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Helping Adopted Children Find Their Identities

by Chris Winston with Deann Borshay Liem

Chris Winston with Deann Borshay Liem

Chris Winston is the founder and former president of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN). Read more »

Sorry, Chris Winston with Deann Borshay Liem is no longer taking questions.

Twenty years ago when my husband and I adopted our children from Korea, it was suggested that if we loved them enough they would not crave missing identity elements from their past. Somehow this advice didn't seem right. We wanted to acknowledge our children's experience of often being the only Asian faces among their peers. So, we decided to be the only Caucasian faces among many Asian ones in the Sacramento, California Korean-American community.

We didn't stay on the surface; we dove in deep to form friendships with first-, second- and third-generation Korean Americans, as well as Koreans living in Korea. I made my first Korean-American friend by walking into her dry cleaning shop. I spent hours manning the front counter of her store while she took her children to the doctor and attended school conferences. She spent hours teaching me to cook Korean food at her house or simply talking to me while my children played with hers in the back of her store.

The latest expert advice is to expose adoptees early and often to their cultures of origin. On the Internet, I see many discussions revolving around the question "How much culture is too much?" People ask, "Should children be forced to learn about their countries of origin?" To me, these don't seem to be the relevant questions. This type of experience is different from having family friends to whom children can relate as little or as much as they like. Korean and Asian Americans are often in our homes and in our lives. They are not our "Korean friends." They are our friends. As they grew, our children related to these family friends almost casually. Because they were readily available, my children asked our friends questions about Korea and got ideas about how to handle racial incidents as they arose.

Even with many resources available identity formation is not easy. In addition to parenting, children are influenced by many factors, including their innate genetics, the communities in which they are raised, the friends they make and the resolution of unexpected experiences that arise in their lives. For many adoptees there is the additional layer of an unknown birth family. And for interethnic adoptees, there is another culture and another ethnicity to add to the mix when forming a sense of self. A good relationship between parent and child helps. As parents the best thing we can do is to show our children that we value all the elements of who they are. Having friends from our children's ethnic background makes a strong statement of our willingness to love what is not inherently within ourselves.

Friendships are best when they include reciprocity. In order to give as well as get, here are some ideas to make friends from your child's ethnic background. We don't become friends with everyone we meet, so it may take many encounters to find good friends.

  1. You may find friends at your child's school or in your neighborhood. If you see someone who is isolated and struggling to connect, you might be a good bridge. If you find someone who is already well-integrated, you have an excellent role model for your child.
  2. Travel to your child's home land in a way that promotes deeper interaction. Programs that include home stays are wonderful for really getting to know others. If you host an exchange student from your child's birth country, you may have a chance to visit that student in their home.
  3. Get involved in ethnic community organizations. Attend an ethnic church, a cultural fair, or volunteer to help seniors. If you don't give up easily and are open to new ways of doing things, opportunities for making friends will emerge.
  4. Frequent ethnic businesses. Who doesn't appreciate a good and loyal customer? Friendships can evolve.
  5. Make friends through adoption community events. You will have fewer opportunities here. You are asking people to come into your comfort zone rather than entering theirs. But if you become one of the organizers or volunteers, you may find opportunities to connect.

If you've adopted a child from another ethnicity, how are you connecting him with his culture?

Sorry, Chris Winston with Deann Borshay Liem is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Roy S. writes...

Your headline is incorrect: kids get adoptED, their parents/families are adoptIVE.

Hi Roy. I've seen both "adopted" and "adoptive" used as a term to identify a child who has been adopted. That said, the former is used more often, so I changed the headline accordingly. Thanks.


mikki writes...

This is great !!! I have an older half brother I am trying to find, not much luck though, not quite sure how..

tanner writes...

how do you find family if ::

1: no living relative that you know of
2: no evidence of biological mother or father
3: no birth certificate
4: no adoption papers
5: no idea what country you really are from

how can war babies find family?

Nancy writes...

I have a sister I've never met ... and have little to go on, wish I knew how to go about it. I could tell her about her father ... same father, different mothers.

Chris? writes...

You might want to contact GOA'L or InKAS in Korea both have websites that you can google. They can advise you on searching for birth family in Korea. You can also contact any one of the four adoption agencies in Korea who place children for adoption. They are Holt, Social Welfare Society, Eastern Social Welfare Society, and Korean Social Service. If you have trouble googling any of these, there are also links off of the KAAN website at

Deb writes...

We met my mom's oldest sister this summer. This was, no one knew she existed. She had been given up for adoption before my grandparents wed and never told their other five children about her. My grandfather passed away three years ago and my grandmother passed away December '09. On the day of her burial in May, (she was cremated) my mother and her siblings were introduced to their sister. She had worked her whole adult life to find her birth family and wasn't able to 'til the birth records were unsealed ten years ago. She contacted my grandparents who had a discussion with her husband who relayed information to her. She was too emotional to talk to them. They indicated to her that they didn't want to have contact. She kept quiet until she found out via my grandparent's local town newspaper that my grandmother had passed away. She then contacted my grandmother's sister who invited her to our state and showed her around her biological family's home town. The burial was private and my grandmother's sister, who wasn't close to my grandmother, didn't know about the burial so the chance that a) my "new" aunt was invited to our state that weekend and b) was in the hometown at the moment that all her brothers and sisters were home from various states was just amazing.

I have since met her and have gone to stay with her once. I love her to death and she is welcome in our family and is now a part of our family.

Her adoptive parents are both deceased and she has three other adopted brothers and sisters that she keeps close with as well.

This has ended up being an amazing story and we have shown her our "German" culture to some degree along with info. about parent's background and life and history along with medical history she was always lacking.

