Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Asian adoptees have a unique perspective on cultural heritage
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Asian adoptees have a unique perspective on cultural heritage

These adopted kids are learning traditional Beijing opera dances at Colorado Chinese Heritage Camp.

The Asian American community is a diverse world, and not just along purely ethnic lines. There are mixed-race Asian Americans, generations that all have different views on culture and identity, and also a thriving Asian American adoptee community. But adopted kids aren’t always connected to their root heritage.

The New York Times last week ran a well-written story interviewing Korean adoptees about the challenges of finding their identity. The article was based on a report on trans-racial adoptions by the Evan E. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which concentrated on adult adoptees who were adopted as children from South Korea. Focusing on Korean adoptees makes sense because, as the report states, “South Koreans comprise the largest group of internationally adopted persons in the U.S., and adoption from South Korea into the U.S. has a longer history than from any other nation; indeed, 1 in 10 of all Korean American citizens came to this country through adoption.”

Angry Asian Man and Linda of 8Asians both posted thoughtful reactions informed by their Korean American perspective.

Most notably, the report found that a staggering 78% of respondents considered themselves white or wanted to be white when they were children, and also that:

Racial/ethnic identity was of central importance to the Korean respondents at all ages, and continued to increase in significance into young adulthood. Sixty percent of them indicated their racial/ethnic identity was important by middle school, and that number grew during high school (67%), college (76%) and young adulthood (81%). Based on their overall scores on the Multi-group Ethnic Identity Measure, Korean adoptees had a stronger sense of ethnic identity than did White respondents, but with caveats. While being equal to Whites in agreeing that they were happy about being a member of their ethnic group and feeling good about their ethnic background, they were less likely to have a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic group, despite identifying more strongly with it. They also were less likely than Whites to feel welcomed by others of their own race.

There are a lot of fascinating data points to mull over in the report, and whether you’re interested in adoption, Asian American identity or trans-racial issues, it might be worth downloading and reading the 111-page PDF file, “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption.”

The “Culture Camp” reference caught my attention.

Growing up, I didn’t know any adopted kids, of any color. Now, Erin and I know many Asian adoptees, including Korean- and Chinese-born. Partly, that’s because there’s a great organization called Colorado Heritage Camps, which is a very successful culture camp that serves as an umbrella network for nine mostly Asian ethnic adoption communities. The organization serves kids adopted from China, Cambodia, Korea, India/Nepal, Philippines, Vietnam, and also Latin America, Africa/Caribbeans and Russia/Eastern Europe/Central Asia.

Groups of children up to 18 years old attend weekend-long Heritage Camps in the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver throughout the summer, and learn about their culture and heritage, mostly from older young people, most of whom have gone through the program themselves. The word’s spread about these camps, and organizers welcome attendees from neighboring states as well as across the country.

It’s a priceless experience, and we have friends who’ve been involved for their kids’ entire lives. Their two daughters were both adopted from China, and the older one just “graduated” from Chinese Heritage Camp a couple of months ago after attending for years. She’s now a counselor.

After hearing about the camps for years, we finally drove up to the Chinese Heritage Camp which closed out the 2009 season, at the end of summer. We were more than just impressed. We were moved by the passion with with everyone, from the kids themselves to their counselor, the experts brought in to teach panels and workshops on specific topics (the one we sat in on, aimed at the oldest attendees, was about a program that donates money to fight AIDs in rural China), and the parents of adopted kids, embraced the program. There are also non-ethnic programs like a ropes course for older kids, to help them conquer their fears, foster team-building and promote leadership skills. But the cute stuff is the tiny kids learning how to make paper Chinese cutout hats, and young kids learning traditional Beijing Opera moves (photo at top).

Here’s how Colorado Heritage Camps is described in a press release:

Since 1991, Colorado Heritage Camps Inc. has provided adoptive families with an opportunity to send their children for summer vacations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with programs built around the cultural heritage of countries of their birth, including Russia and nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

In 2006, Colorado Heritage Camps Executive Director Pam Sweetser developed a new program, More Than Me, which gives participants an opportunity to “give back” to their native countries by participating in crafts fairs and raising money for overseas charities.

According to child development specialists, pre-adolescent adoptive children often wonder how their lives would have been if they were not adopted. By maintaining their native heritage and working on behalf of their native communities, these children build up self-esteem and realize the advantages of their special situation, child psychologists say.

I certainly can’t argue with the logic behind Heritage Camps — especially when Erin and I saw the effect it has on hundreds of kids over a weekend in the mountains.

