Cultural Obligations

One of the subjects that came up during the Pho for Four dialogue was love of Vietnam, and it’s been bothering me since – so here are my thoughts.

Before you even choose a country to adopt from, should you have love for that culture? More complex is, do we have an obligation to our children to integrate the Vietnamese culture into their lives and to what degree should that integration be?

There are, of course, other issues other than culture that brings people to adopt from a particular country. Things like requirements the country has to adopt play a part in decisions. Places you have traveled. People you have met. Perhaps the amount of money it will cost is a factor. All are valid. My husband and I had decided on China initially, but can not because we are too young.

However, when you decide to create a transcultural, transracial family, you are deciding to become a multicultural family. It is a decision made instant when you decide to adopt from another country or another race. This is why I believe that you should have an awareness of your child’s place of birth. At the very least, to have an awareness of the effort it will take, the knowledge you will have to accumulate, and the environment that you will have to provide.

For our child’s benefit we must become aware – aware of race and race issues, and aware of their culture. My daughter is not adopted, but we are from a multicultural household, so I’m going to take the liberty of making the same comparison for the moment (with the understanding that there are further complexities with raising an adopted child when it comes to culture and race and family), especially since I feel the same way about raising my soon-to-be son, only stronger.

Love is not enough. Love is very important, but it is not enough. I love my daughter. When I was pregnant I loved her. When she was born, the amount of love and emotion that came from seeing her face for the very first time is the most powerful that I have ever felt. As she grows into a young girl who is intelligent, who is curious, who is vivacious, who is beautiful – my love grows. Everyday that I experience her – my love grows.

More than my love for her, I have an obligation to her. I have an obligation to help her grow. To be independent. To be strong. To be a woman. To be responsible. To be compassionate. The list goes on.

As she grows and begins to define who she is, I have the obligation to help her understand and explore that. Part of that is going to be her cultural heritage, who she is in terms of where her family is from and the culture that she will be raised in (our family). Another part is how people will view her and how she will interpret that – her awareness of racial issues and views.

My mother is Chinese, born and raised in Vietnam. My father is Caucasian. My grandparents from my father’s side is a mix of French and Irish. I identified myself differently at different times in my life. I’m an adult, and I am still trying to find myself and where I fit in American society, racially speaking.

My husband is mixed also. His cultural background is Spanish, Mexican, and French.

One of the things that I decided on early on was her experiences in her cultures and how I was going to bring that into her life. She is to speak to her grandmother only in Vietnamese, Cantonese, or Mandarin (or the town dialect from where my grandfather is originally from). I expect her to go to Chinese school. I expect her to participate in our family functions and holiday celebrations (including things like the anniversaries of her great-grandfathers death and her great uncles death), both so that she can realize she has family obligations and so that she can be exposed to her culture. It is a part of my life, and through me, a part of hers.

The other part of her finding her identity will surface with her living as an Asian American woman, as a Latina, as a person of mixed racial heritage. I have no part in her decision on who she is. Her identity belongs to her and she will make that decision herself, and, in fact, it will probably change at different points in her life. It may not even fit in with how I identify myself, even though we come from the same blood. And that is okay. I can, however, be her support, be her ally, be here for her when she is confused or bullied, be here to provide the knowledge and resources for her to be strong and self-confident in who she is. Why is this important? Because people will question her, will challenge her, will challenge her identity, especially as a woman who is not fitting into just one race, a woman who may not have the physical characteristics that people expect of the race she chooses to identify with.

I know that I will have to be this prepared and then some for our future son. There are several more dimensions to this that are important. He will be Vietnamese-American, Asian American. He will also be in a family that does not look like him. As much as I claim my right to identify as an Asian American, I will not share the same physical attributes that most people use to identify as Asian American features. He will belong to a multicultural family.

When you decide to adopt internationally, you are creating a multicultural family. It is more than just providing love to a child. It is a responsibility. A responsibility to raise a child who has been taken from their birth family, birth country, and birth culture.

It’s about providing opportunities to learn, opportunities to expand your family’s culture, and chances for your child to connect with their heritage. It shouldn’t be every second of the day, but it should be a part of the culture of your family life.

So, should you have love of Vietnam before deciding to adopt there? Short answer yes, long answer no.

No, you don’t initially have to love Vietnam. I think the difference is in realizing the effort in learning about your child’s culture, about your child’s life as a Vietnamese adoptee and an Asian American that you will need to make. It’s about effort and responsibility and obligation. I don’t know it all yet. I don’t have all the answers for raising my children in a multicultural family. What I do know is that for the sake of my children, I have to make the effort to learn and connect.

