The Importance of Connection and Roots in Identity Development
By Heather Ames, MSW, LICSW
At some point in their life, international adoptees who join families of a different race often describe experiencing a feeling of confusion about who they are and how they fit in the world. On the inside, they feel much like their adoptive family, share their values and way of life. However, on the outside, they look different from their families and most of their peers. They are perceived by people who do not know them, to be someone different from who they feel they are. People on the street sometimes stare at the adopted child and seem to wonder why they are with this family. They may ask confusing questions, such as "Do you speak English?" when, in fact, it is the only language that the child has ever spoken. At any age, such experiences can be unsettling.
Developing Pride in A Child's Heritage
When children were first adopted internationally more than fifty years ago, families believed that it was best to focus on being American and on being accepted in their newly adopted family and country. People believed if they did not discuss the differences, they would not be noticed. However, a child's appearance was a statement to others about their origins. By ignoring his or her heritage, a significant part of that person was denied. We have learned that it is crucial to help each child value and take pride in his or her birth country and birth culture. Doing so creates a sense of wholeness that builds self-esteem and fosters pride in that child's cultural heritage.
While adoptive families are well qualified to provide love for their children, often the country from which they adopt their child is unfamiliar to them. Traveling to their child's birth country during the adoption process will give them first hand knowledge of the culture and an important experience to share with a child as he or she grows up.
Attending Cultural Events
As our world becomes more multi-cultural, there are more and more opportunities to help children learn about their heritage. At Wide Horizons For Children, families are invited to come together for an annual event to celebrate their child's culture. This is an opportunity to experience a cultural performance as well as meet other families with children from the same country. Adult adoptees often tell me that attending a Wide Horizons culture camp was an important experience for them as a child. While they may have initially resisted coming it was the one time in the year that they were in a place where all the children were adopted and all of the same ethnicity. They found this very comforting and looked forward to returning each year.
At our Korea and China culture camps, Wide Horizons offers a separate program for teens that is run by adult adoptees. These adult adoptees are wonderful role models for teens who may not know anyone who is older and also shares their experience of being adopted and of a different race than their parents. While the children are in workshops, parents at our culture camps have their own workshop or presentation on issues of adoption. This provides parents an opportunity to share ideas, concerns and meet other families.
Learning from International Students
Role modeling is an important way for young people to develop ideas about their potential. Some of our families have participated in college programs hosting international students from their child's birth country. They have found it to be a nice way to bring their child's cultural origins into the home. This exchange benefits the international students as well, giving them an opportunity to spend time in an American home and learn more about the traditions of that family. Many colleges and universities have student associations that bring together students of the same cultural heritage. Some have performing groups and some put on festivals which our adoptive families are invited to attend. Other groups promote activities in which students volunteer to be a "big brother" or "big sister" to an adoptee of the same background. Occasional visits together give the adoptee an opportunity to know a young adult who shares his or her ethnicity.
Experiencing a Homeland Tour
Perhaps the most powerful experience adopted children and young adults can have is to travel back to their birth country and learn first hand about their roots. Wide Horizons encourages our families to do this by coordinating with a travel program that operates family tours for adoptive families to visit the country of their child's birth.
Traveling back to the birth country helps adoptees learn about the rich history and culture of their origin. They experience being in a place where they blend in and their parents are the ones who look different. If old enough, they may learn about the circumstances that may have resulted in being placed for adoption. Sometimes families are able to visit orphanages where the child lived or meet foster families who cared for the child. When adoptees return from these trips, their birth country is a reality, rather than a fantasy. They develop pride in their heritage that is then incorporated into their sense of self and identity.
As adoptees grow up, there are many opportunities to study abroad. Some students have chosen to go back to their country of birth for an extended stay during which they can learn the language and absorb the culture. Through its post-adoption services, Wide Horizons For Children acts as a resource to inform families of travel and study opportunities. Feeling connected to ones ethnicity and origins is a process for adoptees that involves many different life experiences. Parents need to support this process. Ultimately, adoptive parents will reap the rewards of raising a son or daughter who takes pride in both their birth and adoptive heritages.