Helping Adopted Children Find Their Identities

Filed under: Adoption

adopted children

Twenty years ago, when my husband and I adopted our children from Korea, it was suggested that if we loved them enough they would not crave missing identity elements from their past.

Somehow, this advice didn't seem right. We wanted to acknowledge our children's experience of often being the only Asian faces among their peers. So, we decided to be the only Caucasian faces among many Asian ones in the Sacramento, Calif. Korean-American community.

We didn't stay on the surface; we dove in deep to form friendships with first-, second- and third-generation Korean Americans, as well as Koreans living in Korea. I made my first Korean-American friend by walking into her dry cleaning shop. I spent hours manning the front counter of her store while she took her children to the doctor and attended school conferences. She spent hours teaching me to cook Korean food at her house or simply talking to me while my children played with hers in the back of her store.

The latest expert advice is to expose adoptees early and often to their cultures of origin. On the Internet, I see many discussions revolving around the question "How much culture is too much?" People ask, "Should children be forced to learn about their countries of origin?"

To me, these don't seem to be the relevant questions. This type of experience is different from having family friends to whom children can relate as little or as much as they like. Korean and Asian-Americans are often in our homes and in our lives. They are not our "Korean friends." They are our friends.

As they grew, our children related to these family friends almost casually. Because they were readily available, my children asked our friends questions about Korea and got ideas about how to handle racial incidents as they arose.

Even with many resources available, identity formation is not easy. In addition to parenting, children are influenced by many factors, including their innate genetics, the communities in which they are raised, the friends they make and the resolution of unexpected experiences that arise in their lives.

For many adoptees there is the additional layer of an unknown birth family. And, for inter-ethnic adoptees, there is another culture and another ethnicity to add to the mix when forming a sense of self. A good relationship between parent and child helps. As parents, the best thing we can do is to show our children that we value all the elements of who they are. Having friends from our children's ethnic background makes a strong statement of our willingness to love what is not inherently within ourselves.

Friendships are best when they include reciprocity. In order to give as well as get, here are some ideas to make friends from your child's ethnic background. We don't become friends with everyone we meet, so it may take many encounters to find good friends.

1. You may find friends at your child's school or in your neighborhood. If you see someone who is isolated and struggling to connect, you might be a good bridge. If you find someone who is already well-integrated, you have an excellent role model for your child.

2. Travel to your child's homeland in a way that promotes deeper interaction. Programs that include home stays are wonderful for really getting to know others. If you host an exchange student from your child's birth country, you may have a chance to visit that student in their home.

3. Get involved in ethnic community organizations. Attend an ethnic church, a cultural fair, or volunteer to help seniors. If you don't give up easily and are open to new ways of doing things, opportunities for making friends will emerge.

4. Frequent ethnic businesses. Who doesn't appreciate a good and loyal customer? Friendships can evolve.

5. Make friends through adoption community events. You will have fewer opportunities here. You are asking people to come into your comfort zone rather than entering theirs. But if you become one of the organizers or volunteers, you may find opportunities to connect.

If you've adopted a child from another ethnicity, how are you connecting him with his culture?

This article originally appeared on PBSParents and was written by Chris Winston. Chris is founder and former president of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), which aims to support networking and build understanding among Korean-born adoptees, adoptive families, Koreans and Korean Americans. KAAN hosts an annual national conference in a different city each year. Winston has published articles and presented papers and workshops for numerous adoption- and Korea-related organizations and conferences. In 2006, KAAN published her book, A Euro-American on a Korean Tour at a Thai Restaurant in China. She lives in Sacramento, California with her husband, Mark. They have three adult children, two of whom were adopted from Korea.

Deann Borshay Liem was adopted in 1966 from South Korea by an American family in California. She has made two films about her experiences – "First Person Plural" and "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee" - both of which have aired on PBS.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.