Archive for July, 2010


Embracing Culture v. Appropriating Culture

Ever since I read Cheri Register’s Beyond Good Intentions last year, I’ve thought off and on about appropriating my child’s birth culture. It was the 10th “good intention” listed in the book and the one that’s the biggest struggle for me.

Since my husband and I have fallen in love with much about Korea (food, dramas, language), I’ve wondered where the line of appropriation is. I know that many people think we go too far, while we feel we’ve found the right balance for our family. After a recent conversation with an adult adoptee, I decided to look at the subject again.

I started this self-evaluation by looking at the definitions of embrace and appropriate. defines the words as follows:

embrace, v., “to take or receive gladly or eagerly; accept willingly.”

appropriate, v., “to take to or for oneself; take possession of.”

After looking at the definitions I felt better. While we incorporate a lot of Korean culture into our lives, I’ve never claimed the culture as mine. I don’t feel I’ve “taken possession” of the culture or taken it for myself. I don’t claim to be Korean American and after much reading, I don’t even refer to our family as a Korean American family anymore. We’re a transracial family that embraces and honors the Korean culture. Our son is Korean American; my husband and I are caucasian Americans who grew up in the South.

I feel that what we do is to “receive gladly” or “accept willingly” the place that Korean culture should have (and does have) in our family. As one friend described it, Korean culture was our son’s “birthright” that was taken from him through no fault or decision of his own. We’ve always thought that to embrace our son would mean embracing the culture that was his birthright. So we embrace the Korean culture and work to give our son a foundation of knowledge and understanding about it.

During this recent conversation I had, the adult adoptee said she wasn’t sure if her parents embracing her birth culture would have spurred an interest for her or felt fake because her parents weren’t of Korean heritage. My belief is that enjoying and embracing another culture isn’t “fake” just because you aren’t of that heritage. It would be fake if the interest weren’t genuine.

I truly believe that parents should begin embracing the birth culture even before the child comes home. I believe embracing and incorporating the birth culture into the family’s life is the responsibility of the parent. And that’s easy for us because we love it. But what if we didn’t love the culture? Up to now I’ve felt that even if the parents don’t love the culture they should embrace as much as they can for the sake of the child. But would “faking” an interest being better than ignoring the culture? Maybe not.

So where does that leave adoptive parents? Honestly, it should probably leave them doing more research on where they plan to adopt from before the official process starts. Did we do it that way? Nope, we didn’t. All I can say is that we were blessed to choose a country and culture that we could and did fall in love with. (Most of how we approached international/transracial adoption is not how I now think the process should work. But that’s a whole other post.)

Anyway, I do think there’s a fine line between embracing and appropriating when it comes to birth culture. And I think mostly that line revolves around attitude, as much if not more than what you do. After self-reflection I feel that we’re on the right path. In 10 or 20 years, I might look back and feel differently. Only time will tell.


Whitewashing in Religion and Books

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I find evidence that so many people still don’t understand race and subtle racism.

I teach a Sunday school class for little guys (preschool and elementary ages), and have recently been looking at different curriculum for the upcoming months. Most weeks in my class I don’t have even one caucasian student. I have Latino, biracial, African American, and Korean American. And do you know how hard it is to find a curriculum in which the ethnicities of these children are accurately represented? It’s practically impossible.

So often when I find “multicultural” teaching aids, they portray Asian children as wearing traditional Chinese and Japanese clothing and black children as wearing the outfits of native Africa. I realize that the companies are trying. But don’t they see that Asian children and black in America aren’t going to be dressing that way, at least not on an everyday basis? In fact, often natives of these countries no longer regularly dress in the traditional garb in which they are portrayed. People in Korea no longer wear hanbok every day, so portraying them in such a way shows a basic misunderstanding of other cultures.

Not to mention, if you’re religious, have you ever noticed how the people of the Bible are “whitewashed”? Of course, almost all societies tend to depict Jesus and other Bible characters as being of that ethnicity, so they are mostly portrayed as white in our country. But why can’t we just portray these historical figures as they probably looked? After all most of these men and women, including Jesus, were of Jewish lineage, and therefore probably resembled those from the Middle East.

Books are another area in which I’m struggling with race. I  have always loved to read. Now my son shares that love. Finding diverse picture books hasn’t been too big a  problem. Some, of course, are better illustrated than others with more realistic and respectful portrayals of  people of color.

But as we look for chapter books to begin to read to him, I realize how many are about caucasian characters. Almost all of the books considered classics portray the lives of white characters. If people of color are included, often they are portrayed in a derogatory way. Of course, many of these classics he’ll still read and we’ll discuss how people of color are thought of and portrayed. But I feel it’s a fine line to walk–exposing him to those truths without giving him reason to feel he or his ethnicity is inferior.

