Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grits: A Sourcebook for Multicultural Familiesby Myra Alperson
An informed, comprehensive guide to raising a multicultural family.
How many times do you celebrate the New Year at home? Just once? If your family is Jewish, Chinese, and a few other things besides, you might celebrate twice or even three times a year! As the rate of cross-cultural adoption grows in the United States, new traditions are emerging. These are part
An informed, comprehensive guide to raising a multicultural family.
How many times do you celebrate the New Year at home? Just once? If your family is Jewish, Chinese, and a few other things besides, you might celebrate twice or even three times a year! As the rate of cross-cultural adoption grows in the United States, new traditions are emerging. These are part of a new multiculturalism which, with its attendant joys and challenges, has become a fact of life in urban, suburban and even rural America. Alperson's sourcebook offers families the first complete guide to the tangled questions that surround this important phenomenon. As the adoptive Jewish mother of Sadie, her Chinese-born daughter, Alperson is able to offer personal as well as professional insight into such topics as combining cultures in the home, confronting prejudice, and developing role models. Focusing on adoptive families - international and transracial adoption in the United States has jumped in recent years - she provides guidelines on how families can prepare for their exciting journey toward becoming a multicultural family.
In addition to drawing on extensive interviews with such families, her book includes a wealth of on-line and "conventional" resources to find books, food products, toys, clothing, discussion groups and heritage camps that help families to enhance their lives as they build a multicultural home.
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Dim Sum, Bagels, and Grits
we are family
Who We Are The Facts
I believe that when you become a multiethnic family, you need to change almost as much as the child who joins you. That doesn't mean that you have to cook only Korean food or speak Korean, but you have to be very open to it, and it has to become part of you in some way. If you don't feel that you can somehow identify with this ethnic group, then transcultural adoption is probably not for you!
Seattle mother of four children, two born in Korea, two biological
A Critical Mass
In September 1999 the first international convocation of Korean adopteesorganized by the adoptees themselvestook place in Washington, D.C. Some four hundred adoptees from the United States and Europe took part. This event was a milestone. It represented the first time that adoptees, most in their twenties and thirties, had taken ownership in such a visible and significant way of the dialogue and debate on what it means to be adopted across cultures.
Although the events were closed to non-adoptees, I followed the discussions closely, as reports came in on adoptionlistservs. I also met with some of the organizers. The more I talked with them, the more it became clear that I had a lot to learn, and that the process would be lifelong. Some of the adoptees had taken Korean names; others had kept their American surnames and flaunted them with pride. Some had made a relentless search in Korea to try to find their birth parents; for others this journey was not a priority. And, of course, some adoptees chose to stay home.
Through a Web site related to this gathering, I gained access to a forum that enabled me to experience vicariously the give-and-take between adoptees and parents. Would this be Sadie and me in fifteen years? In each case I was struck by the range of responses, many fraught with emotion. Some grown adoptees reported harboring an abiding hurt over being separated from their birth family. Others were filled with exhilaration at being able to share their life experiences. It was like a coming out party for many of them. The adoption experience, clearly, is hardly monolithic, on the part of either the parents or the adoptees. Coming to terms with being adopted, and being an adoptive parent, can be an ongoing struggle. Parents are particularly tested when children approach young adulthood; this phase of any child's life can be particularly trying.
An underlying theme of the gathering of the Korean adoptees was that intercultural adoption can be an empowering and positive process. The vision statement of one of the organizing groups praises intercultural adoption because of the way in which it enables families to "cross borders of race, ethnicity and blood."
As part of a process of preparing to parent my own child from a different background (and to collect materials for thisbook), over time, I have also listened to young adults born in Latin America as well as black and biracial young adults adopted by white and interracial families within the United States discuss their experiences and dilemmas growing up. In talking to parents whose experiences crossing cultures had preceded mine by many years, I came to realize two critical points. One was that I was hardly alone in my concerns. The second was that it was essential to keep my learning in contextand never to stop listening. Families that adopted from the 1950s through the 1970s, when much less information was available, perhaps had more issues to struggle with and far fewer resources to turn to, including other families who were facing the same challenges. There just weren't as manyand the sharing that comes naturally to many families these days wasn't so automatic then.
