Archive for the 'adoption attitudes' Category


Elf–An Adoption Story

Given that the Christmas season is wrapping up, the story of Buddy the Elf is fresh on my mind. I’m sure most of you have seen the movie, Elf, and know the story of the Buddy, a human, who is adopted by one of Santa’s elves.

Recently we were visiting with family friends and started talking about the movie. “It’s so ridiculous,” my friend said, “that it’s funny.” I have to admit that I bristled a little at the comment. Sure there are totally ridiculous parts–like Buddy eating spaghetti with syrup and various candy mixed in. But the story of Buddy is a dear on for me because I see so much of my son’s adoption story in Buddy’s story.

So what do J and Buddy have in common. Here’s a list:

  • J is growing up in a culture completely different from the one into which he was born.
  • Because of that, in many ways he’ll be more comfortable in his adopted culture, but will likely not complete fit in.
  • Parts of Buddy’s birth family history are similar to those of J’s birth family too.
  • J is totally interested in exploring his birth culture and finding his birth family.

From my perspective so much of Buddy’s story is far from ridiculous. It rings true. And I hope the ending someday rings for our family too. Because in the end, Buddy is accepted, has close relationships with, and spend times with both of his families. How wonderful that would be!


Loving Where We Are

This time six years ago we were about six weeks into our adoption journey. We started this journey with me thinking that we were entering a community of cohesiveness–where all families embraced culture, talked about race, and learned the languages of their children’s birth. Naive, wasn’t I? At six weeks in, I was beginning to realize that the adoption community didn’t all think like I did, but I didn’t yet realize what a misfit I would really be in this community.

For five years I fought trying to find a place in the adoption world. A place were we felt accepted, understood, encouraged, supported. I tried to convince other parents that they needed to be doing more when it came to culture, race, and language. I did this not only because it was truly what I believed but also because I wanted to be a part of the community. But it didn’t work and in the end our community has come from a very different place.

Many things have changed in the last year and some of those changes I would never have anticipated. The biggest change for me has been a change in attitude. Over the course of the last year, I’ve become less involved in online adoption communities and no longer lament my lack of acceptance. But it is only recently that I’ve realized just how much my attitude has changed. I truly no longer care what others think. I don’t feel the need to spend time trying to convince people about adoption-related parenting. I’m still happy to encourage and help those who are interested but I’d rather spend my time doing for my family and friends instead of trying to make headway into a community where I obviously don’t fit. I attribute this change in attitude to five things.

1. My age. I’m now over 40 and feel that the journey I’ve been on since I became a mother has really allowed me to accept who I am and what I believe and value. With maturity comes wisdom, and I feel that’s what I’ve experienced in the last year. I’m completely comfortable with how we’re parenting and feel that we truly are doing what’s best for J.

2. Experience. As our son gets older, we are beginning to see more what he needs and wants when it comes to his birth culture and in the last year, he’s wanted more. I guess it’s kind of a chicken-egg situation: which came first? I don’t know whether he wants more exposure because it’s who he is inside or because of the experiences we’ve given him. I suspect it’s probably a little of both. But whatever the reason, our parenting style seems to working for J. He loves his Koreaness and is comfortable talking about adoption with us. He’s already processing things and seems to be working through them so he’s in a good place.

3. Friends. In the last year, we’ve developed a close friendship with one adoptive family. They too embrace the culture and are learning the language as a family. I’ve discovered that one close friend who understands and values the same things we do is more important for me than the general acceptance of the larger community. (Of course, through online communities we’ve made a few friends across the country who are like us and I’m very thankful for Facebook and e-mail so we can be a part of each others’ lives.)

4. Community. In the last year, we’ve found our community. It wasn’t the local adoption community but instead is the local Korean American community. The more people in the community learn about us and our feelings about J’s birth culture, the more we’ve found acceptance. We’ve made true friendships, and being a part of this community has made a huge difference in how J sees himself. He’s one of the top students in his Korean school class, which surprised his teacher since he has caucasian parents. They’ve seen that our commitment is deep and true; we want to be a part of this community not just have the community be a resource for us.

