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. Dictionary.com 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.

3 Responses to “Embracing Culture v. Appropriating Culture”

  1. August 1, 2010 at 5:17 am

    I think both my argument and the post that I made following our discussion was more around the concept of “adoption”. I think it’s all good and well for APs to say that they’re interested in their child’s background, but where does that leave the child? When I looked up the definition of “adoption”, it said something like: “to take on as one’s own”. And that’s exactly what we adoptees do when we’re brought into countries other than those we were born from. If you’re incorporating it as a part of your lives, that’s great. But should you also be ADOPTING it, as we have for your culture?

    I dunno, I guess the above is a rhetorical question and doesn’t really require a solid answer. It just seemed an interesting topic to think about.

  2. November 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Interesting. I’m currently writing an article on appropriation vs embracing culture. Your views are similar to mine and I enjoyed your story. We all grow, learn and change… that includes our views on the world as a whole. I too think you are on the right path. We are all human and we should all share and experience different cultures. We should at the very least, be understanding of where a cultural tradition originated and be able to explain why we are taking part in that tradition. Peace and Love

  3. March 30, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Thank you for this post. As an adult Korean adoptee (who also studied and researched this issue in graduate school), it was wonderful to read this so clearly written from the adoptive parents’ perspective. As a child I struggled with accepting the Korean culture, but now as a parent, I am at a similar crossroads, and your post has helped me figure out how to approach culture with my child. Thank you again!

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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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