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Cultural Identity for International Adoption: How Hard to Push

May 12, 2016

This content was originally published by Creating a Family, the national adoption & infertility education nonprofit. Click here.

As a newly adoptive mom, I was the conscientious type.  I read all the books and attended more than my share of the lectures.  I was determined to ace adoptive parenting.  I knew that to get an A I had to instill in my child the cultural identity of her birth country.  This, the pundits assured me, was essential for her self esteem, for her to develop into a fully integrated adult.  Okie dokie, I’m nothing if not task oriented. Full integration here we come.

We went to Love Feasts at a local Korean church, we read Korean fairy tales, we incorporated some Korean foods into our meals, we went to culture camps, we took the obligatory pictures of our daughter decked out in her hanbok.  Yes, it’s true, she ignored her Asian baby doll in favor of her Beanie Babies and later her American Girl doll (how prophetic!), but this was only a minor set-back in our quest for cultural identity. I send all my children off in the morning by calling after them as they run into school, “mah nee sah lang ay oh” (I love you very much) and my daughter sang it back to me as she disappeared into the building.

Scoring a Solid “A”

Fate smiled on us when the new associate minister at our church was Korean.  His wife and I became friends, and my Korean cooking improved.  I secretly beamed when my daughter begged for kim bap (a simplified Korean sushi) in her lunch box while my friend’s son, one year younger, begged for peanut butter and jelly on white bread.  I was making a solid A.

I felt I had reached the pinnacle when my daughter and I started taking Korean language lessons.  Now, for those of you from big cities, this may seem like no big deal, but I live in a small mountain town and trust me, it was a big deal.  I was sure to score an A+ at this cultural identity business.

The first year went relatively well.  My daughter, competitive sprite that she is, liked being better than me, and better she certainly was.  My mouth seemed incapable of forming the words correctly.  At one point the teacher asked me to stick my tongue out so she could determine if the problem was physical.  She sadly shook her head, while my child, the imp, rattled off something with perfect inflection and almost tripped over her smugness.

Grade Begins to Slip

But by the second year, the bloom was definitely off the Korean language lesson rose.  On lesson days my dearest would jump in the car after school and immediately begin to whine: “Do we haaaaave to go?”  I began stopping at the ice cream shop on the way to the lessons.  (It’s not really bribery, you see, if it’s “on the way”.)

I wrestled with what to do.  I wanted my child to feel pride in being Korean, and I wanted her to at least be familiar with the language.  “You will learn about your birth culture dammit” just didn’t seem the right approach.  Also, I questioned how much use she was going to get out of being able to say soccer and kitten (an example of her latest choice for vocabulary words) in Korean.

We agreed to compromise–my fall-back in parenting when a child feels very strongly about something.  We would shift the lessons from strictly Korean language to Korean culture and language, and we would stick with them until the end of the year and then reassess.  The problem took care of itself when the teacher moved that summer.  I noted with sadness that some time in 6th grade she stopped yelling mah nee sah lang ay oh over her shoulder as she ran into school.

The Slippery Slope

Still I continued my quest.  We had attended culture camps in the past but had moved away from our former camp.  I had been searching for a camp that we could drive to.

Me: Hey, guess what, there is a Korean culture camp in July and it is only four hours away.

Daughter (age 11): Do I haaave to go?

Me (stalling and hoping for inspiration): Well, no….

Me (thinking): There goes the A.

Me (out loud): but, I thought it would be fun for you and me to get away from home just the two of us, and we’d get to eat some good Korean food.

Daughter: I think I’d really rather stay at home.

Me (thinking): Oh great, I wrote a book stressing the importance of cultural identity for internationally adopted kids and mentioned culture camps specifically, and now my own internationally adopted kid doesn’t want to go.

Me (out loud):  I hear there is a really big mall nearby, and we could go shopping while we’re there.

Daughter: We could always go shopping here.

Me (thinking): Do I stoop to throwing in a trip to Six Flags?  OK, shopping was borderline, but Six Flags would clearly put both feet on that slippery slope of bribery.

Not that I’m against all bribery, as you will remember from my once weekly stop at the ice cream shop, but how low am I willing to go.  And at what point do I allow my child to decide how much Korean culture she wants.  In my dreams she was going to be a counselor at one in high school and college.  We tabled the decision and later decided that she could decide.  Yes, I tried once again to sway her decision, but she decided not to go.  And for the record, I resisted the temptation to throw in Six Flags.

Cultural Identity for Internationally Adopted Kids is Tricky

This cultural identity business is tricky.  Our kids come from a different cultural heritage, but the reality of their day to day existence is, and should be, American.  I want my kid to be comfortable in both because when she leaves the protection of our family’s umbrella, the world will see her as Korean-American.

There has been some interesting research on older Korean adoptees, although not much that has been published in peer reviewed journals. (I know I’m a research geek, but honestly, I can’t help myself.)  Many Korean adoptees say that they wish they had known more about their cultural heritage growing up—that they had grown up more comfortable in their Koreaness.  But I suspect, if asked, they would not have wished to have it shoved down their throats, especially as an adolescent.

Clearly my girl is comfortable in her soccer playing, iPod listening, piano lesson taking, American Eagle wearing American identity.  She’s the all American kid in many ways.  But my quest for Korean cultural identity is to help her feel comfortable with her other culture, the one she hales from but doesn’t live in.  I can’t recreate that culture for her, and I don’t know that that would serve her well.  What I really want is for her to feel comfortable in her skin, in all its Korean and American glory.  I think she does, at least to the degree that is possible for a 7th grade girl.  She tells me with a smile that she likes being Korean, and she likes the attention of looking different from most of her peers.  She loves the food.  She remembers almost none of the language.

I thought another couple of years at culture camp and language school would help cement the deal.   She disagrees, and at her age I think she gets to decide.  Although the quest doesn’t stop, the ownership should.  Right now she doesn’t feel much need to go very far in this quest.

Last week when I went to tuck her in, she was re-reading for the hundredth time Tales from a Korean Grandmother.  I curled up on her bed and we laughed about our favorite folk tales.  As I was kissing her good night, she whispered, “mah nee sah lang ay oh.”  Yeah, back attcha kid.  I guess, as with most things in parenting, I’ll settle for a solid B.

What do you think? How hard should parents through international adoption push cultural identity on their kids?