Culture Keeping

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that honoring our son’s Korean heritage is an important part of our family life. So for a while I’ve been wondering what Heather Jacobson found when she researched the culture keeping of Chinese and Russian adoptive families. She wrote about her findings in Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference. I found the results fascinating.

The book has six chapters covering how families choose a country when considering international adoption, the purpose behind culturing keeping, negotiating the differences within the family, handling being in the public eye, and her conclusion. I found chapter four, “Negotiating and Normalizing Difference,” to be the most fascinating since it really got the heart of feelings about race and culture.

Basically our family’s attitude about identity, race, and culture didn’t fit with either the Chinese group of adoptive families or the Russian ones.

What Jacobson found was that most families in the Chinese group practiced culture keeping but largely “did” culture through consumerism and group activities with other families that had adopted children from China. This group saw their children’s activities and identities as either American (sports, things that fit in with society) or Chinese (like Chinese school, learning Chinese dances, etc.); few saw their children as Chinese Americans. The families had little, if any, contact with the Chinese American community and when sought the mothers tended to prefer interacting with recent immigrants who they viewed as “more Chinese” but largely saw such interaction as resources, not friends. Jacobson found that the Chinese families didn’t live in diverse areas and their inner circles were very diverse. The mothers largely saw culture keeping as a way of building their children’s self-esteem as a person of color without having to discuss or deal with race.

The Russian group largely didn’t “do” culture. Those who did already celebrated the heritage of the family (such as Irish or Czech) and simply added Russian heritage to the mix. When culture was done, it was done at home as a family, not usually with groups of other Russian adoptive families. Race, of course, didn’t play a large part in the lives of the Russian families since the children mostly were able to blend and share in the privilege of being the majority race in America. Many of the Russian mothers went out of their way to avoid the mention of race. One even went so far as to mention “transcultural” adoption when talking about “transracial” adoption, not realizing that she was actually part of a “transcultural adoption” since her son was born in Russia.

Both groups talked about being aware and leery of doing things that make their children feel different.

In fact one of the Russian adoptive moms was “baffled by the ‘extreme’ culture keeping of friends with children from Korea. She thought her friends were ‘obsessed’ with Korean culture keeping because ‘they’ve gone to the Korean church’ and ‘they went and learned Korean.’ She was ‘bewildered by the fact that her friends ‘completely’ changed decor of their house to a Korean-style theme. She thought a more appropriate approach would have been to limit the Korean decorations to the child’s room.”

As I read that, especially the last sentence, I was amazed. Wouldn’t singling out the adopted child by having only the adopted family member practice and learn about Korean culture do more to make the child feel different and separate from the family? That’s what we’ve always felt.

I found it fascinating how really most of culture keeping or lack thereof came down to race. The Chinese families felt it necessary because their adoptions were obvious and there are certain expectations to be met (knowing how to use chop sticks, speaking Chinese). Russian families felt it wasn’t as necessary because their children blend in.

In her conclusion, Jacobson writes:

“Whiteness and white privilege both give structure to race in the United States and are invisible to those who benefit. Whiteness became visible to the mothers in my study when they adopted across ethnicity and kinship. Through adopting internationally, these women because consciously ‘raced’–consciously white–even as their families lost biological white privilege. This increased visibility, however, created an anxiety centering on that lost privilege. This anxiety was displayed in a focus on finding a ‘correct’ balance between emphasizing birth culture and (adoptive) family, between ‘American-ness’ and ‘Chinese-ness’ or ‘Russian-ness,’ and between whiteness cast as normalcy and culture cast as difference.”

This last sentence defines the difference between our family and the families in the study (and possibly most of the transracial, transnational adoptive families out there). Our son’s birth culture is now part of our family; our son is Korean American in everything he does because that’s his whole identity; and the fact that I feel he views white as normal scares me and shows me the need for more diversity in our lives.

The fact that we don’t want our son growing up feeling “white is right” makes us want to form meaning, close relationships with people of the Korean American community and members of other ethnic groups as well. And I don’t feel that I can learn all I need to know about how to parent a child of color from my white fellow adoptive parents (which was how most of the Chinese adoptive moms felt).

In the past, I’ve envied Chinese adoptive families because they seem to have such a focus on culture that I don’t see in the Korean adoptive family community. While our family and we as parents are far from perfect, this book showed me that I’d rather stick with my views and try to achieve the life we feel us best for our family, even if it puts me outside the “norm” when it comes to views on cultural keeping.

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My Korean Culture Blog

Just a reminder that if you want to learn more about Korean culture (both traditional and pop culture), language resources, and cooking, check out my other blog: thekoreanway.wordpress.com It's filled with resources for adoptive families or anyone interested in Korean culture.

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