Every memoir about the experience of adopting a child from abroad seems to include a moment that shows how perfectly the child, born in a remote village in a poor country, has taken to life in the West.
“I slipped into my American life easily, as if I was always meant to be there,” writes Mei-Ling Hopgood, who was adopted from China by a Michigan couple and now lives in Argentina. “I grew up on Gerber baby food … my parents read me Dr. Seuss before bed and let me watch ‘Sesame Street.’”
Most adopted children assimilate well into their new families and countries. When children struggle, it's often not their racial or cultural backgrounds that cause problems but their age — how old they were when they were adopted and how long they were institutionalized.
“In transracial adoption, children feel very much this is their real family, and they identify with their family,” says Rita J. Simon, an adoption expert at American University, in Washington, D.C. “One of the very good things about adoption is that the people feel loved and secure and comfortable with their racial and ethnic identities. That is just a general theme.”
But in recent decades, adoptive parents have felt obliged to expose their foreign-born children not only to the culture in which they're being raised but also to the culture of their home countries. Caucasian parents in the United States, England, Belgium and other Western countries may send their adoptive children to Chinese schools or Korean culture camps in the summer or offer them homeland tours of India. Often, they belong to culture-specific family support groups.
“All adoptive parents are socialized today to think those things are important,” says Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the child-advocacy program at Harvard Law School, which studies international adoptions, among other issues.
That represents a “dramatic change” from the way things were done a generation ago, says Victor Groza, a social work professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Then, the emphasis was on assimilation, almost to forget the kid is different ethnically and culturally and racially. Families are much more engaged now to help kids stay connected to part of who they are.”
But not everyone thinks that's a great idea. Some social scientists believe that treating adopted children as if they are somehow essentially or inherently different can leave them feeling caught between two worlds — not fully American or Dutch, but no longer Korean or Chinese, either.
Hannah Pool was an Eritrean baby adopted by an English couple. In her memoir, she writes about feeling “unmoored,” uncertain whether her true relations were those she had grown up with or those with whom she shared genes. “One was white and English, the other was black and Eritrean, but which one was my true brother?” she writes.
Discussing adopted children's foreign roots also reminds them that they were, in some sense, abandoned, says Marlène Hofstetter, adoption director for the Terre des Hommes International Federation in Switzerland, a coalition of children's welfare organizations.
“I don't think it's a good thing to remind the child all the time ‘you are from China,’ or ‘you are from Russia,’” she says. “You want the child to be integrated into its community.”
It's always a question for immigrants — how much to assimilate and how much to hold onto the culture of one's native land. Often, the adopted children themselves put an end to the effort to inculcate them with the culture of their home countries because they just want to fit in.
“Sometimes parents force their 8-year-old or 10-year-old to go to those summer camps,” says René Hoksbergen, a social psychologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “Children want to be the same as the other children. They are American now, they want to be as the other children.”
But many adoptive parents say exposing their children to their native cultures is important. “If you're growing up racially different in this country, it's probably helpful to be raised with pride in that group,” Bartholet says.
Others point out that while children may feel perfectly at ease growing up within their family group, once they leave home they pay more attention to their racial differences. “My kids are now 13 and 14,” says Stevan Whitehead, an English parent of two adopted children from Guatemala. “It's important for them to have kids they have always known — who are also adopted from Guatemala — who are going through the same issues and can talk from a personal experience that I as a parent don't share,” he says.
— Alan Greenblatt