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
Add Your Comment
You are right. this is in no way the reaction that I would have expected. I had not given much thought to how my kids will react on the trip back to China that we hope to make in a few years, but I did think it would be bigger than this. I want it to be a big whoop. I sent this to my DH, and he says to say thanks because we needed to take the pressure off. I think he’s right.
We actually had the privledge of having a similar conversation with a Guat teen at a get together that changed my family's views substantially. We have decided to allow our son the choice to follow any connection he may have to Guatemala or adoption related groups/events. I think a lot of what we do is more for us and not so much what our children want/need. I also think it is important on a case by case situation, every child is different. Thanks for sharing this interesting post!
Loved this and agree! I can definitely see this opinion from my daughter at a young age.
I really liked this article. Sure, your daugther doesn’t speak for ALL adoptees, but in my personal experience she probably speaks for the (vast) majority. She certainly could have spoken for me.
I’m 32, adopted from Korea to Denmark at 6 months old, and at 15 I would have said exactly the same. I have a sister (two years younger, not bio.) and adoption have always been an open topic in our family. Our parents have often asked us throught our teen years if we wouldn’t like to either search for our biological families or visit our birth country. Neither of us have ever been very interested. Sure, if our parents had taken us, we would have gone, but since they left it up to us we never got to go.
Not until we were both adults in our late twenties. Rather suddenly the desire to learn and see more occurred for the both of us and in 2007 we went with our parents and my husband on a group tour. It wasn’t a Homeland Tour, I’m not sure we have those over here, but a cultural journey to Korea for everyone who’d like the experience, not just families who has adopted.
It was fantastic and we all fell in love with Korea. Had we gone when we were teenagers I have no doubt that it would have had a very different outcome. We would have gone for our parents, it would have been awkward and perhaps overwhelming and would very likely have left me with a feeling of “now I’ve tried it and it was no big whoop”. Over and done with.
This time I couldn’t wait to go back! It took me and my husband three years to save up, but we just returned after having spend the whole month of September in Korea, this time on our, on our own terms. Amazing.
I don’t feel like a Korean-Dane, I feel Danish and this trip definitely solidified that feeling. Korea is my place of birth but Denmark is my home. But it also definitely solidified and strengthened that intangible bond I feel with Korea. It’s not that it’s heart wrenching to be there or anything, but it’ll never be “just another vacation destination”.
All that to say, that although every adoptee’s experience and reaction will be unique, I’ve never fully understood the huge focus in the US especially on Homeland Tours for kids and teens. Sure, give them the option because it can’t hurt if they themselves show an interest, but don’t push the issue.
And don’t expect them to want to go. At least not because it should be important to THEM, because in that respect we’re talking very complex and deeply rooted feelings and emotions that kids and even most young adults aren’t emotionally mature enough to have a handle on – which is probably why most adoptees don’t develope the desire themselves until they’re mid-twenties to mid-thirties. When adoptees start to settle down and look for their place and identity in life, and especially when they start having kids it’s very common that the desire to know about their beginnings surfaces.
If you do go on a Homeland Tour I think it’s important for you parents to at least act like it should be no big deal to the adoptee even if it’s an adult adoptee. It’s very easy to feel pressure to feel a certain way or act or react a certain way. And usually the more you push, the more we resist or even resent.
You can say/show that’ it’s a big deal for YOU and be exited or moved when you go visit personal places, but don’t question why the adoptee might seem unfazed. There can tons going on beneath the surface and due to maturity levels it might not even be something the adoptee is able to talk about. It can be solely on an emotional level.
And don’t expect it to necessarily erase future identity issues. I have talked to a fair share of adoptees who have eaten the food, done the cultural and language classes, taken the Homeland Tour, had the ethnical diversity and adopted friends in their social circle and still struggle with themselves as they get older. Unfortunately there is no fool proof way of preventing that. If only…
On the positive side, it’s not something that’s necessarily severely detrimental. Although the wounds might be deep and the longing for answers and the reunion with biological family can cause tears, being adopted and all that it entails have always been part of who we are. We don’t know anything different (at least most of us) and it’s very possible to have happy and fulfilling lives while shedding those tears.
Mia_h_n, Thank you so much for capturing in words what I’ve been contemplating a lot since the week before our show on Homeland tours. In know way am I saying that my daughter’s reaction is the way most kids will react, but from my discussions with lots of adoptees and parents, I think it is certainly not atypical.
I love love love your posts on adoptive parenting. It’s like you are my guide since my kids are 6 and 8 now. Reading your blog makes me feel so hopeful. We have been saving for years to take our girls back to China, but I have to say that I would have anticipated that the trip was going to be the highlight of all trips for my girls. I hadn’t even realized that I was thinking that until I read your daughter’s reaction and thought wow, I never thought of that. We will still go, but I’m working on my attititude. Fortunately I’ve got a lot of time. After listening to the show on this topic, we’ve decided to wait a little longer and let them get older.
Fabulous and really important post! WOW! Are you sure you weren’t interviewing MY daughter? We made a return trip to the Philippines when she was almost 17, and she felt very much the same as your daughter did. And me? Well, I was a little let down. I expected this big “wow” connection with her homeland, and it just didn’t happen that way. We went into the trip as you did. We treated it more as a family vacation that just so happened to be to our daughter’s homeland. We did not take one of the packaged Homeland Tours; instead we made our own plans, stayed at an amazing 5-star resort, and ventured out on our own. Nonetheless, I have to admit I had my own expectations of how I thought my daughter would react. I found that I had to constantly remind myself that they were MY expectations; not hers. I posted about our trip on my blog here http://lilybelles.blogspot.com/2010/05/homeward-bound.html if you’d like to take a peek.
