The first time I ever considered international adoption I was standing at an adoption fair in Virginia. Mistakenly, my husband and I had thought the agency handled domestic adoptions but as we listened to presentation after presentation of different country programs we began to consider what life with a child from another culture might look like. In the presentation, the social workers described ways we could incorporate our child’s culture into our own. By adopting a child internationally, we would gain a whole country.
Two adoptions from two different countries later, I know this absolutely to be the case. Adopting internationally not only changes the life of the child, but it also changes the lives of the adoptive parents, their family, and everyone in their circle. In my family, as soon as the Christmas lights come down the red Chinese New Year lanterns go up. Then at the first sign of spring, we buy colorful paints and hang strings of chrysanthemums to celebrate Holi. For each holiday we open our home to our extended family and neighbors, to our children’s school friends and playmates. All come to share in our children’s culture and in so doing we help foster a positive connection between our children and their birth countries.
When parents ask me, “How can I help my child connect with their culture?” I always answer with my top 10 list. Some ideas are easier than others, some ideas will require a little research and work by the adoptive parents, but all find different ways to celebrate your child’s culture. As the adoptive parents, it is up to us to offer these experiences to our children and to remain open and positive about them. There may be times you feel uncomfortable, there may be times the exercise you choose is a flop, and that will be okay. Keep going. Try something new. When we help our adoptive children connect with their culture, we help them navigate their personal identities. And that is an important gift.
One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food. What dishes are native to your child’s region? My son comes from an area of China known for their dumplings so I searched online and found some recipes from his home province. Now every Chinese New Year we gather in the kitchen and handroll and pinch dumplings as a family. The first time we made the dumplings they were overly soggy and overly cooked all at the same time. But it didn’t matter. The act of making the dumplings helped build a connection to my son’s birth culture. We talked about how dumpling making was passed down from generation to generation, perfected bit by bit through time. Next year would be better, and sure enough, it was. And the best part? Now we have a funny family story to tell every Chinese New Year. Not much of a cook? That’s okay. Even if the dish you make is a disaster it will highlight the skill set required to create such a culinary delight.
Learn About the Arts
This is a bit of a broad heading, but the history of many countries is told through their art. Whether visual art, such as painting and sculpture, or the performing arts, such as music or theater, think about the cultural traditions of your child’s birth country. My daughter’s area of India is known for their dance so we watch performances online and even found a school near us specializing in Indian dance. Think about what musical instruments are typical in your child’s birth country. Is there a way you might see a live performance? Or better yet, does anyone in the area teach that type of music? Even if you don’t live near a performing arts center, do some research into the leading artists in your child’s birth country. Many performances can be found online, and you can forge a connection simply by sitting down and watching them together as a family. Have a discussion about what you see and hear. What do you like? What surprised you? If your child is more interested in the visual arts, do some research into famous artists. Have fun recreating their works together at home together, or research a nearby museum and plan a family outing.
This is a big one, especially for younger children. Have a look at what is on your child’s bookshelves. Are there any books that celebrate their specific culture? Do the books represent children of other races and ethnicity? When your child opens a book, what type of children are they seeing on its pages? A quick search on Amazon will yield several children’s books about Colombia, South Korea, India, China, and more. Seeing a child who looks like them as the protagonist of the book promotes pride in the racial and/or ethnic identity of your child. And children’s books can be a great way to educate your family about country-specific holidays. In our family, we love to read The Runaway Wok at Chinese New Year. Amma, Tell Me the Story of Diwali, is another favorite.
Learn the Language
Another way to connect your child with their culture is through language. At my son’s elementary school, for example, they teach Mandarin as part of the curriculum. In fact, language is so interwoven within my son’s syllabus that they learn about Chinese culture and even sing Chinese folk songs during school assemblies. If your child’s birth language is not taught at schools, many community centers, multicultural centers, and local universities offer linguistic classes. And it doesn’t have to be just the child who learns the language. Get the whole family involved by learning simple words and phrases through flash cards and easy picture books.
