Archive for the 'identity development' Category


Blending Cultures: Too Much versus Too Little

I just read an article on that I thought was great so I had to share. It talks about ways of blending birth culture into your family and walking the line of too little versus going overboard. Here’s the link:

Certain readers who only know me online have accused our family of going overboard. But actually our lives very much resemble this article. Korean culture is a part of our daily lives. We know about and include modern Korean culture in our lives, as well as celebrate traditional Korean culture. We cook Korean food on a regular basis. J takes taekwondo and goes to Korean school. We’re all learning the language. He’s excited about visiting Korea in the near future. And he has mentors who can help him navigate what it means to be a Korean America as he grows.

But J’s life isn’t filled only with Korean culture. He’s very much American as well. He loves Chick-Fil-A, basketball, super heros, Disney movies, and spaghetti. Through homeschooling and vacations, he’s learning about other cultures as well and is currently fascinated with American Indians after a recent trip to New Mexico.

Our family has found a real balance that works for us. J loves his Koreanness and is proud of his heritage. He’s comfortable around people who look like him, as well as other people of color and Caucasians. I believe that these attitudes are a result of starting culture when he was very young. It’s always been a part of our family, and likely always will be. Of course, some things will change  and as J matures we’ll navigate the changes that come with age.

I encourage all adoptive families to make culture a part of their daily lives, and find a balance that works for them.


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 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.


Nature vs. Nuture

I’m a curious sort of person. It’s just part of who I am. And lately I’ve been wondering a lot about nature versus nurture. Our son, as most of you know already, is very into his Koreanness right now. K-pop music, wearing his Korean shirts, using the language he knows, taking taekwondo, eating the food. And, of course, my husband and I have no problem with this. We’ve nurtured that Korean pride in him.

But I do wonder, what if we hadn’t nurtured it? Would our son at some point feel that a part of him was or had been suppressed?

He’s always recognized those who look like him. As a baby his eyes would follow Asians, and when he started talking he decided everyone of Asian descent was from Korea like him. We didn’t have to introduce the fact that he looked Asian; we just gave it context and explained about other Asian countries and some of the characteristics Asian people share.

So I tend to believe that even if we hadn’t introduced Korean things to him, he would have felt something was missing especially as he got older and was able to explore the culture on his own.

I hear so many adoptive families say their kids (of similar age) have no interest in Korean things and I wonder why mine does. Is it simply that he’s been exposed to it in positive ways that include our whole family? And that maybe these other kids if similarly exposed would have developed a similar interest? Or is it just part of who he is, and God in his infinite wisdom knew this child would need to be with a family that would allow and encourage and help him embrace that part of him?

I don’t know. And I guess I never well. We’ve chosen to embrace the culture and learn the language. We didn’t have to, but that’s how we thought best to parent this child. And I still believe in my heart that it is best. Even when others criticize me for it.


The Adoptive Parenting Puzzle

During my five years in the adoption community, there are a couple of things that I’ve heard over and over. One is “If my child shows an interest in (culture/language/birth family/etc.), we’ll certainly help him/her explore that.” Second is “There’s no right or wrong way to parent; not every kid needs the same things.” I believe I’ve posted my arguments against both of these statements before so no need to go into too much depth on those again. But the recent experiences we’ve had with our son have gotten me thinking about these statements again.

I’ve started to see parenting our son like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. When our son came home, we began putting together the edge pieces of the puzzle starting with the corners: language, culture/customs, food, and adoption/race/birth family. We knew a few words and phrases in Korean and used them with our son from the day he came home, plus we listened to CDs and watched Korean kids’ shows. We celebrated our first Korean holiday together when our son had been home three weeks and observed certain customs and had Korean food as part of our celebration. And talking about J’s birth family started in the first days home too. As we’ve learned more Korean, tried new recipes, and explored the culture, we’ve added more edge pieces to our puzzle.

I feel like now the edge of the puzzle is pretty much in place; the foundation is there and now it’s time to build on it. At 5-and-a-half years old, J is helping us put more pieces of the puzzle into place. Based on the foundation provided by those edge pieces, he’s let us know that he needs more, which led us to taekwondo and Korean school.

Parenting an adopted child is an ongoing journey in experimentation, but I truly believe it all should start with those four corners of the puzzle: language, culture/customs, food, and birth family. Having the family participate in and embrace these “corners” is a way of embracing and accepting all of who the adoptee is. It acknowledges the child’s roots without separating the child from the rest of the family, provided that the whole family participates.