5. Validation. Everyone needs some validation; it’s just part of the human experience. But what I’ve discovered in the last year is that validation from people I respect means more than acceptance from those I was trying to convince. In the last nine months of so, we’ve made a couple of connections with families in Korea. Our lifestyle–embracing the Korean culture and language–played a big part in our hosting a Korean exchange student. The student’s family felt that the connection to Korean culture would be important during a year abroad and resulted in the student being placed with our family. Then my short stint returning to the work force also resulted in getting to another Korean family. As we talked this coworker was surprised at our knowledge and love for the culture but that surprise led to a respect for what we are doing. We didn’t decide to live this life or parent this way to gain the respect and validation of others; we did it because we feel it was best for J. But it has been nice to have our decision respected by those in J’s birth country.

That fact is I’m really loving where we are as a family in our adoption journey. Some parts have been a long time coming. But we plugged along even when we felt alone, laying the foundation on which to build. Now we’re building on that foundation. I’m so thankful we didn’t give up. The next year promises more changes, likely including a move. My prayer is that even in a new place we’ll be able to continue building on that foundation adding friends and community as we go.


Who Do You Think You Are?

So lately I’ve been following a thread on a discussion board titled “When adoptive parenting becomes psychological abuse,” which is a discussion of a blog post written by Third Mom. You can read her original post here: Some of these discussion thread responses prompted my Doing Culture posts last week. Then last night another concept came up–about what really contributes to who we are–which was something I’d already been thinking about for months.

The concept that was introduced was this: that who we are inside is a result of where we grow up, regardless of where we were born. While I agree with some of what this parent says about our children–that they can overcome the hurts of the past–I disagree with the main premise of the argument, and not just for adoptees. [An aside here in case you go read the post. This parent also says that at some point our children should be taught to not dwell on the past (which I agree with) but instead to be “thankful for the life that they have” and look to the future and what it holds for them. While I want my son to be thankful for all GOD has given him, I’ll never teach him that he has to be thankful for me and the life we’ve given him. That life came with a lot of loss and however he chooses to feel about it is OK. Likely his whole life will be a mixture of gratitude for what he has, sorrow for what he lost, and questions about what might have been.]

This statement that it’s where you grow up that makes you who you are made me think of the show on TV right now “Who Do You Think You Are?”, in which celebrities delve into their genealogy and the various family lines. During the intro the narrator says, “You can’t really know who you are, if not you don’t know where you came from.” I’m attracted to this show for so many reasons. I’ve loved genealogy for years and I’m fascinated by the historical context of the show.

But something strikes me in almost every episode. In each one of these episodes the celebrities feel they are changed by what they find out. Most have feelings or interests or personality traits verified for them. This show isn’t about where they grew up, but the DNA that is part of them. It’s about the lineage that is part of making them who they are.

I once saw an interview with Chris Rock, the comedian, after he’d done a similar search on a PBS show called “African American Lives.” Rock found out that his ancestors before Civil Rights included a state legislator, land owners, and a Civil War soldier. Rock said he felt that if he’d known that while he was growing up, it would have changed what he thought about himself and what he felt he could accomplish.

The place where Rock grew up left him feeling that he had little options for success. But his lineage showed him the strength and perseverance that populated his family tree and helped him understand himself better.

To me that emphasized that where we are born and the family we’re born into makes a huge impact on who were are. As I’ve watched our son grown, I’ve determined that neither nature or nurture is more important–instead they are equally a part of who our son is.

He’s very interested in Korea. Is that only because we’ve exposed him to it? Or is it because that’s part of who he is and we’ve nurtured that part of him? I’ll never know for sure. But I do know that for our son, being Korean is already a big part of who he thinks he is.

Watching “Who Do You Think You Are?” also makes me sad. Most adoptees will never have the information needed to pursue these types of searches into their biological families. Given that we have some contact with our son’s birth family, maybe he’ll have some of those opportunities in the future but right now I can’t give him specifics about his birth lineage.

Instead what I can give him is general information. I can help him know what it means to be Korean–to know things almost every Korean knows (songs, language, culture, food, customs), and to have role models who have walked the path before him and can help guide him as he figures out what it means to be Korean-American.