Thirty or forty years ago there was little knowledge of what it meant to be cross-cultural, either. The idea was to be American and to leave as much of the past behind as possible. As a consequence, many parents later found themselves doing a quick course in "catch-up" as their children grew older. Pat Palmer, an Iowa mother who has adopted seven children in all, five from Korea who are now in their thirties and two younger children from Vietnam (she also has two birth children), reports:
When my children were young, I was eager to find out anything I could about the experiences of those parents who had adopted Korean children ahead of me, but no one was talking. Parenting Korean children was still at the "experimental stage," and I guess most of those involved didn't want to admit to their detractors, who said intercountry adoption wouldn'twork, that everything wasn't perfect, and so all problems were kept quiet. There were rumors, but not many were talking. And the Korean adoptees themselves hadn't grown up, so they too weren't discussing their experiences.
Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, key adoption alliances were formed, the adoption literature expanded (the magazine Ours, later renamed Adoptive Families, made its debut in the 1970s), and the number of adoption agencies handling interracial and international adoptions began to multiply. National adoption organizations gained in stature and influence. The first culture camps were organized. was families' experiences with cross-cultural adoption increased, more information became available. Several studies have shown that children adopted interracially generally grow up with their self-esteem and identity intactprovided that their adoptive parents understand the implications of adopting across racial and cultural boundaries and respond accordingly.
Some negative media images of cross-cultural adoption also emergedparticularly in 1972, when the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) pronounced its opposition to interracial adoption. At a conference that year of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Louis, the president of NABSW gave the keynote speech to an audience that included many white parents who had adopted black children. He accused the parents of committing "cultural genocide" and said that these children could not form a sense of black pride or black identity in such families. Despite claims by advocates of interracial adoption that there were not enough families for black children needing homes,NABSW maintained that the opposite was true, but that bureaucratic restrictions were preventing placements from taking place. Among other reactions to the NABSW's controversial stance was the departure of some of its members and the passage of a resolution by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supporting interracial adoption. Nonetheless, as a result of NABSW's public statement, interracial adoption placements declined dramatically through the rest of the 1970s and into the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, parents did their best. Kirstin Nelson, the biracial daughter (now a thirty-two-year-old law school graduate) of a Nebraska couple who adopted other biracial children, reports:
My favorite childhood books were from the Little House series (it was my favorite TV show, too), and I also loved Nancy Drew. I distinctly remember my parents trying to guide me toward books on Harriet Tubman and other stories with black characters and themes. I did read many of those books, but the Little House books remained my favorites. I really don't think it made any difference in the long run whether I read or played "Little House" or "Underground Railroad"although I did both over the years.
I think the best thing to do is provide as many options as possible but let your kids make their own choices and decisions about what they are interested in. There is a fine line between guidance and over-parenting.
By the 1990s, the cumulative numbers of interracial and international adoptions, along with ease of access to adoption information via the Internet, transformed the adoptionprocess. With little more than a keyboard and a modem (and a credit card), we could get most of the information we needed to learn how to adopt, where to adopt, how to find families like ours, and how to hook up with support networks.
These days, the questions I raised about my own ability to raise a child born in another culture and of another ethnicity are being echoed more widely as many more families are being created or are expanding through multicultural adoption. Recommendations on how to move forward are far easier to come by. Discussion groups on the Internet enable parents with common adoption interests, wherever they live, to share information. And the e-commerce revolution makes it possible to obtain difficult-to-find books, clothing, food, music, and other resources and to develop a multicultural environment for our families, whether we live in a rural area or a large city.
Yet merely acquiring multicultural materials and taking part in cultural activities will not address our children's emotional and psychological needs as cross-cultural adoptees, nor will these approaches to parenting our children make up for the fact. that they have lost something most of us take for granted: their birth culture. As parents we need to recognize that being a multicultural family is not something to celebrate only on special occasions; it is a fact of our daily lives. Being vigilant of the needs of children whom Pat Palmer aptly describes as "double minorities," that is, adoptees who do not share their parents' ethnic background, must be a key element in our overall approach to parenting.
How Cross-Cultural Adoptions Began
To put this discussion into context, I think it helps to understand how and why cross-cultural adoptions came about in the first place, and what the current patterns and trends appear to be.
Cross-cultural adoption from outside the United States began in a significant way in the late 1940s, when homes were sought for European children orphaned during World War II and following the Greek Civil War. Occasionally we read accounts of these orphansnow grownup and connecting with their roots, or perhaps seeking lost relativesbut the adoptees tend to be scattered.
