We do our fair share of the "pretty and perfect" Chinese culture stuff. It's FUN to dress up your girls in a Chinese silk qi pao and eat Chinese food. It just can't be ALL you do, unless you want your children to have a "let's play dress-up" relationship to Chinese culture. And I wholly agree with those who say "culture" isn't enough. Our kids need to know about racism in America (now and in the past), anti-immigrant sentiment in America, the model minority myth, the perpetual foreigner meme, gendered stereotyping of Asians . . . and the list goes on and on, far beyond a Chinese New Year celebration.
Tricky questions of ethnic identity are surfacing as the babies who arrived in the U.S. during the peak of Chinese adoption are entering grade school. The attendance at the New Year's events shows that experts and parents continue to move away from the old model of downplaying foreign culture so their children don't feel different.
But in a sign of how complicated these questions can be, there is growing worry that focusing on cultural symbols such as food and music can sometimes delude parents into thinking they do not need blunt conversations about the deeper implications of race and culture. Children should know that differences aren't always celebrated and often lead to prejudice, experts say.
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Americans have adopted an estimated half-million children from overseas in the last four decades. During the early period of international adoptions, most parents believed their children's lives would be easier if they shed their native culture, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on improving adoption practices.
Parents believed that their children were a "blank slate" that should be filled in exactly the same as biological children, Pertman said. This sort of evenhanded treatment would be a buffer from any possible discrimination — or so parents believed.
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Now that a consensus has formed that cultural immersion is useful, a debate has started within some segments of the adoption community that some parents are taking misguided approaches.
"The traditional culture — fan dances, tea ceremonies and holidays — is more accessible, more alluring, than the actual, complicated experience of being Asian-American," journalist and author Mei-Ling Hopgood, who was adopted from Taiwan, wrote in an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe last year.
The Donaldson Institute spoke to the challenges when it published a significant study last fall called "Beyond Culture Camp." The study, which surveyed 468 adults who were adopted from South Korea, quantified the conflicted racial identity that many feel.
The study found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said that as children, they considered themselves white or wanted to be white. Pertman said it wasn't the "taught stuff" — language classes, dance troupes — that adults say they found most effective as children. It was experiences such as being with other children and adults who were Asian-American.
"I hope that we're finally getting it, that this isn't a one-shot deal, but an ongoing process," he said.
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Andrea Louie, an associate professor of anthropology at Michigan State University who has researched the experiences of Chinese adoptees in the Midwest, shares the worries that some parents are avoiding difficult questions by looking backward into Chinese tradition. But she said more and more parents are forming a nuanced and realistic understanding of how racism affects their children.
Louie hopes that adoptive parents are not criticized excessively, especially when few Americans find these sorts of subjects pleasant.
"They are trying their best," she said, "but the truth is, no one likes to talk about race or acknowledge race."
Still hoping for change
3 weeks ago