Ultimately it’s not my choice to decide who our son is and what’s important to him. But I honestly feel that for him to make informed decisions along those lines as he grows, he must have some knowledge of where he comes from. Only when he knows everything that he is can he truly know and embrace his past, present, and future.


Doing Culture, Part 3: What Does It Mean to be Korean American?

Following up on the post about doing culture, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning over the last year. A couple of comments I’ve heard recently have been along these lines: You as caucasian American parents can’t really give back to your child the culture he’s lost, right? And he won’t really be seen as Korean anyway since he has white parents, right?

Well, yes and no to both questions. It’s true that I’ll never be able to give back to J all of what he lost when he joined our family. He will never know what it feels like to grow up with parents who look like him. He’ll likely never know the depth of his Korean lineage (although we’re in contact with some members of his birth family so he might learn parts someday). He won’t experience growing up in a Korean or even a fully Korean-American household. But what I can do is give him back what I can. I can have him learn the language and learn it with him. I can learn, teach, and find others to help us understand the customs that all Koreans know. We can explore the country’s history together; celebrate its holidays; and delve into its modern culture.

Which leads into the second question: So what? Real Koreans won’t see him as Korean anyway so why put out all that effort. This argument is a fairly new one to me, but looking back I can see that it has probably been the attitude of some Korean Americans we’ve met. As we’ve interacted with local Korean American community over the years, surprise would describe the initial reaction we got from many. Surprise that we know some words and phrases. Surprise that we like Korean food. Surprise that we know the dramas, music, musicians, actors, and actresses. And that surprise isn’t just that my husband and I know these things, but also that J knows them. They likely didn’t see him as Korean; at least, not initially.

That’s where I think that we as parents can have so much impact. It’s true that people don’t expect J to know Korean things since he has white parents. But once they realize that he does know, they look at our family differently and I believe they view him differently. In the last six months, we’ve encountered three different Korean American families who initially treated us only with indifference. Even in situations where we were in close physical proximity, eye contact was avoided as if to say we weren’t really there. Then at different times we’ve run into these families at places they probably didn’t expect us to be: Korean school and a local Korean restaurant. Immediately that attitude of indifference changed and in all three cases the families at least said “hi” to us and in one case we had a whole conversation.

Will J ever be a Korean Korean (meaning someone who grew up in the Korean culture in Korea)? Of course not. But our Korean American friends’ kids aren’t that either. Even with parents of Korean descent, these kids are definitely American and noted as such when they visit South Korea (including the ones that are fluent in the language, although some of J’s friends with Korean American parents speak less Korean than he does).

I believe with all my heart that we as adoptive parents put out the effort to embrace, learn, and teach the birth cultures of our children that they can be seen as “Korean” by others of that ethnicity (or Chinese or Ethiopian or whatever). It won’t be as if they never left that country, but they can have much of the same knowledge that others do. But to do that we can’t see our children as “just American.”

Over the course of the last year, we’ve really started to find our way in the local Korean American community. This is probably the most important step in J being seen as “Korean” because he’s learning from others of Korean descent not just us who are admittedly learning as we go. It’s taken us five years but we’re now finding a community that is all that I’d hoped it would be. And you know the most important thing I’ve learned from this community we’re becoming a part of: it’s that there is no “one way” to be a Korean American.

No two people we’ve become friends with have the same story. We have Korean American friends born to Korean American parents in the town where we live and have never been to Korea. These friends don’t have Korean names and knew little of the culture or langauge growing up but have embraced it as adults and are teaching their children about it now. We have Korean American friends who immigrated here as adults and still cook Korean food every day at home. Some of these families have children who were born here that love Korean food and culture, while some of the children think of themselves as fully American. We know mixed-race Korean Americans and Korean Americans who are adoptees.

And I love that our son is seeing that there isn’t one definition of what it means to be Korean American. “Being Korean” can and does mean many different things–and none of them are right or wrong. Some may think that’s the best reason to wait and see what our child’s interest is in his birth culture. I say it’s the best reason to begin building a foundation of knowledge that will allow J as he grows to make his own definition of what “being Korean” means to him.


