Does it matter? I know one other KAD who stayed in the adoption group as long as me and today she’s rather indifferent. She’s married with a family, teaching and comfortably settled in suburbia. She has a good life. Never been to Korea, no plans to go or search for birth family. Does she need some more Korea in her life? I know other KADs just doing their thing and I don’t see anything wrong with it. Maybe one day they will feel differently. Maybe they won’t. I think we have just as much a right to pursue our birth culture as we have a right not to.

At the end of the day, I think we’re all just trying to find some measure of acceptance. Of belonging. The activities I did in adoption group didn’t mean nearly as much as simply being with other Asian kids with white parents. As for playing yut, making mandu, knowing how to write my name in hangul.. Some KADs just don’t give a damn about those things and I say it’s okay! Exploring my Korean heritage is turning out to be meaningful for me, but I’m only speaking for me. Adoptees, like anyone else, all find their own paths to fulfillment.


  1. Here is my rambling answer (from an AP perspective)... Please keep in mind that my boy is still very very young. We go to events for adoptive families because *I* want to be around other families that are just like ours. I have made many friends through adoption and I hope to keep those friendships until all of our children are grown. I don't know if my son will ever care to have a lot of adoptee friends, but I think most of us like to at least know people who are similar to us.
    I will want him to go culture camp, because I want him to have the chance to be around other adoptees. Do I think culture camp will give him a sense of Korean culture? Ummm, no, I don't. Just like he won't get a sense of my native German culture by wearing Lederhosen and eating Bratwurst and speaking some of the language.
    I have absolutely no way of truling conveying Korean culture to him. We cook pseudo-Korean food, I go to a Korean grocery store, and we have some Korean items in our house. We also cook pseudo-Thai, pseudo-Greek, pseudo-French, have pewter Buddhas from Malaysia in our living room, and have friends from Ireland and Italy. I don't know Korea any better than any of those other countries.
    When he is a tad older, I do hope to be able to travel to Korea with him at least a few times because *I* want him to experience his birth country. I was born in a different country than I was raised in, and I was always expected to know all of these things about my birthcountry when I didn't even remember ever living there (I know that this is totally not the same thing as being adopted internationally). It was awesome for me to see my birthcountry! My son may or may not care about seeing his as often as I'd like him to, and once he is old enough to make that decision I will have to respect it. I just want to give him a good foundation in case he is interested in exploring his Korean heritage. It will be up to him how much or little he wants to explore. And I won't know if I did the right thing for my son until he is grown.

  2. I am a Korean Adoptee and at the end of elementary school, my parents found a local adoption group and we started attending that. I was the oldest child in the group and didn't have a great interest in going.

    The summer before 7th grade, we found out about Camp Moo Gung Hwa, a Korean culture camp in Raleigh, North Carolina and my family went as well as another family from the local group. I absolutely loved it. I started attending at a later age and began as a CIT so that may have influenced my perspective on the camp but each year I made the choice to go back. I met such great friends and really found a new "camp" family.

    Today, I am 22 years old an still very involved in the camp. It has become such an important part of my life and something I cherish. I am on the planning committee and assistant director because I feel that this is so important to the children and their families that I want to insure that this camp can and will continue.

    I know that some children come because they are forced to and others look forward to it each year. As children get older and reach that awkward stage in life, many stop coming to camp for a period of time around middle school. In the past few years, we've had many children start coming back once they reach high school or college age and they reconnect with old friends and continue to come regularly again.

    For me, I feel that my involvement in this camp has really helped me develop into the person that I am and has given me an opportunity to gain irreplaceable connections with other Korean adoptees.

  3. This is a really interesting post. Speaking as someone who's in the process of adopting, it's definitely a big part of our "adoption education" that it's important to integrate your child's birth country into their lives as much as possible. I think I read that part of this is the result of studies that have been done with KADs--we know a lot from and about them since the program is so old.

    I think of this sort of the way I do about religion. Our plan is to raise our child in our religious tradition, so he has a foundation for when he's older--he can choose then whether he wants to continue with it. But he'll have that foundation.

    I'd just like to do whatever I can to give my child some understanding and knowledge of the culture in which he was born. I can only hope that it will give him some very small sense of Korean identity. But what he does with that later in life is totally up to him. It's hard to imagine how it could hurt!

  4. I feel that with Korean Adoptees, that AP's should try to integrate it in their childs life, because that child didn't get the option to leave their culture behind, it was decided for them. This way, when they're older they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to acknowledge their birth culture or not.

  5. Wow, I'm so pleased by all these responses! I had hoped the questions would generate some discussion and reflection. It's good to hear adoptees and parents alike thinking critically and realistically. I think choice absolutely needs to be respected in this situation. Rachael's story definitely exemplifies how potentially fulfilling it can be to have that connection with birth culture (thank you for sharing, Rachael! I would love to get involved with a culture camp again if I ever live close enough to one).

    I know this is a very general response, but please know that I read each of these multiple times and appreciate everything that has been said!

  6. We have a 5-year-old adopted from Korea, and culture is big in our house. I hope it isn't seen as something we "cram" down his throat; that instead it's part of who we are as a family. We do feel it's important, because as Megan said, our son didn't have a choice in where he's growing up.

    Society sees our son as Korean American, and we're trying to give a sense of what that means. We try to be as authentic as we can be, given the fact that we, his parents, aren't Korean. More important than fan dances and learning to wear hanboks, we work to make connections within our local Koran American community. And I don't know if this makes it different or not (in my mind it does), but Korean culture is part of our daily lives as a family. For us it's not a once a year camp or even sporadic gatherings with other adoptive families. Whenever possible we're making connections. In addition, our whole family is learning the language. We all eat Korean food. When there is an event, we all go. We feel that when we chose to bring our son from Korea, we adopted the culture too.

    As for where this attitude about culture is coming from, it's my understanding that it's coming from adult adoptees, social workers, and therapists, who after years of saying assimiliation in transracial adoption is the way to go, have found that connections to cultures, languages, and others who look like the adoptee are vastly important and needed by many for healthy identity development.

    I have no idea how culture will be a part of our son's lives in future years. Right now he's very into his Koreanness. My hope is that he'll continue embracing that part of himself and he'll be able to feel comfortable and at ease with everything that he is: Korean, American, adoptee.

  7. Thank you for your comment, 2worlds1family. I think you 'hit it on the nose' in identifying a need to connect with a Korean American community. That is one thing I honestly wish I had had growing up. I think it would have greatly impacted my self image when I was younger.

  8. Yes, I think it's key and it's one of the hardest things to do. But everything I'm reading these days points to the connection with the ethnic community being extremely important. More imporant than culture camp/traditional clothing/ancient dances and just as important as knowing other adoptees. It's members of these ethnic communities who can really help adoptees as they process their identities.

    We've only been in the adoption community five years, yet it seems this message had gotten stronger during that time. That's one reason learning the language is so important to us. We think it's one of the best ways to show our commitment to becoming allies/friends/a part of the ethnic community our son is part of.