Culture and Adoption: Sharing What You Don’t Know

How do teach your children about a culture that isn't yours?

Elizabeth Curry February 26, 2015
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The Lunar New Year was February 19, when the Year of the Goat was ushered in. While we celebrate this, as well as other holidays celebrated in my adopted children’s native countries, they come, at least for me, with a little bit of baggage. They mark the times in the year when I spend more time than usual pondering things such as culture, how my children view themselves, and my responsibilities of raising a transracially adopted child.

My husband and I are neither Vietnamese nor Chinese. What we have learned about these cultures comes from the brief time we have spent in each of these countries, the friends we have made, and books we have read. What we are able to share with our children about their birth cultures is pretty superficial, if I am being really honest.

We celebrate the major holidays with the foods and a few of the traditions that are associated with them. My children have watched lion dancers, eaten traditional foods, and received li xi envelopes at Tet. We have paraded with candle-lit lanterns bought in China and shared moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

We also try to make their birth cultures a part of our everyday lives. Art bought in both countries adorns our house. We have books–pictures books, art books, history books, geography books–on our shelves as well as general books with an eye towards incorporating Asian faces as a matter of course. Games from both Vietnam and China are available to play, as are musical instruments. We make frequent trips to our local Vietnamese market (a benefit of living in a major city) to stock up on Asian foods and snacks. All of our children enjoy Chinese and Vietnamese foods, and we have foods from both countries often. We try to have friends who know our children who are from their birth countries and allow them to have Asian friends and mentors. We may not be able to transmit culture from personal knowledge, but we can give my children the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of their first country as is possible for us.

At least, this is what I think until I have encounters such as the one I had yesterday. One of my sons and I were at the Vietnamese market. We were low on important items like instant pho (which is his preferred breakfast or lunch option), and I also wanted to get some things for our upcoming Tet/Chinese New Year’s party. After we had looked around a while and he had satisfied his need for the smells and sounds of Vietnam (and picked up the all-important bag of prawn chips), we headed to the check out. The young woman looked at my son and asked, “Oh, no school today?” This threw me for a moment. We home school, and this is a common question, yet I suddenly remembered that it was Saturday.

School? Saturday? Oh, of course. . . Vietnamese school. Like people of every other immigrant ethnic group in the city, Saturdays in the Vietnamese community are spent at culture school where the children of immigrants learn their native language and culture. And suddenly I found myself second-guessing my choices and ability to provide enough cultural input for my children. “That way madness lies,” of course, and I spent some time talking myself back off the edge of parental guilt.

While our responsibility to our children to fill their need to know the entire story of who they are is very important and not one to be taken lightly, there are some things that I think are important to keep in mind. Our transculturally adopted children are very much like third culture kids: They bridge two cultures yet do not exactly fit into either one. I would even venture to say that transracial/transcultural adoptees are their own culture, and the place where they fit in best is with others who have experienced the same things they have. I cannot replicate for my children what it would be like to live with Vietnamese or Chinese parents because I am neither Vietnamese nor Chinese. I can do my best and surround them as much as possible with others who share their story and their birth culture.

The other thing that helps alleviate the guilt a bit is talking with other parents of first- and second-generation Americans. In talking with parents who have emigrated from other countries and are now raising children in the US, I realize that cultural transmission is difficult. The children want to assimilate into their new home, the parents want to share their heritage and language, and everyone ends up a little bit frustrated and disappointed. It’s just a tricky thing all the way around.

I was speaking to a friend one day who is a Caucasian woman married to a ethnically Chinese man. He is a second-generation American, and together they have four children. I found our conversation to be helpful. Since she is not Chinese, I was asking their family went about transmitting Chinese culture to their children. She kind of laughed and admitted that it always felt like a poor effort. The children new some Chinese words, but really, they focused on food and celebrating holidays. They did more when the grandparents visited, but that was not often.

It all comes down to doing your best. We need to teach our children enough about their birth culture so it feels comfortable. How far a child digs into his birth culture will ultimately be the choice of that child. Some will want to do more, some will want to focus on other things.

This year, for the first time in a very long time, we are not buying banh chung for Tet. Banh chung is a special cake made of glutinous rice and filled with mung beans and pork which is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. While my son (and a few others in our family) enjoy a little bit of it, it is an acquired taste. This year, my son decided that he didn’t really want any, but he knows what it is, and he knows what it tastes like. Perhaps next year he will change his mind again. It is ultimately his decision as to what parts of himself he is going to focus on at any given time. We will do our best to build bridges between the many parts of who he is, but his identity will be his to shape. I can’t teach them culture from personal knowledge, but I can give my children the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of their first countries.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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