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Three Worlds -- One AdoptiveFamily

By Caroline F. Daniel

Celebrating several cultures in international adoption.

Last Tuesday I learned how to prepare Thit Bo Xao, and then on Friday I roasted corned beef and cabbage: both served on our Chinese dinnerware. I m not really sure why it hadn t occurred to me before, but I was surprised at the lump in my throat when my daughter Chloe wanted Irish music so she could dance a jig she d learned in preschool. I actually teared up watching my beautiful Chinese daughter smiling, holding her folded arms steady and pointing her toes down as she jumped to the rhythm of Gary Owen s jig. Chloe loved not only the moment, but also the sound and passion of the people from whom her mother had come. She possessed more interest in things Irish than I had since before her adoption. We re a multi-ethnic family: Chinese, Vietnamese, and an Irish blend. We are also Americans. There are, of course, many how s and why s to blending those cultures, and at times the effort seems overwhelming considering that it doesn t always taste very good, or that it seems too long, too loud, or is, most likely, unintelligible. Nevertheless, in this household we continue to blend China, Viet Nam, and Ireland into our American way of life, and I d like to share with you not only how we do that, but also why it s so important.

To be honest, I've always loved the study of other cultures, and bringing China into my life was easy because my grandparents had been missionaries there and my mother and aunt were born there. My aunt's husband is Chinese, and I remember asking him during a week s visit as a ten-year-old to teach me Mandarin. Uncle David was good natured about it, but it wasn t until I was much older that I realized just exactly what I had asked him to do! Still, I believe it was openness that brought about my first encounter with blending Chinese culture into my own family. I think being open to opportunities through the contacts we make during the adoption process is one of the best places to begin. A couple of months after we got home, I was contacted by a travel-group friend about a Chinese couple who needed help obtaining a Canadian visa for their infant daughter so they could get to Vancouver in time for the beginning of the university semester. I was happy to help, made good friends, and learned not only about Chinese child care practices, but also how to make "jiao zi" (dumplings). From there I looked into Families with Children from China, and after moving to Denver followed my interest to the Far East Center, Chinese language school, and Chinese Heritage Camp for which I recruited the counselors. We also bought clothing such as chi po's and ao dais, and the girls have been allowed to wear them to special occasions, to church, and even to school when it was time to take pictures or to give the New Year presentation. We eat Chinese food, whether delivered or prepared at home, at least once a week. And Asian artwork is prevalent throughout our entire house, and not just in the girls bedroom. I ve also taken advantage of my position as a college instructor where I ve tutored many students who are Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants. Just yesterday, for instance, I learned from Lien that during Tet, the Vietnamese children wait to open their "li xi," (red envelopes) until they are finished with their greetings, usually several days. At that time it is a mad rush to compare amounts received! For a long while we rented our basement to two Chinese nationals who were university exchange students. In my position as editor of "Double Happiness," the Colorado Families with Children from China newsletter, I ve been contacted by the community-at-large regarding everything from speaking about adoption at local events to the need for housing for a Chinese exchange teacher. And to a large extent we do many the same of things with the Vietnamese culture. My young friend Thao taught me how to prepare the Thit Bo Xao, and her mother invited us to her home where she taught me the recipe for Bo Kho; both excellent Vietnamese dishes.

Now I am well aware that all of this may seem to be going overboard, and frankly the list was pretty daunting to me as I wrote it. But I must make it clear that in no way do we force ourselves to do more than we feel like doing at any given time. My policy is to take what we can use and prefer, and happily leave the rest. I give my girls the options of forks or "kuai zi" (chopsticks). And we greet each other with "Zao shang hao" and "Chao buoi sang" each morning, but I have no expectations as to how far Chloe or Robin will go as speakers of Mandarin or Vietnamese. I just want them to be familiar enough with the languages so that if they choose to study later on, they will have solid base from which to learn. It takes nothing from me to point out the contributions made by the Asian culture. It s easy, it is interesting, and it is who my children are. In a way, the study of Vietnamese and Chinese culture has become personal. I am transformed as much by my children as they are by me. What a gift.

I ve heard here and there that I shouldn't "shove this stuff" down my kids throats. "You're Americans first and foremost," I've been told. And I agree that we are for the most part members of this western civilization, it is this culture that we know fluently, and this society that profoundly influences the people we will become. Yet our children were not Americans first, and we in the international adoption community are rightfully urged to merge our adoptee s first cultures into our everyday lives to whatever extent we are able. Just because she left Viet Nam as an international adoptee doesn t mean that my daughter Robin ceases to be Vietnamese. It is her ethnicity, on this census form as well as every census to be taken throughout her lifetime. If a child is to love herself, she must first know who she is. It was rewarding to hear our preschool director point out Chloe's pride in being Chinese, stressing that this was so thanks to me. I do emphasize my daughters cultures because I have an adoptee s understanding of how important they are, now and in the future. Being adopted is difficult enough. Knowledge of relinquishment or abandonment plays havoc with self-esteem, so it's essential for our children s emotional health to give them everything we can that will build their self-image. Our children deserve to have more than just a superficial grasp of the ceremonies and foods and languages of their birthcultures, however. My goal is to enable my daughters to move comfortably and competently within their own individual racial groups, and ultimately within their own skins.

Let me finish by saying that the best surprise of all for me has been this renewed interest in my own ethnicity. After searching for my birthparents and learning of my Irish heritage, I traveled in Ireland to immerse myself in the sounds and smells, sights and tastes of my genetic past. Now I will enjoy that again and can include it in the realm of my little family. It seems to me that by exploring the various cultures of our families, and the world at large, we are becoming better Americans. It reminds us of how this country was built and by whom. One of Chloe s proudest moments was in winning "best costume" in a neighborhood 4th of July parade. Her costume, a simple red, white, and blue pant set, was topped with a straw hat tied with a patriotic ribbon below her chin. On one side of a sandwich board I had written, "The American Dream," and on the other, "I became an American citizen on August 5, 1996 at 16 months of age." After all, in a country as diverse as ours, it will take not just tolerance, but also empathy to ensure the quality of life we wish for our children. Blending cultures is worth the effort, and I encourage you all to explore ways to do so in your own families.

Copyright 2000 Caroline F. Daniel

Caroline F. Daniel, M.A., adopted Chloe in 1995, PRC, and Robin in 1997, SRV. An adult adoptee, she writes and speaks about adoption issues.

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