Cross-racial adoptions of Korean children orphaned in the Korean War began in the 1950s. Many of these children were ethnically mixedtheir mothers were Korean and their fathers were of the race or ethnicity of the various military forces involved in the conflict. Because Korean society rejected children born out of wedlockand ostracized their mothersmost of these mixed-race children were rejected by their biological families and placed in institutions. Koreans were not prepared to raise mixed-race children.
Neither, to some extent, were people in the United States. These early adoptions represented, in the words of Madelyn Freundlich, former executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, a type of "crazy social experiment." Children from a specific Asian culturewere placed with families in the United States who generally knew little or nothing about that culture. In those days it was rare for families to travel to Korea to adopt; in almost all cases the children were escorted by adoption professionals on the long plane ride to the United States (certainly longer in those days than it is now!), and their first encounter with their new family was in an airport.
Imagine this experience reported by Pat Palmer when her family attended its first potluck supper with other adoptive families in the early 1970s:
There we were with our four young childrenfive, three, three, and one, two by birth and two by adoptionwith families who had adopted in the early to mid-sixties and their school-age children. A minister and his wife led the program afterward and introduced a song they had written for the occasion, which we all sang. It was a sad little dirge entitled "Who Needs Me?" about Korean orphans and their rescuers/adoptive parents. I looked around the room at the school-age Korean children and wondered what they were thinking. I was glad my children, all four of them, were too young to understand.
The international adoption of Korean children (mainly in the United States but also in some European countries, and overwhelmingly by white couples) continued over the next four decades for a number of reasons. First, as Korean adoptions became more widely known and perceived as "successful," infertile couples seeking healthy newborns sought to adopt from Korea. Second, Korea itself did not have a tradition of adoption, and the state infrastructure for caring for orphaned and abandoned children was overburdened. Seeingthat families in the United States and Europe were willing to adopt children whose own families could not care for them, Korea established formal agreements with overseas agencies to make the process more efficient. From the mid-1950s to 2000, close to 100,000 children were adopted by families in the United States. In all, some 141,000 Korean children were adopted worldwide during that period.
In the intervening decades, international adoption grew in waves, with some countries dominating placements at different times. During the early 1990s the numbers stayed steady at about 7,000 to 9,000 per year. But during the second half of the decade they gradually veered upward. More than 16,000 "orphan visas" were issued in 1999 by the U.S. State Department, owing to a number of factors:
• Adoption itself was becoming a more popular way to form or expand a family.
• More older couples and single people were adopting (thanks, in large part, to sponsor countries formulating policies that welcome these people to apply).
• More employers were adding adoption support to their benefits packages.
• More countries that lacked the capacity to care for abandoned children adequately were creating programs to make adoption possible.
• The breakup of the Soviet Union and more outreach to the West increased adoption opportunities in some of the newly formed countries of what had been the Eastern bloc.
• Increased contact with China also led to increased opportunities for Western families to adopt Chinese children, mostly girls.
• The Internet streamlined the adoption process. In addition to private agencies going on-line, the State Department published adoption guidelines and offered essential forms on-line that families needed to file with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to get the process going.
• In 2000, new legislation granted automatic United States citizenship to internationally adopted children.
• More information on cross-cultural adoption became generally available, both in print and via electronic media.
• Finally, cross-cultural adoption itself became more "socially acceptable" in line with overall social trends.
THE NUMBERS ON INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION
We have solid data on international cross-cultural adoptions because the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) tracks the numbers of immigrant visas issued to adopted children.
To give you an idea of how adoption patterns change, here's a sampling of the number of international adoptions in the United States in 1989, 1994, and 1999, based on the number of visas issued to children who were adopted by U.S. citizens.
Some adoption patterns have changed dramatically. China and Russia, which barely registered on the adoption radar screen in 1989, each processed more than four thousand adoptions in 1999.
Although data on the age and marital status of adoptive parents have not been formally collected, many agencies report that the types of households now adopting children are changing and more nontraditional families are adopting children. A contributing factor, as has already been noted, is the growing number of employers, from universities to corporations and federal agencies, that are extending parental leave benefits to families who are adopting. (Working Woman magazine lists adoption benefits as one of its criteria for selecting the "100 Best Companies for Women.")
