Helping Our Children Find Their Identities
Chris Winston, author of A Euro-American on a Korean Tour at a Thai Restaurant in China, is the founder and former president of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN). She shares the importance of making sure adopted children are given the opportunity to become familiar with their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Raising children so that they reach their potential is something that all parents by birth or adoption hope to do well. However, as children move from childhood to adulthood, most parents realize that their children are not as malleable as their parents had originally supposed they would be. 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. As children reach adolescence, they need to separate from parents and incorporate all of the above elements into their senses of identity. For some adoptees there is the additional layer of an unknown birth family. And for an interethnic adoptee, there is another culture and another ethnicity to add to the mix when forming a sense of self, while for an intercountry adoptee, there is also another country.
In the movie In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, we watch as Deann Borshay Liem incorporates the missing elements from her past into who she is today. She discovers that Cha Jung Hee’s shoes really are Liem’s own shoes. Some might be willing to write off Liem’s experience as an aberration. They might conclude that Liem’s past matters only because she had memories of her life in Korea. They may believe that it is unusual for an adoptee not to have access to all of her original history. However, even in the case of an infant placed in the best of circumstances, there are missing pieces. This is inherent to the adoption experience. What makes this movie meaningful is that the missing pieces and the identity puzzles that adoption causes are clear for all to see.
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. We were told not to include Koreans or Korean Americans in our lives, as they might stigmatize our two Korean-born children for their orphan status. 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. I spent time helping another friend, a Korean-American oncology pharmacist, at healthcare fairs for Korean-American senior citizens. When I was diagnosed with cancer, she connected me with the best oncologist she knew and made me an honorary member of the Sacramento Korean American Cancer Support Group. Because a Korean-American psychologist friend helped me to make the right Korean connections, when I took my children to Korea we were able to stay with Korean families. We then helped those Korean families find host families in the United States. Can you see the reciprocity in these relationships?
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, asked them questions about Korea and got ideas about how to handle racial incidents.
But let us not suppose that even with many resources at an adoptee’s disposal, identity formation is easy. Not long ago I attended a discussion along with fellow parents of a young adult adoptee. They were clearly concerned about their daughter, who was having a difficult transition to adulthood. Some of the panelists were quite judgmental of these parents, suggesting all of the things that they could have done better. But as the discussion went on, it became clear that these parents had done many things to expose their daughter to Korea and to other Asian Americans. As I had done, they had made Korean friends. They were supportive of their daughter. Yet she was struggling to put together her identity. No one was pointing out that adoption and interethnic issues are inherent and normal to the development of an adoptee. No one was acknowledging that these issues might be challenging to resolve.
Liem’s film makes clear the resources needed for adoptees to integrate their pasts into their futures. Parents can help by having friends from their children’s ethnic backgrounds. We make things easier or harder depending on the tools we give our children and depending on the opportunities we give them to explore. But in the end, I think it is important that people not make judgments about the identities that adoptees choose. Adopted children grow up and become young adults of their own making. They continue to evolve. That evolution never stops. As human beings, all of us, adopted or not and regardless of age, are works in progress.
Chris Winston is founder and former president of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network (KAAN), which aims to support networking and build understanding among Korean-born adoptees, adoptive families, Koreans and Korean Americans. KAAN hosts an annual national conference in a different city each year. Winston has published articles and presented papers and workshops for numerous adoption- and Korea-related organizations and conferences. In 2006, KAAN published her book, A Euro-American on a Korean Tour at a Thai Restaurant in China. She lives in Sacramento, California with her husband, Mark. They have three adult children, two of whom were adopted from Korea.