An Interview Worth "Listening To"
By Barb Drotos
Melesse is 18 years old and was adopted as a teenager from Ethiopia. Her best friend Anna is 17 years old. She is Liberian and is being raised by her aunt and uncle.. The two girls share an inseparable bond as their experiences have similarities and their desire for racial and cultural connection is paramount in their lives. They sat with me for a brief interview to share what race and culture means to them. They are both being raised by people other than their birth parents. Both have experienced transition and immense grief and loss in their lives, yet there are significant differences. They have connected as great friends and emotional "sisters." They rely on one another for support and understand one another on a deep and profound level. Their conversation with me reveals their emotions and opinions about transition to another family, as well as the importance of race and culture in their lives. read on and learn a bit about older child adoption as well as kinship care. The more we "listen" to youth, the more we learn and grow.
How was your transition initially?
Anna: Yes, shocking!!
M: Overwhelming. Knowing what is right and what's not. I knew my priorities and then, all of a sudden, they were all different. It was hard to define them.
A: You had your set of rules, then they're all different, it's true. They are hard to figure out. You don't want to be offensive to anyone.
M: It makes you want to forget your values in order to fit in. You cannot say "no" because you are in a new house, a new family. You want to do everything right because you don't want them to reject you.
A: You have a shape and you have a molding. It's like fitting into a new mold all of a sudden. It is really hard.
M: People expect you to drop everything and be something else "just like that" (snapping her fingers).
A: It was about the rules, but the culture was the same for me. I felt guilty that they had to drop everything and care for me. When I first got there, I thought I was doing fine and being respectful. But then I was told I wasn't being respectful. It was confusing.
M: Fear. I felt abandoned by my family, my culture. I thought I must have been a disgrace to my (birth) family. I am now learning that is not true, but it takes many years to realize that.
How important is race now?
A: Extremely important. You need to know our values. It becomes overwhelming. You could say that greediness sort of overtakes me. My identity, my country's beliefs and culture is so important. I just cannot get enough of it. I want it all the time.
M: Simple rules are different here. Visiting people in the community, being with one another as neighbors is different in the United States. People are very guarded. I like the way it is in my country and I miss that.
A: I grew up in America. But my culture and race are still really important. I really like learning about my country from my family members. My parents and aunts and uncles grew up in Liberia and they have a lot of memories. They tell me stories.
M: Your background matters. Culture and ethnicity matte, not just race. Just because you are African American does not mean that I can relate to you. Our history is really different. A lot of times people think that if I am around African American people, I am fine. But African Americans are not Ethiopians. They do not share the same language, food music... it's not the same culture. I need to be around Ethiopian people some of the time. It's important to me.
A: I can assimilate to African Americans, generally, but my culture matters to me. Being open matters to me, that I can be myself and not worry what others think. I need to be Liberian and also American.
M: I can relate to as person from Africa SO MUCH MORE than I can relate to African Americans who grew up here in the United States.
A: Talking to others, especially those who have common experiences. Also being open with your parents about how you feel.
M: I disagree. It is your parent's job to take interest in this.
A: I agree with that. They need to take an interest in their child's culture. This will help kids to feel included in the family and respected.
M: Find out as much as you can about how the child was brought up. Be respectful of their country and incorporate the culture into your family.
A: Ask "How were you brought up?" And get specific... try to do some of the same things. Take interest in simple things like food, language and holidays of the country.
How important is it to interact with others from the same country?
M: VERY important!
A: Well, I already know them in my situation. They are family members. But being African is important to all of us and we socialize with other African and Liberian families. I love that!
How can adoptive parents embrace culture?
M: Teach children about their country.
A: Take a trip to the country if you can! Get an unbiased perspective by going there and being with the people.
M: Study it. Listen and dance to the music, cook the food, read about it, talk to people from the country. Do everything!
Thank you both for taking the time to talk with me.
M: Thanks for asking our opinion. It made me feel really good.
A: Yeah, I am glad you asked those questions. I hope it helps people.
Melesse and Anna are bright and articulate girls who are well on their way to young adulthood. They both have educational and career goals and aspirations. They have thought about race and culture and what it means to them. They are insightful about why they are so close and friends and believe it is because they share a common history, including common struggles. It speaks volumes to know that this brought them together and their friendship is so strong. They talk or text each other on a daily basis and rely on one another in many ways. Let's learn from this and from their interview. Not all of our children in adoption are this articulate or old enough to understand how race and culture is connected to identity development. Let's try to open our hearts and minds to the details that they shared. Let's "listen" to our children through the lens of race and culture. It is powerful. Race and culture are essential to their sense of identity and well being. They are most content when they spend time with each other and when they feel close to their culture. It is such a simple message and yet so profound.