Just ten years ago, I would have had far fewer options, as a single woman over forty, to adopt. China didn't have a formal program yet, and the few countries that did were not welcoming applicants like me. Adoption e-mail discussion groups now include subgroups of "older" parents, and several new books focus on guiding single individuals through the adoption labyrinth, including tips on money management, estate preparation, childcare, and other concerns. We've come a long way, in a relatively short time, from the days when women in my situation had to search long and hard, sometimes for years, to find an adoption agency that would help us fulfill our quest to become parents. In her book Family Bonds, Elizabeth Bartholet describes her own harrowing quest to adopt in Latin America in the mid-1980s as an older single woman. Although the book came out in 1993not so long agothe adoption process and the attitudes toward older,single women adopting have changed dramatically since then.
DOMESTIC DATA ARE HARDER TO MEASURE
The number of children adopted domestically by families of a different background than their own is far harder to measure. Historically, interracial adoption within the United States only began to grow in significant numbers in the 1960s. The introduction of the birth control pill meant that fewer babiesespecially white babieswould be placed for adoption. Therefore many white couples turned to interracial domestic adoption to form their families. As many as twenty thousand such placements had occurred by the time the NABSW issued its statement against interracial adoption in 1972.
Interracial placements stalled for several years until federal and state legislationand public pressureloosened restrictions on cross-racial adoptions. Many more black children than white children were waiting for permanent homes. (Constance Pohl and Kathy Harris, authors of Transracial Adoption, note that despite reforms, the numbers of minority children awaiting placement rose in the 1990s. Bureaucratic red tape seemed to be largely to blame, as well as a preference by adoptive parents for younger, emotionally healthy children. In some cases, parents-to-be opt for foreign adoption because the process often moves more quickly than it does in domestic adoption, and some parents feel they are more likely to be matched with healthier and younger children. Furthermore, fewer babies are being placed for adoptionwithin the United States, prompting more parents to look abroad.)
The NABSW position against interracial adoption had an important positive outcome: it stressed the need for families who did undertake cross-racial adoption to understand their responsibilities to maintain their children's racial identity. That legacy can be seen even to this day in adoption training, whether prospective parents seek to adopt across cultures from within the United States or from another country.
The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC), an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, maintains a database of adoptions in the United States. But getting consistent figures is difficult, the NAIC reports. There has been no organized national data collection on adoption since 1975. The quality of reporting that does exist varies widely by state, and current figures are often based on educated guesses. For the purposes of this book, after analyzing a range of NAIC data, including those on foster care placements, we can make a broad estimate that there are, nowadays, from 10,000 to 25,000 domestic interracial adoptions per year.
PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF ADOPTION
An important milestone in adoption awareness was marked in 1997 with the release of a benchmark survey by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City. The survey of 1,554 adults reviewed public perceptions and contact with adoption. The results give a clear picture of how much progress multicultural families have made in gainingrecognition for themselves since the 1950s (recognition gained through positive and negative media exposure). Particularly revealing were the following findings:
• Six in ten Americans have had personal experience with adoption, meaning that they reported that they themselves, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, had adopted a child, or had placed a child for adoption. Those who have had firsthand experience are more supportive of adoption than those who haven't.
• Although most Americans (90 percent) view adoption very favorably or somewhat favorably, many Americans (64 percent) have never considered adopting a child, and about half (49 percent) believe that adoption is not quite as good as raising one's own biological child.
• Women embrace adoption more fully than men do. Thirty-six percent of women express unqualified support compared with 27 percent of men.
• Three times as many whites (35 percent) as blacks (11 percent) are full supporters of adoption.
• Nearly half of Americans (45 percent) say that family members and friends are their main source of information about adoption, whereas 30 percent get their information from news sources and 16 percent from magazines.
• Half of those surveyed (52 percent) believe children adopted from other countries are more likely than children adopted in this country to have emotional problems,and nearly the same proportion (48 percent) say children from abroad are less likely to be physically healthy On the other hand, most Americans do not believe that children adopted internationally are any more likely to have trouble in school than children adopted from within this country.
DIFFERENT PERCEPTIONS OF ADOPTION WITHIN ADOPTIVE FAMILIES
Although one of the great joys of being a multicultural family is that we can enjoy diversity within our own family unit, one of the hassles can be that our families stand out as "obviously" different in the larger community, so we may be called upon to "explain" ourselves. One reason that some white couples (and some singles) seek to adopt white children is to form the type of family the adoptive parents "might have had" if they had given birth. Another motivation may be to avoid the hassles of having to explain differences, particularly if the family lives in a community that may seem less than accepting.