Go to the Movies
With access to Netflix and countless other streaming services, finding movies set in or about your child’s birth country could not be easier. Of course, everyone wants to see the big blockbuster movies, but every now and then pick films that showcase your child’s culture. Not only can such screenings encourage cultural pride, but seeing someone who looks like them in the lead role(s) can promote positive feelings about your child’s racial and/or ethnic identity. Think about what television shows you watch at home. Are there any shows about your child’s culture, even loosely related. In my family, we love Fresh Off the Boat, about a Chinese family who immigrates to South Florida. When we watch that show together at home, my son sees a cast of Chinese actors who are terribly funny, celebrated, and every bit as good as their contemporaries.
Celebrate the Important Holidays
This almost goes without saying, but holidays are an easy way to help connect your child with their culture. Think about the importance of holidays in your own upbringing. How you would gather around the table, share a meal, share gifts, and share stories. As transcultural adoptive parents, we have the opportunity to do this both with our own traditional holidays and the holidays of our children’s cultures. When we celebrate our children’s cultural holidays it gives us the opportunity to invite family and friends into our child’s world. My son takes pride in handing out the red envelopes every Chinese New Year, and you can bet my daughter throws the first fistful of paint at Holi. During these special times, we decorate, we cook, we read books, and we share the stories of how the holidays came to be. And in these small ways, we reconnect our children with their culture. We have become an American-Chinese-Indian family and our yearly calendar reflects as such.
Find Multicultural Centers
Depending on where you live, do some research into what multicultural centers are around you. Many centers offer free events, performances, and even language and art classes. And yes, it can be daunting to walk into such a facility. The first time I attended a performance at our local Chinese multicultural center I felt incredibly out of place. All around me Mandarin swirled and people laughed and hugged like old friends. I wanted to make a run for the car, but then it occurred to me that my experience could be a valuable lesson in connecting with my child. In that brief moment, I was experiencing the world as he often did. The only face of a different color in a sea of others. Our first outing, I took a seat in the back, but the next time we returned I sat a little closer and made small talk with a lovely grandmother from Guangzhou. Now when we go, my son runs ahead of me and those same people, who I thought so intimidating on our first visit, wave a friendly hello.
Find Racial Mirrors
Many of our transcultural families are also transracial. For children growing up as the minority in both their home and their immediate community, issues of identity are a common struggle. Racial mirrors are a great way to allow your children to meet, and be mentored by, individuals who are the same race as they are. This can be particularly useful if you and your family live within a non-diverse area. A common comment of many South Korean adoptees living in the Midwest in the 1990s was how much they struggled to find someone, anyone, who looked like they did. But even for those families living within a very diverse area, the fact remains that no matter how much we love our children we will never experience the world in the same way they do and will. By providing our children racial mirrors we allow them to see “mirrors” of themselves in adult figures and role models as their same race and/or ethnicity. And racial mirrors can be found anywhere. At schools, community centers, multi-cultural centers, or even by undertaking some of the above suggestions.
Of course, the absolute best way to connect with a culture is to visit that country. Heritage tours, or homeland visits, are a great way for your transcultural child to reconnect with the country of their birth. Many agencies and adoption travel agencies offer heritage tours and often several families will be grouped to travel together, providing an even richer experience for all. In fact, on some social media networks (such as Facebook) families connect ahead of time so when it comes time to travel they and their kids already know one another. Heritage tours are different than tourist vacation in that heritage tours actively find ways to allow the whole family to experience their child’s culture firsthand. Many heritage tours will include in-country dance classes, art classes and seminars, cooking lessons, language lessons, and “behind the scenes” experiences. One tip: Many agencies recommend waiting until your child is old enough to both handle the emotional experience of a heritage tour and to remember it. Typically heritage tour attendees are around the adolescent age.
Last but not least, one of the best ways to help your child connect with their culture is to simply be open. There is no question that some of the above suggestions will be intimidating. It is not easy walking into a room of people you do not know. It is not easy seeking out racial mirrors for your children. The aesthetics of the art of your child’s birth country may not appeal to you, but you have to remember, this is not about you. It is about providing your child with a solid connection to their culture. So find ways to celebrate your child’s culture. Find ways to integrate that culture into your own family’s fabric. Find ways to educate yourself and your family on the rich history that is your child’s culture. Remember, when you adopted a child internationally, you gained a country. And that is a beautiful thing.
Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “is this really us?!” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at www.letterstojack.com.