Pondering My Past Experience with Transcultural Adoption

I sat at the table typing this article while watching my 4-year-old son interact with his classmates during virtual schooling. It was the week before Christmas and he was dressed in a very ugly sweater with a big, light-up Santa face on it that a friend gave us. He was amazed at the lit-up sweater and kept looking at it. His teacher was reading The Gingerbread Ninja, which was a variation of the famous story The Gingerbread Man. Our son seemed to be paying more attention to the lights than the story. I didn’t correct him because I knew that eventually, his teacher would get his attention. And just as I typed this thought in my article, she called his name. His teacher said, “What is the title of the story? Remember before we had a Gingerbread Boy and a Gingerbread Man. What is the Gingerbread today?” As a teacher, I knew that she was helping him to identify the title and was testing his ability to recall information from the story. He turned on his microphone and he replied, “The story is The Gingerbread Ninja,” afterward adding,  “Hi-yah!!!” This is something I would be documenting in our journal, as I have done from the moment our adoption began. While this exchange was happening, I started to think about the growth that we all had experienced as a family. Individually and culturally, our experience in transcultural adoption was life-changing in our home.

The Beginning: Decisions and Preparations for Transcultural Adoption

October 23, 2015

Dear Journal,

After searching for months we finally found the agency that we want to complete the adoption process. We are so excited to be finally starting the process of adoption. After speaking with the social worker, we decided to go with international adoption. From start to finish the process should take under two years. We have to gather so much paperwork and then have an interview with our social worker for our home study. I’m hoping that we can finish the home study in three months, that our dossier will be sent in quickly, and that we can then have a child in our home next year. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I’m hoping that things move very fast. I can’t wait to meet our little one. 

Transcultural adoption according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway means placing a child who is of one race or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group. In the U.S. these terms usually refer to the placement of children of color or children from another country with Caucasian adoptive parents. However, it is not unheard of for other races to adopt Caucasian children. My husband and I joined our international program in October of 2015. We completed our home study process in our state and then we submitted our paperwork for our dossier. As requirements for our program, we had to take coursework that taught us about remaining in the program and completing our home study and dossier. While we faced many hurdles and challenges in getting our paperwork, meeting the requirements for the agency home study, waiting for paperwork, and mailing off paperwork, we didn’t know that this would only be the beginning for us. All these actions were preparing us for what would happen when we bought our child home. In this process, we had to work with paperwork from two different countries and two different municipalities in two different countries. This meant different time frames, different attitudes, different languages, and different cultural attitudes. This would prepare us for working with different cultures and community groups to help us raise our son in an environment that would help him grow and embrace his birth and adoptive heritage. 

Before all of this, however, I would strongly recommend that you read an article by Alexis Oberdorfer. Alexis Oberdorfer, MSW, is a social worker who oversees the adoption programs for Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. She is an adoptee in transracial adoption and an adoptive parent in transcultural adoption. In the article “Adoption Advocate” from the National Council for Adoption, Oberdorfer uses history and her personal experiences to share the evolution of transracial and transcultural adoption. In this article, she shares a list of questions that families can ask themselves to be prepared for a transcultural adoption. These are questions that we asked ourselves at the beginning of our transcultural adoption.

How Prepared Is Your Family?

By Alexis Oberdorfer

1). Will your child have other people in the community that look like them or will they be isolated?

2). Do you have the ability to see your child as more important than you, enough to push yourself outside of your comfort zone?

3). If you do not look like your child, how will you help your child develop positive self-esteem and racial identity?

4). What activities do you genuinely engage in as a parent on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis that reflect your child’s ethnic origin to help promote a connection?

5). Do you have other people that can be adult role models or mentors to your child who are people of color of the same racial or ethnic background as your child?

6). What is your knowledge of your child’s ethnic history, and how will you teach it?

7). When your child no longer looks like a child and is in the community without you, will they know how to respond to situations that involve micro-aggressions, implicit racial bias, and other forms of racism?

8). Will your child develop the capacity and be equipped to code-switch?

The Middle: Nice to Meet You

April 21, 2019

Dear Journal, 

Happy Easter! Yes, it is even celebrated here in the same manner. We’ve landed in Johannesburg—or Joberg—and are settled in very nicely to our cottage. We started this process three years ago. When we landed, we looked at each other, laughed, and commented on how we had finally made it here. It came with a ton of challenges but not without growth. Hope isn’t easy—hanging to hope especially isn’t easy. And you will find that people and situations want to pull you back into their despair and leave you hopeless. Just stay the course and fight for hope. 

