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A New Parent's View of Vietnamese Culture Camp

By Sue Stillman

On a steamy, but beautiful July weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Catalyst Foundation's Vietnamese Culture Camp in Northfield, Minnesota with my husband John and our twelve month old son, Jack. We had initially been a little wary of attending the camp because Jack is so young, but we are definitely glad that we did.

Between tag teaming care of Jack and volunteering in the camp daycare, John and I were able to attend some of the adult educational sessions. They truly covered a broad range of subjects, from the joys and trials of parenting, to adoption issues, to the people of Vietnam. I especially enjoyed Maxine Walton's presentation on preparing your children for questions about adoption. Besides giving valuable information on ways to anticipate and handle other people's benign and not-so-benign curiosity, the presentation gave us as parents a chance to share our experiences. As a new parent, this was extremely valuable to me. I heard about everything from fending off the elderly lady who just can't stop until she gets the information she wants about "the real mother", to handling the curiosity of kids who pump your child for the juicy details of their past. Maxine's messages that you don't HAVE to answer people's questions, and that you can't "fix" the pain your child will go through were both reassuring and sobering.

I also attended a session on traveling with your child to his or her birth country. The presenter was Becca Piper, the director of the Ties Program, which arranges travel for adoptees to both learn more about their birth country and to explore their personal histories. Although there is not yet a program to Vietnam, she is expecting that this could occur within about three years, given enough interest. I was intrigued by her suggestion that the optimal time for children to visit their birth country is often in the preteen years, before adolescent issues get too strong a hold and color their experience. She also stressed the need to adequately prepare your child, both for the poverty which they will see (and should know is not just characteristic of Vietnam, but of much of the world), and for worries they might have of becoming lost or being left in their birth country. They must also be prepared for the fact that the information they have about their birth families may not be accurate, or may lead to a dead end. Although she said that some children will initially say they do not want to visit significant places or persons in their birth country, she also said she has never had a child back out when in came down to actually doing so. One of the most interesting points Becca made was to let kids dream about the trip within their own safety zone, even if what they are looking forward to is simply shopping or swimming in the hotel pool!

Other than the adult educational sessions, a true highlight of the camp was seeing the older kids really connecting with the young adult counselors, many of whom were Vietnamese- American themselves. We were able to attend the family session on learning the Dragon Dance, and saw what wonderful teachers the counselors were, teaching the drumming and dance steps with so much patience and humor. (If you've never seen a Dragon Dance- in -training, you are missing out on one of the finer things in life!). But apart from the formal sessions, it was great to see the kids interact with the counselors during "downtime": calling them by nicknames in the cafeteria and running to them when they saw them on campus.

The best part about camp was simply connecting with other families like ours. There was a tremendous sense of community and enthusiasm born out of our shared experience. It was wonderful to hear about everyone's journeys and to be able to bore other people to tears with ours. If you lived in a dorm in college, you'll relate to the joys of shared living in St. Olaf's Ytterboe Hall: not a lot of sleep, but great conversation and lots of laughter (though I'm not sure how much the other families in our "pod" were laughing when Jack decided to get up at 5:00 in the morning).

Finally, I have to say that my favorite camp moment took place (not surprisingly for me) in the cafeteria. It happened as I was making one of my multiple trips to the dessert section. As I passed a table of families, I heard a sweet three year old voice call out from behind me, "Hi Baby Jack's mom!". I felt I truly had arrived.

More Information: Current Vietnam Adoption Culture Camp events and dates provided on the Families with Children from Vietnam website. Or visit the Catalyst website.

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