Like all non-profits, Colorado Heritage Camps is struggling, but it’s a worthwhile organization, and an important part of Denver’s AAPI community. We have nothing but respect for Sweetser and the dozens of volunteers who put on the camps every year. I hope they continue to do their great work, and serve as a multi-cultural resource for the adoption community.

We also learned more about the challenges of Asian adoption when we attended a dinner and conference on the topic last month, sponsored by the Asian Pacific Development Center, a non-profit health services organization for which Erin serves on the Board of Directors.

The dinner spotlighted the experience of famed Sports Illustrated and ESPN columnist and author Rick Reilly, and his 20-year-old daughter Rae, who was adopted as a baby from South Korea. The two told the moving story of traveling to South Korea when she was 11, to find her birth mother. It seemed like they wouldn’t be able to meet the woman, but they did — in a secretive last-minute session that only lasted half an hour.

The reason? The mother resisted the meeting because she had kept her pregnancy a sceret; even today, in South Korea, if an unmarried woman got pregnant it would bring shame to her family, and now that she’s married, she would be divorced and cast out if her husband found out she had a child out of wedlock in the past.

During the conference, we also met Jeff Gammage, a reporter fo r the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper who has adopted two daughters from China with his wife. He wrote a book, “China Ghosts,” about the process of adopting their older daughter, that Erin devoured the night of the dinner and raved about to him the next day during the conference. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list.

We sat in on a panel with young adults who were all adopted as kids from Korea (Rae Reilly was on the panel), India and Philippines, and the discussion was fascinating, and revealing. Not all adopted kids are interested in connecting with their roots. So it’s great if adoptive parents make the effort to introduce their kids to their heritage, but they should be sensitive to the kids’ level of interest, and not force it on them.

We spoke to one adopted Korean woman who admitted she wasn’t interested at all in her roots until she older. One told us they became interested in their culture only after they agreed to attend Colorado Heritage Camp one summer, and finally saw others who looked liked her, and more important, had grown up with the same identity conflicts of being Asian in a white family.

We also learned one sad reality for adopted Asian kids. Rae Reilly mentioned, and some other agreed, that the worst racism they faced often came from others from their own ethnicity. Reilly, who’s now a senior at UCLA — a school that has so many Asian students it’s jokingly called “University of Caucasians Lost among Asians” — said she feels like more of an outcast among Asian American and Korean American students than among white students.

That’s why the new “Beyond Culture Camp” report is important reading: It’s great to be well-meaning and introduce adopted kids into their heritage, but that may not be enough to help them fit into the outside world once they outgrow the confines of their adoptive family where they’ve grown up used to being the different-looking one in family photos.

Once they’re in school, or start working, they’ll need to find their place and feel secure in their identity, without the familiar, familial, support system always around them.

Here’s more from the Adoption Institute report:

Transracial adoption is a reality of contemporary American life. Since 1971, parents in this country have adopted nearly a half-million children from other countries, the vast majority of them from orphanages throughout Asia, South America and, most recently, Africa. Additional tens of thousands of multiracial families have been formed during this period with boys and girls liberated from foster care, with the rate of such adoptions from the domestic system growing from 10.8 percent in Fiscal Year 1995, when there were about 20,000 total adoptions, to 15 percent in 2001, when there were over 50,000. In the vast majority of these cases – domestic and international – children of color have been adopted by Caucasian parents.

The consequences of this historic phenomenon have been profound, both for the tens of millions of Americans into whose families these children have been adopted as well as for a society in which our understanding of what a family looks like is being altered every day. Yet we know very little about the impact of this change – most pointedly about its effects on the Asian, Hispanic and African American boys and girls at the core of it. How do they develop a sense of racial identity when raised by White parents, most often in predominately White communities? How do they incorporate an understanding of both being adopted and of having parents who are of a different race or ethnicity than themselves? How do they learn to cope with racism and stereotyping? What experiences are beneficial to them in developing a positive sense of self?

This ground-breaking study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, to our knowledge, constitutes the largest, most extensive examination of identity development in adopted adults in the U.S. And it does so by asking the experts – adult adoptees – about the experiences, strategies and choices that promote positive identity development. Too often, our understanding of identity, particularly of those adopted across race/ethnicity, has been formed through research only on children and youth. Similarly, conclusions about identity in transracial adoption too often have come from the perspective of parents, not adoptees themselves. The Institute’s study focuses on adult adopted persons, gaining their understanding of how they have integrated “being adopted” and their race/ethnicity with other aspects of themselves that, together, form an identity.