But an important aspect of "who we are" is facing the fact of adoption honestly, particularly by families whose adopted child resembles her parents enough that it seems unnecessary to highlight the different cultural background and lack of blood ties. White parents who adopt white children, even when their ethnic roots are not the same, may feel that emphasizing differences will not promote a cohesive family unit.
A friend of mine who is the adoptive father of two children from Romania admitted that he felt uncomfortable when the magazine then known as Ours was renamed AdoptiveFamilies in 1994. To him, Ours sounded better because the title did not stigmatize the adoptive family as being other, and therefore different from "conventional" families. Both he and his wife share their children's East European ancestry (but not their birth religion). You wouldn't know from meeting the parents and their two kids that the family came together through adoption.
These parents, nevertheless, acknowledge that the adoption story must be told, and that their children's heritage is part of it. So they have always talked openly about the circumstances surrounding the adoption, and the family's two adoption trips to Romania. (They have met the birth mother of their children, who are half-siblings.) They have Romanian artifacts in their home.
But what if these children were born in, say, Eastern Europe, and the parents' ethnic origin was, say, Irish or Italian? What if the parents themselves represented two different religions, and the child's roots were different from both parents'? Should we make room for all the heritages in such a family?
Even if our adopted children's background is similar to ours, don't we owe it to our children to preserve some of their birth heritage? Is it fairwhether they came to us as infants or as somewhat older childrento erase a portion of their unique rootsand their very own story? If we do cut out this aspect of their lives, how will we prepare them for the questions that may come later?
You might say, as some parents do, that adopted children should not have to face an additional identity trauma by being bombarded with reminders of where they came from. When I told the social worker who wrote my home study that I was
• thinking of hiring a Chinese baby-sitter for Sadie since Iwanted to promote the use of Chinese language and customs in our home, she gently scolded me: "She's going to be your daughter raised in an American household. You can give her as much Chinese culture as you want, but don't confuse her!" She feared that my daughter might identify more closely with such a sitter than with me. (I'm sure the response would have been different if I had been a Chinese-American. And I know quite a few adoptive parents who disagree with this stance and have hired Chinese nannies.)
On the other hand, without creating identity confusion, we can expose our children to their birth cultureand share itas one aspect of our family life, just as we observe birthdays and holidays. It's part of who we are.
Who We Arein the Twenty-first Century
In ways that I sometimes think elude many parentsand perhaps critics of multiculturalismour children are growing up in a world that is increasingly multicultural, and they're experiencing the phenomenon in a far different way than we are, especially if we grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. The pervasiveness of multiculturalism in our daily lives, in any family's daily life, makes parenting our kind of family easier and potentially much more fulfilling. For the same reason, I worry a bit less about some of the stigmas traditionally attached to adoption; there's just too much adoption for people to view it pejoratively the way they once did.
We increasingly find that our children's values and activities are part of a global values system (catalyzed, for better or worse, by the growing impact of "global brands," such as McDonald's, Levi's, and Sony, as well as by the media).Teenagers the world over dress more and more alike (including dyeing their hair different colors and piercing odd parts of their body), listen to the same music (rap is a global phenomenon), play the same computer games, and identify with the same teen idols. They cheer worldwide for such "crossover" phenomena as Ricky Martin and Jackie Chan. And, of course, they take the Internet for granted.
Okay, so the world is changing. But who are we now? How truly significant is the "multicultural" family in the United States? In particular, where does the multicultural family stand in the big picture, which includes multicultural, multiracial families formed through marriage?
THE GROWING INFLUENCE OF MULTICULTURALISM
There are many anecdotal examples to demonstrate the growing influence of multiculturalism on American families, regardless of whether the families were formed through adoption or through birth. As a parent, I encounter these phenomena often. They include the following:
• There is a proliferation of international activities in our children's schools, starting as early as nursery school. "International Days" are now often part of the curricula. More enlightened schools promote a range of holidays, so that Christmas and Chanukah are just two of the several holiday traditions children are exposed to. (My daughter's nursery school even celebrates Tet, a Southeast Asian holiday.) Many children also learn about Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights; Ramadan, the Muslim period of fasting; Kwanzaa, the African-Americanwinter celebration that draws on African and African-American ideas and traditions to celebrate history, culture, and community; and the lunar new year observed in much of the Far East.
