There is not a parent alive that doesn’t want to do good. Oh OK, maybe there are a few sickos, but most of us go into parenting wanting to do what’s right. If only we knew exactly what that is. We’ve been told that in order for our internationally adopted kids to grow up to be functional healthy adults, they have to understand and appreciate the culture and country of their birth. As a result, homeland tours have become one of the Holy Trinity of international adoption: eating food from your child’s birth country, instilling cultural awareness, and visiting your child’s birth country.
This desire to do good, can sometimes get competitive. Get a group of international adoptive parents together and you sometimes feel you’re in a cultural awareness contest. “We have (take your pick: curry, kimchi, chow mein) every week.” “Lein is taking Mandarin on Monday, Taekwondo on Wednesday, and we’ve just enrolled her in Chinese school on Saturday.” “Bekele is having an Ethiopian themed birthday party again this year.”
Like most international adoptive parents I bought whole-heartedly into the trinity of shoulds, plus a few more for bonus points (language lessons, yearly class presentations, Korean fairy tale books, and on and on ad infinitum). So of course, a visit to Korea was almost mandatory.
Based on discussions with other adoption experts, we decided the best age for our homeland trip would be when our daughter was 11 or 12–old enough to remember the trip, but young enough to not be caught in the emotional turmoil of the teens. We spent 3 weeks in South Korea as a family when she was 12. We thought that would likely be our only trip to Korea as a family, but our eldest daughter fell in love with the country, the adventure of living abroad, and the easy availability of work (Korea hires large numbers of native English speakers to teach in their schools), so she is living and teaching in South Korea this year. My youngest daughter, now 15, and I went to visit her this summer.
As I was preparing for this week’s Creating a Family show on Homeland Tours, it occurred to me that my daughter might have some interesting insights. I offer this conversation with her as an example of how some adopted teens might feel. I suspect her take on the much valued homeland trip might surprise some parents. I have attempted to keep my editorializing to a minimum to let her words speak.
Me: Hey sweetie, the show this week is on Homeland Tours and I figured you’re something of an expert having gone on two, so I want to interview you.
Her: (Eyes rolling and sighing heavily) Do I have to??
Me: You know, some day your eyes are going to stick that way, and you’ll go through life with your head tilted sideways to see. And no, you don’t have to.
Her: (smiling) Nah, I don’t mind, I was just trying to get a rise out of you. Ask away.
Me: What did you think of the trip to Korea we took when you were 12? You know, your overall impression.
Her: I don’t remember it.
Me: (What?? All that planning! All that money! And she flippantly dismisses it with “I don’t remember it”! Oh, I forgot, I’m not suppose to editorialize.) You don’t remember any of it??? [Said without a trace of sarcasm, irony, or sacrificial suffering.]
Her: Well, now that you say it that way, I guess I do remember a few things. There were a bunch of palaces and temples, but they’ve all run together in my mind. Going to see the Harry Potter movie was the best. Oh, and playing around with H (older brother) at that big park [actually a tea farm, but what the hey-park/farm, what’s the difference] was fun.
Me: We met your foster mother on that trip. How was that experience for you? Actually I know because we’ve talked about it, but humor me for this interview.
Her: Wow, that was really awkward. I mean, I guess it might have been good for her, I really don’t know, but for me, it was weird.
Me: In what way?
Her: Well, I don’t know her at all and didn’t feel anything at all towards her, but it was like the people at the orphanage thought I should. I mean, for me, she was just like some random person. I know it meant a lot for you to meet her though, so it was OK by me.
Me: Did you enjoy visiting the orphanage?
Her: It was OK, I guess, but I don’t really like babies, so it wasn’t a big whoop for me. I know you and Dad liked it, so that was fun.
Me: Did you ever wonder about where you spent your first months of life before you came to us?
Her: Not really. It just isn’t a big deal to me.
Me: What about our trip this summer?
Her: I liked it, but mainly because we were going to visit C (big sister), not really because I was in Korea. It was kind of fun to think about what my life would have been like if I had grown up in Korea. I’m really glad I grew up here. But most families with adopted kids who are going to Korea wouldn’t get to experience what we did. We only got to because C could take us to these places and to her school.