But not every child needs the same thing, some adoptive parents insist. That’s true, but that’s what makes these corners of the puzzle are even more important. Not every child will need the same thing, but I think every child needs to have exposure to these things so they can make informed decisions about what they do need. If you begin your puzzle with these corners (and whole family participation), you might find that what you’re doing is just right for your child. Or you might find that your child doesn’t even need as much as you’re doing. Or you might have a child like ours who has let us know that even with all we’ve been doing, it’s not enough for him. But no matter what message your child sends you, if you started early putting down these pieces of the puzzle, you’ll know that he is speaking with some knowledge about his needs.

I think a lot of parents don’t feel that their involvement in culture or language is very important. But I feel it’s vitally important, because I believe that parenting is 75 percent what you do and 25 percent what you say. There are so many facets to this for me. I believe that parents make things “normal” by talking about it and/or participating in it. In my life, leadership by example has always gotten the most results. I’ve never felt that I should ask more of my child than I ask of myself. If learning Korean is important for him, then it should be important for me too.

Sometimes I wonder where J would be if we’d parented him differently. If we’d waited for his to “be interested” in Korea, would he be where he is today–proud of his Koreanness and filled with love for his birth family? Would he be so open with us about his thoughts on adoption, his Korean family, or fitting in? We’ll never now the answers to that but I’m pretty happy with where he is right now so I guess I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Those four foundational corners of our parenting have brought our family together in wonderful ways. Now I’m looking forward to seeing how we, with J’s guidance, fill in the rest of the puzzle pieces to reveal the picture of who J was created to be.


Revisiting “And So It Begins…”

In April I wrote a post about our son wishing he’d never left Korea. He said it a couple of times and once put it this way, “If you wanted me to be happy all the time, you would have left me in Korea.” These comments are never easy to hear as an adoptive parent, even if you know where they are coming from. But over the last six weeks or so lots of things have changed and, as I’ve had more time to reflect more on his comments, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions.

First, those comments pushed us to make more contact with the local Korean American community, which is something we’ve known we needed to do but it’s hard and we hadn’t put in the effort we should have. So now J is taking taekwondo from a Korean American master and is getting to see other Korean Americans on a daily basis. J also attended the last four weeks of our local Korean American school’s spring semester as a trial to see if he’d like to attend full-time in the fall. We’ve had friends whose adopted children have had less-than-positive experiences at the school, but our son loved it and is excited to go full-time in the fall. The school is a mixture of full Korean American families, biracial families, and adoptive families. It’s great that J is getting to see the variety of Korean American families that are out there.

And since making these new connections, we haven’t had any more comments about wishing he’d never left Korea, although J’s continued to say he wants to visit Korea. The month before those comments had been a stressful one with the death of my father-in-law and an unplanned visit to Arkansas for the funeral. While the circumstances of that trip were stressful, I think being round the extended family also just emphasized to J how he’s different, which lead to comments that he needed to be where he “fit.”

Even if I “get” where the comments were coming from, I’m thankful that I believe now he’s feeling more like he belongs here–both in America and in our family. But I’ve also started to look at the comments he made from a different perspective. As I reflected on them one day, I realized that most transracially-adopted kids make similar comments at this age, only they often come from a little different perspective. Most, it seems, say things like, “I wish I looked like  you” or “I wish I had hair like you, Mom” or “I wish I’d grown in your tummy.” They aren’t saying they wished they’d never left their birth countries, but they are still commenting on the desire to fit in.

Our son’s comments about desiring to fit in just took a different direction. And I’ve decided I prefer his direction.  Not because I want him to think he doesn’t belong, but because I believe his take on it says that he’s comfortable being of Korean descent. He didn’t desire to look like my husband or I to fit in; no, he desired to go where he knew he’d look like everyone else as his solution to fitting in. And I think in some ways that has to be healthy. To me it says that he’s got a healthy self-esteem in being Korean, which if you read here much you know he’s really into.

Once he leaves the nest society at-large will see him first as Korean (Asian) American so we’ve always thought it’s important that he knows what that means and is comfortable with it. I’ve never wanted him to think he’s white or wish he were. And as I thought on it more, I think his comments said that thus far we’ve helped him build that foundation of positive self-esteem in his Koreaness, as much as they said that he felt he didn’t really fit in.

That’s not to say that we could just sit back and not address his feelings in some way. I think it said to us that we’ve done OK so far, but that now it’s time to take it to the next step. That we’ve laid a foundation but now we NEED others–those who are Korean American–to help us as Jcontinues to build his view of self.

Which is why I’m so, so thankful for the opportunities God has brought into our lives in the last few weeks at just the time we needed them. I know this job of parenting a transracial adoptee isn’t something my husband and I can do alone. And I’m so thankful to be making connections that will allow us, as a family, to become a part of our son’s ethnic community, and ultimately help him on his journey.

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