Again, great article!
Wendy, great blog on your trip back to the Philippines with your daughter. Hey everyone, if you enjoyed my blog and want a different, but similar, take on another teens homeland visit check out Wendy’s post at http://lilybelles.blogspot.com/2010/05/homeward-bound.html
Thank you for your humor and your honesty. I too love your parenting blogs. I’m on your email list now so I’ll get a weekly dose.
Thank-you dawn for the article. We are planning a trip to China in the spring with our
9 year old daughter. We have been asking her questions (1st, do you want to go??)
and asking her to voice her concerns. ( her biggest concern is a long plane ride, how do we know what water to drink and … um the food.) We are a traveling family and enjoy investigating new places. We are treating this trip the same; the 3 of us are investigating a new country, not ” THIS is YOUR birth country and it is ALL very IMPORTANT.!! Thats too much pressure. We have done the dolls and story books and school presentations of Chinese holidays (because she wanted to) in a relaxed way. The biggest avenue we have considered important is her exposure to other families with adoptees. We have a large FCC chapter in Seattle and a large Chinese population. We have fun with their holiday parties and her school has at least 5 families with kids from China. She sees being adopted as just another family type in the big picture of America.
But she is proud to be Chinese… and American, and we feel lucky to be in Seattle with so much Chinese culture available to see and use as we choose. You have given me some insight on what she may find important in this trip vs what the tour guide “says” is important. Thank-you!
Melissa, I do think looking back that it was good that we treated it as a new and wonderful country to explore as a family, rather than this is YOUR country and YOU must appreciate it. As it turned out, for now at least, it is a much more important country to our eldest child who is ours by birth. Your daughter might find it more enlightening than mine. There is no one right way for an adopted person to feel or be. What we talked about pre-trip a lot was what it would feel like to look like everyone else, and also what it would feel like to look like everyone, but to feel different because of the language. I don’t know if you can really prepare for this feeling, however.
Thanks for the post. Your daughter’s reaction makes me feel better about our decision to postpone our plans….maybe permanently. Raising a child who came out of an extremely abusive orphanage has put an entirely different twist on the Homeland trip idea. She has made huge progress but the thought of what a return trip might trigger for her just doesn’t seem appropriate at this time. Perhaps with a lot more healing and therapy the day might come….
Paula, I should caution that I don’t offer my daughter’s perspective as necessarily typical. I know she isn’t alone, but there has been no good research that I’ve been able to find that explores how homeland tours affect internationally adopted children. I also continue to think that my daughter might have a different opinion when she’s 25 rather than 15. I would encourage you to get the book Home to Homeland. It is a collection of essays, but a couple of them talk about exactly the situation you describe. What to do when your child has experienced abuse. We will do another show on this topic sometime in the future and I hope to talk about some of the more complicated issues that we didn’t get to on this show.
Dawn – oops sorry thought your oldest daughter was also adopted. Interesting that she is the one working in Korea.
As a somewhat related aside: Have you ever addressed the issue of families that have both bio and adopted children? For example – if you already have an adopted child and then have a bio child – is this somehow detrimental to the adopted child?
I just wanted to say that, once again, I enjoyed your article and perspective.
Great article! Another question is how to choose which homeland tour to go on. Many choices! I would guess that most people go on one organized by the adoption agency they worked with. However, if there is not one available, (or for other reasons) there are private groups and other agency groups organizing tours. And some people prefer just to go over without it being “an adoption tour” Also if you have two kids adopted from different countries, how many have the whole family go on both trips. Lots of possibilities.
Good point Deborah. We talked about a lot of this on the Oct. 13 Creating a Family show, which was on Homeland Tours. I interviewed to co-editors of From Home to Homeland. I recommend this book. http://www.fromhometohomeland.com
Wow. What a great post. So refreshing. I love the absence of “should” – more of us should live with less “should!” especially in the area of parenting.
And it’s funny that you mentioned “formulas” in parenting. Just read a great blog post from one of my “heroes” from the early years of my parenting. I don’t know why I didn’t think to check and see if she had a blog, but my sister sent me the contact info and today’s was SPOT ON! My moms’ group just started Cloud and Townsend’s Raising Great Kids curriculum and I’m so excited for what it will yield for the families in our group. Parenting is a process. They said in the first session dvd lesson: We are responsible for the process. God is responsible for the results!!!! True for parenting of every little one God gives us, adopted or not. And freeing in that we can do the best we know how to do but ultimately, the WHO that they become is between them and God.
Here’s the link to the blog I mentioned: http://lysaterkeurst.com/2010/10/the-formula/
Thanks for the refreshing, balanced perspective!!!!
I meant to say – “I’m sure OUR kids”
I would like to hear what your other daughter would say in response to those questions.
I certainly understand what you mean about the “competitiveness” of adoptive parents. I probably could do more culturally with my child….
I agree with this – “I am inherently suspicious of formulas in parenting. Parenting is just not that simple.” Adoptive parents today think they have all the answers based on what adoptees of yesterday had to say. I’m sure I’ll kids will have things to say that we never even thought of.
Jenifer: “I’m sure our kids will have things to say that we never even thought of.” Amen. I feel the same way!! I can hardly wait to see what some really good research on kids adopted from 1990+ would show. My eldest daughter is mine by birth, so I don’t know how relevant her responses would be to the idea of homeland tours. She loved the trip and thought it was really important for our whole family to see the country where our youngest was born.