Me: It seemed to me that you found it embarrassing when people in restaurants and stores assumed you spoke Korean and always spoke to you first.
Her: Not really embarrassing, but definitely awkward, and it got old real fast.
[Quick editorial comment: She and I took 2 years of Korean when she was younger, but the degree of fluency required to comprehend the rapidly spoken language eluded us both.]
Me: It sounds like you wouldn’t necessarily recommend homeland tours.
Her: Well, both times, they were cool family vacations. It’s like I could say “Dude, I went to Korea this summer, where’d you go?” I like family vacations, but I’d of had fun anywhere we went.
Me: Do you think it may mean more to you later when you are older?
Her: Probably not. It’s not like Korea really pertains to me in some big special way. I mean, I was born there, but I grew up here.
Me: Any parting words of wisdom that you’d like to impart.
Her: If parents really want to go and take their kids, they should. I think it will probably mean more to the parents than to the kids, but that’s OK. I just think they should know that it might be awkward for their kid. [pause] Mom, I’m really glad you and Dad didn’t make it some huge meaningful deal and didn’t put pressure on me to act like it was. They were just fun family vacations, and I liked that.
I’m not at all surprised by my daughter’s assessment of her two trips to Korea since I know her well, and I witnessed her reaction. I also don’t think she’s alone in thinking that the homeland tour was more awkward than enlightening.
All parenting, including adoptive parenting, is part shooting in the dark. We adoptive parents have heard that some internationally adopted transracial adoptees struggle with their racial identity, and we want to do all in our power to help our kids avoid this struggle. The powers that be have told us that we must incorporate cultural awareness in our kids to prevent them from this fate. We want to know that if we do _________ (eat cultural food, read fairy tales from their homeland, play with racially same dolls, have friends of their ethnicity, and …), our kids will grow up to by happy functional adults with well formed racial, personal, and familial identities. I certainly know that’s what I want.
There is precious little research to guide us in helping our kids reach this goal. In 1999 nearly 400 adult Korean (and other Asian) adoptees gathered to talk about their shared experiences. Research on this group found that most experienced a distinct shift in ethnic self-identification from childhood to adulthood – from identifying with the majority (i.e. White) culture to identifying as Korean Americans. One hundred and seventy of the attendees, with an average age of 36, completed a survey. This is not a representative sample of adult international transracial adoptees since we can guess that those most likely to attend such an event would be more interested in issues of race and adoption identity. Nonetheless, I think we can learn from what they have to tell us. Among other findings, 78 percent reported that, as children, they had considered themselves or wanted to be White. Sixty-two percent have visited their birth country, and 74% of those found it helpful in forming their racial identity as Korean American. You can check out this research, as well as others, on our Adoption Research page.
The survey did not distinguish between trips that were made as children or teens and trips made as an adult. Considering that many of the respondents had been adopted in the 1960s and 70s, before families were encouraged to visit birth countries, we can assume that many of these trips were made as adults. One participant said, “It wasn’t until I actually returned [to my homeland] that I gained a deep sense of pride that continues to grow to this day.”
I suspect that my kiddo’s views on her trips to Korea are influenced by many factors: her age at adoption (baby), her age at the time of the trips (tween and teen), her general personality (doesn’t like being the center of attention), and her general focus in life (the here and now). I still believe that these trips were a good experience for her and for us. She’s right that thanking her foster mother was important for me, and seeing the room where my girl lived before going to her foster home, was powerful for her dad and me. I continue to think that it is important for her to have personal experience of the country from which she haled. I suspect that when she leaves the protective circle of our family and community, her Koreaness will become a bigger factor in her life. If I’m wrong, that’s fine too.
I am inherently suspicious of formulas in parenting. Parenting is just not that simple. In the distant past, adoptive parents were told to love their kids and treat them the same as a child by birth. Most of those kids turned out just fine. Now, parents are told to honor their child’s birth culture. I suspect most of this current crop of adopted kids will turn out just fine as well.
You can check out this week’s Creating a Family radio show on Homeland Tours.Image credit: FatMandy