That’s why I feel it’s important to balance those classics with books featuring positive and realistic storylines about people of color. Yet, that’s easier said than done. In time he’ll read all of Linda Sue Park’s books, which all have a tie to Korea through Korean/Korean American characters and/or history. But that’s only a handful of books.

Then recently I discovered Laurence Yep. He’s written numerous books featuring characters of mostly Chinese heritage. So I’m excited to begin to explore Yep’s books and hopefully share them with our son someday. But as I was trying to learn more about Yep, I found this statement on Wikipedia:

Regardless of the ethnicity of his characters, Yep’s writing is for everyone.

That statement just really struck me. It almost seemed to discount Yep’s work in someway because his characters are primarily Asian. As if people of other ethnicities wouldn’t even consider reading a book about Asian children. And all I could think is how many children of color are required to read books primarily about whites and in some case featuring negative portrayals of their own ethnicities.

I realize that for me this is a recent understanding. I grew up going to church seeing “white Jesus” and never once questioned the image. And almost all of the books I loved as a kid had very little racial diversity in them. But still I wonder about why our country isn’t further along in this understanding? Why didn’t I, who was raised in a diverse area, question these things earlier? And why aren’t Christians further along in racial understanding, given that we’re commanded to love as God loves us? I don’t have the answers. But I’m hoping to be part of the change.


Why Wait?

The process of international adoption seems to just get longer. And during the process, the wait is excruciating. But you know, the wait provides some wonderful opportunities too–opportunities to begin learning about and embracing your child’s birth culture.

While you have to wait until you’re matched with your child to begin lifebooks and nursery decorating, birth culture education can start as soon as you’ve identified the country that you’ll be adopting from. And the sooner the better, I think.

Our birth culture education began about three weeks into our process. An emphasis was put on embracing and honoring our child’s birth culture during our parents-in-process class, and we took the message to heart. Within a couple of weeks, we’d located and eaten at a Korean restaurant and started calling around looking for Korean language classes in our area. About a month after our class ended, we’d found someone to begin teaching us Korean.

And while we didn’t waste any time learning about Korea and it’s language, I still wish we’d done more. realistically I tell myself that we probably did just about all we could during our embarassingly-short wait (six months from seeing our son’s photo and starting our homestudy to bringing him home). But I wish I’d known more Korean–songs and phrases that might have been comforting to our son. I wish I’d know about jook, the porridge-like soup that babies eat in Korea. I wish we’d made more connections with our local Korean community.

Many families today have two- to five-year processes to adopt internationally. It seems like the perfect time to begin learning about the birth culture; just think of how much a person can learn in that time period. During the wait you want something to occupy your time. Not to mention once you have an adjusting baby or toddler at home, your time to learn new things will be limited for a while.  

But if you’re diligent about embracing the birth culture from the start, the birth culture can already be a part of your family by the time the child comes home. Cooking food from that culture could be second nature; just a regular part of your family’s menu. Family members could be regularly using words and phrases from the birth culture’s language. You could be well-versed in the birth culture’s etiquette, history, and pop culture (if the country is more modern), giving your family and especially the child you’re bringing home a wonderful foundation in the birth culture. And you already have friends and connections within the ethnic community that your child will be a part of.

So with the majority of the adoptive parenting advice these days noting the importance of embracing the birth culture, why aren’t more families taking advantage of the time they have before their child comes home to delve in? My thought is that most families don’t because they still see the birth culture as something for the adopted child to embrace, but not something that should be of interest to the whole family.

Adoption parenting is complex (yes, I know all parenting is complex, but adoption parenting has extra layers), and embracing the birth culture is an important part of that complexity. When we bring an international adoptee into our families, the family unit becomes multicultural and transracial. I think showing that we love our children’s birth cultures (even if it means working to learn to the love it) and making those cultures part of our everyday family life helps give our children a much-needed foundation that they’ll be able to build on as they grow.

After all, even as Americans, our children’s ethnicity and birth culture will continue to be part of who they are.  So we, as parents, should be leading by example and making it OK for our kids to embrace that part of themselves. And in the process, we can have a lot of fun learning about a new culture.

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: It's filled with resources for adoptive families or anyone interested in Korean culture.

Favorite Korean Movies-TV Shows

Be Strong, Geum-Soon
Please Teach Me English
Spy Girl
Tae Gu Ki
2009 Lost Memories

Contact Me

2worlds1familyblog at gmail dot com

It’s a Small World After All