I believe that you can love the culture and people of Vietnam after deciding to adopt from there. I don’t, however, believe that the effort to bring that into the family is something that everyone wants to do for their child. I believe that a lot of PAPs and APs want to take the love is all I need and my child is American route. Unfortunately, I also feel that this attitude does a disservice to our children, children who are still shaping their identity and place in the world.

I think that is where the big difference lies in answering that question. If it is true that in order to be responsible in raising a Vietnamese adoptee we have to connect with their Vietnamese heritage and with racial issues in the Asian American culture, then why shouldn’t we have love for Vietnam before we decide to adopt from there? Why shouldn’t we be aware before adopting from another culture?

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6 responses to “Cultural Obligations

  1. Sarah & Eric

    Hiya – I just want to thank you for your insightful comments over at my blog. I really appreciate your views on gender selection!

    So it will come as no suprise that I totally agree with you when it comes to incorporating the cultural heritage of our new children. Love is *not* enough, being American is *not* enough, even this middle class white girl can see that! In my experience working with Asian teenagers, they don’t just want to hang out at the mall, they are fiercely proud of their cultural heritage.

    It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis as we wait for our referral. Is it enough to live in Boston, with its Chinatown, large Vietnamese population, and diverse high schools? Is it enough to have a really diverse group of friends, including new babies adopted from China and Vietnam and Guatemala? Is it enough knowing that our baby can have Vietnamese babysitters, bus drivers, city councilors?

    Our social worker said something really lovely to me that I always reflect on when I get distressed thinking that we could never be enough to our child, and frustrated thinking about adopted children whose cultural experiences might be stifled. She said to me, “When your adopted child becomes part of your family, it will be the same as when you married your husband. When you married your husband, you became a German-Irish-Scottish family. Forever now, you will be a Vietnamese-German-Irish-Scottish family, however you choose to define that.”

  2. mommy magallanes

    One of the points of what I was writing, and I hope that it came across, is that our children have an emotional and mental need to have their culture introduced to them and a part of their life. I think it’s the effort that an AP puts in to understanding their life as a multicultural family and a family that is racially mixed. I’m so glad that you see that. That there is a need to be fulfilled by their parents, who have all of the control over what and who they get exposed to.

    It is an AP wanting to ignore that need because their children are now “american” that really gets to me. I like what your social worker said. That’s what it is about. Adding your child to your life, to your family, and that includes their culture and race.

  3. I totally agree. And I think people need to be really honest with themselves about how comfortable they will be attending functions where they will be in the minority (like Tet celebrations) – reading one book to your kid about Vietnam is not going to be enough to teach them about their culture.

  4. Yeah, the dirt throwing is apparently in full force. I don’t mind, it’s just unfortunate because it’s deteriorated what began as a pretty good discussion. Either way, I learned from it. Not exactly happy about what horrible things I learned, but it never hurts to at least *try* to understand the majority.

    Anyway, I completely agree with the point you made. That people do not have to begin by falling in love with a country prior to choosing it for an international adoption. It’s exactly like you said though – it’s our obligation to have the willingness, the commitment, the desire to bring as much knowledge and culture from whatever country we do choose into our homes and our childrens’ lives.
    And as I said on my blog, chalking it all up to nothing and saying “my kids are just American, like all of us” is doing them a terrible disservice. It really gyps them of their heritage. And who can truly understand themselves and form a healthy identity without at least knowing some of that? It won’t be perfect, but I think we owe it to our kids and ourselves. It’s absolutely an obligation of international adoption.

    Also, I feel so strongly that social workers ought to screen better for families’ willingness and preparedness to incorporate birth culture, as well as deal with race issues that are bound to come up.

  5. Sarah & Eric

    I totally agree with regards to how social workers screen, analyze, counsel. Unfortunately, this is just one of the areas in which a totally unregulated world-wide enterprise comes up short. 😐 Our agency continues to impress me with their screening, preparation, sensitivity, and preparedness. Great topic for discussion!

  6. Thank you! You said so well what I have been too lazy to properly articulate. We did not choose Vietnam because we were entirely familiar with the country. We were very close to switching to Ethiopia. Whichever country our child came from, we absolutely recognize that is in our child’s best interest to teach her (yes, her, LOL!) about the culture and the history (and especially the food!)

    Unfortunately I am having a little bit of an uphill battle getting my parents to understand this, but that is another story!

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