ARP columnist responds to Hopgood’s Globe article on overseas adoption

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Jae Ran Kim; originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

First, read Mei-Ling Hopgood’s article here.

I have several thoughts about this article and in addition, some thoughts about the response(s) to the article that I have been reading by other adult international adoptees and at Anti-Racist Parent. I originally had just posted the article link and photo from the article and set it on self-publish, but after reading a few of the comments around the blog-o’sphere, I thought I would add some of my thoughts.

Some of us adoptees “of a certain age” and those of us at any age who were raised in families who lived quite isolated (geographically or due to parents choice to segregate) from any community made of folks from our country of origin, were raised in a straight-forward assimilationist mode. That is, our families adopted us, but not our culture of origin and raised us to be “American” which to them meant White, Euro-American. It’s fair to say that while our parents physically adopted us as children and infants, we adoptees were the ones “adopting” our new American cultures. Or perhaps I should say some of us adopted white American culture and others of us just adapted.

Local adoption agencies did not provide “culture camps” for us, nor did they train adoptive parents on how to be culturally-sensitive or how to provide culturally “appropriate” (whatever that means) activities.

Somewhere around the mid- to late 1970s, we began to see some of these adoption-specific, folk-based camps and schools forming for adoptive families. Many of these were created by adoptive parents to help support adoptive parents. While many culture camps and adoptive parent organizations for country-specific adoptive families do provide programming for kids, the main focus almost always begins as an adoptive parent support, not as a adopted child or youth support. That is why when you visit these camps, often times it is adoptive parents who are running the show. Adoptive parents make up the board, schedule and create the programs, and often run the classes. An adult adoptee friend of mine attended a large, well-known camp for South Asian Indian adoptees and related that all the adults there were white adoptive parents, even the white adoptive parents cooked the Indian food (and gave the kids a hard time if they turned their noses away from the curries).

For some of these culture-camps, it took the interventions or protests from adult adoptees themselves who had come of age and observed or more likely volunteered (and by the way, I’m tired of how adult adoptees are always asked to volunteer for these organizations rather than being paid. Hey, I know budgets are small but if you’re going to pay non-adopted Korean Americans to come teach classes at culture camp, you can pay the Korean American adoptee too) at these organizations to ask aloud why there were no adult adoptees or members of the ethnic community on the board of directors or running the camp/school. Gradually, the more responsive organizations did include and incorporate feedback from adult adoptees too.

It is really only in the past 10 years or so, however, that we have come to see the kind of culture-keeping that sociologist Heather Jacobson writes about in Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption and the Negotiation of Family Difference, and which author Mei-Ling Hopgood references in her Boston.com article.

Hopgood writes,

“Parents do these things hoping to help their children adjust to the sometimes tricky duality of their existence. Yet I worry that some parents are now taking things too far: Going to extremes to idealize the native culture might be as damaging to an adoptee as ignoring it. Asian-American activists have for decades fought the idea that you are born with a culture – that if you look Asian, you must eat with chopsticks, wear different clothing, speak a different language; that you are different and thereby less American. Parents, to some extent, are asking children to conform to those expectations. And without adequate acknowledgement of the reality that actually is – their experience in America – I suspect that children might have an even harder time figuring out where they belong.”

“Eager to do the right thing, many adoptive parents – usually white and middle-to-upper-middle class – have tried to re-create their children’s native cultures. Moms and dads formed and joined support groups, enrolled their children (and themselves) in language, dance, and art classes. They decorated their homes with Russian paintings, threw Lunar New Year parties, bought Guatemalan jewelry, and made regular pilgrimages to the local Chinatown. They established their own specialty magazines, attended culture camps in the United States, and spent more than $10,000 on “heritage tours” in the Motherland. An entire industry – from travel agencies to doll makers – caters to these families’ desires to provide adequate cultural touchstones.”

I feel sorry for the young adoptees of today. In part because we some of us have complained about the lack of knowledge and accessibility to our “culture” (which I actually think is more of our wanting to be less racially stigmatized), adoptive parents have gone totally the other way and are now forcing it down their kids throats.

As if transracial and international adoptees don’t have enough to contend with every day, now they have to perform how “well-adjusted” they are regarding how much they love the folk culture, costumes and Americanized-food of their country of origin to please their parents. And adoptive parents now have another thing to worry and agonize over – when their child tells them they don’t want to participate in [insert ethnic group] school/language/culture camp activities any more. Because now, maybe that means the child is rejecting “their” culture that the adoptive parents have tried so hard to install in them!!

I agree with Hopgood that perhaps the one thing that truly could make a big difference – language fluency – is tricky at best. In that sense, adoptees share that piece with other ethnic groups raised outside the country or isolated communities where their language is the majority. But I know of no adoptive parents who decided to raise their adopted children in a Korea Town and send them to immersion schools with all Korean families. Only then perhaps would an adopted Korean child become fluent enough and inculturated enough that they could go to Korea and attempt to assimilate (but I doubt it, even then, they will still have an American accent).

Feeling good about yourself as a transracial/international adoptee can be easier when you’re surrounded by others like you, and that is a benefit to these kids whose parents are involved in culture keeping. But it doesn’t help them when they’re at their majority white school and “friends” are telling racist jokes. It doesn’t buffer them from having to shrug off teen idol Miley Cyrus when she pulls the chink-eye and offers a lame apology because all their white friends insist “she didn’t really mean it” and they’re just being “oversensitive.” It doesn’t protect them from having to be reminded every time they look at a family/class/yearbook photograph that they’re the only person of color in the picture. Or that books with Asian protagonists become made-over in Hollywood featuring all-white casts.

Culture keeping isn’t going to help your child be able to integrate into their country of origin someday should they decide to go there, nor will it help them integrate into the [insert ethnicity]-American community either. Culture camps, art on the walls and folk tale books will never substitute for long-lasting, sustained relationships with the adoptee’s ethnic community.

One of the comments on a forum I read regarding this article was from adoptive parent who was frustrated that, in her view, all the adoption articles people post on the forum are written by “unhappy” adoptees. Guess I should be happy that the a-p didn’t say “angry” but I had to laugh because Hopgood is far from being an “unhappy” adoptee. Hopgood’s parents, according to her book “Lucky Girl” did a much better job of trying to instill cultural pride and knowledge than many adult adoptees I know. She actually advocates for a “rainbow” family at the end of the article in a way that personally rubbed me the wrong way, and in her memoir, writes about adopting some day. In fact, I would go as far as to say I disagree with her on some things because I feel she glosses over some aspects of international/transracial adoption. But I value her writing and her perspective anyway, because it adds to the whole dialog about transracial and international adoption. If Hopgood is lumped in as an “unhappy adoptee” in the minds of some adoptive parents, I shudder to think of what kind of discourse these parents will be willing to face in the future when it’s their own children who are asking the questions and looking for answers.

I am so thankful that as an adult, I got over my fear of Koreans enough to ask them for help. Although there were those who rejected me because I wasn’t “Korean” enough, I was fortunate enough to find some lovely people who helped me out a lot. I can guarantee that knowing how to fan dance or count to ten in hangul isn’t worth a dime. Transracial and international adoptees will be better off understanding that they are a person of color living in a world that still discriminates based on race and ethnicity. And that is something that, unless the parent is also a person of color, they will not learn unless they have good mentors in their lives who will help guide them.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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