Doing Culture, Part 2

In direct answer to the questions I’ve been hearing about embracing birth culture, and which I posed in the previous post, I would say this.

Why do it? Because this heritage is part of who your kid is and giving up that heritage wasn’t something they chose to do. Of course, our son is being raised in America but he will likely always been seen as a “hyphenated” American. They deserve to know what the first part of that hyphen means. There is a cultural commonality among ethnicities and our kids deserve to have some idea what those commonalities are. Another “why” is because it’s a way of showing your child that you embrace “all” of who they are. I’ve heard adoptees say that when their adoptive parents are critical or negative about their birth culture, or even indifferent, the adoptee feels like a part of them is being rejected.

Is it really important? For some kids, it might not be important. But it seems likes the majority of adoptees who are speaking out have expressed the need to have some connection to their birth culture and that ethnic community. It helps them as they process who they are and where they fit in the world.

When do you start? I would like to say it’s never too late, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think the early the better because then these things become a part of who your family is, instead of something new and awkward you’re trying to make work.

What do you do? Start with what your family is interested in. Do you love music? Find music from that culture that you love. Is art your thing? Then begin learning about art from that country. And I think language is very important as it is one of the biggest separators for adoptees.

When do you let your child take the lead? I think it’s a balance. As the parent, you may have a better sense of what’s going to be important down the line, meaning that you might insist on continuing something that your child wants to quit. I think many adoptive parents feel uncomfortable doing this, but we do it in many other areas of our children’s lives. Would our kids keep going to school if we didn’t make them? Or what about playing an instrument? In some things it’s fine to let your child take the lead, but I don’t think parents should shy away from saying that some things are nonnegotiable. (Yes, I’m sure that parents of teens are laughing at the wisdom of the parent of a 6-year-old. Admittedly we haven’t crossed this bridge yet but this is what I think right now.)

How much is too much? Until a couple of days I would have said that there’s no such thing, given that our kids are growing up in America. But I’ve changed my mind. I think it would be too much if you, as the parent, insisted that everything your child does or is interested in is related to his/her birth culture. (I’ve been accused of this based on this blog but remember this blog only deals with our adoption journey, not our whole lives.) Your child doesn’t have to do a presentation on his birth culture every time there is an international day or food festival at school. Every book he reads doesn’t have to be about that country. It’s OK for our kids to have other interests and activities. Embracing culture doesn’t mean that every aspect of their lives revolves around that culture; it means that you’re making that culture a part of your family’s daily life in loving and respectful ways that will help your child figure out who he is as he grows.

But my child doesn’t want to be seen as different? What I’m about to say next is perhaps the most important thing when it comes to embracing birth culture. DO IT AS A FAMILY! This, I believe, is the best way to keep your child from feeling different or singled out. Learning Korean culture, customs, and language bring our family together. They are things we share and quiz each other about at the dinner table. Even when our son attends Korean school by himself, which is something we try to avoid, we all learn from his homework. Our son is the only person of Korean descent in our family, but embracing Korean culture doesn’t separate him or make him different.

People think our family is “hard core” when it comes to embracing Korean culture and it must be a lot of work. But honestly, it’s not. It’s about consistency and building on the things we learn. I’d like to be further along with our language learning and hope to step that up in the near future. But mostly we’re doing things we love to do as a family–listening to music, watching TV, eating yummy food–all while learning about an important part of our son’s heritage.


Doing Culture (Part 1); Nah, Just Living Our Lives

So many recent discussions (with friends and on boards I read) has gotten me thinking about embracing birth culture. The questions I’ve been hearing are: Why do it? Is it really important? How much is too much? When do you start? When do you let your child take the lead?

I must admit I find the discussions fascinating. Of course, if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know my feelings on birth culture. But I was struck recently by the term “doing culture” because while our family embraces as much of the Korean culture as we can, I don’t think of it as “doing culture.” I think of it as being “us.” We’re just doing the things that make us a family.