• In growing numbers of children's books, children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds are depicted, without necessarily being part of the story. Authors such as Helen Oxenbury and Vera Williams have developed a following of readers who take for granted the multihued families that populate their stories.
• The theme of diversity is key to the story in a growing number of children's books. Such books would not be published if there were no market for them. An excellent example is Anti-Bias Books for Kids, published by Redleaf Press. Each book includes characters of different ethnic backgrounds, and one of them usually has a physical disability, but is mainstreamed with friends. Many publishers now have divisions that specialize in multicultural themes. The Hyperion imprint "Follow the Sun" emphasizes books on African-American subjects. (See Chapter 7, Publications.)
• Toys are more deliberately multicultural today. Companies such as Crayola and Mattel (the maker of Barbie) have created "multicultural" product lines. Some smaller companies focus exclusively on offering culturally diverse products.
• There is a growing industry of catalogs and on-line resources for multicultural books and toys, targeting parentswho have adopted cross-culturally (and who tend to be older and more affluent than most families in general). Quite a few owners of such companies are adoptive parents themselves, who have started a cottage industry of home-based businesses that produce goods and services for this market.
• Mainstream children's television programming places a greater emphasis on multiculturalism, with pioneering shows such as Sesame Street leading the way.
We see increased examples of multiculturalism in our adult lives, too.
• Ethnic foodwell beyond Chinese and Italianis more widely available at restaurants and in cookbooks; these days ethnic fast food can be found in the freezer sections of many supermarkets.
• "World music" has gained popularity, helped along by performers such as Paul Simon and David Byrne, who have cultivated partnerships with musicians on every continent. (Who would have imagined just a few years ago seeing the South African ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazowhich performs in the Zulu languagesinging backup for a commercial for LifeSavers candy?)
• There is more interest in dance styles from Latin America and elsewhere in the world.
• Publications celebrate ethnic consciousness, often through fashion.
• The media is putting more emphasis on arts and literature created by foreign-born artists and writers who, in their work, introduce us to their cultures.
• Ethnic fashion has reached the mainstream. How many moms wore Indian "peasant" skirts when they were younger? Bold African and Latin American colors and patterns are integrated into children's and adult clothing. Remember Mao and Nehru jackets? These days, African kente patterns, Indonesian batiks, and Guatemalan weavings have influenced all sorts of clothing and accessoriesand not only for college students.
• Especially in cities, there is a general awareness of the increasingly multicultural nature of our society, spurred by increased emigration from East and West Africa, regions of south and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, as well as from all over Latin America.
As one parent writes:
My wife is Chinese and I am Caucasian, and we have been married eighteen years. In the early years we would get a lot of looks and double takes. As the years passed, Eurasian families and Eurasian children in our community became much more common. We don't warrant a second look today.
Many schools now include "dual-language" programs not just for children for whom English is their second (or third) language, but as a learning opportunity for children who speak English as their first language. The goal here, as I understandit, is both to strengthen the mastery of English for second-language learners and to create a balance and appreciation among students for the language and culture of an ethnic group that may have a significant presence in the community.
For those students whose primary experience of learning English takes place outside the home, the dual-language approach to learning also removes the stigma of being "different." And some studies are now showing that children learning in two languages do at least as well as their counterparts learning in monolingual settings.
YOUNG ADOPTED ADULTS LEAD THE WAY
For me, a more significant index of the acceptance gained by multicultural families is the growing number of resources available and of activities that are organized for them, often by adults who were adopted cross-culturally Nationally known adoption professionals and advocates such as Deborah Johnson and Susan Soon-Keum Cox speak widely on cross-cultural issues. Johnson also guides homeland tours to Korea and other countries. These advocates, and the activities they have created, make the work of parenting a multicultural family easier and richer.
I have been deeply influenced by my own conversations with adult adoptees. They are the leaders that parents should look to with questions about addressing our children's identity issues.
The Korean adoption communitymainly through the efforts of the organization Also-Known-Ashas spearheaded an amazing array of activities, including discussion forums, a magazine called TransCultured, an outstanding Web site, culturalevents, cooking and language classes, homeland visits, and mentoring programs for younger adopted kids. Launched just in 1997, Also-Known-As is an excellent guidepost for those of us who have adopted younger children across cultural lines.
