My Quest for Cultural Identity

Dawn Davenport


International Adoption and Cultural Identity

Creating a cultural identity for your internationally adopted child.

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.

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 spirit 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.

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.

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 just 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.

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.” Yea, back attcha kid. I guess, as with most things in parenting, I’ll settle for a solid B.


Image credit: kpishdadi

22/10/2008 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 17 Comments

17 Responses to My Quest for Cultural Identity

  1. Avatar Lannie Loeks says:

    All 3 of my kids have gone to Concordia Language Villages…My eldest, now 32, went for 4 years as a credit camper French Immersion (1yr HS credit for a month at camp). My middle, now 28, Went to the El Lago del Bosque for Spanish credit. My youngest, 17, just finished her 3rd year as a credit camper also at El Lago del Bosque…and also 1 year as a credit camper at the Korean site. The camps are full immersion so language, cultures of countries speaking that language, food, games…reading and writing. And all with other teenagers!! All the sites are on a lake and they have an International Day that all camps get together (and there are a bucket of them)…Highly recommend! My kids returned home with great skills and a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves.

  2. Avatar Dudley says:

    I’d like to hear more on the whole cultural identity issue. Our children are very young but we are planning on doing everything in our power to bring in their culture (Vietnamese). It hadn’t occurred to me that at some point my kids might not want us to do this. Thanks for the food for thought.

  3. Avatar Edward J. says:

    This is something my wife and I have also wrestled with. How hard to push? Thanks for a well reasoned example.

  4. Avatar Fiona says:

    What I’m never really sure of is how hard to push. It was easy when they were young, but as they get older they start havign their own opinions. I know this is normal and good and all, but when it comes to the culture stuff, it throws me for a loop. I worry that they will need this and that I should make them do it for their own good. This post said what I feel and worry about, that it is a reflection on me. Like you I guess I’ll settle for being less than perfect because I’m not sure there is any other way to be. I also read you blog on The Perfect Parent and thorougly enjoyed it! I’ll RSS this blog from now on. Do you have a regular day that you post on your blog?

  5. Avatar Jack says:

    GReat blog! Very funny and right on target!! Keep up the good work.

  6. Avatar iris says:

    Hi! Wonderful site and blog! I get the joke in the title. MY quest, rather than our or her quest. I like you keep trying if only so that when they are adults or teens they can’t say, you never did _____. Parenting is such a ride! Happy holidays!

  7. Avatar Dawn says:

    Violet, yes, I would appreciate your posting this link so that others who are interested in this topic can see it and comment on it. It is so much more fun for a blog to be a dialog rather than a monologue.

  8. Avatar violet says:

    Hooray! I couldn’t agree with you more. Finally someone who agrees with me. May I post a link to this other places?

  9. Avatar johnnie says:

    I like how you titled thie MY quest for cultural identity. I know how you feel, but I agree with you that we have to do it now for our kids since they aren’t able to do it right now. We need to keep the door open withour shoving them through it.

  10. Avatar G. L. says:

    Excellent blog! Interesting article and very informative! I will subscribe.

  11. Avatar randi says:

    The hard part, for me at least, is having to make the decision now, not knowing what my children will want when they are older. Margie, who commented above, has kids who are much older now so she can see that her approach worked. But my worry is that if I don’t push they’ll have identity issues when they are older, but if I do push, then they will have a different set of identity issues. It’s hard to know how to strike the balance when all the adoption literature says to do all the cultural things you possibly can. This is the first piece I’ve read that acknowledges that maybe there is a different way. I appreciate the other reader’s comments. I’m checking these comments frequently and learning as I go. Keep it up.

  12. Avatar Dawn says:

    I liked what Margie said about not looking for the “one size fits all” approach. Even when my munchkin didn’t want culture camp or language lessons, she was still interested in going to the Korean grocery store when we were in a city that had one. She was also usually open to reading about the culture. Probably the best thing I was able to do, and I lucked into it, was become friends with a Korean woman. We also took a three week vacation to Korea which I’ll blog about sometime. Thanks for the comments. I love the feedback and the conversation.

  13. Avatar Margie says:

    I’ve found that bringing a wide variety of ways to connect with our children’s Korean community and culture has been key. My kids’ desire to connect with their Korean heritage and the Korean American community has ebbed and flowed over time, so “one size fits all” would definitely not have worked. At 17 and 19, they openly identify as Korean and Asian American, and are proud of their identities.

    I just learned of your radio show today, hope to catch a program soon.

  14. Avatar Shellie says:

    I must be a B- or C+ parent. For the same reason. My children are Chilean American. One adopted, four from my Chilean husband and I. We want them to know and be proud of both their heritages. But my kids are very strong willed. And they don’t care. Yet. We do the best we can, but you really can’t shove it down their throat. There are stages of development and personality to take into consideration. I feel like they are much more likely to be proud of their heritage and learn the language if we let it grow on them gradually instead of shoving it down their throats.

  15. Avatar Marie says:

    Dear Dawn. I loved reading this. You absolutely did the right thing giving your child the opportunity to choose. I wish my parents would have done something like this for me. Instead they and everyone else around me had the “you’re absolutely no different than anyone else” approach. Also it was funny and shows you’re ability to step back and let your child grow on her own.

  16. Avatar Marni Levin says:

    I found this whole topic very interesting. Here is an excerpt from a similar article which I recently read:

    Dee, who is Chinese, was adopted as a baby by American parents who had lived in Taiwan and loved Chinese culture which they wanted to share with her. They enrolled her in a Chinese language school on Sunday mornings but Dee hated going. She wanted to go to birthday parties and be with her friends like everyone else. Throughout her childhood, her parents took every opportunity to expose Dee to Chinese culture and to help her gain an appreciation for her heritage. It was not until she was sixteen that she was finally able to convince her parents that she was not interested in learning about that part of herself. She was happy and satisfied with her American heritage and felt she didn’t need more than that. Finally, they gave up. Dee, now a married woman with her own family, realizes that some adoptees want to learn more about their heritage, and it may be important for them to do so. In such cases, she feels adoptive parents should support their children’s desire and help them learn. But in cases where adoptees are not interested, parents should be respectful of that too.

  17. Avatar randi says:

    I loved your show today with the panel of transracially adult adoptees where you talked about how hard to push the whole cultural identity quest. I thought their advice to follow the child was good. I really enjoyed this blog entry that mirrors my own experience. Thanks again.

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