And I feel that many adoptive parents have gotten the wrong idea of what it means to embrace the child’s birth culture. That it has to be BIG things and in the company of many other adoptive families. It means attending festivals and camps, right? Eating out at Korean (or other cultural) restaurants now and then. Well, all of those things can be part of embracing a child’s birth culture. But where does that leave you if your budget is tight or your child is too busy pursuing other interests to attend camps and festivals?

For us embracing the culture is mostly closer to home and more intimate. Some part of the Korean culture touches our lives every day through language, food, entertainment, or friendships. It’s not usually all of those things every day, but sometimes it is. We typically celebrate Korean holidays as a family, just as we do American holidays, and in the same spirit and tradition that they are celebrated in Korea. And weekly J is learning the customs of Korea that will be important for him to know as he grows.

Then there’s taekwondo for J four to five times a week and Korean school on Saturday. These activities are important because they allow J to be with other Korean Americans, to be learning langauge and culture from native speakers, and for all of us to be forming new friendships and deepening existing ones.

And lastly there are the festivals and day camps (heritage camp hasn’t been possible for us financially as of yet). These are days of fun for our family and provide more chances to connect with other adoptive families.

It’s a plan for embracing culture that we feel we’ll be able to sustain over time for several reasons. First, we started living this way before our son came home. There’s never been a time in his life since joining our family that he hasn’t heard Korean music, words, and phrases or gotten to eat home-cooked Korean food. Over time these things have expanded–we know more songs, words, and phrases now and my Korean cooking skills have vastly improved. For him, this is normal; in fact, it would be odd for J now if we suddenly stopped doing these things.

Second, in the last year, we’ve developed friendships with other families (both adoptive and Korean American) who live similarly. That means our living this way doesn’t “separate” J from his friends or make him feel different. Of course, we also have friends who don’t live this way and some might think us odd but at least he knows other families very similar to his own.

Third, since so much of what we do is done at home or with close friends, our hope is other interests won’t have to interfere. Even if there comes a day when J can’t or doesn’t want to attend Korean school, we can find other ways to continue our language learning (other classes, tutor, online program, etc.). The fact is we don’t have a teen yet so everything is speculation. So far as he’s grown, J has wanted more culture not less. Only time will tell if that will continue.

So that’s why I don’t feel like we “do culture,” and instead we’re just being us.


Is It Really a Voice of Love?

So if you’re a part of the international adoption community, you’ve likely heard about the Voices of Love campaign, which is an attempt to have the Korean government reverse its decision to limit and phase out international adoption as we know it now. If your life has been blessed by Korean adoption, they’re asking you to support their campaign and advocate for Korean children.

Without a doubt my life has been blessed by Korean adoption. Six years ago we embarked on a journey that has led to our lives having little resemblance to what they were before. And every day I’m thankful for blessings Korean adoption has brought into my life.

But this campaign bothers me. The fact is international adoption is complicated. Our daily life is complicated because of adoption: fear, anxiety, sadness, racial awareness, language learning, and cultural awareness.

Then you add in the things I know now about Korean adoption. The lack of women’s rights. The discrimination against single mothers and their children. The coercion that is part of the placing process. The fact that placing a child for adoption often isn’t a “choice,” because the word choice implies that there really is another option. For many of these women, there isn’t another option.

It’s just not as simple as advocating for a child. Do I wish every child had a loving family who cherished them? Of course. Does that mean that international adoption is always the right answer? No.

I’m not naive enough to think that the need for adoption would go away if cultural attitudes changed and job equality was better and there was better support for single mothers and that there was less poverty. Even if all of the previous were true there would still be women who would choose to not to parent. But likely there would be less who chose the path of adoption.

If you’ve heard of this campaign, I invite you to read a couple of posts from ThirdMom. Over the last few days, she’s posted about this campaign a couple of times. Here are the direct links to those posts in the order that they were written.

I especially love the nine things in the second link that Jane Jeong Trenka recommends prospective adoptive parents demand of Korea before they adopt from there.

The fact is the system is broken. Yes, there are children who need homes and families. And they should have them. But if at all possible those homes and families should be the ones they are born into. It’s not always possible. I get that. But until what is broken is fixed, I doubt keeping families intact is even at the top of the list for many in the industry.

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