Of course, Also-Known-As became viable when there was a large enough group of grownup Korean adoptees who shared similar experiences about what it meant to be adopted and raised in communities unfamiliar with adoption and by parents of different races or ethnicities. Many of these adoptees were raised at a time when promoting a separate cultural awareness was something that adoptive families simply did not do. The children were considered Americanand that was that.
As adults, some of these adoptees have embarked on personal journeys to trace their roots, get to know one another, and assert their identities in ways that suit their own needs. Pat Palmer notes that her adopted children went through various identity struggles throughout adolescence, and emerged into very differentand, she says, successfulpeople in adulthood.
Our Korean-American daughter, a professional, has primarily white friends. One Vietnamese-American son, who works for a large pharmaceutical company, is engaged to a Vietnamese immigrant woman and has mostly Asian-American friends. Our other Vietnamese-American son, an inner-city high school teacher, associates mostly with Asian-Americans and Latinos. John, our Korean-American son, focuses on Korea, and as I write he's in Seoul for a month during his university's Christmas break.
John called the three years he lived in Korea (studying for his master's degree) "the most excruciating experience in my life, yet there is no other place I would rather be. I was engulfed into the mainstream of society for the first time in my life, where I was judged by my abilities not by my race. As I continued to build my language skills and cultural awareness I became more Korean every day. Although America is where I live, Korea is now my home." John recently wrote to me, "Being a Korean adoptee puts you in 'Never Never Land' until you make a commitment to either side. You are not white AND you are not Korean."
In a documentary called Crossing Chasms, Jennifer Arndt, a Korean-American filmmaker, chronicles the experiences of several Korean adoptees who have chosen to live and work in Korea, some to stay, others to visit for a short time. She traces her own wrenching, and ultimately fruitless, quest to locate her birth family, including an awkward meeting, rife with anticipation, with a family that turned out not to be related to her.
Young mixed-race adults, including those born to parents who married interracially and those who were adopted transracially, have become more vocal. The Public Broadcasting System documentary An American Love Story, which aired in 1999, explored the life of an interracial couple and their two biracial daughters, and provoked some very interesting debates.
A number of books have also explored the impact of growing up in a multicultural environment. Half & Half, a collection of essays by writers whose backgrounds represent two or more cultures, examines precisely what it means togrow up feeling alienated from "mainstream" culture, but unsure where one belongs. Black, White, Other, by Lise Funderburg, who is biracial herself, explores the experience of being biracial from the perspective of several dozen people she interviewed, who ranged in age from their twenties to their sixties. But I've been especially intrigued by the appearance of a new magazine created by and for transracial youth called Mavin. Mavin's founding editor, Matt Kelley, was a college freshman at Wesleyan University when he started the magazine. Mavin is reaching growing numbers of college campuses where a core group of mixed-raced young adults are coming of age and making their presence and their numbers known. The Fall 1999 issue focused on transracial adoption.
A sophisticated, glossy publication, Mavin is full of ads touting new youth fashions. Its models epitomize the so-called "exotic" look that is popular in mainstream magazines. But many of the people depicted are, in fact, the very people Mavin is reaching out to: people whose racial background is mixed.
Mavin is far more than a magazine. As the product of youth who grew up with the World Wide Web, it also has an active Web site, which serves as a forum in which mixed-race youth can debate with their counterparts on issues that reflect their particular worldview.
I believe there is a common thread to the rise of groups such as Also-Known-As, the creation of Mavin, the proliferation of literature on multicultural families, and the development of so much material related to multiculturalism : a special pride that comes from being part of a new type of family within American society.
As Carrie Kent, who has adopted two African-American children, observes:
Sometimes I feel that adoptive families are very lucky. As we work to learn about and celebrate each other's similarities and differences, we grow as a family. Instead of simply spending all our time looking backward to one set of ancestors to explain who we are in the present, we have multiple layers to explore. And what we create in the end is, I think, wonderfully unique. It's not better than a genetically related family, but it is equally wonderful and special.
Copyright © 2001 by Myra Alperson
Meet the Author
Myra Alperson is a New York-based writer whose books include The International Adoption Handbook, about which Booklist wrote, "her advice and counsel are heartfelt, simply stated, and specific. She is the adoptive mother of Sadie Zhenzhen Alperson.
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