When discussing culture in my preschool classroom, I always call out the different components of culture that the Britannica Kids list in their definition. According to Britannica Kids, culture is a pattern of behavior shared by a society or group of people. Many different things make up a society’s culture. These things include food, language, clothing, tools, music, arts, customs, beliefs, and religion. Our mission with our son was to research and add on to the information that we already knew about his culture. That is what we did for three and a half years of waiting for a referral. We tried to immerse ourselves in the different components of South African culture. We talked with our friends who were from South Africa and other African countries. We met with specialists and took classes preparing us to help him adjust emotionally and culturally.

It was September 26 when I found out my life was going to change. My father-in-law was sick and my husband was in North Carolina with him. I was at school cleaning up and received an email from my social worker that we had a referral. We saw our son’s face and videos of him in the courtyard and thought to ourselves that he was perfect for our family. We opened his stack of paperwork and found that it was very informative for us. It was then we learned what he liked and his behavior in the orphanage. We were very realistic in knowing that the first meeting together could go many different ways. Our son could be extremely friendly with us, he could be explosive or he could be numb. All of the paperwork could be wrong and he could be nothing like the agency said.

The next year on April 19 we flew to South Africa and then we were able to bring our son to our guesthouse. It was Easter weekend, thus we spent the weekend doing Easter activities. We had an Easter egg hunt in the courtyard of the guesthouse and then went to a church near our guesthouse on Sunday morning. We learned on the first day of him being home that he loved soccer. He loved to kick the ball and dribble. My husband placed a ball on the ground and he dribbled slowly. The Rugby world cup was coming up in the following year so we were able to buy him a Rugby jersey for him to wear while watching the World Cup.

While a month is not long enough, we wanted to soak in as much of the culture as possible and try our best to bring it home to the United States with us. And with any adjustment in a relationship, there were growing pains. We had to understand that our son came from an institutionalized background, and we had to plan flexibly and be more understanding of his emotions. The language was an issue and still is somewhat of an issue for us because his first language was not English. 

We learned that our son speaks two languages, English and Zulu. The Zulu language is a Bantu language that is spoken by more than 9 million people mainly in South Africa. We knew it was a possibility, but it turns out it is very true. We noticed his caregiver spoke to him in Zulu and our son responded. Also, we were at a shop and another group of people was speaking in another language and my son tried to mimic them. Also, the women who worked at the guesthouse would speak to him in Zulu and he would respond. 

We were able to gauge what type of foods he would prefer, knowing that this would change once he came to America. We also asked many questions and learned new recipes. We tried to ease him into new foods that are more western and keep the same foods that he ate in the orphanage. For example, our son loves tons of rice. He loves rice more than mashed potatoes. Thus, when we eat mashed potatoes, he eats rice. It’s a simple example but significant to us as a family during dinner. Learning about his culture was a way for us to apply what we learned and grow more as individuals ourselves. 

Our Forever: Let’s Be a Family

December 22, 2020

Dear Journal,

After answering her, the teacher comments that he is correct and then he continues to smile. Suddenly his focus is off of his sweater and switched to interacting with his teacher and the other students. I secretly cheer, but then I remember how different things were last year for our family when he first arrived in the United States from South Africa after his adoption was finalized. It is amazing how far his relationship with us in his new home has grown.

We arrived home a month later from South Africa. Thus, the process began of getting to know our son and him getting to know us. Just as any relationship it has taken from May of 2019 until now to make gains and strides in bonding. We have learned buttons, habits, and boundaries; explored new territories, new countries, and new experiences; and we have done some soul searching to determine whether it was a good fit for him or not. In our minds, it was up to us to make him fit our world with him as a South African and us as African Americans. We surrounded him with different cultural aspects of South Africa and America.

As we’ve gotten to know our son, websites like Adoption Learning Partners helped us to navigate different emotions or actions that we noticed that our son was displaying. Also, it was there that we learned we were having issues ourselves in how we were reacting to his adjustment. Finally, we formed a support group at the beginning of our adoption that we’ve continued with until now. It is a team of social workers, doctors, specialists, and close friends, including adoptees. I include doctors because our son had medical needs in his file, but not all children of transcultural adoption have medical needs. Also, Facebook was another great resource for reaching out to other people in the adoption triad, such as adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents.

I’m very grateful for my journal and for the progress that we’ve made as a family. The dynamic of our family changed when we incorporated our son’s culture. It was a process that was carefully thought out and researched. In the end, I think we did and are doing the best we can to learn, grow, and navigate the waters of transcultural adoption together.