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QUESTION: I've heard that some white parents who adopt Chinese baby girls consider themselves Asian American. What do you think about this and the way a lot of these parents immerse themselves and their children in Asian culture, almost obsessively?
HELEN: I have not run into white adoptive parents of Asian children who describe themselves as Asian American. I'd like to meet some. When I do readings for [my book] Asian American Dreams, invariably a non-Asian person who identifies themselves as an adoptive parent will ask me how can they be a better parent to their Asian child. The spirit of wanting to understand what their child may go through, how their child is going to be seen in life, that's a good thing. It's better than not seeing differences at all, which is the experience of many Korean adoptees whose are now adults, whose adoptive parents never acknowledged any racial differences with them.
On the other hand, I hope these parents don't believe that they can suddenly be Asian American, because that would reveal that they really don't understand that there is a difference. You just don't say, well, I'm Asian, too. Because how they're treated in the world is very different from how their child is treated in the world. If they don't get that, then they are contributing to a problem.
The other thing that I have seen, which this question alludes to, are parents who immerse themselves in Asian culture and try to learn the history of 100 dynasties in China, but really they don't get that their child's experience is going to be as an Asian American. Teaching them Chinese geography and history isn't going to help their kids interact in an American context, to recognize racism, for example. As Quang noted earlier, the conflation of Asian and Asian American is very problematic in the adoptive parent relationship, in a lot of essays by adoptive parents I've read, they'll talk about how they dragged their kid to Korea or to China and their child can't relate to it and wants to stay at the McDonalds instead. The children don't actually want to or know how to identify with the Asian culture they've suddenly been brought to.
I'm not saying that parents should not have a familiarity with Asian culture. I think it's a good thing for them to do but it's very different from knowing what it means to be Asian American. I really do hope that adoptive parents will try to understand that and the complex nature of racial relationships and dynamics. Because that's what their kids will need to know when they have to deal with racism.
SHERYL: I think there is a fine line between white parents who try to whitewash the child, submerge them into an unfamiliar culture, or make the child aware of his or her cultural heritage. There is a distinction between all three, and I think for most parents that is a hard terrain to navigate. But a lot of transracial adoption groups do serve a really useful and educational purpose, not only for the parents but for the adopted children who grows up as American but also wants to have that connection to their heritage.
QUANG: I have never met anyone like this either, and I would like to know what's behind this kind of identification. I mean, it's not something where you just become that. I do support what Helen said about teaching a young person to appreciate and understand something about where they come from, especially language. I've seen a lot of white adoptive parents trying to learn Cantonese or whatever so they can teach their kid something about that. I think that's all good. As Helen said, the reverse is probably more common - adoptees who are taught that they are not Korean or not Chinese and that they are white. Then they grow up experiencing something radically different and it causes a great deal of pain. This is really much more the writing that we see at the Asian American Writer's Workshop.
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