We love her. She's a welcomed addition to our family.

Kris writes...

We have two beautiful children. Both were born in Korea. We take Korean lessons, both language and culture, attend Korean church during Korean holidays and cook a ton of Korean food. We make connections to their culture through our friends and family. We also participate in a Korean mentoring program which allows the children a chance to not feel so different! Music, food, clothes, books, blankets, stationary... all Korean items that float in our house. We want our children to embrace their culture and be proud of who they are - especially as they struggle to figure it all out. Too many ways to count and yet, not enough. We follow our children's interests and learn as much as we can from our friends and family who are Korean/Korean American. Every day is a chance to learn something new, together!

Chris? writes...

Sounds like you are having a lot of fun! Have you met anyone Korean American yet who has become a personal friend? Someone you would visit and who would visit you individually as well as in group activities? You are certainly in all the right places to make that happen. As kids get older they may become resistant to group activities. Nice to have family friends who can continue to be there and give advice. We are really relying on that right now as our Korean born son is teaching English in Korea and is engaged to a Korean girl.

I am glad that your family is brave enough to reach out and enjoy all the aspects of your family identity.

alice writes...

I am an adoptee; 63 years, I am. Placed in the spring of 1948, when I was about 15 months old. As an adult, I deduced from my experiences that finding my birth mother was futile for several reasons. And finding my birth father, the same, although I doubt if he ever knew about me. I dId learn however, that my birth mother was European Spanish, both of her parents having emigrated from Spain. This discovery - through the adoption agency - enabled me to connect certain tastes and personality traits which I relate to being of Latin origin - not the least of which is a lovely Latin temper. Some years ago, my husband bought me a black vintage Spanish shawl, which I have, wear, and treasure to this day.

One story about my Spanish origins was the time I went to an opera in the city near me. The opera is one of the very few in the Spanish language, and is entitled, "Fiorenza in the Amazon." It tells the legend of a spiritual person being transformed into a butterfly. The butterfly is one of those whose wings taper down into tails, rather like those on a tuxedo coat. I bought a poster of the opera, which features a large green such butterfly prominently in the center. The next morning at home when I went out into the kitchen to fix my coffee, there, on the screen door outside my dining room was an identical butterfly, but more colorful with orange and green in it's wings. I had not seen one before that time, nor have I seen one since then. It flew away before I could grab my camera. But the image is forever burned into my memory. The time was the EXACT PERIOD when I discovered that my birth mother was Spanish. I have also had several dreams confirming this heritage.

Through various other experiences and talents, I likewise deduced that my birth father was likely Celtic/Welsh in origin, at least in part. I gather this because I found a Welsh ethnic group in a major city near me, and felt so very comfortable in one of their Hymn Sing Festivals (Gymawnfa Gawni - sp). The Welsh are famous, not only for their hymn singing, but their ability to harmonize effortlessly in song. Not only do I have that native ability, for which I am grateful, but I picked up the language with ease. I haven't continued it. I have a Welsh friend in Swansea, and I said to Dulcie one day, "You just know it when you're Welsh, don't you?" She replied, with a twinkle in her eye, "Yes, love, you do. You do indeed."

So I know in my soul that I am Spanish, and I know in my heart that I am also Welsh. It is a marvelous mixture. This is a great gift to me. l have shared this information with my children and grandchildren. I have NOT shared it with my mother or her family, because my (adopted) mother feels very threatened by any thought of my connecting with my birth family. And, due to my own experiences, I am alright with that. You may contact me. Sincerely, alice dale gray

candi writes...

being adopted i found my birth family n it was a complete nightmare!I warn against finding yr birth family there was a reason you was taken away remember that

suzanne writes...

I was adopted through our local Division of Family and Children Department in 1951. I have no clues or hints as to my biological mother. Nor do I have my own adoption papers, my parents must have had them and they are both deceased. I was always interested to know if I had any siblings somewhere. Would there be ANY possibility of getting information?

Chris? writes...

Google American Adoption Congress and go to their site. They have resources for domestic adoptees.

Ayaprun writes...

I was the only one adopted out of 10 children. I was the fifth child in their family. The rest of the family were together. I have known about my biological family and that I was adopted. People would ask me if it bothered me that I was the only one adopted. When my adoptive( :) ) mother died, I had issues then.

I had asked my biological parents why they let me go. Their answer was that my adoptive dad cried and so they gave me to him. I have 2 sons and I would never give them away. The person would have to cry forever!!!

I just celebrated my adopted day birthday on 4 Nov. I had an opportunity to tell the class why we were having cupcakes.

I used to think I was white when I was younger and wondered how people would know we weren't from Maine and ask where we were originally from. I am Yupik Eskimo.

I still have issues about it... I try to just trust in Jeremiah 29:11...For I know the plans I have for you saith the Lord...plans not to harm or hurt you...plans for hope and a future!

Chris? writes...

It sounds like you were pretty isolated from others who could understand the feelings inherent in your situation. It seems that you were able to appreciate the efforts of your family and school in doing things such as celebrating your adoption day. Did you ever connect with anyone of your ethnicity other than your birth family? My daughter met her birth family in Korea and felt as you did about the reason for her relinquishment. It has been important for her to be connected with Korea in ways other than through her birth family. You seem to be a resilient person developing ways of coping. I wish you the best.

Jane writes...

I was adopted as a baby in the 1960's and although I was very happy and very much loved by my parents I always felt like an 'incomplete jigsaw puzzle'. I finally 'finished my jigsaw puzzle' when I met my birth mother just once.

Chris? writes...

Congratulations to you! My daughter did not connect long term with her birth family, but she was more emotionally centered after meeting them. After meeting them, she only had one story to resolve rather than every story she could imagine.

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